Only 38 years old, Kenneth brings a surprisingly unique background and skill set to the office, which is sure to see some bold changes under his guidance. From the Lower 9th Ward to Harvard, Georgetown, Manhattan law firms and back again, Kenneth Polite Jr. is an impressive man with an uplifting story. A native of New Orleans, Polite’s childhood was no fairytale. Born to teenage parents who divorced when he was young, Polite grew up in public housing buildings. Despite his less than ideal home life, he excelled in school and graduated as valedictorian from De La Salle high school. Harvard was the next stop on Polite’s educational track, where he was heavily involved in campus life and even served as Executive Director for an arts education program directed at local public schools, which happened to be the largest non-profit organization in the Harvard system. It was at Harvard that Polite met his wife; in fact, on the first day of class. “She made me work hard to win her heart,” Polite explains, and they only began dating shortly before graduation.
After graduating from Harvard, Polite attended Georgetown to earn his J.D. In an article published by The Advocate, Polite explained that his desire to become a prosecutor came from personal experiences and the influence of his father, who was himself a policeman. Of great significance was the fate of Polite’s half brother who was murdered as part of a gang-style retaliation effort. Polite would always wonder how his brother’s life may have turned out, or how Polite’s own life would have been different, had certain individuals not intervened. These experiences and considerations make Polite not only a good role model in his native New Orleans, but also provide him with the tools to help others in similar situations in his new job.
After completing his J.D. at Georgetown, Polite moved to New York with his wife, who had studied medicine and had gained a residency in the city. In New York, Polite worked in white collar criminal defense, which he described as cases “prosecuted in federal court that do not include violence,” such as tax and identity fraud, often “representing corporations or businesses and their executives”. Afterward, Polite served at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York for three years until returning to New Orleans, where he directed a local firm’s white collar practice.
Meanwhile, the then U.S. Attorney for Eastern Louisiana, Jim Letten, resigned amid murky circumstances and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Senator Mary Landrieu promptly called together a team to find a replacement and a series of meetings were held with the intention of choosing three candidates to recommend for the newly open position. After the discussion, the Senator and her team decided to only nominate one candidate: Mr. Kenneth Polite Jr.
After entering office on September 20, 2013, a ceremony was held on December 5 to publically welcome and honor Polite to this new position. Among the guests were Attorney General Eric Holder as well as students from Polite’s alma mater, De La Salle high school. To the students, Polite’s message was an inspiring one: even though you may not have created the problems in this community, you can be part of the solution. For the community, he vowed to work to make his office the “most productive U.S. attorney’s office in the country”.
But what are the changes we can really expect to see? Polite points out that his most important challenge at the moment is addressing the office’s personnel issues. Currently, he is working to get to know his team, which systems will work best and how to optimize efficiency. He claims his team is eager for change, but in an office that has not seen new leadership in almost 15 years, change may be more of a challenge than usual. Additionally, the sequestration has made it difficult to hire any new staff. Nevertheless, after only four months, Polite is able to confirm that he is seeing improvement by “lifting that cloud [of previous scandals], lifting morale and getting people to focus as a group on how important our work is to the community.” When asked if his age ever causes others to doubt his leadership, Polite explained that “age does not play a big role for me; you have to deal with people as they are, and listen as much as possible.” Further, he asserted, “he can hold his own” and has no qualms about leading individuals significantly older than himself. “Using age as a proxy for knowledge is a mistake,” he claimed, adding “I bring an atypical set of experiences [to this job] compared to what we usually see in these offices.”
More than anything, Polite wants to see a renewed focus on decreasing violent crimes in the community. This issue is one that especially plagues the New Orleans area and now Polite will be part of the effort, working on the consent decrees for both the NOPD and the OPP. To improve his community, Polite outlined two steps he believes will improve the status quo. Polite wants to reduce violent crime by targeting those relatively small numbers of criminals who fuel it. Specifically, there are about seven identified gangs made up of around 74 individuals who Polite would like to spotlight, incarcerate and have removed from the streets. However, he admitted that “long term, incarceration cannot be the only solution.”
That is why Polite’s second step focuses primarily on education for those in jail, out of jail and for youth in troubled areas. Just increasing the high school graduation rate by five percent could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in later incarceration fees, he asserted, and this is apparent when one realizes that “the overwhelming majority of prisoners never graduated from high school.” In conjunction with improving education for vulnerable youth, Polite also plans to offer education benefits to those leaving prison in their effort to rejoin the community. Namely, he wants to see the implementation of a “30-2-2” plan in which 30 businesses hire two ex-cons for two years as a way to reintegrate former prisoners into society. Polite claims that local businesses will gain through this process, citing that “our studies found that ex-cons can often be most reliable and become the long term employees that employers want”. This way, Polite envisions giving back to the community two-fold, both in helping ex-cons focus on self-improvement and staying out of jail, and providing local businesses with skilled and determined workers.
So what does a driven leader like Polite, who has overcome considerable difficulties and achieved outstanding success, teach his own two daughters about their futures? Surprisingly, he does not push them towards or away from any one career path, but rather emphasizes the importantance of the people that they surround themselves with. Polite himself recalled having great friends from his college days who themselves have “outstanding professional careers, and continue to constantly push and support each other,” which has been paramount to his success. Polite’s life is a testament to the fact that those growing up in difficult circumstances can achieve great things. Who could be a more perfect role model to lead the New Orleans community, which is plagued by hardship and disadvantage, than a man who has been there and back himself?