Some have called it the elephant in the room — but that’s absurd. Absolutely no one is ignoring the reality that Shawn Wilson, former secretary of transportation under Gov. John Bel Edwards, is Black.
The truth is that every political commentary about the so-called uphill battle Democrats in Louisiana face and every election analysis that questions whether the party can hold on to its only governorship in the Deep South is all about Wilson’s race, whether overtly stated or more stealthily implied.
It has to be. Otherwise, everyone knows the answer is “yes”. They have done so before — multiple times.
In fact, let’s put this fallacy of Democrats in Louisiana having a hard time getting elected to the state’s top political office to rest now. From 1960 to 2019, which is marked by John Bel Edwards’ election to a second term, Louisianans have only elected three Republican governors a total of five times — David Treen, once; and Mike Foster and Bobby Jindal, twice each. The other five men and one woman elected since 1960 were Democrats, including Buddy Roemer, who switched to the Republican Party during the last year of his term and then — as a Republican — lost his re-election bid to a Democrat.
So even as the state steadily became a Republican stronghold in presidential cycles, Louisiana has largely elected Democratic governors, sending them to the mansion 11 times since 1960, more than twice as many times as Republicans. And that makes anyone actually wondering out loud if Louisiana Democrats can do this worthy of side-eye glance.
But that’s not really what they are asking.
What They Really Want to Know
The question analysts are really posing when they opine about this “uphill battle” is whether a Black man in Louisiana can lead his party to victory?
Considering that it has not been done since Reconstruction, perhaps that is a fair question.
So when The New Orleans Tribune sat down with Wilson earlier this month, we asked him, straight up — can a Black man win?
The New Orleans native, who comes off as quite sensible and realistic, concerned more about facts over theory, has a pragmatic answer: “I wouldn’t be in the race if it wasn’t possible.”
“Clearly, the best qualified candidate can win,” he continues. “That’s what happened in the last two cycles. And I think the reality of what’s on the chopping block — your protection, your security, your health care, your compensation if you’re an educator, the dignity of our state employees. If you are someone in urban or rural areas, your economic security is at risk because of how we address climate change. And so, clearly, the best qualified can win, and I believe the people of our state can get beyond race. I’ve seen it. I am someone who was never supposed to be secretary of transportation.”
Both Wilson and the state party hold up his campaign as the best chance at maintaining any progress Louisiana has made in the last seven and half years.
Calling him “the lone hope for progress” in an endorsement announced this summer, the state Democratic Party said this about Wilson: “Shawn Wilson is a proven leader that worked across the aisle as transportation secretary to spearhead more than $5 billion in infrastructure investments . . . He is a man of high character that knows how to get the job done. As governor, Shawn will build on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ progress for our state.”
Follow the Formula
Black voters were responsible for, Edwards’ win in the 2019 runoff. And in this race, the African-American electorate must have the same passion and fervor.
Wilson is absolutely right— he could win. There’s a formula — the same one that sent Edwards to the governor’s mansion, especially in the last election. And ensuring that voters around the state see Wilson much like they saw the current governor — as Louisiana’s best bet for progress — is a key to that formula.
First, the blue walls in what is otherwise a red house must be sturdy. Wilson needs Democrats, regardless of race, to show up loyal to the party, especially in the areas of the state that are its strongholds, including the New Orleans metro area, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Fifty-five percent of the state’s registered Democrats voted in the 2019 gubernatorial runoff election.
He also needs Black voters to show out for him just as they did four years ago for Edwards. Remember Black voters pulled no punches in the 2019 gubernatorial runoff, convening at the polls en masse, determined to make their voices heard. They clinched the victory for Edwards, and they can do it again. The turnout among African Americans statewide was 50 percent. For white voters in Louisiana, turnout was 53 percent. When it was all said and done, Edwards secured 99 percent of the Black vote compared to 30 percent of the white vote. Perhaps it was recoil to MAGA mania and Donald Trump, who endorsed Edwards’ Republican runoff opponent, Eddie Rispone. Whatever the reason, experts agree Black voters were responsible for Edwards’ win in the runoff. And in this race, the African-American electorate must have the same passion and fervor. If Wilson’s draws as many or even more Black voters to the polls and captures an identical percentage of that vote as Edwards did, it will certainly propel him to victory. And the Trump-factor could play a role again, with the former president having endorsed Republican frontrunner, Jeff Landry, who is expected to end up in a runoff against Wilson.
Finally, Wilson needs those on-the-fence voters — those with no party affiliations, Independents, the undecided — to lean his direction. If folk are able to get beyond race, as Wilson suggests, then they ought to view a Wilson-Landry showdown in the same manner as they did Edwards-Rispone, and vote accordingly.
So maybe the real question is this: Can Louisianans, of all ilk, get out of their own way to do exactly what they have done before and elect a Democrat, who, this time, just happens to be Shawn Wilson, making him the first Black man to serve as governor in Louisiana since Reconstruction.
Well, Shawn Wilson certainly has faith that they can.
As he campaigns, he says he has been lifted by support from a cross-section of Louisianans.
“I am encouraged by what I hear. I’m encouraged by what I see. And that gives me hope that this is a grassroots effort that is speaking to the hearts of people across the state of Louisiana And that helps reinforce my belief that I can win this race.”
And now that the . . . well . . . the elephant in the room has been dealt with, let’s get to what really matters.
Why does Shawn Wilson want to be governor and what kind of leader will he be?
A Bridge Builder
Wilson will likely have to work with a Republican-led legislature to get things done if elected governor. He is up to the task, often citing his capacity to create consensus among folk that may not always sees things the way he does. He calls himself a bridge builder.
It is a skill honed during his 25 years in public service, he says. And while he certainly knows what it takes to build real bridges, he is talking about the figurative ones — the ways people reach and extend over divides and differences to move from a place of opposition and unproductiveness to a place of collaboration and results.
He pushes back against the notion that “bridge building” sounds nice and congenial, but is often much easier said than done.
“Well, I don’t accept that you can’t,” Wilson says. “That’s what we have done for the last seven years. Being a bridge builder doesn’t mean you build every bridge. It means you find common ground; and we were successful at doing that. I would suggest to you that our record of doing that is far greater than what you’ve seen in the last 30 plus years. And I think that we have an example in Gov. Edwards that shows it can be done. If you think about the number of bills that have passed, think about the number of vetoes that have been overridden — only two out of over 319 of them, I believe. The reality is that every budget that has passed has passed with Democratic and Republican votes.”
As Wilson sees it, sometimes bridge building means crossing the divide. Sometimes it means standing one’s ground, making a case and helping others to see differing points of in a new light.
“Every candidate in this campaign has now talked about preserving the Medicaid expansion. Had I not said it at first, I don’t think we’d be there today. So that’s an example of building a bridge. In the area of economic prosperity and local governing authority — I’m the only candidate that said, from day one, that we should keep the changes to the industrial tax exemption, program (ITEP), which gives (manufacturing businesses a break on property taxes, but was reformed in 2016 by executive order to reduce the value of the exemption and to give local governing authorities power to approve or deny exemptions). Had I not taken that position, every other candidate in this race talked about undoing that. And now they’ve moderated. So those are examples of building bridges.”
Okay, let’s concede that bridge building is important. And let’s say Shawn Wilson has been good at it . . . and will be good at if elected if elected governor.
Where will the bridges he hopes to build lead the people of Louisiana?
Wilson says the top three issues facing the state, the ones he would attack first are: public safety, education, and the insurance industry crisis.
“Addressing crime and public safety, that has to be a major issue for us,” he says. “It’s the number one issue, not just in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. It is a statewide issue, ensuring we can deliver a safer Louisiana. We have to do this in smarter ways. So investing in resources for communities to do better and protect themselves has to be extremely important. Investing in re-entry programs and ensuring that we’re providing the type of services that address all of the behavioral issues that we see in communities —everything from fentanyl to mental health, to increasing parental engagement in communities and in schools. So that’s the first thing.”
As for education, he says, “Clearly, we have to continue to invest in education. We’re talking early childhood education; we’re talking teachers; we’re talking K-12; we’re talking universities and vocational education in terms of giving individuals an opportunity for career path that gives them options. So fully funding education, I think, has to be on the table. We’ve seen that principle rejected this past year where we had $2 billion and we were only able to put about $50 million in education, keeping several thousands of children in need of early childhood education from being served. So that’s got to be a top three issue.”
The insurance industry crisis rounds out Wilson’s top three.
“We have got to address the insurance crisis that we have,” he says. “This is a critical issue because it’s hitting families in the pockets. It’s actually preventing people from putting the pieces back together. Families are on the cusp of losing everything that, for generations, they have built. So we’ve got to be thoughtful about how we do that. We have to pass common sense laws. We have to ensure that we are not beholden to big insurance companies and that we are putting people first.”
Wilson manages to slip in a fourth “top three” issue when he insists that strengthening laws that address the insurance industry and holding big insurance companies accountable are not enough because behind the premium hikes and affordability crisis are even bigger challenges — workforce development and stagnant wages in Louisiana.
“I think a threat to workforce has to do with low wages. It has to do with our ability to attract and retain good quality jobs for people. And the ability to increase wages is going to be fundamental, because the pressure on families is that if they’re not making enough money today to provide food, health care, child care, housing, and transportation costs — and that’s about 50 percent of our population — then certainly they won’t be able to (afford insurance), which is going to put them in a much darker place. Those are the things I talk about in terms of making sure we’re safer, smarter, healthier, and wealthier.”
His platform’s focus on helping people build better lives for themselves and their families is what sets him apart, especially when he considers the issues that have been fodder for some state leaders like the abortion ban and legislation that prohibits gender-affirming care for minors — examples of Republican-led efforts that go too far, taking time, resources and focus away from government’s true role, Wilson says.
“I think that we are going to resonate with the people because of our policies, because of our positions, because of our record and what we’re talking about. What we are talking about is putting the priorities of people first — safety, education, health care, economic prosperity. What you hear on the other side are culture war issues that operate on the extremes and do not do anything to make us safer. They don’t educate a child better. They don’t ensure better outcomes from a health perspective; and certainly they don’t build the economy. In fact, many of those extreme issues . . . work against us in terms of our economic prosperity. If you go back and look at the CNBC article on the best places to do business, one of the things they are looking at are the extreme laws. They’re looking at the environment of the culture that (government) creates. And when you operate on the perimeter like that, on the fringes of where the masses of people are, you tend to turn (big business) off.”
For clarity, Wilson was referencing Louisiana’s showing as 49th in the CNBC’s “Top States for Business,” a ranking released in July that weighed all 50 states in the nation on a number of factors, including life, health and inclusion as well as workforce, education, infrastructure, the cost of doing business, the cost of living and access to capital.
A Heart for Service and New Orleans:
Getting to Know Shawn Wilson
On the campaign trail Wilson talks as much about the strides made by his former boss as he does about forging his own path.
“Coming from a deficit of $2 billion to having a surplus, having made the progress that we’ve made in the world of education, healthcare, infrastructure, just the way we have delivered services for people,” he says.
In fact, the work accomplished under Edwards was one of the things that propelled Wilson to run.
“After these last seven years serving as secretary at the Department of Transportation, I looked at what we were able to accomplish. Then I looked across the field of candidates and saw no one that gave me any inspiration or comfort. Being a public servant, as I’ve been for virtually all of my life, I thought long and hard about being true to that calling. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? And if not here, then where? And I came to the conclusion that the best way for me to continue that kind of work and to protect the work that we’ve done was to run.”
And while that explains why Wilson decided to retire from DOTD to run for governor, it does not detail what led him on the path of public service.
Maybe it started when he was elected president of the third grade student council at McDonogh 32 School or student council president at O. Perry Walker High School. Perhaps it was the high school summer breaks spent volunteering at F. Edward Hebert Hospital, helping patients. Community has been a big part of Wilson’s life for as long as he can remember, he says.
Wilson was able to spend his time volunteering, instead of getting a job; but his family was not rich. In fact, as a high school student, he qualified for Upward Bound, a U.S. Department of Education program designed to increase the college readiness of students from low-income families.
He attended Upward Bound at Loyola University the summer after he graduated from high school, then headed to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to major in nursing.
The plan was simple — get an education, find a wife and a good paying job.
Then things changed. His father and grandmother died at about the same time, he says, adding that it was an ordeal that made him realize a career in healthcare was not for him.
“I decided I didn’t want to work with people at the what might be the end of their lives. I would much rather help build a better life for them while they can enjoy it. And so I changed my major to urban and regional planning. That is where I was able to thrive and really be in the community.”
During his final year at ULL, Wilson was elected president of the student government association.
“I had an opportunity to be the only student member to the board of trustees governing all universities in the (University of Louisiana System), And so that was 60 percent of (Louisiana’s college) students, and I was their only student representative and voice on the board.
That experience taught him a lot about government, he says. He earned his bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning in 1993 and landed a job with the city of Lafayette in the planning department. He later returned to ULL to work, teaching a class and overseeing student organizations.
After that was a stint under as executive director of the Louisiana Serve Commission, an umbrella agency that oversaw AmeriCorps, City Year, Teach for America and other national service programs that deployed volunteers in the state. At the time, the Louisiana Serve Commission operated under the office of then Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco. And when Blanco ran for governor, Wilson made a move too, working on her campaign.
“She wins, and I become her deputy legislative director, doing transportation policy for her as well.”
Then Wilson joined DOTD, working directly under the department’s secretary, first as the confidential assistant, then chief of staff.
It’s now some time in 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits, followed shortly by Hurricane Rita; and everything that happens next, including Wilson’s work at DOTD, pretty much centers around rebuilding parts of the state devastated by the two storms.
Blanco decides not to run for re-election, But Wilson remains in his position at DOTD as chief of staff, working through Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two-term administration. Then, in 2015, John Bel Edward’s is elected governor; and, in 2016, he taps Wilson to serve as secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development, where he remained for another seven years before retiring in February 2023.
Oh, yeah, along the way, he also earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in public administration from Southern University; raised a son and a daughter with Rocki, his wife of 27 years; actively volunteered and served on the boards of several organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Acadiana, the United Way, ULL’s Alumni Association and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; and became a grandfather of two.
Wilson is proud of his work as DOTD secretary — not just the roads, bridges and other infrastructure improvements, but the efforts to expand opportunity and grow the economy for all.
“When I started, my budget was $1.4 billion, and less than eight percent of our work was going to women and minority-owned companies. By the time I left, the budget grew from $1.4 billion to $3.4 billion. And we had exceeded 15.8 percent and had set the new goal to be 16.4 percent. So over that time, we actually increased the size of the pie and increased the slice of pie that was going to minority and women-owned businesses. That to me is how you create economic opportunity.”
And while he resides in Lafayette and worked in Baton Rouge in a position that has required him to travel across the state, Wilson wants the voters of New Orleans to know that this his still home for him, he says.
His mother, Sandra Wilson still lives in the Algiers house where she raised him. He still has family, friends and connections across the metro area. He still has a heart for New Orleans.
“No one is going to care about this city as much as I do,” he says. “This is where I grew up. This is the biggest city between Houston and, I would say, Orlando in terms of all that we offer. We can’t ignore what this place is and what it does for our state budget, what it does for our national reputation.”
He continues, “And I recognize the value that (New Orleans) contributes to the rest of the state when in fact others in this race tend to reject that. Look no further than the fights that you’ve seen led by the attorney general at the bond commission to stop investments and bonding for Sewerage & Water Board projects over issues with the district attorney (over abortion policy). It doesn’t make sense. Look at his rhetoric on public safety and crime and gun violence, then look at his actions. We have to take care of this city; and that is what I’m committed to doing, working with local leaders, working with your sheriff, your police chief, your district attorney, your judges, your faith-based leaders and your educators to do what right for children. The the stakes are high in this race. And if we are deceived, if we are fooled by rhetoric — we’re going to be in trouble.”