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Cynthia Willard Lewis

Q&A



Community Leader

 

Why did you and your husband choose to move to East New Orleans?

There were a lot of value-driven considerations, like a great hospital and good schools, lots of amenities and assets and lots of land with big yards. The interstate system is close by and connected to all parts of the area; it’s just 20 minutes from downtown New Orleans. It also has deep rich family connections. My neighbor’s children and mine all grew up together, and now our children’s children are growing up together. The area is very diverse, and the connectivity of the neighborhoods is very strong.

What is your background in government?

My father was a school principal and a local school board member, which was very much like running a city in itself in that it was very action-oriented and solutions-driven. My first work experience was as an aide to former Mayor Dutch Morial. Right out of college, I got a job as an urban planner with city government and gained hands-on experience identifying needs and solutions. I got to see the mayor, legislators and their teams at work during a number of meetings, so I was exposed early in my career to that hands-on accountability to the people.

How did you decide to run for elected office?

There was a void in leadership in the state, and my brother said, “Cynthia, this is an opportunity for a woman to run. You can be that woman.” Diana Bajoie was our trailblazer — she was a cousin on our mother’s side and had been elected into the statehouse. In 1994, there weren’t too many women for me to follow. I am grateful now that there are many women who have joined the ranks. I was elected as State Representative for District 100. I was there until the year 2000, when there was a vacancy on the New Orleans City Council. I ran, and I won.

What did you like most about the City Council?

The City Council is more direct and more hands-on. You can really make a difference for the people, and it was an opportunity to be more impactful. At the state legislature, you are fighting over the entire state’s budget instead of directing resources to your community. With the City Council, you have seven people plus the mayor, rather than over 100 representatives in the statehouse. It was an opportunity to make a more dramatic difference.

What are some of your proudest projects?

I worked on beautification projects for East New Orleans, trying to create a welcoming image for travelers. After Hurricane Katrina, I made sure every city asset was fully funded. Everything was rebuilt to be more resilient, with better safety standards, elevations and storm considerations. One of the roles you play when you are a leader is that you are the collective voice of the people. You articulate their desires, advocate for them and legislate for them.

What is a dream development project for you?

An expansion of the Lakefront Airport to be a regional hub to Central America and South America would be a dream come true. That would create good, sustainable jobs. It could bring eco-tourism because of the nature center that just re-opened, and we could have eco-tourism opportunities to explore the Bayou Sauvage area.

What gives you pride in East New Orleans today?

There’s been a big push to support our local businesses — to buy local and eat local. There is extensive land available all over the East, and many people in our community have money to spend. From gated communities to Bullard Avenue, East New Orleans was ahead of the game with our lakes, which serve as retention ponds with drainage. They are noted assets. New developments like Southshore Harbor and music recording and production studios are wonderful projects that create jobs and revenues.

Describe East New Orleans in a few words.

Family-centered. Resilient. Unlimited potential.