Louisiana Strong and Together Baton Rouge are both not-for-profit, grassroots organizations, influenced by their faith and committed to educating and empowering citizens to get involved in the governmental process.
But ideologically, the two groups couldn’t be more different.
Members of Louisiana Strong, who self identify politically as conservatives, began organizing earlier this year as a response to Together Baton Rouge, which gained attention last year for their work successfully campaigning for the parish bus tax.
Together Baton Rouge, which identifies itself as nonpartisan, draws its membership mostly from churches and other faith institutions and is funded largely from donations from those institutions. Since the CATS tax passed, Together Baton Rouge has continued to advocate for local issues ranging from increasing healthful food access in low income areas to Medicaid expansion.
Most recently, the group has waded into a debate about living wages for city-parish employees.
Lennie Rhys, Louisiana Strong’s executive director, charges that Together Baton Rouge is “co-opting religious organizations to gain political power.” Her group, she said, serves as a counter point to the “urban socialism” that she fears is permeating Baton Rouge.
But Together Baton Rouge leaders view the new group as less a response to their work than it is an outgrowth of larger ideological battles that have little to do with what’s happening in Baton Rouge.
“An unfortunate reality of our times is a culture of intense political polarization, which leads some to reduce the whole social world to a vast fight between conservative and liberal forces,” said the Rev. Patti Snyder, a pastor at University Presbyterian Church and an executive committee member for Together Baton Rouge. “Our impression of this group is that it seems to spring more from that culture of polarization than from anything Together Baton Rouge is about or is doing.”
Louisiana Strong’s members take issue with Together Baton Rouge’s ties to the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group founded by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky, who died in 1972, was a Chicago-based community organizer who wrote in a handbook for community organizers called “Rules for Radicals.”
“Many of the people who give in the plate (at church) do not know where their money is going,” said Glenda Pollard, a Louisiana Strong board member. “It’s going from your church to Together Baton Rouge to the IAF and could be used for something I’m totally against.”
Only about 5 percent of Together Baton Rouge’s funds go to the IAF, said Broderick Bagert, Together Baton Rouge’s lead organizer, in exchange for some training and technical assistance. Together Baton Rouge often organizes through small, neighborhood meetings and churches, a method handed down from the IAF.
But Rhys portrays the group’s work as a grab for power. For example, Together Baton Rouge in 2012 lobbied in favor of a bill that would have reformed the CATS board and minimized the Metro Council’s role.
The Metro Council would have still had the ability to appoint and remove members, but nominations for board members would come from a commission of stakeholder organizations, including Together Baton Rouge. The bill won the approval of the Legislature, but was vetoed by the governor.
“If (the bill) had passed, it would have created an autonomous board and given them control of $30 million dollars,” Rhys said.
Together Baton Rouge leaders have said they supported the bill because they wanted to set more stringent standards for CATS board members and remove political interference by the Metro Council.
While Louisiana Strong leaders say CATS is not an issue that its group will be taking up, the bus tax issue did help bring some of the members together.
Both Rhys and Pollard fought against the CATS tax in 2012, and lobbied against the board changes in the Legislature.
Pollard said state lawmakers dismissed their concerns because they lacked the organization and numbers of their opponents.
“We quickly found out that they count heads and calls and emails,” Pollard said. “They defend their position by saying I’ve received 40 calls but we’ve only heard from three of you. We realized at that point that we needed to get some numbers.”
Louisiana Strong is so new that its organizers declined to guess at its membership. Its Facebook group has 171 “likes” and its Twitter account has 88 followers.
Together Baton Rouge’s website lists 36 member institutions, mostly churches and other religious organizations.
Louisiana Strong’s mission statement is to educate and empower citizens to get involved with the governmental process, while promoting the ideals of “God, country, home, fiscal responsibility and personal initiative.”
The group is in its infancy, but as it grows organizers plan to raise money to support candidates, legislation and issues that reflect its ideals.
The group is staying out of hot-button national debates such as abortion and gay marriage in favor of local and state issues, Rhys said. For instance, it is closely monitoring the debate over increasing wages for Baton Rouge city-parish employees — an issue that Together Baton Rouge has recently taken on.
The city-parish union, Service Employees International Union Local 21, is a member of Together Baton Rouge.
“Our question will be how do you get the money to do this?” Rhys said.
On Nov. 2, Louisiana Strong will host its first summit. Keynote Speaker Michael Voris will speak, “On the Influence of Saul Alinsky in our Churches and the issue of Social Justice.” The program will be held at Jefferson Baptist Church at 9135 Jefferson Highway at 10 am. Admission is free.
But Snyder, the Presbyterian church pastor who serves on the executive committee of Together Baton Rouge, said that group will not be dissuaded from its work.
“One of the reasons we founded Together Baton Rouge is to try, as best we can, to create an alternative at the local level to this over-simplified, hyper partisan approach to problems, which has so poisoned our national political dialogue,” she said.
“This is not an easy task to be sure, but it’s too important to the health of our community to stop trying.”