Fixing the charter was no fluke. It’s proof that positivity can work in politics.

Fix the Charter supporters Photo by Travis Gauthier

Back in May, Kevin Blanchard, my frequent collaborator and co-founder of the Fix the Charter PAC, wrote an essay for this publication about the aftermath of the just-failed library tax. The problem, Kevin wrote then, was not that the library tax had failed. The real problem was the dysfunctional public debate about the issue: very little substance, but plenty of angry social media posts, deliberate half-truths, and almost no institutional leadership.

His point then was that we share the same core values, but we have different priorities. He made sure to remind us that having different priorities is OK, but that the difference in those priorities is what has made governing so difficult in our consolidated form of government.

And so in that editorial, Kevin proposed that we acknowledge that our priorities differ and create representation to reflect that fact of life — in short, that we fix the charter. But it isn’t his call to “fix the charter” that I want to discuss. It’s what he wrote next:

But I have reservations about where this conversation is heading right now because we have been lousy at tough discussions as of late. Fixing the charter is going to be a complicated task, if we don’t figure out how to talk with each other — face-to-face, not through secret PACs — then we are in trouble…

If we are going to tackle fixing consolidation, then it’s going to require more of us and more of our leadership. We will have to be able to empathize with each other’s different circumstances and accept each other’s different priorities.

We can’t split up into tribes — into us and the others. We can’t defer our civic responsibility to secret PACs, and we can’t mistrust each other’s values.

We were told early on that it would be impossible to get the different factions on the council to get the charter amendments onto the ballot. Once it was on the ballot, supportive but skeptical political veterans told us they didn’t think the voters would approve. And who could blame the skeptics? This was a task that tackled the problem of “shared values but different priorities” head on. Previous attempts fell short where they devolved into “us versus them” debates.

And so we made sure this campaign focused on shared values while acknowledging the appropriateness of having different priorities. And the voters responded to that.

We clearly communicated the issue and defined the strong policy case for city autonomy and parish focus. That helped build our coalition, which truly was a “big tent.”

We formed a transparent PAC to build trust and accountability. Our donors were all willing to place their names to our cause — whether it was a $20 donation or a $5,000 donation.

It was a productive debate. And in the end, the amendment passed. But even if it had not, my hope is that the positive nature of the Fix the Charter campaign could be an example.

Too often today, people are afraid to associate themselves with “politics,” but we made a concerted effort to stay relentlessly positive and on message to help create a safe place to be involved — because our community needs people involved. It was OK to disagree with us. We learned from those disagreements. I loved listening to a two-hour “debate” between Kevin and Andy Hebert on KPEL Radio, in which he and Andy disagreed for two hours without one time being disagreeable.

Sure, there was plenty of negativity and the occasional conspiracy theory, but it was limited in large part to online anonymity. Voters are smarter than that. There is never a productive reason to join them on the low road.

We made a point of addressing concerns head on. None of us relished being on opposite sides with the mayor-president, but when he raised questions, we were ready with focused answers that underscored our platform.

People stepped up. Veteran voices entered the conversation to lend their wisdom. And new voices were heard.

It was a productive debate. And in the end, the amendment passed. But even if it had not, my hope is that the positive nature of the Fix the Charter campaign could be an example.

Now there are plenty of people who watched the campaign and have their own political analysis from Saturday’s results: A well-meaning but fragile coalition. A city uprising. Low turnout. Consider this publication’s analysis: “Fix the Charter’s real achievement is its cobbled confederation of Reaganites, Bernie Bros and whatever is in between.”

We have been criticized for being naïve in the past, and I suspect we will be in the future, but we don’t buy the cynical explanations. The positive outcome from this Saturday is the result of having a strong vision that identifies with our community’s core values, building a team of folks who share those core values even if they don’t share the same priorities, and then staying positive and disciplined.

We put our civic duty to Lafayette ahead of our tribe membership. We worked with and trusted people who usually vote differently from us. That is what it means to be a community. And it doesn’t take a magic formula for that. It takes discipline. It takes communication. It takes determination. It takes leadership.

So many of the 200-plus volunteers who joined us over the last few months have asked what’s next. The most immediate opportunity seems to be the decisions necessitated by the charter amendment approval. We will have elections for two brand new councils. The budget process this year will involve a budget that will be in place when those new councils take office. There’s plenty of work to do, and we’re just getting started.  

But we hope that the Fix the Charter movement demonstrated that, no matter what’s next — so long as we empathize, not demonize, those who disagree with us; so long as we identify what we have in common and be OK with what makes us different; so long as we put what’s best for Lafayette ahead of our political tribe — we can finally accomplish the things that reflect our values and make progress toward our priorities.