On November 3, 2020, voters in Orleans Parish will vote to re-elect incumbent Leslie Ellison or one of her opponents J.C. Romero or Winston “Boom” Whitten Jr. to Orleans Parish School Board District 4. Oftentimes in elections, voters succumb to choosing the lesser of two evils. Unlike most elections, the gulf of morality between the candidates in this race could not be more clear or severe. Particularly, the incumbent Leslie Ellison has a deeply concerning record when it comes to her actions, treatment and derisive remarks against the LGBTQ community.
In 2004, Ellison and Apostle Willie Wooten, founder of Gideon Christian Fellowship in Gentilly—where Ellison attends church —organized a rally at the state capitol to oppose a series of bills that would have offered protections against discrimination of LGBTQ citizens. Wooten has been widely known as being a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, claiming that it would open the door to the legalization of polygamy and incest. He has described homosexual behavior as being “deviant” and “too nasty.” As a result of Ellison and Wooten’s efforts, the series of bills that would have added protections against discrimination for LGBTQ citizens was defeated.
In January 2019, the Orleans Parish School Board voted to suspend the rules to allow John A. Brown Sr. to remain in the position of board president following video surfacing of Ellison testifying against anti-discrimination protection for LGBTQ students and in support of a bill that would have allowed charter schools to ban LGBTQ students. The video in 2012 of Ellison at the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee displayed Ellison refusing to sign a renewal of a charter contract because she disapproved of a clause by the Louisiana Department of Education that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In 2013, Ellison proposed an amendment to delete gender identity language from the Orleans Parish School Board’s anti-bullying policies. In a vitriolic exchange with fellow school board member Seth Bloom, Ellison told Bloom that she could not “change her blackness at all,” in response to Bloom rhetorically asking how it’s fair to advocate for equal treatment for some minority groups but not for others. In essence, Ellison made clear that she believed that sexual orientation is a choice. The Bayou Brief reported on the exchange between Bloom and Ellison in January 2019.
Campaign finance reports filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics in 2015 during Ellison’s failed campaign for state senator show she accepted money from the Family Research Council, a faith-based advocacy group that is highly regarded as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has worked tirelessly using religion to eliminate anti-bullying protections for LGBTQ citizens nationally. FRC has also advocated for controversial gay conversion therapy, a form of therapy used on LGBTQ citizens as an attempt to to change their sexual orientation or gender identities.
Ellison had held the position of vice president of the board for four years leading up to the vote for board president in 2019 and was regarded as the frontrunner for the position of board president.
Several pro-LGBTQ advocacy groups and organizations denounced Ellison’s anti-LGBTQ positions and called for the removal of her from the board entirely. Prior to election for president of the board in 2019, a fellow OPSB president, Thomas Robichaux, who is openly gay, expressed deep concerns about Leslie Ellison becoming school board President.
“When I was president of the OPSB, we worked very hard to put in protections for LGBTQ students and staff in our anti-bullying policies and non-discrimination polices. … Leslie Ellison has already tried repeatedly to remove those policies. It is shocking to me that some board members that claim to be progressives or liberals are OK with Leslie Ellison’s position on these issues.”
Judging from the breakdown of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee’s vote to endorse J.C. Romero, Mr. Robichaux’s concerns seem valid. Although J.C. Romero was ultimately endorsed by the OPDEC in a runoff between him and Ellison, Ellison still received support from a staggering 41 percent of the board members. In any other major urban center in the world, it would be unimaginable for a board run by Democrats, many of whom identify as progressives or liberals, to have 41 percent of its members vote to endorse a candidate who has so openly lobbied against anti-bullying protections for LGBTQ students. Sadly, the OPDEC’s showing of support for an anti-LGBTQ candidate also seems to be consistent with rhetoric used by supporters of newly elected state Democratic Party Chair Katie Bernhardt in the run-up to her election. In an audio obtained by Big Easy Magazine, an unnamed source was heard saying, “you have a black lady as chair and Stephen Handwerk, a leading LGBTQ activist as Executive Director, which does not appeal to white working class voters. A gay man as the leader of the party adds an additional level of dysfunctionality because black preachers don’t like that.”
Many observers of the race who spoke with Big Easy Magazine find it incomprehensible that a city like New Orleans could potentially re-elect a member of the school board in the year 2020 who believes all people who are not heterosexuals don’t deserve equal treatment, equality and justice under the law. “With New Orleans being one of the most inclusive pro-LGBTQ cities in the country, Ellison does not embrace the values that Orleanians uphold,” said Kenny Tucker, political co-director of Forum for Equality.
According to a new comprehensive study published in Science Advances, which is based on a national crime survey conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, gender and sexual minorities are four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than those outside of the LGBTQ community. As it relates to the school environment specifically, a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that high school students in the U.S. who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported being cyberbullied or bullied physically at school at twice the rate of their heterosexual peers. The data also show that LGBTQ students are more likely to struggle academically and suffer from mental illnesses such as depression. The results of this study underline the significance of having policies in place to protect gender and sexual minorities against bullying.
After several years of working in opposition to pro-LGBTQ protections, Ellison had the chance during the course of her current campaign to repudiate her previous positions. At a recent Alliance for Good Government Forum on September 22, when Ellison was asked whether she believes sexual orientation is a choice, she responded “I’m sorry, but for a variety of reasons, I cannot answer that question.” Ellison’s refusal to state whether she believes sexual orientation is a choice clearly demonstrates that she continues to embrace anti-LGBTQ views.
Fortunately, several non-profit advocacy groups have been vocal in their condemnation of Ellison’s unequal treatment of and positions against the LGBTQ community. In their endorsement of pro-LGBTQ candidate J.C. Romero, the Forum for Equality emphasized that OPSB, District 4 is “the most important local election for our community.” On their website, the advocacy group went on to state that Ellison’s “treatment of the LGBTQ community, and of LGBTQ students in particular, should disqualify her from further representing District 4 on the Orleans Parish School Board.”
The Orleans Parish Democratic Party (OPDEC), the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD), Victory Fund, the Independent Women’s Organization (IWO), the Alliance for Good Government, and Vincenzo Pasquantonio, former Director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity- who is also serving as Mr. Romero’s campaign manager- joined the Forum for Equality in endorsing J.C. Romero.
J.C. has also been endorsed by New Orleans City Councilmember-At-Large Helena Moreno, District C Councilmember Kristin G. Palmer, School Board Member Sarah Usdin, former District A Councilmember Susan Guidry, former District 4 School Board Member Lourdes Moran, State Commissioner on Human Rights Richard Perque, former School Board Presidents Seth Bloom and Thomas Robichaux, and New Orleans Clerk of Court Austin Badon.
Whitten was endorsed by American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations, BOLD, Louisiana State Senator Joseph Bouie, Jr., and the United Teachers of New Orleans. Ellison was endorsed by the Independent Democratic Electors Association (IDEA).
Interestingly, despite Ellison being an elected member of the Orleans Parish Democratic Parish Executive Committee, the board ultimately endorsed her opponent, J.C. Romero. Additionally, the Independent Women’s Organization, which has a history of endorsing Democratic women candidates, endorsed Romero despite Ellison being the only woman candidate in the race.
While many appreciate Whitten’s candidacy, having been a product of traditional New Orleans public schools, McDonough #32 and Edna Karr prior to graduating from O.P. Walker High School, many view Romero’s historic candidacy against Ellison as poetic justice. Romero represents everything Ellison opposes. In addition to his extensive credentials of having a Doctorate’s degree and experience as a teacher and administrator around the world, Romero is also a proud gay man and son of a single mother who immigrated here from Nicaragua. Unlike Ellison, Romero and Whitten believe that every student, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or race deserves to be treated equally with dignity and fairness.
The voters of Orleans Parish School Board District 4 have an important choice to make, and the whole world is watching. Voters will either signal to the rest of the world that the OPSB, District 4 community has no place for bigotry of any form, or that in 2020, we still believe it’s acceptable for LGBTQ citizens to be treated unfairly and without dignity.
Scott Ploof is Publisher and Founder of Big Easy Magazine.