The below is a transcript of LaDawn Jones interview on the Changing the Face of Power Podcast which can be found here. Check out Rebecca Thompson's other powerful interviews with sound advice specifically for African American women running for public office.
Welcome to the Changing the Face of Power Podcast, where we’re on a mission to inform, inspire, and support black women to run for elected office. Now, please welcome your host, Rebecca Thompson.
RT: Hi, and welcome to Changing the Face of Power, the Podcast. I’m your host, Rebecca Thompson, and I am really honored today to introduce you to a friend, LaDawn Blackett Jones, who is a State Representative from Atlanta, Georgia.
LaDawn, thank you so much and welcome to Changing the Face of Power the Podcast.
LBJ: I am so honored that you invited me, Rebecca. Thank you.
RT: Well, I am really excited to have you on the show today because we’ve known each other for a number of years, actually long before you decided to run for State Representative, and just for a little bit of fyi for our listeners, LaDawn and I met what was it, back in maybe 2009 or 2010 when you were --
LBJ: Somewhere around then, yes.
RT: Yeah. So LaDawn was a Fellow in the Front Line Leaders Academy, which is a program that I used to run for People for the American Way Foundation that trains young progressive candidates to run for office, so LaDawn was absolutely one of the success stories because she actually took what she learned in that program, and I know many others, to actually run for office.
So LaDawn, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start in politics.
LBJ: Sure, thank you. Well, Rebecca was a huge part of my having the initial courage to run for office. I began with working in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, where I really had a passion for trying to make a change in my overall community, and I had some experiences that always stand out with a young lady who was arrested for shoplifting, and on the same court date, a gentleman that was arrested as a repeat burglar. They were both sentenced that day, and their sentences just did not make sense. The young lady had spent a year in jail minimum, which is Georgia law, and the man went home almost immediately the same day, despite the fact that he had a background in burglary.
And so I knew that there was something that wasn’t right, and it inspired me to want to figure out what those next steps were, and that’s when I got introduced to Front Line Leaders Academy and a few other programs which were campaign training programs, and those programs really taught me the ins and outs of running for office ( garbled ) and they kind of took out that fear. I know so many people who are interested in running for office, but they don’t know what it takes to run for office, how to fundraise, and so I kind of took it as a course or a study for approximately two years before I actually decided to throw my hat in the ring, and I was so excited that I had that chance to be prepared, because many times those opportunities to run for office, we don’t know about them in advance; they just kind of pop up on us, and in this particular case that’s exactly what happened.
RT: So I really love that, that you took the time to prepare to learn how to run for office, and what I hope our listeners take from this, is I do meet a lot of people who decide that they want to run for office and they’re giving themselves a couple of months and in some cases a couple of weeks, but I think for candidates who are very serious about winning, they really should be thinking about this as a long-term exploration, and so to hear that you gave yourself two years to prepare is actually a really great timeline and a great example, and so as you were making that decision, I know that you’re a mom and a wife, you were really involved in your community, you know, what was the decision like in terms of how you got to that point of deciding to run given all the things that you were involved in up to that point?
LBJ: Fortunately for me at the time I had a very big support system. My parents lived close by; they helped me with my children. At that time they were I believe one and three years old, not quite in school yet; a great support system from my husband who was really energetic about me running for office and willing to do whatever it took for him to handle the household things so that I could run. So those things laid the foundation.
What I was not able to do was maintain my job at the D.A.’s office, so I had to make plans to provide for my family financially outside of that and so left the D.A.’s office to open my own practice and began running my own criminal defense law firm so that I could have the flexibility to run for office and just all of those stars kind of lining up in place, having a family who was supportive, having the support of my husband, made it easier for me to do those things.
But it wasn’t easy all throughout, and holding office for approximately four years and then the two-year planning on top of that, it definitely became a decision. There were times that I had to
decide that it was okay that Mommy missed bedtime and that it was okay that Mommy wasn’t there to be at xyz event because I had the support system that I had that allowed me to do those other things and ensure that my family still had what they needed.
RT: Yeah, and I appreciate you talking about the step of starting your own law firm, because for a lot of women, their employers are not always either happy to hear about them running for office or in some cases you have to step down because it’s maybe a conflict of interest or there’s some sort of policy, and so I really want to explore that a little bit deeper because financial stability and security is a really big barrier to women running for office, so sort of knowing what you know about that process now, you know, what would you want to share with women who are thinking about creating financial opportunities for themselves as a way to fund their campaigns and give them that flexibility?
LBJ: Well, definitely, you know, planning is a big part of the process, sort of knowing what your background is, what your career is so that you can make those types of leaps into entreprenuership or otherwise, or social work, whatever it takes so that you can run. A lot of that goes into what is your plan to get there. If you are committed to service and I’m sure like me a lot of people are also spiritually connected or believe that there is a higher being, and typically my experience is when you stick your neck out and you’ve had a plan, God will provide and you will be able to support your family, work, as well as continue to serve your community if you’re doing it in earnest.
But it does - you know, we do not live so that we can work; we work so that we can live, and keeping that in mind that may mean that you have to sacrifice at that time moving up the ladder and getting promoted at your job. It may mean a pay cut, which it certainly did for me leaving a steady paycheck to opening my own business and again, that goes into the planning, putting money aside both for running for office and putting money aside so that you can make those decisions to be in office and the time that it takes away from working, and it’s really about laying it out and making sure that all of your ducks are in a row and deciding anything from cutting that cable to cell phone bills if necessary so that you can do what is ultimately your goal.
RT: That’s right. So you made the decision to run. What were some of the first steps that you took to actually launching your campaign?
LBJ: Well, I had a kind of unique set of circumstances as I mentioned, being prepared to run. I was still in the infancy stages. I had just opened my firm for less than six months and I got enrolled in a program called Lead Atlanta and it was just an opportunity to meet other young leaders, progressive leaders throughout the metro Atlanta area and in that program I had a chance to shadow the State Representative for my district, and it was just truly the stars aligning, me being prepared, and I think God just opening up the door that the person whose seat that I eventually ran for told me that day that he had been considering stepping down and retiring and he was just waiting to have someone who was really ready to step up and move into that seat, and apparently after a couple of months I was that person, and so I had to be really prepared because I thought it would be another year or two before I would even consider running for any particular office and he gave me about six months in advance to really put forth an effort to run for that position and luckily all those other ducks had been lined up and in a row with my family and my business so that I was able to make that leap.
RT: Oh, wow. So there’s an important piece here of really getting to know or understand who is in the seat that you’re in and oftentimes, I mean, you are not the first guest to say that it was their predecessor who had a conversation with them saying hey, I’m thinking about stepping down; I just want to make sure that the right person is stepping up, so it sounds like a really important piece if you - you know, if there’s alignment, because I know that that’s not always the case, but if there’s an alignment to be willing to have those conversations and to sort of BE ready so that you don’t have GET ready, right?
LBJ: That’s correct.
RT: So as a candidate, what was the biggest thing that you struggled with while you were running?
LBJ: A number of things. I think that dealing with the status quo, trying to come in and see things with a fresh perspective, which was part of the premises that I ran under was coming in and looking at things from a fresh perspective, not always necessarily democratic versus republican or young versus old or black versus white, but really looking at policy issues and evaluating them for what they were really for, looking at them with a wide lens to see not only how will it affect my particular district but how will it affect people in general and the state as a whole, and the country as a whole, that was difficult and then also finding out that you really will not be able to handle all of the issues.
I ran, as I mentioned, because of criminal justice issues. That was my background and my expertise and where I hoped that I would bring the most help to the General Assembly, but for years, I barely touched any criminal justice bills outside of advising other colleagues and answering their questions when they were working on issues related to criminal justice; I had no direct effect or no direct legislation and so knowing that you’re not going to be able to handle all the issues and trying to decide what legislator, in light of that, that you want to be, the legislator that makes a lot of noise but gets very little done, or the legislator that sits quiet and lets things pass but is able to get legislation passed. Those were all very difficult challenges to decide between.
RT: Yeah. So I want to explore that a bit, because there are a lot of candidates who run on issues that they’re very passionate about, and I think it’s a really important point that you -- just because you care about an issue or just because you’re super passionate about it doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to have a chance to work on those issues. So what were some of the issues that you actually found yourself working on?
LBJ: So a lot of my issues were local-based issues, things that pass through local legislation such as expanding the election board, helping to create a city in an unincorporated area of my district and working on other more locally based -- bringing more money into the district, ensuring that there was local option referendums for people so that we can help build the infrastructure.
That’s where a lot of my focus went as a State Representative and a lot of it went away from the civil justice and criminal justice areas and I think part of that is because of the difficulty in handling of issues and another part of it has to deal with committee assignments and finding out that there are limitations within the job. There’s only so many things that you can do as a State Representative, in the same way there’s only certain things you can handle as a School Board representative and Council person making sure that those issues did not fall within my purview.
RT: Yeah. So one of the questions that we are always exploring on this podcast is sort of what it looks like for a black woman to stand in her power and particularly with so many brilliant black women across the country who really care about issues like criminal justice, especially with
everything that’s happening in the country right now, I know a lot of women are struggling with where to use their black girl magic, like where to put their energy.
And so given your background as a lawyer and working in the criminal justice system, knowing what you know now, for somebody who is really passionate about criminal justice issues, what would you say to them in terms of where they should focus their energies, do you feel like legislatures are a great place for that, or do you now know that maybe it could be used somewhere else or somewhere where they could have a bigger impact?
LBJ: So all of the pieces of the puzzle, I think, work together jointly at some point or another to make justice happen, particularly in the criminal justice arena, so they need legislators, but you have to go in understanding that your role as a legislator may be limited; your ability to get things passed may be limited, and if you understand that going in, that helps to dictate what type of legislator you want to be, it helps to dictate how much energy you will put into it. So I wouldn’t say that it’s a waste of time, but if you also know that you are a person who just can’t hold back, right, that you know that you want to be in the streets, you want to be able to say things unabashedly, then you know, maybe being in a representative role may not be for you because although you have a lot of people that may vote you into office, you still have to represent everyone that makes up your constituent base, and there are certain things that your entire constituent base, or a lot of things your entire constituent base won’t agree with, and you really have to toe that line of making sure you are alw