Lynda Woolard Discusses Her New Progressive Podcast, Louisiana Lefty, in an Interview With Big Easy Magazine

Danae Columbus caught up with veteran campaign organizer and strategist, Lynda Woolard, the day after the second congressional district race to ask her about her new podcast for progressives. Louisiana Lefty can be heard on multiple podcast platforms, and can be found at LouisianaLefty.Rocks. Louisiana Lefty’s stated goal is “to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission, because victory for Louisiana requires you.”

DC: Tell me about your background and your initial interest in politics

LW: Prior to Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood of New Orleans, I was an artist, and for a time, even had a small gallery on Oak Street that featured local artists and fair trade crafts. I was always politically aware, but did not become seriously engaged in politics until we were rebuilding the region from that compounded disaster. It became evident to me that we needed an ally in the White House, so I got involved in Barack Obama’s campaign in February of 2007. This has been my life ever since.

DC: What made you decide to move to Louisiana?

LW: I had been coming to New Orleans for a decade before I made the move. It had become my favorite place on earth, so when I reached one of those rare life moments when I had an opportunity to move, I chose to come here. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve been here 24 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and it’s home.

DC: Do you consider yourself a progressive?

LW: Yes. 

DC: How do you describe that term?

LW: For me, it’s a lot about justice, reform, and rights: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Criminal Justice Reform, Voting Rights, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, LGBTQ+ Rights. But it can’t just be about the idea of those issues, it has to be about those issues in action, right? You have to be actively working for those ideas, taking whatever piece of the puzzle you’re good at or have the capacity for. There is the argument in progressive circles about where to compromise, and I tend to want to push for as big as we can get, but am willing to take whatever can positively impact the most people today, and keep going back to get better for more folks over and over again. The one thing we have seen in the last few years is that this work is never over, and the other side will constantly push to take us backwards. So there are no easy or permanent victories in any of our progressive fights.

DC: How did Donald Trump change the Democratic Party nationally?

LW: Donald Trump, in many ways, gave the diverse groups that make up the Democratic Party something to consolidate against. The problem is he’s also created a party of Trump that is bound and determined to coalesce around lies and autocracy, so the stakes for being effective at the national level are very high. There’s no room for error or defection. There’s no time to waste on addressing the greatest threats to the safety and security of our people or our democracy.

DC: How have Democratic values changed?

LW: As a party, generally speaking, we are moving further left. That’s partially just the march of progress and younger generations coming along wanting something better for themselves and the world we live in. That said, general elections are still largely determined by older and less progressive voters, so most of our elected officials do not yet match that shift, and that creates some cognitive dissonance. Now, if you want to talk about Louisiana, and the rural areas in particular, there’s a different answer to this question. That’s something that I’m working on exploring within the Louisiana Lefty podcast, because I think it’s important that Democrats and progressives in safely blue enclaves have an understanding of what it’s like for Democrats living in parts of the state that are not our strongholds, where they literally might worry about their safety if they identify as a Democrat. We can’t make progress here if we don’t have a better appreciation for each others’ needs and struggles.

DC: Describe your work with the Louisiana Democratic Party

LW: I worked at the state party for 3 years, starting right after President Obama’s second inauguration and ending with Governor Edwards’ first inauguration. I started as a regional organizer, eventually building and running their statewide Team Blue Dat program of grassroots volunteer activists. We made calls into areas of the state where we were told they had never heard from the party before. We trained folks on how to lobby our legislature. We pioneered some digital organizing practices that have been taken up by some other state parties. We were a pre-built army of volunteers for John Bel Edwards’ first gubernatorial run. It was a good program that I believe was very effective in its day.

DC: With Republican registration continuing to grow, what is the Party’s future in Louisiana?

LW: Nationally, what we saw in 2020 is that Republicans continued active voter registration programs while most Democratic organizations were more hunkered down for the pandemic. However, since the January 6th Capitol Riot, more voters have been changing party identification away from the GOP. I’ll be interested in seeing what registration numbers look like over the next year or so in Louisiana. Anecdotally, when registering voters, my experience is that far more young people are registering to No Party. None of that changes unless the party makes concerted outreach efforts to appeal to folks to join our membership – which is free, by the way. There are some tide shifting events we have no control over. But making the party a welcoming place for voters is something we should be doing, naturally, and that looks different in different parts of the state and with different constituencies. All that said, because I no longer work for the party, or have a role in party leadership, I am personally less concerned with how people identify, and more concerned with how they are actually voting.

DC: How does the Party build new leadership and who are our future Democratic leaders in Louisiana?

LW: Again, this is something I explore on the Louisiana Lefty podcast. In a recent episode with Ryan Berni, we discuss how there are Democratic elected officials in local offices all across the state, and that’s a pretty good place to start when you’re looking for who is on your bench. I’ve already talked to a couple of women who are Emerge alum, one of whom, Mandie Landry, successfully ran for the legislature. And then, I think, as progressives, we should be looking at the organizers doing the work and building relationships on the ground right now. In our very first episode, I spoke to Candice Battiste of Shreveport about her work with the Power Coalition, and listeners are already talking about how she needs to run for something.

DC: Several women have run for office after their husbands were previously elected- Lindy Boggs, Julia Letlow, Cynthia Morrell, and Laurie Schlegel – for example.  Governor John Bel Edwards is term limited. Do you think Donna Edwards will run for Governor?

LW: Oh, I love this question! I think she would hate it, even if she’d be great as a campaigner and an elected leader. She is a phenomenal First Lady, and I believe her heart lies more in the kind of work she is doing now, with her Teach MAM program (putting music, arts and movement in curriculums), as well as Anti-Human Trafficking and Louisiana Foster Care initiatives.

DC: What made you decide to start Louisiana Lefty?

LW: I’d wanted to start a podcast since 2018. It’s based on conference calls I used to do. When I worked at the party, we’d have a weekly call with a different legislator every week of legislative session so Team Blue Dat could hear updates on the bills we were advocating on. In Trump’s first year in office, I hosted a weekly table call with leadership of the various Resistance groups in the state, so they could share information on what they were doing and learn from each other on how to organize actions that some of them were quite new to. By the end of that year, I realized that the information shared in these calls might be beneficial to a wider audience. Between getting hired for campaigns, and then the pandemic, the podcast idea just always got back-burnered, until this year. Subject-wise, some of this is really meant to provide a blueprint to Democratic and progressive candidates, campaign staff, and advocates across the state on how to run their own campaigns and plug into existing coalitions. In essence, as I am no longer working on campaigns myself, rather than open a consulting business, I wanted to create a direct line to as many folks as possible who want to know the things I’ve learned over the last 14 years, as well as benefit from my guests’ experiences. Further, I wanted to center our conversations on organizing, because I believe in left-leaning politics, where we will never have the same amount of money as our conservative opponents, the only way we win is through organizing. And, because organizers are often the overworked and overlooked members of campaign teams, I am celebrating them by choosing a Louisianan every month to receive the Organizer of the Month award. We share their story on social media, and send them a framed certificate recognizing them for their valued work to their community. Naima Savage, of Color of Change, was our inaugural recipient. Eventually, I want to branch out to in-person events that will include training with some of these wonderful folks.

DC: Who are your guests?

LW: My current roster of guests consists of folks I’ve worked with over the years. I’m speaking to organizers, strategists, pollsters, campaign managers, communications directors, candidates, elected officials, and anyone who might have insight into how we build winning strategies for electoral and issue campaign efforts.

DC: Who is your audience?

LW: Any Democrat, liberal, or progressive in the state who is interested in running for office, working on a campaign, organizing with community groups, advocating for the issues they care about, or simply curious how our party and elections operate.

DC: You lost a bitter campaign for state party chair last year. What did that campaign teach you?

LW: It’s interesting that you frame it that way, because it wasn’t bitter from my perspective. However it is true that there was a hard-fought internal battle over the soul of the state party. Like everything that happened in 2020, that election was framed by the pandemic. I had discussed the future of the party with the governor and the former chair early in the year, but those conversations were completely derailed by covid response, and rightly so. 

The way circumstances played out, I actually ran for first vice chair in a campaign that should have lasted 6 weeks. That’s really where I had an opportunity to connect with the almost 200 voting members of the Democratic State Central Committee and learn what they’re about. The DSCC by design is a very political entity. Many of the elected members took their task of electing new party leadership very seriously and I had hours long conversations with them. There were a handful who just wouldn’t speak with me, mostly because there had been some insultingly underhanded narratives shared that I would be a puppet of the former administration. That offended me, because I’ve always been hard-working and independent, and my work damn well should have spoken for itself with some of these folks. For most voters, though, I had, in fact, built up a lot of good will through my work for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Democratic Party, the Independent Women’s Organization, and the Unanimous Juries Coalition. I believe I was in a good position going into that vote.

When the vote got delayed again, this time not for pandemic, but for the hurricane heading towards Lake Charles, and the chair field narrowed out of the blue to one candidate, I was bombarded by calls for 9 hours, with folks asking me to jump in the race so there would be a progressive option on the ballot. There came a moment when I realized I needed to run. I knew there would be no personal benefit for me in doing so – in fact, it would be quite the opposite – but the stories I heard reminded me that sometimes you have to stand up and show other folks you have their backs. The short 12-day campaign didn’t give me much time to take in any lessons. It was spent mostly trying to track down the voting members of the state central committee to articulate for them what I would do for the party. The vote result was not unexpected.

There were folks who did not vote for me for chair, but thought I should run for first vice that day when I lost in the chair’s race, and, two things about that: I had a wonderful running mate in Davante Lewis, who I was not going to turn around and run against, and I believed then, as I do now, that we need diversity in party leadership. I don’t believe that two white women in the top two spots would produce a good outcome for the Democratic Party.

The lessons for me since then are really about data, and, again, I’ve done a podcast with Jennifer Johnson breaking down party demographics in the state. As the progressive candidate in the chair’s race, I garnered just under 30% of the vote. That tracks with approximately how many Democrats identify as liberal in Louisiana. So that tells me that left-leaning caucus in state party leadership, while a minority, has an important job to do in representing this critical group of base voters, because we are the drivers of change. It also tells me that, as progressives, we need to look for those districts where we can get folks who share our values elected, and go hard for that goal when we have the chance.

DC: Besides politics, what brings you joy?

LW: Well, obviously, we are still in a pandemic, so some of the things that bring me joy, like seeing the Saints, traveling to watch Hamilton, dining out with dear friends, have just been out of reach. And most years, I’d be raising Monarch butterflies by now, but that’s even been hampered this year. What has been a steadfast and ongoing source of joy for me in this past year has been, likely to no surprise of anyone who knows me, my trio of little rescue dogs. They’ve been constant companions through the sickness, trauma, and isolation of 2020. My cats are part of the family, as well, but they’re slightly less enthusiastic about me. I’ve watched all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order recently, and that’s been an exciting ride. And I don’t know what I would do without my support group of friends and family, who have talked, texted, or zoomed with me every day. Deep conversations bring me great joy, so… a podcast is a natural fit.

DC: Finally, what are your thoughts on the results of the CD2 results?

LW: In full disclosure, I supported Karen Carter Peterson, and I know she was endorsed by Big Easy Magazine, so I’ll answer from that perspective.

If you look back at the first DCCC poll done on the race in December, Troy Carter was the natural favorite when the field was finalized. Then you add in that he had a strong political CV, and was the chosen candidate of our popular outgoing congressperson, in what promised to be a low turnout election, meaning a large portion of the votership would be made up of the political class. That put him in a very good position from the start, so he was the man to beat. Given that information, an opponent would need to construct a campaign that could outperform his at every level.

The one big thing I know about campaigns is, if you are the underdog, if you are trying to make up a deficit, the only way I personally know how to do that is through a targeted, robust field effort of direct voter contact. Maybe I was missing something, but from my sideline perch, I didn’t see that materialize for Karen Carter Peterson. 

Criticisms that Sen. Peterson was trying to stake out new turf as a progressive were offbase. Anyone who’s worked with her on legislation or listened to her floor speeches knows that she’s always inhabited that space. However, to harken back to how I define the term, the way people approach progressive politics has changed since she first took up that mantle. Today’s progressive activists expect to see our crusaders outside of political spheres, living and breathing in our communities as we’re driving change. When those bonds aren’t forged in the streets, it’s hard to build those connections during the whirlwind of a short election cycle.

Further, she certainly should have been helped by support from Emily’s List with TV, digital, and mail. While I applaud their investment in Pro-Choice Women candidates, which is their stated mission, it’s an understatement to say I didn’t find their messaging to be effective in this race. I know they are capable of doing good work, but what they did in Louisiana was just baffling.

So in my clinical assessment, the constellation of stars required to pull off an upset didn’t align for Sen. Peterson, and Congressman-elect Carter ran the race he needed to run. I’ve known him for years, and wish him well in his new role.

As a side note, much has been made over local reporting versus national, and which is more reliable. I still like the notion that the truth never lies, but when it does, it lies somewhere in between. While it’s true that our local legacy media understands the lay of the land and the candidates’ histories better, it is also saddled with its own agendas and access concerns. So there is value in looking at all the reporting, and then just bearing in mind the biases and limitations of each.

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