As Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, Stephen Handwerk is Making Bold Changes

As Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, Stephen Handwerk is Making Bold Changes

In good humor, Stephen Handwerk claimed that declaring yourself a Democrat in Louisiana is more difficult than coming out as gay. Yes, even in this state where it still legal for employers to fire individuals due to sexual orientation. “It’s a lot different down here,” admitted the Executive Director of Louisiana’s Democratic Party who grew up in Ohio, where it was understood that all families look different and diversity was respected.

Speaking at the opening and dedication of the new Rosa Parks Transportation Center and AOC Community Media Center (photo: Robert J. Wilson)
Speaking at the opening and dedication of the new Rosa Parks Transportation Center and AOC Community Media Center (photo: Robert J. Wilson)

Handwerk’s transition to the south was to the tune of “oh my God, I’m turning 30 and I’m single!” Once in Louisiana, he took a risk and started an online consulting business where he thrived at bringing individuals like graphic designers, programmers and small business owners together. A year later, after realizing that life goes on after 30 and the relationship that brought him here wasn’t working out, his true love became his new location and he decided the change had been for the best.

As an activist, Handwerk served as a member of the Stonewall Democrats, promoting pro-equality leaders and policies. Growing very frustrated because his Party kept doing the same thing over and over, he decided it was time to orchestrate a coup. Initially, he asked Karen Carter Peterson if she was ready to shake things up, and soon afterwards she became the first female chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. To simultaneously appoint the first openly gay Executive Director was something Handwerk joked about at that time, but “here we are,” he remarked during the interview. And the record setting did not stop there. Ticket sales to the Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Orleans doubled at last year's event; the bold changes had been well received.

The coup-master described serving in this position as being the manager of the tool kit for his Party.  Handwerk now sees himself as the guy making sure that the toolbox is always stocked with the proper, functional tools. "I'm not about ideology right now," he admitted. His work now includes travelling, fundraising and logistics, taking on the role as a convener of people who share the same goals. Handwerk’s gift for bringing people together is priceless in his new role.

As a Democrat, Handwerk believes his Party gets a bad rap in Louisiana on some major issues, such as supposedly being against oil. “Democrats know that there is only a finite amount of oil on this planet; if Louisiana’s not going to get left behind, we have to start developing other resources,” he said and added that the state is blessed with an abundance of free solar energy.

At the 2012 DNC in Charlotte with Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson and Vice Chairman Shane Riddle
At the 2012 DNC in Charlotte with Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson and Vice Chairman Shane Riddle

He believes that money issues in politics are getting worse and that it is the aim of Democrats to level the playing field when it comes to campaign donations. “Paying as much attention to the person who gives $10 as to the one that gives $10,000 is important because that $10 probably equates to $10,000 for those who give.” Regarding Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid, Handwerk was outspoken. “There is absolutely no other reason than his own political ambition that he is refusing to allow 480,000 Louisiana citizens from being able to get on to Medicaid,” he declared. “Those who are affected largely include the working poor who make too little money to afford their premiums, but too much to be on Medicaid. Simply put, Jindal's policies are having a devastating effect on our state.”

Furthermore, Handwerk opposes Jindal's new cuts to education and stressed that there is a real possibility that some local programs may lose accreditation, severely decreasing the state’s national competitiveness. This would intensify the brain-drain that is already taking place due to the high number of students going out of state for their education, most of which do not return home afterwards. 

Handwerk with Mayor Annise Parker of Houston and National Co-Chair of Stonewall Democrats PAC Babs Siperstein in 2010
Handwerk with Mayor Annise Parker of Houston and National Co-Chair of Stonewall Democrats PAC Babs Siperstein in 2010

More concerning are the cuts to programs aimed at mental health programs and funding for organizations like those that care for battered women, which simply do not make sense when one looks at the big picture. “If [the state] spends one dollar on these program now, they will save $30 down the road in police and prosecutor fees,” he remarked. “Oh yeah, and we may actually save some lives.” Building on fellow Louisiana Democrat Stephen Ortego’s remark about the state budget’s role to educate, medicate and incarcerate, he added a bit of his own wisdom about caring for youths with behavioral or mental problems. “If you don’t medicate, you certainly aren’t going to be able to educate; if you don’t educate, you will likely have to incarcerate.”   

Handwerk would like to see a Democratic Governor who refocuses the state’s attention on families, respects diversity, and values the people who work hard just to get by. When asked if same-sex couples will ever be able to marry in Louisiana, he was emphatically positive and joked that Karl Rove’s framing of the sanctity of marriage has brought critical thinking to the conversation, often now to the benefit of the LGBT community.

Mocha relaxing at home
Mocha relaxing at home

Handwerk is also active in an anti-bullying campaign. “It’s a huge problem,” he remarked. “We need to set very clear standards as to the definition of bullying, and accurately describe the characteristics that bullying can take.” Creating such policies prevent children from being subjected to the belief systems of individuals and dissuade blaming the victim. 

When not having to be "on" for the job, Handwerk enjoys watching films and date nights once a week with his partner Danny, who is a successful professional in the healthcare industry. Mocha, their dog, is also a big part of his life. Otherwise, he admitted that his only other hobby is politics, which he described as being “really sad.”

For now, Handwerk will be proudly serving with Karen Carter Peterson. When questioned about his own ambitions of running for office, he admits his heart would have to be completely in it. "I guarantee you this, if I do run, I'll win," he concluded with a high level of confidence that didn’t come across as unfounded. This ambitious, intelligent man has already proven to the Party and the state that he can be bold and be successful in his current role. Nevertheless, it will be exciting to see what he will achieve next.