LA Congressional Candidate Desiree Ontiveros Discusses Pressing Issues in Interview With Big Easy Magazine

Desiree Ontiveros

Desiree Ontiveros is one of several candidates running to fill Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district seat that was recently vacated by Congressman Cedric Richmond when he accepted a role as Senior Advisor in the Biden Administration. The special primary election will be held on March 20, and early voting is currently underway through March 12. If no candidate in the race receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary election, there will be a runoff election on April 24.

Desiree Ontiveros may have big things in her future. As a small business owner, with a truly classic American story behind her life and success, she has the possibility of being our next congresswoman.

Ontiveros answered questions about the most pressing issues affecting the voters of the second congressional district. We discussed issues related to environmental injustices, a living wage, healthcare, student loan debt, and education reform.

Ms. Ontiveros, please, tell me a little about yourself, your background, and why you’re running.

Ontiveros: I’m a seasoned small business owner — not a politician — and I’m running for Congress because this district needs new energy from someone who actually gets things done. I’m a member of the City of New Orleans Cultural economy committee, Board member of Plessy Community school, and member of New Orleans Coalition and IWO Advocacy committee.

During the last recession, faced with no traditional job prospects, I realized that I must create my own opportunities. I started my current business, Badass Balloon Co, 5 years ago, with $1000, and because of traditional barriers to capital andconnections faced by women of color, I had no chance of a business loan or traditional investments. Instead, I worked tirelessly to build it into the eco-friendly, globally-recognized brand it is today.

Throughout the Pandemic, I have guaranteed my company’s survival through innovation and problem solving but not all local businesses and workers have been afforded that opportunity.

Years like this have made the stakes clearer than ever — economic recovery, criminal justice reform, free and fair elections, accessible healthcare — there’s still so much on the line. This is why I stepped up to run. Much like when I started my first business, I realized that I could no longer expect someone to do for our community what I was not willing to do myself.

These days, it’s not enough to just be a Democrat. We need leaders who will actually fight like their livelihoods depend on it, because OUR livelihoods depend on it. I have what it takes to serve our community because I have shared their experiences and lived their same struggles.

Why is it that we’re seeing freshman Congresswomen from all walks of life actually go to Washington and accomplish major goals during their first terms? It’s because they’re not beholden to anyone, and they don’t owe anyone anything. Their values and passions actually reflect the people they represent. A young woman of color’s voice has never represented this district, and I have the dedication, drive, and fearlessness to be that voice, raise the voices of our community, and actually get things done.

What do you and your current campaign stand for?

Ontiveros: I am running a campaign on progressive values that reflect the needs of the people of Louisiana rather than the interests of politicians, donors, and corporations. My proposed policy priorities reflect the following foundation:

BUILD A THRIVING AND EQUITABLE ECONOMY – Louisianans deserve a COVID-19 economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers and small businesses and ensures a sustainable and diversified economy.

PROTECT OUR CULTURE AND COMMUNITIES – Louisianans deserve safe, vibrant and diverse communities that uphold the value and dignity of all.

FIGHT FOR EQUITABLE JUSTICE FOR ALL – Louisianans deserve just and equitable systems that ensure a future full of opportunity for all its citizens.

What do you think the odds are of your success?

Ontiveros: I’m very excited to be where we are in this campaign. With endorsements from the New Orleans Coalition, Louisiana Democratic Party, Freethought Equality Fund, and Fellow Radicals, we are building a diverse coalition of support across the district — and that’s significant considering that we had a ten week runway to build this groundswell and don’t have special interests, problematic politicians, or a built-in social media base behind us. Voter suppression is not just preventing access to the ballot; it’s also not having a choice or being forced to choose between the least problematic candidates. I wasn’t okay with handing a promotion to people who haven’t done their current job; the people of Louisiana deserve so much more. That’s how it should be, and that’s what the people of this district want: new representation from someone unbought, unbeholden, and unapologetic in their service to the people. We have only a few days remaining, and I’m going to fight like my livelihood depends on it — because our community’s livelihoods depend on it.

What is your stance on “Cancer Alley” and what can be done about it?

Ontiveros: Climate change’s effects extend beyond the environment to public health and the economy. We lack economic diversity in this region and so we are often forced into the false dichotomy of “losing jobs or continuing to poison our communities”. We cannot lack the imagination to envision other ways forward. We must incentivize these industries to switch to clean energy, which will sustain and create new jobs for our community, while also demanding justice for those who have already been harmed.

I support the Green New Deal. Additionally, my policy priorities include reinvesting in and reforming the Environmental Protection Agency and prioritizing justice for BIPOC communities located near fossil fuel production sites, landfills, industrial factory-farming, and sites most vulnerable to natural disasters worsened by climate change.

What are your views on Gordon Plaza?

Ontiveros: Access to affordable and safe housing is a basic human right. What was done to the residents of Gordon Plaza is a clear example of how environmental justice is directly connected to racial justice. Just as a stand for restorative justice for those whose health was and continues to be impacted by toxic sites in the River Parishes, I believe residents of Gordon Plaza and their families must be made whole and provided reparations for the injustices they’ve endured.

What are your views on marijuana legalization?

Ontiveros: As a congresswoman, I will advocate for legislation to decriminalize marijuana and expunge records.

Tell us about your views on student debt.

Ontiveros: Addressing student loan debt and the high cost of higher education is vital to removing yet another barrier to upward economic mobility faced by communities of color. Rather than get into internal debates over whether a few wealthy people might benefit from student loan relief, it’s time to remove what is largely an unnecessary weight from the millions of borrowers currently being punished for taking advantage of the economic opportunity the pursuit of higher education provides.

The highest and fastest-growing student loan balances are in majority-Black communities, with an average balance of $38,000. In southern Louisiana, this fact takes shape in the thousands of educated Black men and women who then are not able to purchase homes — a traditional method of building wealth — or launch small businesses. We must implement a plan to forgive loans at an amount — I support the current proposal of $50,000 — that is meaningful enough to promote wealth attainment in Black and brown communities.

You’ve proposed a $15 minimum wage. Can you tell us about the implementation of that? Why did you choose $15?

Ontiveros: Low wages hurt all workers and are particularly harmful to Black workers and other workers of color, especially women, who make up a disproportionate share of workers who are severely underpaid. This is the result of structural racism and sexism.

I support the The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and narrow racial and gender pay gaps. After 2025, it adjusts the minimum wage each year to keep pace with growth in the median wage. A raise to $15 an hour would affect 32 million workers and provide a pay increase to 59% of workers living under the poverty line.

It also phases out the subminimum wage for tipped workers, which has been frozen at $2.13 since 1991. The subminimum wage for tipped workers is a legacy of slavery. White restaurant owners sought to hire Black workers as bussers and servers without paying them, forcing them to live exclusively off tips. To add insult to injury, during the pandemic, many of these workers have been unable to access unemployment benefits because their wages were too low to qualify.

Do your religious beliefs play any part in your campaign?

Ontiveros: From my Catholic background, I have taken with me some of the most liberal, universal beliefs, such as servant leadership and the dignity of all people regardless of their identity, status, etc. My public policy decisions will not be guided by any organized religious principles but by my deeply held values and beliefs in the dignity of all people and their fundamental rights.

What is your campaign’s position on how to better protect children?

Ontiveros: The best way to protect our children is to invest in our children. The pandemic has further highlighted the need not just for improved education opportunities but also for meaningful engagement and activities for children within the community.

I will fight to ensure that Louisiana receives its fair share and that the federal government provides money to fully reimburse schools for Covid related expenses and provide additional funding to support programs, like the 21st century learning program which provides after school enrichment not just in academics, but in arts and athletics and pays our teachers for their work in the program. We must fully fund programs that provide after school and weekend programs for children that keep them engaged and expose them to worlds they might not experience otherwise. Community centers for students with activities during the day for seniors are a must and can be provided for through federal grants.

What are your first plans if elected?

Ontiveros: I know there will be a lot of things to tackle when I get to Washington, and I am willing and ready to take on that challenge.

Congresses job over the next 4 years is to ensure economic relief and recovery. I believe that policy should be created by those who are closest to issues, and I have deep personal experience with running a business during the pandemic and navigating retaining my team with benefits.

We need to tackle things like small business relief through main street recovery –small businesses provide approximately 50% of private sector jobs in our region. I want to help support current and encourage new small businesses so we can recover jobs lost to the pandemic, including creating a dedicated SBA minority fund that does away with historic barriers to access, like credit scores.

To close the income disparity felt by Black and brown communities as well as ensure families can remain debt free, I also support a guaranteed income as we work toward economic recovery and sustainability.

I also plan to immediately launch active field offices throughout the region, particularly in the River Parishes, and form working groups of local community leaders around major policy issues important to our region, like economic recovery, criminal justice, and education.

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