BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Would you ever guess that former Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden was first bitten by the political bug when he was a teenager and a page in the governor's office of John McKeithen?
As Donna Britt stands in the governor's office lobby with staffer, Tucker Barry, and Holden, Holden says he was one of the two first black pages since reconstruction at the capitol, but his appointment there did not seem to him. Holden said he was nominated for the post by a powerful black leader at the time, A.C. Belton, and then State Representative named Irvin Boudreaux from up around Baker.
"We were treated with respect and nobody was condescending at all," Holden said of the mood when he was a page. "We were all one big family."
As Barry leads Holden on a tour of his old stomping grounds, he jokes that the flower arrangement at the end of the hall has probably not changed, nor the pictures that currently hang on the walls. They both chuckle. Holden grew with his mother as the steady figure in his life. Her first husband died. Their home had no running water and a hog pen out back, but the North Baton Rouge neighborhood nurtured him in the store-turned-neighborhood bar that Kip's dad started. Men who frequented there would often draw up math problems for Kip to solve and then "grade" him like a teacher would. They looked after him.
As Barry and Holden push through a door, they enter the exact place where Holden worked as a teen. "How different is it," Barry asks. Holden scans the room and replies, "A lot. It was a lot more open back then."
Holden saw the power of public office and how thrilled visitors were who traveled to Baton Rouge to see the capitol and its governor. It was inspiring. He says, "Man, the joy for a lot of those people, if they were from rural areas, or people of color, or people from another state,was having the pleasure to see the governor, and how they'd go back to tell the stories and hopefully they get a picture to show people, yes, I'm telling the truth because I've seen the governor."
If Kip Holden had been born 20 or 30 years later, he'd be king of the selfies now. His signature smile has be in thousands of photos. His smile has sometimes covered heartbreak. Holden's mother dated a suspected drug dealer.
Holden remembers, "I was working at WXOK in media and I said to myself, 'I'm opening the paper to get my news and the story in the paper is about my mom and this guy being arrested by the police for drug distribution.' And so I was living two lives. I was living that jovial life with a big smile, but inside of me, I was torn apart. So I kept telling my mom, I said, 'Look, please get your life back together. Why don't you go to church and straighten yourself up?' And she did!"
Holden vowed never to give up. "No pity party," he said. He found joy in public service. Holden is a public official with flair, and seems to love wearing the costume or whatever was needed to assure success and a festive feeling at an event.
Turns out Holden as a first-term state representative shaped the city he would someday govern. He was appointed to the commission that launched the new state buildings, creating Capitol Park. Holden would serve as State Representative for multiple terms. He's been a Baton Rouge Metro Council member as well, and a state senator.
9News took Holden back to the scene of one of his very first jobs. He was a teenager when he worked in the Baton Rouge airport's coffee shop. "Hello ma'am," Holden tells a woman working there now. "I used to work way back when this airport was very, very small. I was a dishwasher." She's surprised, "A dishwasher," she asks. Holden adds, "And they paid me $4.50 a day!" "A day," she exclaims.
Sitting on a couch in the coffee shop, Britt points out the journey Holden's life has been from that very spot. "When you're here in the airport, you go from a pot washer in a coffee shop, maybe not this one right," she asks. Holden laughs, "Well when it was smaller, yes. That's exactly right." Britt suggests "it kind of represents the arc of your career." Holden agrees, "That's exactly right." Britt adds,"And then you were an airport commissioner or something?" Holden starts chuckling more, "That's correct," he says. "And then the mayor," Britt asks. "That's exactly right," Holden assures her and proudly adds, "And recruited an Atlantic Southeast Airline hanger to be located in Baton Rouge!"
Holden's proud of his accomplishments with Baton Rouge's parks, infrastructure, and downtown. Though he is the first black mayor, he never felt he played the race card. "I've heard a few people say, 'I never thought I'd be voting for a black guy, but I'm glad I did,'" Holden says quietly. "But all I say is this. The old song in church says let the work I've done speak for me? That's Kip Holden. I don't go out and advertise it. Let the work I've done speak for me and let's open doors that were shut, and put bridges across places where there were no bridges before."
9News heard so many fascinating stories from Holden that could not be included in a news report. There's simply not enough time or room. Holden promises he'll write a book, and you can bet on that.