Stephen Handwerk – Democratic Party Strategist and Managing Partner of Garrison Strategies

Stephen Handwerk, longest-serving Executive Director for the Louisiana Democratic party (2012 – 2020) and currently the Managing Partner of Garrison Strategies, met with Jan Swift of Discover Lafayette to talk about today’s political climate. Taylor Marie Swift, Jan’s daughter, also joined in the discussion, bringing the perspective of a young, Independent voter in Louisiana.

During Stephen’s tenure at the Louisiana Democratic Party office, the state party more than quadrupled its fundraising totals and vastly expanded its operational staff. Of note, they won two Gubernatorial races with the successful election and re-election of Governor John Bel Edwards.

Stephen brings more than 20 years of experience fighting for Democratic values at the local, state, and national level, including 6 years serving as Co-Chair of the National Stonewall Democrats PAC.

He lives in Lafayette with his husband of two decades and their two Great Danes – Whiskey and Mojito.

We taped this episode a few days after the siege on the U. S. Capitol, something we never would have dreamed possible when we scheduled the interview a month prior.

Stephen Handwerk joined Discover Lafayette’s Jan Swift and her daughter, Taylor Marie Swift, speaking of current political events that have shaken our nation.

During this week, President Donald J. Trump was impeached by the U. S. House of Representatives for the second time, something that has never happened in the history of the United States.

Handwerk made no bones about it; he feels that the country will not be able to heal and move on unless Trump is held accountable for his actions in inciting the siege on the U. S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the day that Congress met to approve the Electoral College votes confirming the election of Joseph Biden as our next President.

Trump supporters fight security officers at the U. S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Photo by Roberto Schmidt of Getty Images

The repercussions are great as not only are some people blaming Trump for the riot, but Trump staffers are facing the prospect of not getting jobs as they move on from the current administration, and several large corporations have backed off of giving political contributions to the elected officials who opposed the Electoral College vote affirmation.

Past Democratic elections which came up short led the party to research how they could ensure it would not happen again. With COVID, Democrats couldn’t go door to door speaking with voters, but Democrats reached out to get more people to register to vote and get involved.

We spoke of the razor-close race between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 where Gore conceded quickly after he lost his challenge at the Supreme Court hearing. Additionally,Handwerk recalled the gracious concession speeches made by statesmen such as John McCain and Mitt Romney when they lost their Presidential races, “calling to our better angels and holding people accountable for a world where we can look for ways to agree on ‘what we agree on.'”

The national Democratic Party has a well-defined platform that helps the average working man and woman: adopting a $15 minimum wage by 2026, addressing climate change, fighting the COVID pandemic, and other issues that impact the day to day lives of the average citizen. In contrast, the national Republican Party did not adopt a national platform in 2020 but fell back upon principles of the 2016 Platform.

Demographics in Louisiana have shifted in voting tendencies in the past few years. While Democrats used to represent the majority of registered voters in Louisiana, they have slipped a bit. Today, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website, 1,254,915 people are registered as Democratics; 1,030,291 people are registered as Republicans, and 819,336 people are registered as “Other.”

“America is so great because we have a democracy. That’s why people come here. They’re still coming here, even though we still have things to improve upon. My little sister just turned 22 and I want her to be excited about the political process. My dad feels that the Republican Party can return to its core values.” Taylor Marie Swift

Handwerk says that Democrats see things on a more conservative bent on the national level (such as Supreme Court selections), but not so much on the local level when they assess their favorite candidates. They tend to vote for their candidate based upon the conversations they have with the person, and not strictly based upon the candidate’s party registration.

An interesting example brought up by Stephen is Jefferson Parish, a traditionally Republican stronghold of voters that is leaning more and more Democratic. Stephen jokingly stated, “I never thought I would see Democrats be able to claim Jefferson Parish as a Blue Parish! But guess what’s happening??” On the other hand, the rural parishes are turning much more crimson, dark red. Those individuals tend to be working-class, blue-collar workers and traditionally associated with the Democratic party; now, we’ve seen the shift in social issues pull them into the base of the Republican party. Stephen believes there is an opportunity now for the Democratic party to tap into that group and pull them back into voting for Democrats on election day.

In Louisiana, Democrats are being elected in local areas on the School Boards, City Councils….they are “building their bench, getting them into the mix, to build their base and teach them tools to build their base.” That is a lot of the work that Stephen does. The opportunities are great for highly educated candidates in affluent suburbs located throughout Louisiana. The large cities are also seeing Democratic mayors being elected.

“When you get pulled away from your core values, you lose your stronghold. As George W. Bush used to say (and I’m not a fan!), ‘You may not always agree with me, but you’ll always know where I stand. That was earth-shattering and something I still try to get candidates to understand. If you have a core set of values that you live by and model, everything else will be easy. As the Republican Party has gotten away from that……all of a sudden voters started seeing the challenge to the credulity of the Republican candidates. That allowed Donald Trump to come in” and for people to follow him.”

Im hopeful that the Republican Party uses this as a time to go back to their core principles and get rid of the cult of personality. Quite frankly, the Democratic Party needs that, so we can get back to conversations about values.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards’ positions on “right to life” and “gun rights” have stayed consistent throughout his political life, and he has stayed true to his core values even though in opposition to the Democratic party platform. While Stephen and other Democrat activists may not have agreed with the governor on these issues, they backed his candidacy; they realized that he would be able to lead the party in the expansion of Medicaid benefits in Louisiana and he has also shown strong leadership during crises such as the various hurricanes and the COVID shutdown.

President-Elect Biden is bringing in a core of senior, proven leadership into his Cabinet, and many people are hoping to see a new generation of young leaders come to the forefront. Stephen spoke of the dynamic leadership of Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris, as well as upcoming young leaders such as newly elected U. S. Senator John Ossoff from Georgia and U. S. Rep. Katie Porter from California.

In closing, Stephen and Taylor spoke of the importance of investing in our children and our schools, as well as our local communities. It’s important for our local elected officials to be accountable in the use of tax monies and two recent successful tax votes were discussed: the Lafayette Parish Airport tax (where an additional sales tax was collected for an eight-month period and dedicated to the building of our new airport terminal and parking) and an increased millage proposed by the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff (who made a covenant with the voters to use 90% of the collections to be used exactly as he promised.) The LUS Fiber initiative, led by past LUS Director Terry Huval, is another good example of our community coming together, on a nonpartisan basis, to accomplish good for the community by ushering in a high-speed digital network owned by the community. Great things can happen when people from all backgrounds find common ground.

We thank Stephen Handwerk for his commitment to bettering our state and nation. May this year, 2021, be the start of a new beginning for health and civil discourse!