There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette's black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening.
There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette's black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening. By Patrick Flanagan
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014
Chris Williams started cutting his political teeth when he was 9 years old while helping his father's friend's mayoral campaign. Twenty years later, in 1995, after a failed run for school board in 1990, Williams won his first election, joining the Lafayette City-Parish Council as its youngest member.
That year, Williams helped create what would eventually become one of Lafayette's most formidable political machines with the founding of United Ballot - an organization created to promote black voter turnout while also endorsing political candidates and issues. In 2001, Williams would bring it to the next level, turning United Ballot into a political action committee to help fund its efforts. With the help later of City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin - Williams' longtime political ally/right-hand man - United Ballot started attracting big-name candidates, and with them came the big bucks.
Yet, after losing a 2007 bid for state rep to former school board member Rickey Hardy, Williams' momentum started to slow, and then scandal struck in 2010, sweeping Williams into an investigation of the Lafayette Housing Authority over the misuse of federal aid money designed to help families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Williams would bounce back though, and he'd get his revenge on Hardy, too, by successfully throwing the full force of United Ballot's weight behind Hardy's 2011 challenger, Vincent Pierre, ultimately bringing the former school board member's legislative career to an end after one term.
But what once seemed like an unstoppable political machine has started to slow in recent years, and with a new election upon us and signs of a growing discontent stirring from within the black community, Williams' ability to influence an election outcome may very well face one of its biggest tests to date.
In addition to hitting the airwaves and streets with political signs, knocking on doors and providing election day transportation to the polls, United Ballot also hands out thousands of cards bearing the names of the candidates it endorses for each of the races up for a vote.
And this doesn't come cheap. According to one candidate running this year who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the cost to secure United Ballot's services for Aug. 1 through Nov. 4's election was $30,000. And that's just for a local election; according to another source who asked to remain anonymous, the big-timers, the candidates running for Congress or statewide races, would have to pony up six figures.
"I haven't accepted their offer at this point," says the anonymous candidate, who says he was given the United Ballot pitch from Williams and Shelvin in July. "I haven't excluded the possibility of working with them, but the cost proposal was definitely not within our budget. It just wasn't a wise way for us to spend our campaign dollars. I'm leaving the door open to meeting with United Ballot again as we get closer to election day, but they'd have to definitely come down on their costs."
One longtime Louisiana politico/former United Ballot client who also asked not to be identified was much more blunt in giving his thoughts on Williams' get-out-the-vote service.
"He's running a scam," our source says. "They put on the appearance that they're really doing something. But is it effective? The only way to know that would take a lot of research looking at the inner workings of a particular area and see what they've done by comparing precincts, looking ward after ward for each race. What I don't get is why don't they just get out the vote? Why do they have to be paid huge sums of money? And are they paying a decent wage for those guys out there every day going door to door?"
Considering United Ballot has attracted the likes of Louisiana congressmen Vance McAllister and Charles Boustany, as well as a number of current and former state legislators including Donald Cravins Jr. and Terry Landry, the Williams-Shelvin business model has likely proven lucrative over the years. Yet the financial benefit they've received from influencing Lafayette's black vote appears to be at the core of the discontent from other leaders within the black community.
"Don't be mistaken: There is a revolt of people who want to get the vote out through hard work but without charging huge sums of money," says our politically connected source. "There is a group of young professionals in the African-American community here who deplore what they're doing, and there's a trend under way to stop all that. I think United Ballot is slowly grinding down to where it's really not as significant as it may have once been. For them to keep selling it is all going to depend on if somebody buys it."
This year's true test for Williams will play out in the school board races for districts 3 and 4. For United Ballot, this one is personal: Its candidates include Tehmi Chassion (Shelvin's half brother) and Elroy Broussard (a founding member and former vice president of the PAC).
It's a Friday morning, a few minutes after 7:30, and District 4 school board candidate Erica Williams has already been standing on the corner of Surrey Street and Pinhook Road for a full hour waving with one of her red campaign signs in hand.
Photo by Patrick Flanagan
District 4 LPSB candidate Erica Williams
An older gentleman stands with a bicycle talking to Erica Williams (no relation to Chris Williams) about school board politics. He agrees that Superintendent Pat Cooper's Turnaround Plan is what the school system needs to close the achievement gap, and as the conversation comes to a close, he offers Chassion's challenger a few words of encouragement, saying, "A lot of people got ya back."
Erica Williams turns her attention back to her campaign sign and the street corner from where she resumes waving into the Friday morning rush of vehicles headed for work.
"I started doing this on the day of qualifying, five days a week; from 6:30 to 7:30, I'm at a different street corner," Erica says between waves in what amounts to her 27th morning campaigning from a District 4 intersection with a sign in hand. "I want to show people my energy, get them to know my face. I've already had somebody come up and say, Hey you're the waving lady.' And that's the first step, getting them to know me and my mission, and from there I'm going to start asking for commitments to help transform this community."
Erica is running to represent one of Lafayette Parish's most economically challenged communities with the most at-risk schools. She faces an uphill battle, but with a powerful message and an unrelenting attitude, if anyone stands a chance of beating Chassion - whom many perceive as unbeatable - it's Erica Williams.
She describes herself as a "transformational leader," and says it's time to put a stop to the "lack of enthusiasm" that's infected District 4's residents for far too long, especially as it concerns the education of their children.
One weapon in Erica's arsenal will be Chassion's voting record as a board member, which should infuriate the voters of his district, namely his repeated stances against funding for the at-risk schools in his district, which boasts more D or F schools than any other district in the system.
Coupled with the incorporation of an old-school campaign strategy into her daily pre-work routine, that has made Erica Williams a formidable foe for Chassion.
"I'm involved with a lot of public community groups so I've got a network of supporters to build from, and we're in the process of forming a coalition of the religious leaders in the district," says Erica as we walk along Pinhook toward our cars. "The only thing I need now is the financial resources to pull this all together. Our community is not like the south side, where the people can simply rally around the idea of improving the education system. To energize the people of this community here, I have to be able to provide some incentive, like hot dogs or hamburgers, something to get them to come out to our campaign events and hear our message."
Like Williams, Shelton Cobb is defending his District 3 school board seat from a United Ballot candidate by getting out on the streets, knocking on doors and talking with as many people as possible.
"Right now I'm going out three days a week knocking," says Cobb, who's no stranger to United Ballot. Cobb defeated the ballot's candidate, Elroy Broussard, in 2008, and is again facing Broussard this year.
Having been around the Lafayette political scene long enough to know the real motive driving United Ballot's inner circle, Cobb is blunt in his observations: "These guys are not interested in this community; it's all about collecting money for them. These are political prostitutes who know how to rip off white politicians. They campaigned for Charles Boustany during his last re-election, and I'd like to know: How will endorsing this congressman who votes against everything President Obama tries to accomplish be of any help to the black community in Lafayette? United Ballot needs to be exposed for what they've done to this community and put a stop to this exploitation of our people."