And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
Adrian Perkins is a great American story. Raised by a single mother in Shreveport, Louisiana, he overcame the challenges of poverty and violence to attend West Point, where he was the first African-American president of the student body. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, won a Bronze Star, attended Harvard Law School after leaving the military, and, at 31, returned to his hometown to win election as mayor. A remarkable story. And as we learned at the Institute of Politics last spring where he served as a fellow, a genuinely inspiring person. Here's our conversation. Adrian Perkins, it's great to see you. First of all, let me thank you for being a fellow at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics and helping us inspire a bunch young Adrian-Perkins types. I want to thank you for that, but thanks for being here.
Of course, happy to be here, David, thank you for the invite and serving at the University of Chicago was an honor for me. I'm on a mission after I left office to try to inspire as many people as possible, so that was the perfect destination for me. So I really enjoyed it.
I want to talk about that. But before we get into that, I want to talk about your own journey, which is in and of itself an inspiration. But talk to me about your early years in Shreveport and growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Yeah, I always tell my students this is the non-Wikipedia version of me. I was born in Cedar Grove here in Shreveport. It's the, one the poorest communities and neighborhoods here. My mom had, my mom, my father, had me, and I had two older brothers. Unfortunately, my father ended up leaving the family when I was three. We were already kind of financially struggling, but we really started to struggle at that point. But I had a superhero for a mother. What we didn't have enough resources and material resources she made up for with the values that she taught us. So, but we still went through those circumstances. I remember some of my earliest memories sleeping under the bed because we used to have driveby shootings so often and I didn't want to get shot as a kid.
Stop right there, because I read this, and you know, I think about this a lot, because the University of Chicago is on the South Side of Chicago, there's a lot of shooting on the South Side, a lot of young people going through what you went through. And I often think about what it is like to grow up with that fear. And I just have this sense that we're creating a whole generation of young people who are walking around with untreated PTSD.
So talk about what it was like to be a kid sleeping under your bed, hoping that your bed will provide protection or worried that if you sleep on your bed, you could get hit by a stray bullet. What was it like for you? What do you remember feeling and thinking?
Yeah, I mean, the it was traumatic. I can remember that to this day. You know, when a kid is sleeping under his bed at nighttime, that, he's going to, he or she is going to walk around with an anxiety the next day. It's not going to quickly be forgotten, either. You know, when you go to school, you're going to carry that with you, when you're interacting in the neighborhood, you're going to carry that with you and not be sure, you know, where danger lurks. And when you're a child trying to figure out the world, that's not what you want introduced, right? That's not the most ideal circumstances. So not an ideal situation at all. And I'm very blessed that I had my mom and that I have my community to add those positive experiences to balance out the negative in my life.
Talk about your mom, You called her superhuman. I read somewhere she she worked three jobs.
To support you and your two brothers. Tell me what kind of presence she was in your life.
Yeah, she was. It's weird. It still feels when I look back like she was omnipresent. She somehow worked those jobs when she still was able to take me to sports practices and support my brothers and things of that nature. But my mother was a, is a very religious woman, you know, she made sure that she kept us in the church, as well. We grew up Church of God in Christ, (COGIC). So I was at church, I was doing everything from Bible study to prayer. She had me in a choir. I couldn't sing. So really grew up with a strong, a strong church background. But yeah, I remember her picking me up from school, and we would go I would go with her either to her second job where she cleaned office buildings at night. I remember doing plenty of homework in these, you know, fancy office building, sometimes bank building and not so fancy while my mother vacuumed and cleaned up office buildings at night. On some nights she would pick me up and she would go to college. She would go to school. She went to, she took college classes at night. So by the time I graduated from middle school, she had a bachelor's degree. So she showed me the importance of hard work and she showed me the importance of education early. It was just, you know, a woman that was going to make a way for her family. And even with the Black woman in the South working two jobs, we still struggled. You know. You know, again, that was why we lived in that neighborhood. It was plenty of nights when we still didn't have enough food despite her working end to end. And, you know, growing up like that very much also influenced the policies that I implemented when I became the mayor. I wanted to make sure that we helped out as many of our citizens as possible, especially those that I knew were working, you know, harder than most yet still falling behind.
You obviously excelled at school. I know you excelled in athletics, but you also must have excelled in academics because you got the opportunity to go to West Point. You also were the president of the student body in your school, and this replicated itself at every level of education that you attained. What is it that drew you to that? I mean, you you are you are a sort of a natural politician.
Yeah, well, you know, it's funny. This is going to be a very funny story, because it wasn't intentional whatsoever. I grew up, I wanted to play sports. Let me let me credit my brothers here. I hope they don't watch this, because we're extremely competitive and I never credit them on anything. One of my, my middle brother was extremely good at sports and my oldest brother was extremely good with academics. So as a kid, and I'm seven years younger than my middle brother, I'm nine years younger than my older brother. As a child, I didn't really get the concept of age well, I wanted to beat them both in sports and in the classroom despite that big age gap. So that's why it really made me focus in class and really wanted me to focus in sports. But sports was my first love, so in high school, I was like, I'm going to be an athlete. And, you know, it was all about football and basketball and running track. And one day me and my best friend were walking to sports practice and one of our friends stopped us and said, You should sign up for student government. And we laughed at her and I was like, no, no, no. We, you know, we play sports, we know our lane. And we just wanted to be the high school jocks. And she's like, No, you need to sign up. She's like, You don't have to do anything. It's just a popularity contest. So me and my best friend looked at each other and said, All right, let's try this out. And we walked in a room, signed up, didn't do anything, and end up winning and become, I became my class president for the first time, I ran out my sophomore year in high school. And yeah, as you pointed out, that pattern continued to repeat itself all the way up through graduate school where I was student body president at Harvard Law School.
And for years at West Point.
Four years at West Point. Yeah, and the first African-American graduate to be class president, as well.
It must have been more than just a popularity contest for you once you did the thing, although I must say I didn't have the confidence that you did, I would be worried about submitting myself to a popularity contest every year.
Yeah, well, you know what? At West Point, it wasn't even confidence. And I tell this story. It was naivete. I didn't know much about West Point. I didn't know much about what I should do at West Point. My mom, you know, my mom went to, you know, night school. She didn't have the traditional college background. And she was like the first person in our family to do it. So I didn't have many reference points. So what I told myself when I got into West Point was, Adrian, you should do the same things you did in high school. Not knowing that everybody at West Point was their class president in high school, was the captain of the track teams. You know, it was one of those things that kind of inadvertently out of naivete walked into, and it worked out for me.
Let's back up for a second to the decision to go to West Point, because it was very much tied up with a an event everybody who was alive at that time remembers, which was 9/11.
Yeah. Yeah. So I was not intending to go to West Point. I was intending to go to LSU. But my junior year on September 11th when the World Trade Centers were attacked, that's when I changed course quite a bit. My older brother was actually already in the military at the time, so I knew a little bit about the military, because I spent some summers with them. But after watching those towers fall that morning, that's when I made the decision that I was not going to LSU. West Point had already recruited me at that point, and I started to take that recruitment serious, and I'd set myself on a path to get my nomination and go to West Point.
And what was that experience like? How did West Point changed you or help form who you are?
Oh, I think it changed me in very like fundamental but very like revolutionary ways, as well. And I'm going to, I'll jump into that. The reason being is because, you know, obviously I was an athlete coming out of Louisiana. I was I was somewhat of a leader being class president. But going to West Point, you're around a bunch of class presidents, a lot of type-A people, but also it removed me out of Louisiana, as well. I got to see more of the world. And it gave me a discipline unlike anything that I'd ever had. And I was already a pretty disciplined kid. You know, I would wake up, in high school I was already waking up at 5:30 in the morning running before I would have to go to school. So I was already pretty disciplined. But West Point gave me a discipline and taught me how to focus and orient myself around missions. And it taught me how to lead various groups of people, not just people that grew up in in a neighborhood beside me or my own neighborhood. And yeah, that that gave me the tools. And talk about confidence. That's where it was introduced. It gave me the tools and the confidence to let me know I could survive in any scenario that I was ever put in. I could lead in any scenario that I was put in if necessary. And yeah, it was just a transformational experience that I'm very blessed to have and 100% accounted for a lot of the other successes that I received throughout my life.
Obviously, and you kind of referenced this, West Point was a much more diverse environment .when you were growing up, how diverse was your school?
It was very diverse. I went to a public school. It was very diverse. But the diversity is different. In the South and Louisiana, my diversity was Black, white. When I go to West Point, I'm exposed to Latino people and I'm exposed to Jewish people and I'm exposed that Asian people, you know, people from from various different backgrounds, we even had cadets come from other countries. So the diversity was very different. My student body in high school, something else that kind of gave me some tools to do, was almost split 50/50 Black/white student. So, you know, if you want to win a class president election, you have to be able to talk to Black and white students. And that was a ability that not a lot of students had. One thing about me growing up, as well, that's embedded in my story is although I grew up in Cedar Grove, an all Black neighborhood, I was educated in a neighborhood named Broadmoor, which is pretty much a predominantly middle class white neighborhood off of a program called Majority to Minority Transfer Program. At night when I got home, I was around a lot of Black people. And by day, when I was at school, I was around, you know, a lot of white children in gifted classrooms, as well. And I would see friends, you know, some of my Black friends on on some of my breaks, but, yeah, I had to be able to learn a lot of different languages and lingo and cultures.
Was that hard making, when you were a kid, not the West Point experience, but the, when you were when you were a kid, was it hard toggling back and forth between those environments?
It was unconscious, actually. I didn't learn about code switching and all those technical terms until much later in my life. It was very unconscious. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to do good by people. I didn't want to get in trouble. I also saw a lot of people being, you know, the criminal justice system in my neighborhood had taken away neighborhood leaders and young people and all that other stuff. So I knew I had a pretty tight line to walk. So it was pretty unconscious to me. And I got some very genuine, genuine, great friendships that I have to this day. Actually, crazy enough, I talked to my elementary best friend yesterday on the phone. It's a white guy. Him and, his mother and my mother are the closest, they're probably best friends to this day. So no, developing those friendships, it was just unconscious and it was just baked into the environment for me.
We were at war. That's the reason that you went to West Point, and you ultimately were deployed, and we'll talk about that in a second. But we talked earlier about violence in your community and you talked about sleeping under your bed and so on. Did you lose friends? Did you know people who were injured and killed?
I mean, you were you were familiar with casualties at a very early age.
Yeah. I did. From the neighborhood context to the military context, I did. And, you know, in talking to my therapist, it probably wasn't the best thing for me going from that type of neighborhood environment to the military. And I've had to, you know, kind of hash those things out in my older age. But yeah, it was a lot of familiarity with it that allowed me to just go through it and keep going. In the military I was stationed. The first time we lost soldiers was my first deployment in Afghanistan where we had a direct rocket attack on one of our fire direction centers. I was a battalion operations officer, and we lost two people immediately on impact and then a third soldier bled out on the plane. Jamar Hicks. He was from Arkansas. He bled out on the medevac out. And that was in a moment where, you know, death in the military isn't the same as it is in real life where we can, we have a moment to grieve. I, being the operations officer, I was actually responsible for working harder in that particular moment, because we had to make sure we were able to call in those nine line medevacs as quickly as possible. We had to make sure we establish security as quickly as possible. We had to get our firing point back up where we fired those artillery rounds back at the enemy as quickly as possible. So in that particular moment, I didn't get a chance to to grieve or even think about what just happened, even though I just lost, you know, some very, very close friends and that the FOB name was Wilderness, you just had to go into action. So, yeah, it's very, very atypical things that occurred to me growing up. I'll put it that way.
You talk about seeing a therapist. We have a huge problem with mental health issue with returning returning veterans from battle. And I wanted to ask you about that, because I had an interesting conversation a while back with someone on this podcast, someone from the military, with military experience who said that every, you know, you're trained, there's the old phrase, you know, you soldier on, you soldier on, You're trained to sort of keep going. You're trained to sort of not let your emotions take hold and to just kind of suck it up and deal with what's ever in front of you, which is necessary when you're at war. But hard as a human being when you're not. If you're trained not to share, if you're trained not to reach out for help. This strikes me as a huge problem we have to overcome.
Yeah. Yeah. No, it does. And that. Interesting, growing up in an African-American community, there's a stigma on. There was a stigma, is getting better, on mental health and going to see a therapist. And then going into the military, a very similar stigma on, you know, mental health, if you want to see a therapist, there's a there was a weakness associated with it. And that's the reason why I, to this day, I talk about it so freely as well, because I want people to see this, you know, military veteran, this college athlete, you know, people that fit those kind of manlier stereotypes to talk about therapy freely. And I have plenty of friends, it's like, oh, my God, I'm so happy you told me you went to therapy, like, I'm going to go. I've been thinking about it. I've been on the fence, I'm going to go. And you'd be surprised, David I'm talking about, you know, military, you know, majors, colonels. I'm talking about mayors that'll hear me talking about it even to this day and say, I'm really happy you told me that story. So that's the reason why I try to be as open about it as possible, because it's helped me rewire after, you know, I've left the military and I don't have to be in soldier mode any way. I hve to exist in a completely different dynamic with completely different circumstances. I had to be there for my family in various ways that, you know, I have to go through these things and I have to deal with, you know, my past experiences and I have to deal with friends in a certain way. So this has been very helpful for me and it keeps me healthy, too, very healthy.
Yeah. These unseen wounds can be as deadly as the ones we see if they're untreated. You're a good example of of someone who took action. And I just hope if there are people who are struggling, who are listening to this, and I talk about it all the time, so they're probably saying, man, I wish you'd stop talking about that.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You were 23 years old and you were commanding a unit. Talk about that because now you're you're 23 and you have the lives of other human beings in your hand.
Yes. I was 23, I was a platoon leader in Iraq. In the Marines, they called a platoon commander. So I had responsibility of 30 plus soldiers. I was in Iraq and we were, I was an artillery unit, but we had an infantry mission. So we would go around all day and do stuff that the infantry units would have, because we. Iraq was a very built up area. We weren't firing rounds into the city at that point. So every day we would go around and set up traffic control points. Sometimes we'd go and look for high value targets. We had various missions. But I'll tell you, and I'm honest with a lot of young people that I talked to, because I get this question a lot. On my first mission, I was very, very afraid. That is not something that I was like confident and cocky about either going into it, but it was knowing that those 30 people were watching me that really gave me the courage to be able to do what I had to do. And then once you go on one mission and two missions and three missions, you get very comfortable, so I ended up doing, you know, over 100 combat missions in Iraq. But what set the conditions for it is the day I flew into Baghdad, we got mortared while my plane was landing. So we had to run off the plane and get into bunkers, because there was mortars hitting the tarmac. So I'm like, wow, this is a way for war to start off as my first deployment. And then my first mission out where I was actually the commander on the mission, we were, we had this band that would check organic material, and we had to take it out to a certain traffic control point. The carried that it was on broke down.
When you say organic material, what do you mean?
So the organic material that they used to make bombs, we would set it up at checkpoints to check cars for that organic material. And the PLS, it's this long vehicle, it's like an 18-wheeler without the top to it. It's just a long trailer. Broke down on one of the busiest streets in Iraq, and for security reasons, you need to keep as big of a buffer around you as possible when you're doing an operation, and we're on one of the biggest streets. So I had to get out of my vehicle, and all I could see playing in my head was, you know, the scenes on CNN and everything else where people get blown up and this and this and this. And I had to get out of my vehicle, first mission out, very unorthodox, not going according to plan at all, and be able to establish a security perimeter around our PLS so that we could come and they can, you know, tow it out. And it was extremely nerve wracking. Shutting down one of the busiest streets in Baghdad, middle of the day, mission not going right. It was my first time, and I'm 23 years old. And I could tell, though, all my soldiers, as soon as they see me step out of the vehicle, they were able to step out of the vehicle and just get on the mission. And that's when I was like, okay, this is what it takes to lead in this environment. And, you know, the deployment went pretty well after that.
Did you ever find yourself either in Iraq or Afghanistan questioning the mission?
No, that occurred afterwards. Yeah, that that occurred afterwards. I understood that the way that I always envisioned the military and my role with the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan and the questions around it is that we were the, we were the arm of the United States. And, you know, our elected officials were the ones responsible for, you know, throwing that punch, or, you know, putting us in those situations to defend the country. And I had the utmost trust in that process as a young person. I think that was a lot of naivete there. But yeah, obviously, as I've gotten older and I've read a lot more about those wars and, you know, the reasons that we were being there, especially Iraq, I have had questions about my involvement, and I've had to situate my involvement in that particular war.
Eventually, you you left the military and you went to Harvard Law School. Tell me about that decision and why you decided to go to law school.
Yeah, so a couple of different factors to it. I, I was at a crossroads in the military, so I did a couple of things. I applied to teach economics at West Point, which is my dream job for the military. And I applied to law school at the same time. I wasn't sleeping much.
Yeah. But I wanted options for myself and I end up getting accepted to the, to teach at West Point, was supposed to go to the social sciences department. And I end up getting accepted to law school, which I actually didn't have a lot of faith in, I didn't know about. I am the first person in my family to go to law school and and just talking to some of my mentors and looking at the trajectory of my life. I actually wanted to come back to my hometown sooner than doing a 20 year military career. And I figured if I would go to law school, that will create a shorter path for me. But a lot of my mentors also told me, like, Hey, I think that this, you know, not everybody gets into Harvard Law School. I think this is something that you need to take advantage of. So I end up leaving the military in July of 2015. I was a company commander in Afghanistan where I had about 200 soldiers in my headquarters company. And I started law school in August 2015. So a very quick transition. And and there are some stories to tell about there. But yeah, I made the decision to transition out and go to law school thinking that I would be a corporate lawyer and, you know, become a partner and make some money and then be able to come back to my hometown. And obviously none of that happened.
Well, you came back to your hometown. Making the money thing, the making the money part didn't. How were you received as a veteran at Harvard? Did you feel thoroughly integrated there as a veteran? And also, how was the diversity at at Harvard Law School?
Yeah, so the diversity at Harvard was more than the diversity at West Point. I didn't talk about the statistic earlier, but when I was at West Point, it was about 7% African-American. I think we had we either were right at or hadn't broken the threshold of 20% women yet, as well. And I'm very proud of my undergrad institution, especially when under the leadership of General [unclear], when he came in a few years later, he doubled the African-American population there. I think, I know for a fact he got beyond 30% women population. So West Point is a much more diverse institution then when just when I went there and graduate in 2008, but Harvard was more way more diverse.
Well, I got to ask you two things that are separate issues. One is about this recent Supreme Court ruling disallowing affirmative action by race. What was your reaction to that decision?
Yeah, you know what? I am a very complicated person when it comes to affirmative action. I think that. I want to say this. My friends from West Point, I have this group of friends that are my best friends to this day. A lot of us are similarly situated as being Southerners from low income backgrounds. You know, a lot of us with single parent houses, I think 80% of us and I can not. And to this day, some of them are on track to be generals in the army. Some of them are on track to be C-suite executives. Some of them, these are leaders in our society today, and without our time at West Point, I can't see that happening going to other institutions. And, you know, obviously my imagination might just not extend there. And a lot of us, I'm sure, benefited from affirmative action. So I'll say that, you know, I'm a fan of affirmative action there. But I will tell you this, David. When I went to Harvard, I'm going to throw out some more statistics. And I think student body presidents get this information probably a little bit more than most students. The poorest 15% of my law school class made double the average American family salary. $120,000 was the poorest 15%. Now, I come from a household where my mom made like 30 something thousand dollars, right? So I'm a massive outlier there. I 100% believe there needed to be socioeconomic considerations in our admissions process on top of just, not just race. And that being said, me just being Black does not make me fit into rooms at Harvard. And I'm sure it's like that across the Ivy Leagues. When somebody from such a low income background walks into those rooms, there is just as much of a learning curve and things for me to catch up on. You know, when I'm encountering Black people with summer homes, Black people whose families were corporate lawyers, you name it. And with affirmative action, the previous form of it, it put us all on the same scale. And I don't think it achieved the diversity in which it was looking for. To this day, the way that socioeconomically we've become polarized and the disparities in our society. So what I would say is that I think that it needed to be overhauled anyway, and I hope that we can use this as an opportunity to consider more socioeconomic diversity on top of just racial diversity. But the diversity, the racial diversity is very much needed for sure. But I think there are some things that we can do to really modify that and bring even more richer experiences into the classrooms and eventually into society.
Yeah, You know, President Obama said in the past that he didn't think his daughters, who had all the advantages that they had ,needed to benefit from affirmative action. And the point was exactly the one you were making, which is this is an issue of class as well as race. The other question I wanted to ask you is, as a soldier, you said you made the transition very quickly. Was that a hard transition from the military life to the Harvard Law student life?
Yeah, it actually wasn't. I had a blast. You got to think about my perspective, right? You know, a lot of these students. And by the way, I was 29 when I went to law school. They called us owls, older, wiser law school students. So my perspectives were very different. I was used to tough, hard military life at that point, and a lot of my classmates were coming out of undergrad. So, like studying was all that they knew. So my perspectives were very, very different.
Were probably maybe less intimidated by.
Yeah, I wasn't intimidated at all. No.
By flinty law professors.
Yeah. Not at all. I wasn't intimidated at all. I was excited about the challenge. I was excited about learning law. I was excited that I got this opportunity to begin with.
So you mentioned earlier that you had this vision that you, or you were advised that you could do this Harvard experience, go out to a corporate law firm, make some money, and then return home to Shreveport. And it strikes me you probably could have written your ticket anywhere in a law firm or a corporation when you left Harvard Law School, and you could have made a fair amount of dough doing it and set yourself up for a life. But you didn't even wait until you graduated from Harvard Law School to run for mayor, mayor of Shreveport. You were at once a Harvard Law student and a candidate for mayor.
I was. I was. That that is a very true story. But once again, not anticipated on my end. What happened, this the way the story goes, what happened was I was a 2L, I had already been accepted to go to Sidley Austin, very prominent law firm. Now, I ran for student body president, so I recorded a video when I was a 2L, and I put it on my social media page, which I have a lot of friends and family back home that saw my video. So I tell people, I don't know if like locally viral is a thing, but my video began to go like locally viral and spread around my community, and a lot of people started to reach out to me and asked me what were my plans after law school. Emphatically, I told them, I'm going to a corporate law firm. I told them my plan. And I told them, but eventually I didn't want to be back in Shreveport. So I remember my best friend calling me and asking me to consider coming back to run for mayor. And, you know, it was other people that had already called that specifically wanted me to do that.
Did the video speak to your experience in Shreveport? Did you talk about Shreveport?
No. So, no, the only thing I talked about in the video was myself and my vice president, Amanda Lee. And the only thing we talked about was leading the student body and bringing the student body together and advocating for students. But one thing, the video was posted on my middle school's website. I think one of the assistant principals posted that video, they were trying to recruit students to my middle school, and I think they were trying to make the equivalent that if you go to this middle school, you can go to Harvard Law School. Pretty big stretch. So that's how it started to spread in the community, not just from my own social media.
Although if you're a kid and you see someone like you, it does sort of expand your your sense of what what could be what is possible.
Yeah, no, 100%. I am very aware of that reality. And that is the motivation behind a lot of the things that I do and a lot of the things that I say. So you're right. But I think it would have been pretty arrogant of me to think that, oh, you know, that video is going to to inspire people to ask me to run for mayor. I had no idea that that was going to happen at all. I was I was focused on the task at hand, which was just being a student body president. And yeah, it went locally viral, and people called me, and I made a compromise with my best friend and some other leaders. I said, Hey, I will go to Sidley Austin and see how that is, and then I will come back my first semester to do an exploratory period. And I would go back and forth between Shreveport and Cambridge. And I did that. And after that exploratory period, David, where I was knocking on a door of a, hundreds of people a day and asking them, you know, what do they want to see out of a community and what they wanted to see out of a mayor and a leader and hearing their stories about their neighborhoods, about their families, and just realizing no matter what part of town I was in, the east side, the west side, predominately Black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, everybody wanted the same thing. They wanted security. They wanted, you know, their families to be safe. They wanted opportunity. They wanted jobs. You know, just hearing it across the board, I knew that my heart was very much in continuing my public service and not going to a corporate law firm, as much as I loved my experiences at Sidley Austion.
What did you learn? What were you exposed to in law school that you saw as applicable to going back and running for mayor? Were the things you learned and said, You know what, I can apply this to helping my hometown?
I will tell you, and being honest, it wasn't a whole lot that I learned from law school. I think my crucible of leadership that I use the most and I knew I was going to rely on the most was from the military. The law school, I would say, helped me understand the more liberal environments of America. You know, I was, I was considered extremely moderate coming out of a military background where I thought I was pretty progressive, in that particular environment. So I had to work as a moderate and pull together a lot of different student organizations that were ideologically very different around common themes, common missions, to host different events and to really facilitate student life and more of a unity, you know, a unified fashion opposed to a disorganized one.
So you went back. You were, what, 30, 31 years old by then?
And tell me what you. What the what you walk into the door, you're faced with fiscal problems, huge crime and violence problems, antiquated physical plant of the city. Tell me what you thought when you set your butt down in that big chair and realized this is my responsibility now.
Yeah. David, you've done your homework. I felt like you were there with me, as you just explained my situation. It's a couple of profound thoughts I had. One of them was, No longer do I have a battalion commander or a division commander to run issues up to higher leadership. Like I am the last stop here. You know, it's kind of going on a transformation from a captain in the military and then three years later, without any leadership specific training, three years later, I'm like running the military. You know, there is nobody else to go to with the issues. And that was one of those profound things that I learned.
I kind of grew up as a city hall reporter in Chicago, and I fell in love with local government and local politics. And I ended up doing mayor's races all over the country. And one of the things that strike, struck me about it then and now is that, unlike other offices, people hold the mayor accountable. Like something happens on their block, you know, they're not writing their congressmen or their governor or their senator. The mayor is responsible for that. And you live in the community. So they're there to let you know. It's not like you're going to avoid them. You know, you're there among them. So I think that makes it the most vital and also the most challenging form of government.
I agree. You live with the policies that you implement on a daily basis. There is no driving an hour or two hours to, you know, the state house. There is no flying to D.C. You are living with everything that you do. You're living with the constituents. And something else is hard. David, at the beginning of that as well, it makes it even tougher, is that people want you to fix things immediately. That that's another very difficult element to this, so as you're trying to understand all these problems and you realize like, okay, my citizens are holding me accountable. They're holding you accountable immediately for policies that were implemented five months ago, five years ago. You know, ten, 15 years ago. And that's something that I had to realize, too. It was never sufficient for me to say, you know, you know, sorry, that was, you know, a previous administration, but we're trying to remedy it. I really just had to forget saying it was the previous administration and say, you know, we understand it's been an issue for a while. You know, this is the plan that we have to to remedy that. So, yeah, that's a that's a very difficult position to be in.
And you're also I mean, the flipside is you're in a position to make changes and see the changes that you've made. You can roll down a street and see, you know, an abandoned, dangerous building that you took down and put something else there. You can, there are things you can see. What are the things. I know that you technology was a big piece of what you brought to Shreveport and sort of deploying the tools of that are available today that weren't available five, ten, 15 years ago. But tell me about the progress that you made, and then let's talk about that pandemic that you had to confront in the middle of all of that.
Yes, so my platform was about public safety. I wanted to implement more community oriented policing. As a matter of fact, two months before I took office, we had an officer involved shooting with an African-American male named Alvin Childs, and the community was still reeling about once I stepped into office. I want to talk about economic opportunities as well. Shreveport was just like the the Rust Belt where they got crushed with outsourcing and automation. So I wanted to make sure that we talked and we were very aggressive with our economic plan. And lastly, I wanted to implement technologies. We were probably a couple of decades behind with technology adoption at City Hall, but I not only wanted City Hall to do that, I wanted the community to adopt technology and get more used to it as well. So I tackled those problems that way. And you already pointed out I had a fiscal deficit. That was one of the things I had to attack first, because let me tell you, another point of naivete, me talking on the campaign trail about all these things I wanted to do and not realizing you need resources and money to do those things. When I walked in and one of the secrets that I found underneath the seat of the mayor's office was that we were, we had a negative $1.3 million deficit. We weren't even supposed to be running a deficit at all. So I knew we were going to be struggling. So I always ran to my CTO, my chief technology officer, when there were bigger issues and asked him, Hey, is can tech help us in any way? And fortunately, they found some some unclosed transaction orders to the tune of $3 million pretty quickly that they were able to consolidate and get into our fund. So we, just using technology and doing some deep diving into our accounting, we were able to cover up that deficit and start off with something.
You also faced in a lot of cities do unfunded pension obligations. You got attacked for that.
Yeah. Yeah. Unfunded. And David, you know how long these pension funds have been around. And I think you can safely say I wasn't the one to start it and have put us in those negative positions. But don't forget health care costs, as well. The annual healthcare cost. A lot of people don't realize that. And those things weigh heavily on your operating budget. You're having to use money that you have right now, put those and patch up those gaps. But even with all those fiscal pressures, after the first year, we had already pulled ourself out of a deficit. I think we had 8 to $9 million. And then after the second year we had over $15 million. That was without any federal assistance at all. So we did a good job at being, you know, fiscally responsible and still implementing technologies here and there. But yeah, we used technology in a lot of different ways. We use technology with our public safety officers by standing up a real time crime center before I left office. We were able to get them more technology in the field to where they wouldn't have to do handwritten notes, and we could keep them on the on the road longer. With economic development, we always pushed having broadband and expanding broadband opportunities in our area, as well, to make sure that we had a very skilled and or the most skilled workforce that we can have. So yeah, technology was it was a big part about the things we implemented, fiscal responsibility. We did everything that we possibly could.
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You made headway on crime and public safety. Talk about that. And then you ran into the pandemic.
Yeah. So the first year in office was the safest year in Shreveport in 40 years. We made a lot of headway on it. And again, we were leading with community oriented policing. I would lead myself neighborhood walks at least once, sometimes twice a month, along with my officers, because I wanted my officers to be exposed to the communities they were patrolling, not in just negative context. And I also wanted them to.
That must have been informed by your own experience as a kid.
Oh, 100%. Yeah. As I told you, you know, I saw the criminal justice system and law enforcement early in a negative context. But I also was informed by my time in Iraq as well. And, you know, understanding with COIN and the way that we were implementing our strategy, you have to get to know those village elders. You have to get to know those village leaders and realized there's a much bigger gulf between me and, you know, a sheikh in in Iraq than there is between a law, a police officer here in Shreveport and a neighborhood that they're in. And if I had to bridge that gap, and I saw the effectiveness of bridging that gap and how we were able to get the intel that we needed, we were able to stabilize the communities that we needed, then, yeah, it had a big impression on me that you need to know the people on which you are patrolling, whom, you know, you exercise this type of type of power over. So yeah, that informed me big time and it was effective, as well. We got a lot of praise for our involvement in getting out there and, you know, being boots on the ground in our community, not just when they're calling us about emergencies.
So how many months into your administration was it when Covid, serves about, what, 14 months?
Yeah. As soon as my staff, you know, as soon as I knew where the bathroom was, we got rocked. I remember being very proud of that and being excited about all the things that we could accomplish considering what we accomplished in that first year. And lo and behold, you know, two months later, the world around us completely changed. And we took all those skills and efforts and we deployed them into just keeping our city safe. And we did a great job at it. We made the Washington, front page of The Washington Post. We used technology in that instance.
One of the reasons you were on the front page of The Washington Post was your technology uncovered the fact that minority communities were vastly more exposed to the ravages of of this. Why? Why was that?
Yeah, you're absolutely right. So once again, big problem, calling my chief technology officer to see what we can do with technology. And we realize, we gather some data on where our EMS runs were, you know, and we were able to figure out that the virus is very much concentrated in the denser areas, the urban neighborhoods in our city where predominantly African-Americans live. And I'll tell you, at the time when I was bringing this even bringing this up to the Louisiana Department of Health Leadership, they were pushing back saying they didn't want to stigmatize these neighborhoods. But I was able to push against them even harder to say, I'm from this neighborhood. I know that these citizens want to be safe more than they want, they care about a stigma in this moment. And I'm going to publish this anyway. So after we published those statistics and we got all this coverage, the state followed suit, other states followed suit, other cities followed suit. You know, obviously, when a story like that runs, so, you know, we were just we were committed to doing everything we can to keep our citizens safe. We didn't care about, you know, what people were saying.
But my question, Adrian, is it seems to me that whenever something bad happens, whether it's a pandemic or a natural, other kind of natural disaster, normal health risks and so on, that poor communities and minority communities always overindex.
Yeah, the saying of when America gets a cold that, you know, Black people get the flu. You ever heard that one, David?
Yeah. I mean, that's the case, right? You got people, not not as many people with health care insurance. You still got stigmas on our health care system from the minority population. But also it was a density problem, as well. People don't realize a lot of African-Americans live with extended family, just like in other areas, as well. They don't have the biggest homes where they're sharing their family. They share what they have. So that was a problem. And also at the beginning of the pandemic, I'm sure you remember, there was a lot of misinformation, as well. And a lot of the people that we were seeing on the news and hearing about the victims coming down with Covid, and this is trending on Twitter, were Black people didn't even think they could have it. So misinf-- that we were fighting that misinformation, too. And unfortunately, while that misinformation was going around and we were fighting all those historical barriers, the virus didn't care about any of it, and it was ravaging our communities.
And was there resistance in the community to vaccines? And was it hard to administer them?
So if I can share a story, if you'll humor me for one moment, I stood up. Before the pandemic. I stood up a committee on race here in Shreveport. You know, coming from from New York and Boston and being in the military, I quickly realized we had a racial issue here in Shreveport. I wanted to set up a committee to study and make proposals to me and to city council on how we could mend the fences and try to bring people together. So I did that before the pandemic, before the George Floyd summer. So I was on a call with my committee and I was telling them, and I was giving them an update on where we were with Covid. And I told them, Hey, somebody brought up the vaccines and I told them, Hey, we should be getting more soon. It was at the beginning of Covid when there was a mad dash on the vaccines. And I said, I think we're going to hit a point where African-Americans are not going to get the vaccines. I'm starting to hear some resistance in the community. And there was a pastor on the line that says, you're absolutely right. We need to get communication out. There are we need to be proactive about it. And one of my white commissioners raised his hand and said, hey, I think you're missing something from the other side of the community. I go to an Evangelical church, and I'm hearing people say that they're not going to take the vaccine. And there there's already very strong rhetoric against it. Little did I know, those two forces would keep Shreveport as one of the lowest vaccinated places in America after we, you know, kind of broke that 30 plus percent threshold where people, where the original people wanted it. And we, unfortunately made the front page of The New York Times for tha,t as well. They came down here when Louisiana was leading the country in lowest vaccine rate and was going did a story about why people aren't getting vaccines. But I had those political currents, those religious currents alongside those historical currents and stigmas with our health care system in a Black community. And that was a cocktail for disaster for us.
And another consequence in Shreveport, as well as the rest of the country, was an explosion in crime.
Mm hmm. 100%. Yeah. We had an explosion in crime. The pandemic year we broke, we almost broke the record on the pandemic year, we did break our homicide record the next year. So going from a community that's as safe as it's been in 40 years, to breaking a homicide record, the pandemic did a you know, it did a number a number on us. And people don't realize how low officer morale was considering they were watching people stay at home, be safe from the pandemic, but they had to go out each and every day and expose themselves to things that we didn't even know about yet. They still put themselves in that gulf, and it was just hard to do policing at that particular time that a lot of, I think, mental health issues were building up in our community because, you know, human beings aren't used to being stuck in a house and not going to work and things of that nature and not socialize. And so it was it was I said it was a cocktail for disaster for us and communities throughout the country.
Now, in the midst of this, you decided to run for the United States Senate.
Against Bill Cassidy, a Republican incumbent, didn't turn out well. In retrospect, and I think partly it didn't. You lost, and you lost badly. But the bigger issue may have been it also was fodder for your opponents in Shreveport to say, you know, you're off on your excellent adventure and we're right in the middle of this. Was it a mistake to run for the Senate?
No, I don't consider it a mistake at all. Let me explain my motivations behind it, because I've explained it, and for some reason, a lot of times the rhetoric does not get out there. And, you know, there's a certain narrative. So we, at that point, we had already made the front page of The Washington Post. We had already been deploying resources in our community to keep small businesses afloat. We had started putting out micro grants. We were doing block grant dollars to help people with housing. And I saw a local budget cannot keep a city afloat, especially one when I didn't even inherit a city reserve. We are hitting our limit on keeping people afloat, but this is what I was doing every day. I was calling citizens and I would talk to ten citizens a day about just like how life was going. And, you know, just to check on him. Since I couldn't get out and do events, I needed to stay connected. And every phone call, well, you know, just about every phone call, mayor, I do not know how I'm going to pay rent today. I do not know how I'm going to keep a roof over, you know, my children's head. This is before they announced the moratorium on housing. Mayor, I just lost my job. You know, they just laid us off. They won't be needing us. You know, I don't know how I'm going to feed my family. I'm I'm hearing, you know, hey, you know, somebody just got shot in the neighborhood. I'm worried about the crime that's going on. You know, all these things every single day. And just talking to my citizens, I was like, I can't do anything else. Like, I am my limit. And you know how powerful the mayor's office can be. And I saw the bickering going on in Washington, D.C., and the fighting about this and this and this. And it seemed like they were taking their time and not realizing the urgent, the sense of urgency that was on the ground. If they were on those calls that I was on, I promise you, they would have acted fast and they would have understood how much damage was being done to our community. So I was I was in that that that that the state of mind and some people were talking about this. And, you know, obviously, I was involved in state politics already at that point. And people were talking about the Senate race and some people actually did some polling on me without me even knowing about it and reached out and said, you know, hey, would you ever consider this? And I said, you know, hey, I want to stay focused the first couple of times they call. And then I got to the end of my rope, and I was like, No, I need to help my people. Even if I change the conversation, even if I don't win. Right, and I know the odds that I was up against. I was up against a mountain. No African-American has ever been elected post-Reconstruction in the state of Louisiana for a statewide office. But it wasn't about. People got to stop making politics about them, too, and realized, well, let me just say that this is my philosophy. Politics isn't about me just holding this seat. Politics is about me being in the seat and actually doing something when people need it the most. So I didn't really care about, you know, making that sacrifice, if I was going to be the sacrificial lamb, if I could actually get people help.
You did do damage to yourself because you ran for reelection, you finished fourth. You did not make the runoff. How painful was that?
You know, David, it was not painful to me, because I knew I did everything that I possibly could. It was disappoint. It was some disappointing elements to it, for sure. Let me be candid about that. I love this city. And I thought I was the best person to lead this city. I had just finished leading the city through multiple different crises. So the disappointment was not knowing if my successor would be able to come in and keep the programs, you know, the universal pre-K programs that we were running, the public safety program, that they would have the competence or even the will to be able to keep those programs going and take care of the city. So I was disappointed about that part of our leadership not continuing on, but I wasn't disappointing or regretting any decisions that I made, either. I know I did them all for the right reasons. And this is a you know, this is this is very much like a labor of love for me. I love my city. I gave it everything that I have. And I got into the seat based off democracy, and I was taken out of it based off democracy.
What next for you? I saw somewhere you say, Well, now it's time to hand off the mantle of leadership to younger people.
Man, I'm sitting here. You are a young person, okay? Everybody's got their perspective, but by most measures, you are. You are the younger people who we want to hand off the mantle of leadership to. Are you are you really done with, well, running for public office?
No, no, no, I wouldn't say I wouldn't say I'm done. I just tell people like, I'm not thinking about this for, you know, 3 to 4 years. But let me give some broader context about why I say I want to encourage younger people to get involved. America is a joint project. Like we are in a joint project. Put yourself in a classroom, a science classroom. You got, you know, five other other students that are helping you on a joint project. Unfortunately, with us narrowing what service means to you have to be in a uniform a lot of times, whether it's armed services or a police officer or a firefighter, with us narrowing down, we only got one or two people working on that project. My time in office would have been much, much better if we would have had more people coming and approaching government with the same mentality that I have on giving. And we have more citizens saying, okay, I can contribute, too, and you have more hands in that group project. My time in office, the fate of my city, the fate of our country would be so much better if we can broaden that group project. So I don't want to be, you know, I talked about me being a sacrificial lamb earlier. I don't want to do that all the time. And we need more people to get involved and make those sacrifices in the public sector. So that's what I want to do with the next generation. I don't want. I'm not saying I'm putting up the next generation and I'm stepping back completely. I'm saying I'm I want to encourage the next generation to step up so that if I was to step back in, I have more people pushing along with me. And that's why I give credit to President Obama. He often times told, was very candid with the American people and told them that he was going to ask a lot of them, and a lot of politicians don't do that. They come off with this like strong man, strong woman persona, as if they're the answer to all their problems, and that's just not the way government works, that's not the way our society works. And if we don't change soon, you know, we're going to be living in an America that we're not used to.
The Supreme Court just recently ruled on against the Louisiana congressional map and said that the map needs to be revised to provide more opportunities for African-Americans to elect their representatives. Is that. Does that, is that something that would draw, you?
No, it's not something that would draw, it's too soon. It's too soon. I just I just stepped down. And, you know, to put it in context, I went to West Point when I was 17. I'm 37 now. Like 20 years of my life was given to public service. So I'm literally just taking a break right now. It's not something that will draw me, but I'll tell you, as much as I said I was stepping aside, I've been more involved with local politics. I've given, you know, so much money to local commissioners. You know, we got a sherriff candidate here that's amazing right now. And I have, I know the people that are going to run for that seat. And I've talked to them on the phone. And I'm you know, I'm encouraging them. As well. And I'm going to support them so that we can get that second representative, because it will mean a lot to the state of Louisiana. It will mean a lot to the city of Shreveport, and I want to be involved. I just don't have to always be the face of it. I don't always have to be the one sitting in that seat. And I want other people, other leaders to realize that, as well. You know, some of our older generation, a lot of times they do not want to hand off that mantle. Their personality is so tied into the position. And that's not a trap that I want to fall into myself.
You know, you've spent so much of your life talking about and living the challenge of kind of bridging these gaps between people. And it seems like we're so divided right now. Tell me what your sense of where the country, where where Louisiana is right now, where the country is right now, and what do we do to get past it?
I have very strong thoughts about this. Let let me let me just say this, and I think I might have mentioned this to you. I think local government is the last bastion of the democracy that we were used to. And the reason I say that is because at the local level, if you're the mayor, if you're a city council member, you got to go to the grocery store and you're going to encounter not just your constituents, but you're going to encounter other city council members. You're going to have to go to church and you're going to encounter other elected officials that you're also interacting with. You got, you know, little League baseball games, football games, gymnastics, you name it, where you're constantly interacting with these people. So just spouting out harsh rhetoric and distancing yourself and polarizing yourself doesn't work well at the local level at all, because you still have to keep that sense of civility. Now, I'll tell you, the nature of that changed between 2008 and 2022 when I was in office and 2000, 2018, when I stepped in, that fabric was very strong and still holding tight. That's the reason why I think I was able to come into office with the coalition of young people, the LGBTQ community, you know, a lot of white, moderate voters, a lot of the African-American community. But in 2022, when you look at the what's coming out of Silicon Valley and our social media companies that are propping up the worst of our voices with algorithms, it's starting to tear that thread away. When you look to the other coast, in Washington, D.C., where our elected officials are removed from their policies and are putting out that rhetoric because it's the loudest voice, not the smartest voice, that gets you on Fox News and CNN. They're ripping away that fabric. So the fabric at the local level that's holding together our democracy the most is still being torn torn at. And that that's not even considering the political dollars that are starting to come down into these local races, as well. So I think that our local level here in Shreveport, we're still doing well relative to state and federal. But I do think that we are on a downward trajectory to meet that type of polarization if we don't put some breaks into play very soon. And we as a society don't, we don't, we have to remember that we have way more in common with our neighbors than we have differences. And unfortunately, the rhetoric and our social media is not doing a very good job of reminding us of that.
Yeah, I agree. Adrian Perkins, you are a admirable aberration in all of this, because you are a relentlessly positive voice for unity and for concerted efforts to confront our problems. So I want to thank you for your service. I want to thank you for your example. And I want to thank you for helping to inspire young people at the Institute of Politics.
Of course, it's my honor. This is my, my new form of service to the country.
Thank you. Great to be with you.
Thank you for listening to the Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Finder Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics dot uChicago dot edu.