Who will pick up the torch?

By David Jacobs Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Progress Is… had potential to be a media-friendly grass-roots movement. The founders were young, photogenic, articulate and diverse. They had custom T-shirts in tasteful colors.

The organization also had the backing of Mayor Kip Holden’s administration. That might have been a mixed blessing, since it’s now associated with Holden in the public mind. The group formed last year around support for his second try at a bond proposal, but participants have always insisted they were about “progress,” however it might be defined, not any one issue or politician.

Since the $901 million capital improvements package went down in flames, the group has kept a low profile. The most recent post on its Facebook page was dated Aug. 19 and urged its 1,036 friends to support the downtown library, although it didn’t define exactly what “support” might mean. The page also included posts about Cape 2.0, an effort to drum up interest in the school board races. The night before, Holden had announced his intention to put forward a new bond proposal, but Progress Is… wasn’t talking about it yet, at least not publicly.

By the time Progress Is… came on the scene in 2009, A6, a community activist group formed in 2003, had significantly lowered its profile. A6 is perhaps best known for successfully pushing for term limits on parish boards and commissions and unsuccessfully pushing for a downtown entertainment district. By this year, the older group essentially was defunct.

A6 always prided itself on being willing to speak out against the establishment, and co-founders Mike Polito and Michael Trufant say finding younger leaders willing to do the same has proven difficult. Polito says A6’s biggest failure might have been its inability to pass the torch. But several local activists say they’ve noticed a growing movement for change in Baton Rouge, even if no one has exactly picked up the A6 bullhorn.

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There were discussions that Chad Ortte, Jared Loftus, Michael Lang and Chad Cornett could be the next generation of A6, but it wasn’t a good fit. A6 didn’t have a specific agenda that others could just pick up and run with. The group was defined by the personalities of its early members.

“Volunteer activist is a tough job,” Loftus says. “A6 was A6 because of those six.”

A6 had a combative relationship with the last Metro Council. As an independent entrepreneur, Loftus probably is in the best position to stick his neck out; Cornett works for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, and Lang and Ortte work in commercial real estate. In general, making enemies in high places might not be the smartest move for young professionals who haven’t entered their 30s.

Ortte is from Lafayette, while Cornett and Loftus are from Mississippi. It takes time to figure out how things work here, but they’re learning. When asked for specifics, Loftus says he’s learned “how to count to seven,” meaning seven out of 12 council members, and how parochial the council can be.

They stress there are more ways to get involved than politics: Cornett works with the Baton Rouge Film Commission, Loftus serves on the CATS board and Ortte serves on the Baton Rouge Green board of directors. They say change often comes organically, in small steps from the bottom up. Loftus says people he knows who work to change Baton Rouge tend not to be from Baton Rouge.

“There are so many things Baton Rouge is missing,” Ortte says. “To me, that was clearly the opportunity.”

Lobbyist Ryan Haynie has toyed with the idea of starting a nonpartisan group that would poll young people to find issues the group’s leaders could push at the governmental level. The idea was to create a structured organization that would last, once the founders moved on. Instead, he’s looking to partner with the business-backed Blueprint Louisiana in hopes of getting issues important to his peers on the Blueprint agenda.

“It gives young people a voice,” Haynie says. “It gives them a reason to get engaged.”

Racheal Hebert is vice chair of the Baton Rouge Progressive Network, a 10-year-old 501[c][3] nonprofit. The organization holds workshops—a recent one focused on lobbying—and has subgroups that work on transportation, homelessness and encouraging restaurants to serve local foods. It also has a radio station, which it hopes will be broadcasting community-generated programming by June.

While BRPN’s issues often are associated with the political left, Hebert says “progressive” means positive change.

“I would characterize Baton Rouge as conservative not only politically, but also conservative in the way that they don’t want any change,” she says. BRPN seeks to connect pockets of people who do want change and give them avenues to make an impact.

Polito and Trufant have mentioned Progress Is… and Forum 35 as possible successors to A6. But Forum 35 studiously avoids getting involved in controversial issues.

“Forum 35 is here as an organization to support this community and bring about positive change for this community,” says Russell Carter, the group’s president. “We choose not to do that in a politically divisive way.” Forum 35 would never take a stand on the downtown library, for example, although individual members might.

Progress Is… was out front on the mayor’s bond issue, but it remains to be seen whether another issue would motivate the group in a similar way, or whether it would be willing to take on the mayor if he stood in the way of something the organization supported. Member Ted James says he wouldn’t expect the group to oppose Holden.

“We didn’t seek to become this big political movement,” he says. “We discussed that a long time ago. If it wasn’t something that 90% to 95% of the group felt passionate about, we wouldn’t address it.”

Bryan Jones says the beauty of Progress Is… is that members can get involved at any level they want. If there are 1,000 people following the group, and only a quarter of them decided to support the downtown library, that’s still 250 people.

Jones is among those who think there’s a growing sense of community engagement among individuals outside of any named group; Jones chairs the board of two downtown charter schools.

“I think you’re beginning to see more and more young people getting involved in what’s happening in the city,” he says.