Monday, May 26, 2014

The Louisiana State Capitol: Private Property of the Special Interest Groups?

The 2014 Louisiana legislative session has been a very eye opening experience for many of us.    There was so much to take in, so many faces that seemed to be in the Education Committee meetings every time we showed up.  Who were these people?  They weren’t part of our crowd… the parents attempting to have a hand in the decisions that would be made regarding our kids’ education.  No they weren’t one of us;  they were “important” people with real pull with the legislators.  These “important” people were employees of big lobby groups.   We befriended some of them, they were kind and professional.  The rest of them can be described by one word:  disgusting.  It is these groups that we will discuss in this post.

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) is one of those groups.  LABI is a business interest lobby group.  LABI touts the pull they have with legislators on their website.  On the LABI site, it is said that “Our work over the last 30+ years has given us a level of credibility with state officials that is unparalleled.”  Sadly this is true.  LABI does have an unparalleled pull with legislators, when compared to the individual citizen.  

Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) is an organization that according to their website “promotes ideas for the betterment of Louisiana that cuts across political, social, and ideological boundaries.”  In our opinion, this is another organization that has presented at several parish chamber meetings, once again touting buzzwords and broad statements without actually supporting the standards; leading local businesses to believe they are signing on to support something that will be better for our children. The individuals with this organization are incapable of holding an educated conversation with anyone who attempts to do so.  They also refuse to allow individuals who are against the standards to speak at any of the chamber meetings they present at for fear that they will be asked questions for which they can not answer.  

You can forward to the 1:18:55 mark of this video, and you can see for yourself:
The woman wearing the green blouse and black blazer is Stepahine Desselles.  Notice how she refuses to respond to the points made by the opposition, and even alleges that basically nothing they [the opposition] said was true.

Stand for Children is another group that has a big voice, bigger than any individual citizen.  Stand is  a non-profit organization that supposedly is looking out for the best interests of children, but have been criticized for representing business interests.  A Washington Post article does a great job of explaining this criticism.  They are largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family. They use the ugliest of methods to deliver their message.  Several times during session, Stand would parade sweet children and hard working moms into the committee rooms.  These folks would testify about how the “high standards” with Common Core would allow them to go on to have a future, and to take Common Core away would allow them no future at all.  It was quite dramatic.

Keep in mind, Stand for Children is the organization that proudly boasts about the amazing collection of signatures they have collected on petitions that express the will of the people to keep Common Core in place.  In Oklahoma, it recently came out that Stand for Children was lying… they had falsified around 2,000 signatures on their petition. I wonder if their Louisiana petition is legit?  In Louisiana, we have received reports that the Stand for Children organization was offering incentives for people to go to the Capitol and testify in favor of the higher standards, and even hosted training days to prep these people to go before the committee and speak.

What is unique about this collection of special interest groups?  LABI, CABL, Stand for Children, and Louisiana Federation for Children are all devout supporters of Common Core.  Some of these groups are specific to Louisiana.  Are parents in other states experiencing similar nasty behavior by proponents?

As we attended more Education committee meetings, we came to know exactly the talking points and tactics these people would use.  We were there to fight Common Core with factual evidence supporting our position.  They were there to make sure it stayed.  They had buzzwords, empty promises, and false ideals.  There was no “meat” to their argument, but the stature of these groups meant that the legislators would agree with them time and time again.

On May 22nd four really awesome bills were finally being heard in the Senate education committee.  Lots of parents were at the Capitol to support “our” bills.  My friends and I found seats, to the far left of the crowded room.  Before long, we had some familiar faces sitting next to us:  Brigitte Nieland (LABI vice president of Program and Workforce Development), Jason Hughes and Carrie Monica (both with Stand for Children) Kelli Bottger (Louisiana Federation for Children, a pro charter school group)and finally Stephanie Desselles (CABL: Council for A Better Louisiana).  From here on out we will refer to them as the “MIPs” because apparently they are in fact the Most Important People at the Capitol.

The Following the personal of account of Amy Lemoine describing what took place on May 22, 2014 in the Senate Education Committee:

When retired school teacher Lee Barrios got up to speak in opposition to Walt Leger’s HB 953, the MIPs started making their comments. “Of course”, I heard them grumble.

Then, a mother of four and attorney from south Louisiana gets up to speak.  She presented a very well articulated testimony in opposition to HB953.  Towards the end of her testimony, this mom got a little emotional, and started to tear up.  It was at that moment that the line had been crossed.  You see, the MIPs started mocking this mother.  We heard things such as “Oh, let’s go cry in the corner,” and other mockings of her emotional state.


There was no more sitting back and listening for me.  I had to do something; this horrible behavior could not go unreported.  At 3:53 pm I got up from my seat, went out into the hallway, and called the LABI office.  The woman who answered the phone was very patient, and listened to my concerns.  I explained that I refuse to remain silent about this, I would be going to the media to expose this obvious disdain for parents involved in the legislative process.  She assured me that she would get in touch with the LABI president right away.  Within minutes of my returning to the committee room, Ms.Nieland’s phone rang.  I could hear a man’s voice on the line.  Ah, it must have been the president.  To whatever he told her, this was her response:  “Yeah there are some parents here, they are just upset because they just lost a big bill.”

Again, wow.

There are two things that I would like to point out about that statement:
  1. The parents are upset because they just lost a bill.  No ownership of her behavior, instead she deflects the blame onto the parents.
  2. The parents are upset because they just lost a bill.  Hold up lady!  This is no game to us, the parents.  The bills on the table will affect our children.  The only thing she has on the line is her paycheck.
Let’s get back to the story.   Apparently the phone call from her boss was not enough to get Ms.Nieland to act like a professional.  She and her pals continued to snicker and make condescending comments about the parents.  I reacted.  I turned in my seat to face them.  I spoke up and asked her (specifically) to please stop.  “Please act a little more professional,” I said to her.  We had a quick exchange of words.  She said something to me about my being disingenuous.  I again asked for her to stop, and act in a more professional manner.

At that point Mr. Hughes (Stand for Children) stood up, leaned in my direction and pointed his finger at me. He told me that we were not going to do this right here I need to stop.  I need to go.  He then went on to wave over the sergeant at arms (the committee security guard) and insinuate that I was causing a problem and needed to go. The sergeant at arms looked over at me, then back at the MIPs and seemed confused.  I didn't appear to be out of line, or misbehaving in any way.  He walked away.  I stayed.  

The LABI, CABL, Louisiana Federation for Children, and Stand for Children representatives make fun of parents, and the Stand for Children representative acts like he owns the place and can kick out whomever he would like.  

After this exchange things are relatively quiet for a while.  Then came the time for public comment on HB1076, a student data privacy bill that parents have been closely following for several weeks. When the chairman asked the crowd if they wanted to come and speak, the crowd in general answered “yes.”  With that I heard “Of course” from the MIPs.  You see, the more parents that exercise their right to public comment means that the committee meeting will last longer.  The MIPs workday would be longer because parents wanted to speak.  

When a dad gave his testimony (6:00 pm) the MIPs were very vocal about disagreeing with what he had to say, “this is just disgusting” someone from their little pack said.

And finally, at 6:12 pm the retired teacher who spoke earlier was asked if she would like to speak again.  When she stood up answered “yes” and made her way to the table, someone from the MIP pack grumbled “Oh, God.”

Determined to not let this horrible behavior go, I called the LABI office the next morning (Friday May 23rd).  I spoke to the President of LABI, Mr. Stephen Waguespack.  He was nice enough to apologize for what had taken place.  When I told him that it is apparent that LABI (through the behavior of Ms.Nieland) does not think parents have a place at the Capitol, he let me know that is not the “take away” that he wants me to have of his organization.

Within hours, this editorial was posted to the LABI website by the LABI President:

The LABI president talks of the robust debate that comes with the democratic process.  We (the parents) are certainly open to debate, but that debate should happen in a civil and professional manner; especially those who are PAID to partake in such debates.  Through the actions of their PAID representative, LABI has been anything but respectful in disagreeing with differing opinions, specifically with regard to education.

I wouldn’t want anyone to take just my word for it.  I don’t want it to seem that the behavior displayed on May 22nd was an isolated incident.  Just to be sure no one claims that I am just one dramatic mom who has it out for these lobby groups, I will now share with you the accounts of other citizens:

Mr. David Mount offers his observation:

“There were three particular individuals who caught my attention on May 22nd in the Senate Education Meeting. The one lady who was with Stand for Children who was on the front row [Carrie Monica, Stand for Children Marketing and Communications Director] laughing when Sarah Wood the Attorney was giving her statement.  Also, a young lady [Kelli Bogget] and young man [Jason Hughes] who were sitting in the top row next to each other both laughing at several parents giving statements including Sarah Wood the Attorney.  I thought that it was not only disrespectful but, I thought they were taking a bit too much joy in the fact that these parents were so upset with the whole process regarding Common Core. It actually disturbed me to look over several times to see them taking lightly the concerns of the mothers who took the time to speak before the Education Committee. The two bothered me most were the lady with Stand for Children and the young man. They were the ones expressing joy in the agony of the speakers.”

Mrs.Casey Peltier gives her statement:

On several occasions in my visits to the capitol to hear and testify either for or against bills being heard in regards to MY children's education (which in case these people are unaware- is my RIGHT as a Louisiana citizen), I witnessed the horror of what being in the company of these groups is like. I have seen things from stares, eye-rolls, snickering (loudly) to downright ugly and harsh comments made about the character of those citizens in attendance. Most recently was this past Thursday [May 22, 2014] in Senate Education Committee. I was sitting 3 seats down from LABI, Stand for Children and CABL representatives. During one parents testimony the laughing from the corner they were sitting in had gotten so loud that people from across the room were looking over. I took it upon myself to contact the LABI office and report the debacle I was watching unfold.  As a individual who works in Human Resources I would never allow any of these individuals to continue to represent my organization should I receive the feedback I gave to LABI.  At one point I turned my head to speak to a fellow parent sitting next to me and saw that Stephanie with CABL was giving me what I will call "the evil eye" so I asked her "WHAT"?....and she proceeded to say to me "I am not looking at you"...really lady? really?- this is the type of uncomfortable situations citizens are forced upon when attempting to exercise our rights.  Somewhere along the way these organizations have come to believe they are the know all and be all of our legislative process because they contribute so heavily to the campaigns of many of our legislatures BUT it would do our legislators well to remember whose fingers push those buttons in that booth.

Mrs. Lee Barrios (Retired National Board Certified Teacher) offers her observation:

When I was standing in line waiting to testify at House Ed a couple of weeks ago, I turned around when I heard my name to see her [Brigitte Nieland] talking to a lady next to her.  The lady saw me staring at her poked Brigitte.  Bridgette responded, " I don't care if that B!*$% is listening to me". 

From Ms. Debbie Sachs:

CABL and LABI have to mock us and  make us out to be ignorant in order to justify their support for an unethical and disgusting agenda. They have no other avenue.  Barry Erwin told the entire crowd at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Covington that there was a lot of misinformation on the internet concerning the sharing of our children's and teachers' data.  After the meeting, he admitted that he knew about it and InBloom all along.  I was devastated and shocked by his behavior......and I guess all of you saw  the role that Stephanie Desselles played at a senate education meeting and what she did to my friend - Libba McHenry.  If you haven't seen - it is all on Lee Barrios' blog under fake testimony.  It is very sad, but I guess some people will do anything for money.

From an Ashley McReynolds, fighting for her disabled child:

While I was testifying during the MFP discussions in the Senate, several witnesses observed Ms. Nieland (LABI) and Stephanie Desselles (CABL: Council for a better Louisiana) snickering and laughing at me.  The behavior was so disruptive that several people tried to get the attention of the Chairman to get them to stop, however the chairman did not see them motioning from the audience.

From Dominique Magee, mother of two:

I personally witnessed Brigitte and Kelli's rude and mocking behavior both times in the Senate edu committee.   I also had the pleasure of sitting directly in front of her [Nieland] during the house edu committee on Geymanns HB 381 on April 3rd, where another mother and I both sat and listened to her [Nieland] mock and criticize parents testifying in favor of that bill.  Nieland  was obscene.

The behavior of these lobby groups is downright disgusting.  Please make no mistake, these groups pay these lobbyists quite well to go and represent their organizations at the Capitol.  I would suggest the various lobby groups choose a little more wisely whom they are sending as their voices.  We can take it a step further.  For example, a slogan found on the LABI website  “One voice, amplified”.  LABI is the AMPLIFIED voice of MANY Louisiana businesses.  Hmmm… I wonder if these businesses would be okay that their representation at the capitol mocks, laughs at, and is so incredibly ugly to mothers of disabled children, retired teachers who served the children of Louisiana for years and years, and countless other parents who are concerned?

It may seem too far gone, the way that things are now with these people having so much pull.  Perhaps it is just the perception that these lobby groups have such enormous power.  Alone, the business lobby has no real power, but they have masterfully manipulated the legislative environment into a situation where it is generally accepted that they do in fact have power.  We need not forget that things can always be turned around.  It is the individual citizen not the business lobby that votes our lawmakers in.  The lawmakers need us at election time.  They should hold the individual citizen in higher regard in the legislative process at the Capitol.


  1. Look at page 9 of the "LA Charter Operator Pitch Book" -link below - which is in the "Charter School Resource Library" at the LDOE website. On page 9 LDOE brags about LABI and CABL's 100% record of defeating reforms. 'Yay!!! The crowd in the House and Senate Ed Committee room cheers! We have defeated another bill that parent's like! '

    It is true that if there is a reform supported by parents, teachers, educators - it is more likely than not going to be opposed by LABI and CABL. Bottom line: they bring money. Parents don't.

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