The first time I voted was November 2, 2004. I was 18 years old. I didn’t know a lot about the world, even though I thought I knew everything. What I did know was that I believed in John Kerry, even though back then John Edwards was who I thought should have had the top of the ticket. Oh how time proved to us Kerry was the right guy, but locally I was Kipnotized.
Baton Rouge had a shining moment the day we elected, Melvin “Kip” Holden, Baton Rouge’s first black mayor. I proudly voted for Mayor Holden. My dad told me stories about how Kip use to fight for the black people. How he was from Scotlandville, where I grew up in my early childhood, and how he would change Baton Rouge if given the chance. I believed in Kip.
In 2008, I voted for Kip Holden, I saw the work he had done getting new businesses to come to Baton Rouge. I saw that he was serious about making downtown better, which I saw no issue with. Every great city should have a great downtown. I watched how Katrina took Baton Rouge from what seemed like the minor leagues to the majors overnight. I saw some missteps in comments Kip made about citizens from New Orleans moving into Baton Rouge that concerned me, but still I stuck with him.
During Kip’s second term in office my life started to change. I started a family, got married, had a baby, started my first business and began to see more of what it really takes to make it in life. I began to see that although Baton Rouge had a black mayor, we as black people had not really changed as far as progress because of it. The Metro Council then, just like today, was majority white. The district lines are drawn so that it is hard as steel for a black person to win a majority on the council. So I felt like, Kip can only do so much.
In 2012, I voted for Kip again. By this time we were starting The Rouge Collection, my second business. My partners and I saw the need for diversity in media in Baton Rouge and we got in the game. We jumped out attempting to build the bridge between the black and white communities, we got an office space on Perkins Road, right down from Perkins Rowe, we spent thousands of dollars trying to get in the mix. Only to find out, that just because we had a 3 term black mayor, didn’t mean that blacks were getting a fair seat at the table.
I began to pause and look at my city and question where we are going. I looked at the projects that Kip Holden worked on as mayor and although they have been great for Baton Rouge’s image, they have not been great for blacks. Many may disagree with me, but assimilation is the worst thing to ever happen in the black community. It made us migrate to “greener pastures” and neglect our own in the process. So we just like in times of slavery have been plowing fields that yield us no harvest. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that it was the right thing to do, but we as a black community have suffered from not building our own wealth.
I prayed long and hard about this decision. I made phone calls and talked to friends and family, before I decided to write this editorial, because I know some simply won’t understand. As a black man I struggle to say this publicly because I believe with everything in me, that black people should stick together. I simply believe that this time, Kip proved what I’ve thought for years.
On Wednesday The Rouge Collection hosted a forum at Southern University and Mayor Holden and Billy Nungesser came to discuss their plans if elected to the seat of Lt. Governor of our state. Being a black man in media, I felt it is my job to ask Mayor Holden about the lack of business growth in North Baton Rouge. Some would say I should have given him a pass, but the reality is, Baton Rouge has progressed but blacks as a whole, have not. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation released it’s data for median income in Baton Rouge. Blacks earn an average income of $39,000 compared to whites earning $90,000. Is this the fault of the mayor? Not completely. Can the mayor do things to shift the needle and close this gap? Certainly.
At the forum I asked Mayor Holden, “You’ve been mayor of Baton Rouge for now 11 years, and much of Baton Rouge has developed, on the other side of what I call the Mason Dixon line of Baton Rouge, South of Florida Blvd. For African Americans who have not seen the same level of economic development for North Baton Rouge, if we haven’t seen if for us now, why should we expect to see it as Lt. Governor?” Mayor Holden responded by saying, “Well I’m going to give you a tour, so you can see that what you’re saying is not correct. If a person lives here and gets a job at IBM is that a crime, no.” He went on to say, “When we go out and recruit jobs to come to this state there is not a color line there at all.”
I pressed Mayor Holden, because he didn’t address the lack of economic development in North Baton Rouge. I said, “Right here on Harding Blvd. we have hotels, like in downtown, but we don’t even have sidewalks for those who stay there to walk to local businesses, some black owned if they choose to stay there. South Baton Rouge has Perkins Rowe, and other developments, why haven’t we seen the same type of developments?” Mayor Holden’s response is what troubled me most. Mayor Holden said, “You don’t have investors that are willing to invest in this part of town.”
He then went on to, in a rather disgruntled tone, tell me about sidewalks in Zion City, an area of town that hasn’t seen any economic development in years, but has new sidewalks. I understand what Mayor Holden is saying about it being a struggle to get investors to invest in the other side of town. I also believe that’s what we elected him to do.
Had Mayor Holden simply said, “You know as Mayor, we have done some great things, but we could have done better in North Baton Rouge, as Lt. Governor, I’m going to do my best to work with concerned citizens and help make that impact in the black communities in our state.” I could have continued to support him. That isn’t what he did though. He basically passed the buck, and didn’t admit that he could have done more. He appeared to be angry that I asked him about the issue.
I endorsed Mayor Holden in the primary, but after his responses to issues in our community, I just can’t do it again. I cannot vote for him, if he can’t admit that he could have done more to help build North Baton Rouge. How could he have done more? The city awards millions of dollars in city contracts, black firms get little of that money. Why does it matter the color of the firm owner? Black owned businesses is how we create potential investors in North Baton Rouge. I gave Mayor Holden a pass on Wednesday night, because I didn’t want to battle a man I greatly respect, but in the last month, I’ve seen contracts go to firms that don’t have any minorities employed in leadership. When you hire black firms, you create black wealth, and creating black wealth is how we get development in North Baton Rouge. It’s not like blacks aren’t paying taxes that create the money that is given out in contracts, but we are simply not getting our share.
So if we didn’t get it while he was mayor, and he defends his record on that issue, I just can’t support him anymore. Mayor Holden talked about blacks being able to get jobs in Baton Rouge, which I agree we can get employed. We are not however growing our wealth. You don’t grow wealth working for other people, you grow it by working for yourself and creating new jobs for others. The truth of the matter is blacks are under employed and underpaid, because the majority of us, work for firms that don’t look like us. So when the dollar value is on the table, we are worth less than someone of another race. It’s the way of the world, I don’t expect to completely change that. I want us to build our own, and with the help of those we elected we can create black wealth, by making sure when the pie is cut on contracts and development, that we get a fair share.
Blacks in Baton Rouge make up too great a number of the population for our communities to look the way they do. We have to do our part, but we cannot deny, that people like Mayor Holden could have done more. If he would have simply said, I could have done better in North Baton Rouge, I would have been able to swallow the issue and cast my ballot. But to sit in a room full of black people, to hear the response of the audience in agreement with the question, and still defend what is crystal clear, I just can’t support any longer.
I have been told that the Mayor doesn’t take too kindly to someone speaking against him, so I don’t expect he will call and try to sit down. Many black leaders have not responded well to me speaking the truth on issues, but I can’t be silent while our community suffers. It’s not enough just to cast our vote. We must cast our vote with confidence.
I’m voting for Billy Nungesser on November 21st. I asked Mr. Nungesser some questions which you can see in the video, but what I left the forum feeling about Mr. Nungesser is we will have a chance to have a seat at the table and work toward progress. I left disappointed in Mayor Holden.
They say old habits are hard to break, and this one truly was hard for me. I believe we as blacks have got to stop just voting for democrats just because they are democrats. We have got to start working with those who will advance our community. Mayor Holden has shown he is not willing to help us grow black businesses in Baton Rouge.
The chief job of the Lt. Governor is to help tourism and help create jobs. We need someone that will make sure we are at the table and I believe Billy Nungesser is going to do that. Kip has the personality, but he can’t admit he didn’t get it done in North Baton Rouge other than some sidewalks. I want to see black wealth grow, and I’m willing to sit at the table with those who are willing to help us do that. Not with those who will deny they had the chance to do more, and still expect us to support them. I just can’t do that. As difficult as this decision was for me, I know in my heart after prayer and discussion it’s the right choice. Hopefully no matter the outcome, Mayor Holden and I can sit down together and look at the future and how to work together to accomplish these things. Only time will tell. I hope you will consider joining me in voting for Nungesser, I just believe we have a better shot with him.