Councilman Chris Williams' brash style has earned him the adoration of his constituents and the contempt of fellow elected officials. How far will his support base carry him?
A white '96 Buick Park Avenue pulls up to the curb in front of a discolored red brick house at the corner of Orchid and Madeline streets in the Azalea Park subdivision. City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams steps out of the car; the 6-foot-3 inch politician resembles a hefty football linebacker as he starts walking through the neighborhood. When he spots a resident in a nearby driveway, Williams ambles over to the elderly man.
"Hey, hey, Mr. Cliff," says Williams. "It's good to see you. You're lookin' good."
Williams shakes hands with Mr. Cliff. "We paved these roads what, three or four years ago?" says Williams. "I see it's about time to pave them again." Mr. Cliff smiles and nods in agreement, looking pleasantly surprised.
Variations on that scene have played out in Williams' district for the past 16 years. He's built a formidable political career on his people skills; he is the only councilman to host monthly constituent meetings ("Real Talk with Chris Williams") and annual bus tours of his district. Williams' vast contacts helped him organize United Ballot, a massive voter drive effort. And during election season, he's an inescapable fixture on local radio, often doing live remote spots for other local, state and federal candidates.
Walking through Azalea Park in his trademark black suit and tie, Williams is treated like a local celebrity. Drivers honk their horns and yell greetings as they drive by. Teenager Darrel Trahan dashes inside his house to get a copy of Ebony magazine to show Williams. Trahan proudly points himself out in a photo of an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Williams is also recognized in Lafayette for more than his constituent support and attire. As his influence has grown, his outspoken nature and penchant for bucking the system have placed him at the center of controversy on the council ' partly because Williams unapologetically injects race discussions into his politics.
Last September, Williams allegedly lashed out at Council Clerk Norma Dugas in the council office after she informed Williams that council staff would not handle Williams' contesting of a personal phone bill. After Council Chairman Randy Menard sent him a memo saying Williams' verbal abuse of Dugas was in direct violation of LCG's anti-harassment policy, Williams fired back, "Your racist clerk and you should refrain from harassing me as an African-American council member." (Dugas did not pursue a harassment complaint, and Williams later apologized.)
Williams also called freshman Councilman Bruce Conque a bigot at a council meeting last month after Conque challenged him to a debate over frontage road funding. (Conque declined to comment for this article.)
"I think there are different standards for the African-American council members and other council members," says Williams. "And I feel that there's definitely a strained relationship on the council as it relates to race relations. I believe it's based on the inability of people on the council to treat people equitably and the same way. It's unfortunate, and I think it's a mosaic and an example of what happens in our larger community."
Menard doesn't see it that way. Menard's been at odds with Williams since Williams supported Judge Phyllis Keaty during Menard's failed run for judge in 1998. "He always tries to make everything a black-white issue or a north-south issue," says Menard. "It puts the council in a bad light, and it strains relationships. He's always pushed everything to the limit. If you ever voted against something he's been for, then you're a racist. That's always been the case. And when he labels you as a racist, regardless of whether anyone believes it or not, it's still out there. It's almost like it's a no'win situation with him."
Williams is unfazed by his critics and says his charges of racism reflect a sentiment felt throughout the north side. "I just think it's being honest," he says. "The times that I have brought up race I believed in my heart that it was an issue that was solely based upon race. I would hope that people would realize that it's not just Chris Williams, but it's also people in the community. I bring it up for public discussion so as a community we can discuss and resolve those issues together rather than continue to sweep it under the rug."
In 2003, Pat Magee was an energetic young attorney eager to get politically involved in his hometown of Lafayette. Knowing Williams would be running for his fourth term, Magee figured it was an opportune time for a fresh face to take over representing the district.
"My strategy was that I was going to outwork him," says Magee, who now works with the local district attorney's office. "I was hoping that he would be complacent, and he most certainly was not. He was a tremendous campaigner and superbly organized."
After Williams won the election with 65 percent of the vote in the primary election, he invited former opponent Magee to join in his get out the vote effort for the general election.
The scope of Williams' operation blew away the political newcomer. "He had kids out walking the streets," says Magee. "He had older folks out in cars. He had food. He had drinks. It was just tremendously organized, and it was definitely an eye opener for me on how to run an effective campaign."
Poll watchers constantly fed Williams information on how the turnout was shaping up in each precinct. "If he heard the Truman box was running low at 1:30, by 2 o'clock he had people out walking the streets in that neighborhood trying to get the vote out," remembers Magee.
The seeds of Williams' organizational acumen were planted in 1992, when Williams helped form United Ballot, which promotes voter turnout and endorsements for individual candidates and issues. Four years ago, the group formed a political action committee to assist in funding its operation. The Board of Ethics currently only has one finance report listed for the organization, covering contributions and expenses from October to December 2004. In that time the group raised $10,500 from two contributors: former Congressman Chris John and Copestone, Inc., a local oil and gas consulting firm.
While Magee greatly respects Williams' political skills and accomplishments, he sometimes takes issue with Williams' methods. "He's a very shrewd politician," Magee says of his councilman. "I cannot argue with his ultimate effectiveness. [But] I personally feel as though when given the opportunity to choose between the velvet glove and the iron fist, he chooses the iron fist."
Williams doesn't mince words, and he's unafraid of creating controversy. He's accused chairman Randy Menard of "covert tactics" and looked into the possibility of de-annexing the north side from Lafayette Parish. His aggressive style has led him to butt heads with his peers in city government on several occasions. Recently, Williams, along with Councilman Louis Benjamin, wrote a memo to council staff asking to send a letter to the state ethics administration calling for an investigation into a constituent complaint that Conque was using his council office for private business. Menard instructed the staff to deny the request, since there was no evidence of the allegation. He told Williams and Benjamin to send the request in on their own.
"I don't think that was good for relations on the council and that the staff didn't need to be involved in that," Menard says. He finds it suspicious that the letter came the week after the adoption of more stringent procedures governing the council's expense reimbursements ' a change spearheaded by Conque and Councilman Dale Bourgeois.
"I don't think it's coincidental," Menard says. "I think certain council members view Bruce as wanting to change the old way of doing things, and certain councilmen believe that if we all agree to change things then it implies that there was something wrong with what we were doing in the first place. I don't believe that's the case. I think Bruce just wanted to develop a policy that's more specific."
Williams recently made headlines by protesting the parish's inability to complete I-10 frontage roads. The council argued that the move was made because the frontage road projects, totaling approximately $23 million, were grossly under-funded. Williams took up the cause after the council voted to move $900,000 budgeted for north side I-10 frontage roads to instead complete a Verot School Road widening project.
Weeks later, Williams downplayed reports that showed he had initiated a similar transfer of $2 million from north side frontage roads in 2003 to complete an extension of Luke Street. Williams said that the transfer he made only pushed back one project in favor of another, without taking money from the frontage roads. While technically correct, Williams' transfer left part of the frontage roads slated for construction in his district (between Reading Road and Ambassador Caffery) without any funding.
"He's a savvy politician," says Menard. "Whatever he does is always well thought out and calculated."
In fighting the council's recent fund transfer, Williams organized support from his own town meetings, constituent database and local churches. Approximately 75 north Lafayette residents showed up to protest the disparity between north and south side development at a March council meeting. The following Monday, Williams had a meeting of 350 people to plan a response to the council's action. "To get 350 people on a Monday night at 6 o'clock, it's a major accomplishment," Williams says.
In addition to organizing public pressure, Williams is using his political clout to suggest that the north side/south side funding dispute could affect his initial support of Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home project. At press time, Williams is now leaning toward supporting the LUS fiber vote, provided the utility company ensures it will help poor residents utilize the new network.
His most surprising recent move was intimating a move to make the north side its own separate entity from Lafayette. He requested council staff check the process for "an area wanting to de-annex from its current corporate municipality or becoming a separate city."
Williams says he was merely following up on requests of his constituents. He records his "Real Talk" meetings and has his staff compile lists of all constituent concerns raised in both the monthly talks and in the annual bus tours. All those who attend the meetings or tours are recorded in a database and kept up to date on the status of each issue. He finds it revealing that the de-annexation issue is considered taboo.
"I don't think de-annexation is an option, but what I do think is an option is that the leaders in this city ' not the cheerleaders ' recognize the fact that there are different philosophical theories and theses that relate to the equity issue in the parish of Lafayette," says Williams. "This [issue] has been there. To tag it to me is a way for people to keep the spin going against Chris Williams. That's the unfortunate thing is that they won't even have a discussion of it. Why not have a discussion of it so that you can feel why it is that people would feel that way?"
"[Williams] is extremely popular in his district," says John Bess, host of Acadiana Open Channel's Voices of African Americans. "He's very accessible and [his constituents] see someone who is trying to get a fairer allocation of the resources in their district. Confrontation has its place. You cannot get anything done politically if you're too confrontational. Stepping up is the way I look at it."
Azalea Park, located off North University behind Country Cuisine, the restaurant started by Williams' father, Arthur, is one of the many neighborhoods Williams campaigned in during his first run for the council in 1992. "We hit every door twice," he says. The long days of campaigning door to door helped Williams win the race over Tawasky Ventroy, a more experienced opponent with more money and the support of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards.
At 29, Williams became one of Lafayette's youngest city council members. His election to the city council came just two years after a failed run for the school board in 1990.
After losing the school board race, Williams re-immersed himself in community organizations. Growing up, he developed an interest in politics and learned about networking through youth groups such as Young, Black and Christian and conferences he attended through the A. Phillip Randolph Association.
"That's why I just appreciate being involved in government and politics from a very young standpoint," he says. "Because you learn stuff that they can't teach you in textbooks, like how to deal with people and deal with all segments of the community. That's a tough thing to do."
He worked on his first political campaign at age 9, when his father's friend and community activist George Bowles ran for mayor of Lafayette in the 1970s. During high school, he started volunteering for campaigns that included City Councilman turned state Rep. Wilfred Pierre and state Sen. Don Cravins.
Williams credits his father, a teacher of 25 years, for his diligent work ethic and devotion to education. Williams got his first job when he was 13 and also worked as a teenager laying roads through swampland in Morganza.
He later earned a master's from Southern University in political science in 1991 and a doctorate from Union Institute and University, through correspondence courses, in 2003.
In the past 16 years, Williams has successfully parlayed his people skills into key relationships with political players such as Pierre and Cravins, who helped him get his start. He also developed a strong relationship with Gov. Blanco's family, working for several years under Raymond "Coach" Blanco at UL Lafayette. (Raymond Blanco did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
"The Blancos, that's a great Louisiana political family, just like the Cravins," Williams says. "It's fortunate I was able to work with them. These type of relationships are important."
Now Williams' own organization might be outgrowing some of his original alliances. In Williams' 2003 re-election race, Pierre supported Magee. Cravins also appears to be questioning his political ties with Williams, after his longtime ally allegedly tried to play both sides of the fence when Cravins ran against fellow Democrat Willie Mount ' a friend of the Blancos ' for Congress last year.
"Chris has been a political friend over the years," Cravins says. "And I would rather not comment about the [congressional race] because there were some things about that race that certainly left me with some reason for concern."
Term-limited from seeking re-election on the city-parish council, Williams' next move is uncertain. He's widely rumored to be eyeing either the District 44 state representative seat held by Pierre, or the District 24 state Senate seat, now held by Cravins. Both Pierre and Cravins also are prevented from seeking re-election by term limits.
Cravins says Williams is primed to move up, though he feels it would be hard for the Lafayette councilman to win his Senate seat, which has its majority base in St. Landry Parish.
"I think that he would probably do well in the House," Cravins says. "I think the Senate is a whole different story because it's a larger district, and it's a different geography. It's much more diverse."
Williams, who maintains he always supported Cravins for Congress, says he isn't letting personal politics deter him. "One of the good things about being in this very early on is you just learn to let it roll off your back," he says. "You can't create any enemies; it's not worth it. People do things for different reasons."
In the District 24 state Senate race, Williams would likely face off against Pierre, who has already announced he is running, and Don Cravins' son, Don Cravins Jr., who many observers expect will try to succeed his father. In the District 44 state representative race, other candidates rumored to be considering a run include former Superintendent of State Police Terry Landry, Lafayette Housing Authority Director Walter Guillory, Carencro City Manager Lloyd Rochon and attorney Wilfred Christian.
Williams says he is waiting until January of next year to officially decide his political future. This summer, he is planning to travel to Lafayette sister cities in Belgium and the Ivory Coast and attend council conferences in Orlando and Hawaii. In the fall, he will hold his final constituent bus tour to help identify the issues he wants to tackle in his last two years on the council. Williams dismisses detractors by pointing out that the only approval he needs comes from the voters in his district, who have already re-elected him three times ' by no less than 65 percent.
"You have to have your base," says Williams. "After your second term, for me, it's a vote of confidence regardless of what you're running for. You do what's best for your constituency, and your base will understand that and support you. I've become a part of the constituents I represent. If I get emotional at a council meeting it's because I feel it in my heart, and I feel it's right for the community.
"You have to be aggressive and you have to have some fire in your belly for those things that you believe in, and that's my style," he adds. "Could it be done another way? Sure it could, but it doesn't fit me. And at the end of the night, I'm fine."