Lesli Harris Speaks With Big Easy Magazine About District B’s Unique Needs and Her Plans for the Area if Elected

Photo Source: https://www.lesliharris4nola.com/

Lesli D. Harris, an attorney, will kick off her campaign for City Council District B Wednesday evening at Young Artists Young Aspirations (YaYa) where she is a board member. She is also a member of the Industrial Development Board for the City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Film Society.

BE: Tell us about your background- where you were born, your parents, siblings, family  values, etc.

LH: I was born in Wheeling, West Virginia and raised in Bridgeport, Ohio – all in what is  affectionately referred to as Steel Country. My mother and father married in 1969, a year after the Loving v. Virginia decision that overruled state laws banning interracial marriage. My father was a steelworker, Commander of Smithfield American Legion, and member of the Steelworkers’ Union. He died when I was 15 years old.  

My mother was an engineering technician at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”), where she inspected mines and mining equipment (even traveling to the North Louisiana salt mines for training). She always encouraged me to read voraciously, and we were regulars at our local libraries and bookstores. When it came time to go to college, she found the University of Virginia and helped me to apply for scholarships to attend. My mom loves politics and is not afraid to call or write to her elected representatives.  

In my immediate family, I have one brother who lives and works in Wheeling, Virginia and owns East Wheeling Clayworks – a pottery studio. He is married to Beth and they have a daughter, Olivia Jane.  

I grew up in a working class, caring, and multiracial extended family of teachers, government workers, tradespersons, community leaders, entrepreneurs, veterans, and union members. I believe that education is the path to success and that children need outlets for their energy, intelligence, and creativity. I believe that artists should be able to create and make a living wage. I believe that our culture should support small, women owned, and minority owned business and encourage entrepreneurship. 

BE: Where did you attend school? 

LH: Since kindergarten, I attended public school and graduated from Bridgeport High School  in 1993. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a B.A. in Art History  and a minor in English. I moved to Louisiana in 1999 to attend Tulane Law School and earned my J.D. in 2002. I have an LL.M. (Masters of Law) in Trade Regulation, specializing in Intellectual Property Law from New York University School of Law. 

BE: What kind of law do you practice?

LH: Commercial litigation, intellectual property law, and entertainment law. I’ve represented everyone from the New Orleans Saints and the NFL to local small businesses to Black Masking Mardi Gras Indians. 

BE: What was your most memorable case?

LH: Robicheaux v. Caldwell, the marriage equality case where my former law partner, Dalton  Courson, and I represented the Forum for Equality and five same sex couples seeking to  overturn Louisiana’s discriminatory laws banning same sex marriage. My parents were able to marry because of the Loving v. Virginia decision and I believe that love is love no matter who you are and no matter who you love. I was honored to participate in the historic marriage equality efforts. 

BE: What other kinds of work have you done?

I was Chief of Staff at Loyola University New Orleans -the first chief of staff to Loyola’s first woman and lay president, Tania Tetlow. When I took the position as Chief of Staff, Loyola was in a financial downturn. Among other duties, I took over the efforts of  McKinsey & Company to manage diverse teams across the University. That work required me to listen to faculty, students and staff to create, implement, and track new data-driven initiatives to buoy the university’s finances. I am happy to say that those initiatives resulted in a year-over-year balanced budget for Loyola.  

In the Chief of Staff role, I led external relation efforts, including helping to negotiate and structure a partnership deal between Loyola and a local hospital system to create Loyola’s first traditional undergraduate nursing program. I also negotiated and drafted memoranda of understanding and final contracts to establish multi-year online educational partnerships. I consulted with President Tetlow daily to discuss not only these entrepreneurial efforts but all facets of University operations.  

When COVID hit in March 2019, President Tetlow tapped me to spearhead the university’s COVID-19 response efforts as its Interim Chief Public Health Officer. That required me to manage return to campus efforts in every department, from negotiating  partnership agreements with state and local government to managing a cross-unit COVID response team. I am proud of my work overseeing the implementation of Loyola’s  COVID policies, maintaining the safety of the Loyola community, and ensuring  compliance with health privacy laws. 

BE: What civic, social, and community groups do you belong to? In what neighborhood do you live?

LH: I moved to New Orleans in 1999. I’ve lived in District B since 2002 and I currently live in Central City near Washington Avenue. I am a long-time board member of Young Artists Young Aspirations “YAYA,” board member of the New Orleans Bar Association and co-chair of the Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law Committee, and a new board member of the St. Charles Avenue Association. I belong to the Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Legal Society. I parade with the Wonder Woman Walking  Krewe in the Chewbaccus Parade.

BE: Are you active in a local church? Which one?

LH: I volunteer with Bethlehem Lutheran Church and am on its building development committee. I was baptized and raised in St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Smithfield, Ohio. 

BE: What made you decide to run for the City Council?

LH: Like everyone who I have talked to, I believe that New Orleans is struggling. Crime is rampant. Economic opportunities are rare. The education system is failing many of our children. My neighbors face housing and food insecurity issues. I love this city. I’ve lived here for half of my life. New Orleans can and must do better with people who bring new energy, new connections, and new ideas to the city council position. This great city deserves no less. 

BE: What strengths would you bring to the office?

LH: I am known as a problem solver, and I do that by listening closely when issues arise and finding or developing the resources to solve the problem. I have always been able to bring people together to collaborate on solutions, even if they do not see eye to eye. My years of legal and administrative skills and entrepreneurial mindset will bring new skills and vision to District B. I care deeply about New Orleans and all the people who live and work in District B. 

BE: What would be your first priority?

LH: Listening to the people of District B and understanding their issues and concerns. I want  to be available, responsive, and transparent. Even if I can’t find an immediate solution, I  want people who live and work in District B to know that I listen, that I care, and that I  am doing my best to champion their interests in City Council. 

BE: How would you combat crime?

LH: The crime issue requires a wholistic approach, with community partners and experts in education, mental health, homelessness, and the criminal justice system. I’ve been a lawyer for almost 20 years, but I am not a criminal justice expert. I do have the skills to build coalitions among diverse voices who ARE experts in their field.  

Soon, I will release my 100 day plan to combat crime in the city, which will include an All Hands on Deck crime enforcement, community policing crime prevention meetings with neighborhoods, a task force to explore new funding strategies for NOPD, and expanding victim, survivor, and witness support.

BE: How would you rebuild the police force?

LH: I believe in community policing – meaning NOPD should focus on recruiting police officers from the communities in which they live. I have seen effective community policing at second lines, where parade attendees see the same police officers every Sunday, get to know them, and respect them enough not to cause trouble. In order to recruit and retain NOPD officers, NOPD needs to be the highest paid local or state law enforcement agency in the state and region. It is the most difficult policing job in the state. We need to give our officers the tools they need, better training, and support. And, if we need help from the federal government, we need to ask for that help and make sure  that those financial resources are properly allocated. 

BE: Describe the District’s most critical infrastructure needs.

LH: This will not shock anyone who lives in District B – drainage problems and flooding events when it rains, water shut-offs without notice and late water boil advisories, lack of  regular trash pickup, massive potholes, and unfinished road projects. District B has street lanes that are not at all or not properly marked (Carondelet and Baronne in Central City, for example). Car repairs caused by crumbling roads or unmarked lanes cause major financial distress to families, who may not be able to afford to replace a damaged tire or the front end of their car. The City must do better in identifying failing streets, marking potholes so they are clearly visible, and prioritizing repairs. 

BE: Are utility rates too high? Should Entergy reduce their profit margin?

LH: City Council has the authority to regulate Entergy and must use that authority to ensure that the rates charged to New Orleanians are appropriate and to prevent unexpected bill spikes. We must also ensure that the electricity supplied by Entergy comes from clean energy sources. Entergy should also help its customers to become more energy efficient by publicizing efficiency programs to the communities that can benefit. We also need to look at solar power options for both homeowners and renters. I would encourage members of the state legislature to bring back the tax credits that allowed many in the New Orleans community to install solar panels. 

BE: How can the SWBNO better serve the community?

LH: We all understand that New Orleans has an ageing water and water management infrastructure and I do think that the leaders in the SWBNO are trying their best to ensure proper service. I think the frustration comes with no notice-water shut offs and too late notice boil advisories, with streets that are dug up to replace water lines and improve drainage but with no progress (or workers) in sight. I think that better communication and insight into the timing and progress of repairs would go a long way with the community in District B. 

BE: Are there too many STRs in District B? Are the laws being enforced? Do they need revisions?

LH: I think there are too many STRs in District B that are run more like hotels than as traditional STRs. While the current STR laws may be appropriate, I don’t believe that  those laws are being enforced regularly and consistently so we don’t really know how effective the current laws are. 

BE: How will you help reduce juvenile crime?

LH: Funding, education and recreation. I was a kid once and if I did not have after school activities and sports as an outlet, I would have gotten into trouble. The City needs to prioritize support and investment of public libraries, NORD facilities and youth programming as well as non-profit youth organizations like YEP, YAYA, and the Roots of Music. Our kids need to be able to channel their energy into activities that are beneficial to them and that teach them real world skills. I also think we need to better invest in mental health resources for our young people — especially after COVID and its aftermath. The City should explore partnerships with local universities that have counseling  programs to provide low-cost or free mental health counseling to young people in need.  

BE: How will you increase the availability of affordable housing and reduce blithe?

LH: Affordable housing and blight go hand in hand. I have neighbors who cannot afford basic repairs to their homes, and, because of that, they have to watch their properties deteriorate. I think the City needs to create a fund that allows low income homeowners to apply for grants to make necessary repairs to their homes that benefit both the homeowner of moderate means, and their neighbors. I’ve witnessed first-hand the great work that the Preservation Resource Center has done in buying and repairing blighted properties and selling those homes to low income and first-time homebuyers. The City should support that effort. I also think we need a fairer process for property tax assessments and an elimination of suddenly higher tax assessments. People in my neighborhood are being taxed out of their long-time homes because of an influx of new builds or renovations.  

I do believe in allocating affordable housing units in new property developments (whether those units are for sale or for rent), and I have seen that work successfully while serving on the Industrial Development Board. And just because COVID “ended” does not mean that people suddenly can afford their rent or pay back due rent. Rental assistance programs (in partnership with the State and Federal government) should continue for the foreseeable future and those individuals who own rental properties should receive a tax credit. 

BE: Are there enough high quality charter schools for every student to attend?

LH: I think that we need to concentrate on ensuring the success of the charter schools that we have. I know from my time at Loyola that educational success requires an examination of systems, elimination of programs that do not work, a focus on core strengths, and an understanding of academic needs. Educational reform also needs funding and ideas from  the community – the parents of students and the students themselves — about what  excellent education can look like in New Orleans. 

BE: How will you bring more economic development to the district?

LH: We need to encourage startup companies and minority and women entrepreneurs and  those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Incubators like Propeller, Idea Village, and programs run by the Urban League and the Chamber of Commerce can help train and support entrepreneurs and grow economic development in the district. The City should provide more robust support of those programs.  

I also think the city council should make zoning decisions that assist small businesses while considering the surrounding community. There is no reason why a restaurant on Magazine Street, surrounded by other restaurants, should not be zoned to receive a liquor license. The current decision-making in District B appears arbitrary and not grounded in  economic and community reality. 

BE: How can NORD increase programming at playgrounds and recreation centers?

LH: NORD needs additional money. Period. While NORD has refocused its efforts to helping families and the elderly, children and young people in the community need the structure that NORD athletic programming and facilities can bring. I also think that NORD should expand its private/public partnerships to provide youth education and workforce training that is attractive to private companies. For example, partnering with a company like DXC to provide computer programming classes. 

BE: How will you address the Opioid crisis?

LH: We need more robust mental health and addiction treatment resources in New Orleans. I have a stepbrother who was addicted to opioids and I understand the pain that addiction brings to families and how hard it is to break free from addiction. We should look at expanded (free and affordable) treatment options for those who want to get help. We should invest in early anti-drug education and deterrence efforts. 

BE: Why should people vote for you?

LH: I care about New Orleans and District B. I come from a family that looks like New  Orleans – racially and economically diverse. And, after living in District B for 20 years, I understand the fundamental needs of our community. Everyone wants the same basic  things – affordable housing, education for their kids, safety, and economic opportunity. And they want someone who can understand and champion those needs. I am that person and I hope that the people of District B will support me.

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