He Made Louisiana History. Now He Wants to Change the State’s Climate Future.

He Made Louisiana History. Now He Wants to Change the State’s Climate Future.

He Made Louisiana History. Now He Wants to Change the State’s Climate Future.

Davante Lewis is the first Black, openly LGBTQ person ever elected to office in Louisiana. Now he wants to turn a fossil fuel hub into a green energy giant.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

You’re going to see me,” Davante Lewis told the crowd.

It was late February, and Lewis was speaking to a classroom-sized group that had gathered in a senior center in St. James Parish, a rural stretch of southeast Louisiana along a generous bend of the Mississippi River. The occasion was a Black History Month celebration hosted by Inclusive Louisiana, an environmental justice nonprofit fighting the extractive industry and led by Black elders in the parish. Nearby, a dense matrix of petrochemical facilities crowded the riverbank, towering over homes, schools, and fields soon to be thick with corn and sugarcane. This area is just one part of an 85-mile industrial corridor widely known as Cancer Alley. That grim moniker, and the environmental hazards it conjures up, came about because of the actions—or inactions—of generations of absent politicians and regulators.

Lewis, 31, intends to break that mold—and he’s in a good position to do so, because he is now a Louisiana public service commissioner—one of just five elected officials tasked with overseeing utilities across the state. Moreover, he is a break from the past in some very literal ways. He is the first openly LGBTQ person elected to a statewide office in Louisiana, and the first Black LGBTQ person elected to any political office in the state, at any level.

As the room quieted, Lewis elaborated. He pledged to have regular town halls and quarterly pop-up offices across the parish and the rest of his district, which spans parts of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the parishes between both cities, along the river. He promised to be back in the spring, before hurricane season. He said that people could come to him with problems with their utility bills, and that he would help them sort things out. He would even ring up the electric utility Entergy Louisiana, which he now regulates.

“We can get on the phone together. ‘Let’s call Entergy right now and get this situation solved,”’ he said. “Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends.”

There was excitement in the crowd. “I love the idea of satellite offices in the parish,” said Jo Banner, a founder of the Descendants Project, a group currently fighting the building of a nearby grain elevator. “It’s so important for our community. I’m just really pleased to see that he’s engaged and shows up.”

Lewis pointed out to his audience that the Public Service Commission is partially culpable for the toxic fumes that blanket Cancer Alley, which are linked to higher cancer risk. While the commission doesn’t have the direct authority to prevent companies like the ones in Cancer Alley from setting up shop in the state, it does regulate the state’s fossil-fuel-dependent electricity grid. When the grid falters, he noted, petrochemical plants often resort to flaring, burning off excess gas and chemicals as the operation moves offline. It’s a familiar site across St. James Parish, the torch-like flames rising unpredictably from narrow stacks, and it has mostly been allowed to continue unabated by the regulators.“So, we can’t just hold industrial users accountable,” Lewis told the audience. “We have to hold the utility companies accountable, right?”

Lewis was elected last December. The need to hold utility companies accountable—both for the sake of environmental justice and to meet Louisiana’s climate goals—drew many people to his campaign, in which he managed to push the typically under-the-radar post into the spotlight and ultimately cruised to a 20-point victory over the 18-year incumbent Lambert Boissiere III.

He was assisted by a wide-ranging movement of activists and grassroots organizations, such as the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance and Sunrise New Orleans, who were moved by his promise to affordably transition to a renewable, resilient grid. He also gained the support of hundreds of current and formerly incarcerated people with the local nonprofit VOTE, hopeful that he’d lower phone rates in jails and prisons—another area that falls under the scope of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Lewis did all of this while also calling for a Green New Deal in one of the largest oil and gas states. His victory has created a feasible climate majority on Louisiana’s Public Service Commission—not quite a decisive majority, but a realistic path for moving the state’s energy grid to renewables, supported by three out of five commissioners.

Now, just a few months into the job, Lewis is already taking a new approach to his role of commissioner—by routinely engaging constituents, drawing people into the often behind-the-scenes process of utility regulation. Along with upcoming town halls and satellite offices across his stretch of southeast Louisiana, he reminds people on social media of the monthly Public Service Commission meetings. He shares recaps of the meeting and explains why he voted the way he did, inviting questions. He welcomes people to DM him on Instagram or Twitter, shoot an e-mail, or just swing by his office to talk. This may sound like what an elected official is supposed to do: actively represent their constituents. Yet it’s rare for anyone, in any state, to know the names of their utility regulator, let alone what they do, or how to reach them. Lewis aims to change that.

Utility regulators across the United States tend to operate in relative obscurity, while regulating the utilities—including water and electricity, which Lewis calls “human rights services”—that people need to live.

While it’s too early to assess Lewis’s progress on campaign goals, it’s already clear that he’s spent a lot of time engaging constituents, from environmental justice advocates to high school students to faith groups to utility associations. He plans to soon publish a regular log with all his meetings, for transparency. This public-facing approach draws from his background as an organizer, including his current work directing public affairs at the Louisiana Budget Project, advocating for low-income residents.

“What I’m really trying to do is open the lines of communication,” he told me at the end of February. “I was elected as a consumer protector, right? I cannot do that if I’m not deeply invested in my community.” Case in point: He spent this particular Saturday, an unseasonably warm day in February, meeting constituents at back-to-back events.

He said this while we weaved through a lively crowd of a few thousand people gathered in Baton Rouge’s capitol district, not far from where the monthly PSC meetings are held. Lewis helped sponsor the inaugural 225 Fest, a celebration of the city’s culture and food. Food trucks dished out colorful snow cones, “ lip smack’n good” lemonade, and wings lathered in sauce. Families lounged under sweeping oak trees. Local musicians performed on a makeshift stage, honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop. As Lewis passed the stage, the event’s emcee gave him a shout-out. “I can’t go anywhere,” he said, shaking his head, with a buoyant laugh. He was dressed practically, in a plaid shirt, white sneakers, cuffed jeans, and sunglasses that didn’t allow him to escape notice.

It quickly became clear that Lewis is already widely known, at least in his home of Baton Rouge, as he greeted a new person every few minutes—friends who told him to come over, a local college student who clasped his hand and said, “I believe in you,” and the city’s mayor, Sharon Weston Broome, who told me that Lewis’s “win certainly is representative of a grassroots effort.”

Lewis met Broome, who wasn’t involved in his campaign, at the beginning of his political career in 2009, as a high school student on the legislative youth advisory council, appointed to represent young voices in the state. He was also President Obama’s high school coordinator for Louisiana, encouraging students to join his presidential campaign.

As we meandered through the festival, Lewis recalled the election day this past December. His mother, who raised him by herself in Lake Charles, La., joined him to cast his vote and then later at Holy Ground, a bar owned by a friend in New Orleans, to watch the election with his team. As the early votes trickled in, he recalled thinking, “All right, something may be in the water here for us.” When the first Jefferson Parish votes came in, he turned to his mom and said, “I think we won this.” His team realized this too. “As the margin was getting bigger, we were all just like, “Oh my God, let’s have fun. We’re winning.”’

But things weren’t always so clear-cut. After originally endorsing Lewis, Louisiana’s Democratic Party decided to endorse his opponent, Boissiere, too. Later, it was revealed that utility companies, regulated by the PSC, donated $90,000 to state Democratic leaders, who funneled money into Boissiere’s campaign. The utilities also donated directly to Boissiere, which is part of what Lewis sees as the problem: regulators funded by the utility they regulate, prioritizing the utility’s profits over people’s health and safety.

Lewis didn’t accept any donations from utilities. His campaign was funded almost entirely by individual donations, including a surge of $111,000 from 243 donors across the country, in the span of just a month before the election. A PAC affiliated with the Environmental Defense Fund also campaigned for him, spending over $1 million.

Even with this exceptional level of prominence for a state utility official, Lewis met plenty of festival attendees who have never heard of him, including a woman recruiting for a nonprofit. She asked Lewis where he works, and he gave her the ready response: “I’m the guy that you elect to lower your energy bills.” She nodded approvingly. “Period. I’m going to need about 10 dollars off mine,” she said.

Lewis sees part of his job as having conversations like this, alerting people to his job’s very existence and demystifying the role of the PSC. When given enough time, he’ll go into what he calls the longer “TV preview” of his job, explaining how he ensures that “your power is sustainable, your power is reliable, and your power is affordable.”

Apart from utilities, the PSC, which consists of five officials holding six-year terms, also regulates water, telecommunication, sewage, gas, some pipelines, and intrastate transportation. Lewis sums up his job as protecting the human right to “having fresh air, clean water, a warm house in the winter and a cool house in the summer.” Louisiana’s PSC also has a major influence over the climate as the sole authority over state utilities, determining how quickly the grid will adopt renewables, or perpetuate fossil fuels. (It doesn’t regulate petrochemical production or permitting.)

Other commissioners don’t refer to utilities as human rights. It’s a subtle but radical reframing of the obligations of a utility commissioner. And it speaks to a broader existential question as utilities everywhere see a surge in climate-related outages, which Lewis raised: “How is the PSC governing in the 21st century? Are we equipped to govern in the 21st century?” A quick look around at the country’s utility failures in recent years—from the hundreds who died when the power failed during a Texas freeze to the 11 who died in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida knocked out power—would indicate that utilities are tragically lagging behind this century’s demands.

Lewis was among the more than 1 million people who lost power during Hurricane Ida in 2021, staying with a friend with a backup generator as temperatures rose. In the aftermath of the storm, utility bills across the state spiked, which Entergy attributed to “the rising cost of natural gas.” This was the final straw that pushed Lewis to run for the PSC. He launched a campaign that struck a chord with many who experienced this tragedy alongside him, and who knew the next grid-threatening storm is around the corner.

After a succession of greetings at the 225 Fest, we sat on a low-slung cement wall (when I asked if it was too low, Lewis assured me, “I’m short!”) to discuss his first steps in his larger vision of regulating with climate and racial justice in mind. So far, he has taken an initial step toward his campaign promise of lowering phone bills for inmates, charged up to $18 per hour in Louisiana by prison phone companies, regulated by the PSC. In February, in his first order as commissioner, he asked staff to review inmate phone rates and report back in April. “Human interaction to me is also a right,” he said. “I don’t believe we should be making money off of people trying to interact.”

As a “first and foremost” priority, Lewis says he plans to ask Louisiana’s Climate Initiatives Task Force to present the state’s 2022 climate plan to the commission. The state has a long way to go to reach its goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions, currently drawing just 4 percent of its electricity from renewables. “A lot of what the governor’s Climate Action Plan calls for are things that the PSC has to do,” said Lewis. For instance, the PSC can develop a renewable energy portfolio to regulate emissions reductions. The plan also asks the PSC to review net metering options, a budgeting scheme designed to compensate rooftop solar and small-scale solar generators. Lewis plans to bring both policies to the table.

“The legislature can’t force the utility company to go green. Only the PSC can do that,” said Lewis. “In terms of saying, ‘Hey, do I want 20 percent solar next year? That’s our authority.”

In other words, Louisiana doesn’t have a prayer of meeting its climate goals without the PSC’s deciding, under its distinct authority, to act on them. And while the PSC’s moving the utility grid to renewables is not guaranteed with Lewis’s win, it’s now more in the realm of possibility than ever before. “I would say that for the first time there is a more aggressive majority who believes in renewables,” said Lewis. “You have three votes where you can theoretically get yourself there [to renewables], but it’s not necessarily three solid votes.”

In theory, one of those votes comes from Foster Campbell, the only other Democrat on the commission, who has spoken openly about the need to move to renewables, explicitly noting the climate risks of fossil fuel dependency. The other comes from Craig Greene, a Republican commissioner in Baton Rouge, who has opened dockets on green tariffs to “bring renewable resources into Louisiana” and cheaper electricity options for consumers. These options include utilities purchasing off-grid renewables, which Lewis favors because the utilities would assume the financial risk rather than folding the costs into utility bills. He sees this as aligned with a just transition, moving to renewables while considering risks, like economic costs, for a wider vision of justice.

Another priority for Lewis is modernizing the grid for climate change. A 2021 investigation by ProPublica and NPR found that Entergy “failed to take the necessary steps to protect its customers against outages,” including before Hurricane Ida’s deadly extended power outage. As Lewis sees it, it wasn’t only Entergy’s fault. It’s also the fault of the company’s regulators. While the New Orleans City Council oversees Entergy New Orleans, the PSC oversees Entergy Louisiana. The latter owned a transmission tower that fell into the Mississippi River during Hurricane Ida, knocking out power in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. “That’s a cross-jurisdictional line, which means it’s Entergy Louisiana,” said Lewis. “The PSC was directly responsible for it.”

As we drove along the flat banks of the Mississippi River to his next event, Lewis noted that utility regulation isn’t always partisan. It’s often risk management. In Entergy’s case, he thinks that too much risk is often taken on by customers. “Who covered the cost of Ida? Every single ratepayer. Not a single dollar from their shareholders or their stocks,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a fair risk!” He’s upset at the thought of customers saddled with bills. He questions whether the utility company is cutting costs on grid maintenance to return more profits to shareholders—to the point of neglecting the transmission tower that collapsed two years ago.

This tragically outmoded system is what Lewis is up against now, and positioned to change if the other commissioners are on board. This is the other crowd Lewis will have to win over. “What I think will be most important is not just that a different voice is in that seat, but that he is able to work with his fellow commissioners to move things forward,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, who directs New Orleans’s Alliance for Affordable Energy. Lewis acknowledges that it might not be possible for him to move Louisiana all the way to 100 percent renewables, given that he is only one vote. The future of the grid is still far from determined.

But he plans to give it his best shot. And it’s the best shot Louisiana has had in a long while. “If this is the only term and the only office I hold in life, I’m going to make it the best,” he told me. Key to his vision is staying part of the crowd, a utility regulator for the people. “It’s not just a stepping stone. It’s life work,” he said, as the day of countless greetings drew to a close. “I’m connected to my people.”

Ad Policy
x