In 1969, a state-mandated consent decree desegregated the school system in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Forty years later, continuing conflict over that desegregation effort in the city — evenly split between Black and white residents — inspired a young Davante Lewis’ first foray into public service.
His high school was strapped for cash and required much-needed funds for repairs and improvements, but wealthy, white residents fought against any money for the school because of its large Black population, he says. Lewis “took real offense” to the rhetoric he heard at the time: that he and his Black neighbors, who were bussed into the school, did not deserve investment. He’d end up dedicating his senior year of high school to securing the funding.
Earlier this month, just 12 years removed from his first taste of public service, Lewis became the first Black openly LGBTQ person elected to office in Louisiana and the first LGBTQ person elected to a state-level office in Louisiana’s history when he won a seat on the state’s Public Service Commission. In all, he’s the second Black openly LGBTQ person elected to a state constitutional office in U.S. history.
After winning his runoff election, the Democrat will be on the board in charge of regulating private utilities responsible for providing basic services like electricity, water, and internet services across the state’s Black belt between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, representing the commission’s only majority-Black district. His duties include helping set consumer electricity rates and overseeing efforts to make the state’s electrical grid hurricane-ready.
Louisiana is one of 11 states where utility regulators are elected, and his position is one of unique importance. Not only is Lewis serving the state’s largest Black population, his district is also home to the country’s largest concentration of oil and gas plants. With the scientifically proven impact of oil and gas production on climate change and the disparate impact climate disasters have on Louisiana’s coasts, Lewis is hoping to turn the tide away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy production, including wind and solar farms. The state ranks 50th in the country for renewable energy production.
His campaign, which defeated 18-year Democratic incumbent Lambert Boissiere III, thrived on connecting climate change and environmental justice to all the things that Louisianans need to survive: clean air, water, and safe and affordable shelter. He says he’ll work to strengthen the state’s electric grid against storms, build out solar and wind power, and make sure minority residents aren’t being overburdened with fees and high utility bills.
Before Lewis’ term begins in 2023, Capital B caught up with the Gulf Coast native to learn more about his goals, what drives his passions, and why Louisiana is “ground zero” for climate and environmental justice.
Capital B: I always love to start at the beginning; there are always pivotal moments that bring people into public service. What was that moment for you?
Davante Lewis: I really had my moment bringing me to public service as a high school student. My school had become overpopulated and needed some serious capital improvements. They needed to build a ninth-grade campus and improve the auditorium, but my school was on the white side of the city. So there was a lot of angst among property owners that they would not vote for the bond for the school’s capital improvements unless they did something about the overpopulation that many of them were attributing to our desegregation order.
At the time, the president of the school board was the former principal of my high school, and he tried to convince me to be the face of reversing this policy. He said, “Well, for a student like you, you would have been an exception to the rule because you are needed here at this school.” And I took real offense to that. I said, Well, what about my sister? What about my cousins? He goes, “Well, you know what? Davante, if you care so much, you know so much about things. Why don’t you make the rules?”
You are the first openly LGBTQ politician elected to a state-level office, and the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to any office in state history. That is mind-boggling to hear in 2022. What reaction do you feel when you hear that fact?
I’ve always said our diversity is our strength and our experiences should be valued, but my campaign wasn’t really rooted in those experiences. My point is I want to be at the table in an inclusive way and not at the table because I’m a diversity choice.
I’m hoping my win showcases that you can win when you run as yourself and just talk about the things that really bring us together. I’m not trying to lessen the movement or the moment, but I also wanted to share that it wasn’t central to my campaign. It wasn’t a hidden fact, either.
To your point, the Public Service Commission is the perfect place to “bring us together” because everyone wants clean and affordable energy and water. Can you share how a public service commissioner works to do that?
Our public service commissioners in Louisiana regulate our utilities, sewerage, water, broadband, and telecommunication, but it also included trucking and railroads at one point in time. In Louisiana, we are probably the most powerful utility commission simply because we are elected and only a few states elect utility commissioners. We are a constitutionally created body of the executive branch, meaning the legislature cannot constitutionally govern us, so it puts a lot of power in our hands. We’re constantly regulating out monopoly. We are talking about the push for renewable energy and how much renewable energy we create.
I strongly believe that utilities are a human right and that access to fresh air, clean water, a cool house in the summer, and a warm house in the winter should be counted as a right. As a public service commissioner, I get to help make that a reality.
One of the issues that was at the center of your election cycle was the idea of corruption and energy companies basically buying support from the commission. What do you think are the values and detriments of this being an elected position in Louisiana in that regard?
I think the value of it is that the appointment process can be convoluted. In some states, they’re appointed by the governor, and in other states are appointed by the legislature, so it keeps it very insular and out of the public eye. The beauty of having an election system is that, as I said, I strongly believe that utilities are a human right, and being accountable to voters allows us to put these issues at the forefront.
The flip side is that most people don’t know anything about what a utility regulator does. It’s not as [personal] as electing your mayor or your senator that you can directly see the benefits from, which means a lot of the campaign contributions at this point typically come from the entities who have stakes in the regulation world. So the downside is for most elections, excluding mine, whoever utility companies have backed behind typically wins the election.
You’ve mentioned how utilities are a human right. Can you speak to the importance behind accelerating Louisiana’s clean energy production to help solidify some of those rights?
Louisiana is ground zero when it comes to environmental justice and climate change. We are right off the Gulf and very much prone to hurricanes that are getting stronger, and we know the oil and gas industry that has been the bulk of Louisiana for so long is contributing to that. So when we think about the transition to clean energy, most importantly now, it is cheaper to get your energy from solar and wind than gas, and in the end, it’s also healthier.
I will be representing a district that has been nicknamed worldwide as “Cancer Alley” because of our high cancer rates. In my district, if you are Black, you are seven to 21 times more likely to be exposed to air pollution than any other place in our state. We’re home to the most petrochemical plants in the nation. So the Black and brown people that I represent deserve a change. They deserve their bills to be more affordable. In my district, residents are paying 30 to 40% more than the average Louisiana resident because we depend on fossil fuels and not using renewable energy. So for me, the shift is about the health of our state’s economy, people, and power grid.
As you mentioned, across the country, Black residents are paying more for energy despite being more energy efficient than white residents. What will be the impact of lowering that energy payment gap?
Absolutely. I think one of the things that we have to talk about more often is how intertwined economic justice and environmental justice are. We know most petrochemical plants are located in Black and brown communities. We know nuclear and wastewater plants are always more likely to be in a Black and brown area, and we know that is because of the economic status of Black and brown people. Half of my district is one life circumstance away, one flat tire away, and one higher-than-normal electricity bill away from being pushed into deep poverty and homelessness.
The clean energy shift is not just some debate among climate professors; this is a debate about whether or not people can afford to put food on their table and whether they keep the lights on. Just a few days ago, in New Orleans, we lost a 73-year-old woman whose house caught on fire because she had to create a makeshift heater in her home because her utilities were cut off for nonpayment. That’s disastrous.
For me, I think about our energy and economic system as a way that shows how much of our state still operates on a plantation slave mentality, how much of that rooted white supremacy and racism still exist, and how it is intertwined into our environmental and climate policy.
With Louisiana being “ground zero” for climate and environmental justice, what would that energy shift in Louisiana mean for the rest of the country?
If Louisiana can do it, so can everybody else. Our entire social and economic ecosystem is based on our environment: our sugar cane, our rice farms, our produce, our sports, and our wetlands. So if our water is contaminated because we’re not using renewable energy and we still have oil spills, that’s our food, entertainment, and livelihoods being impacted.
The importance of us making this transition in Louisiana is that it’s a beacon of opportunity for other states. It showcases that in the place that so many people are saying is the hardest place to make that transition, it is possible.