On the evening of December 5, Saratoga Springs native Dr. Liz Marcell Williams was hunkered down at her home in New Orleans, surrounded by family and friends, watching as the results poured in for the city’s district attorney race—for the second time in as many months. And things were looking pretty good. Her husband, Jason Williams, who had run for the position 12 years prior but lost, was making a second bid, and after Election Day in November didn’t offer up a clear winner among four candidates, Jason and another candidate, the top two vote-getters, had been locked in a runoff race. Jason’s campaign manager had set up a dashboard on the kitchen table, following 40 crucial precincts, which, if Jason won them, the election would be called in his favor. “As the results were coming in, there were a few precincts that went for Jason [that we] wouldn’t have expected to, by a pretty significant amount,” says Liz. “When you looked at the actual numbers of people who were voting, it was small numbers, but percentage-wise it was staggering.”
All early Election Day leads aside, the last several months hadn’t been easy ones for Jason—or the city or the country, for that matter. Back in late June, in the middle of his campaign, Jason had been indicted on tax fraud charges and was still actively fighting them in court at the time the polls opened for the second time on December 5. The charges were filed around the same time that Louisiana weathered its first major spike in COVID-19 cases, with numbers there beginning a second, much steeper climb in mid-to-late November. There was also a lot riding on the election for Jason as a native New Orleanian and longtime criminal defense attorney. He had been fighting for criminal justice reform for the entirety of his career in the predominantly black, crime-ridden, “incarceration capital of the world” that is New Orleans, a city whose murder rate had jumped dramatically in 2020, even amidst a deadly pandemic. A victory would mean the ability to begin enacting change to a broken system that had come down particularly hard on the city’s marginalized communities for decades. On top of that, Louisiana, too, had had its own painful history of slavery, racism and white supremacy to reckon with, and though New Orleans is one of the more progressive cities in the South, it, too, has its painful history of police brutality. So when a white police officer in Minnesota choked a black man to death this past May, a moment that was captured on a smartphone camera and shared for the horrified world to see—with many, including throngs of New Orleanians, taking to the streets in protest—it was just another reason that the broken system needed fixing, and fast.
Long before an official election result was reported by the local media, Liz says she got a call from a city council insider saying that her husband had won—but Jason’s campaign manager was adamant that until his 40-precinct dashboard told the story it needed to, no one would be doing any celebrating. Eventually, though, enough of the key precincts came in for Jason, and he quietly said, “We won.” (In the end, Jason had nabbed 58 percent of the vote.) “What was really cool,” says Liz, “was Jason’s law partner, who worked on his campaign, was there, and her daughter was filming us as all of this was happening, so we have the actual moment that we found out on video.” Of course, there were a lot of hugs, kisses and jumps for joy before reality set in. Then, everyone grabbed his or her coat, got in his or her respective cars and drove off to an election night event, where Jason gave his victory speech to a group of cheering supporters.
Certainly, Jason wasn’t a political novice. Besides running for DA in 2008, he’d served on the New Orleans City Council for six years, four as its president. Earning his law degree at Tulane University, Jason remained local after graduation, working as a criminal defense attorney and eventually being appointed the youngest district judge in the city’s history. In 2002, Jason began doing pro bono work with Innocence Project New Orleans, a year later, helping two men, who had been wrongfully convicted of murder in 1977, to be set free. Six years after that, Jason made that initial run for DA, campaigning on basically the same platform he did in 2020, and although he lost, he clearly made a lasting impression on voters.
Liz and Jason first met at Xavier University’s Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute in 2013, at which young city leaders were challenged to think about how to increase their civic engagement and impact on the community at large. Each person had to introduce him or herself to the group, and Liz remembers Jason telling everyone that he was a criminal defense attorney, who ran his own boutique law firm in town, one that strove to hold police accountable for their actions and made sure that the clients it chose to defend, many of whom were from underserved communities, had a fair shot in court. “He has always had a sense of criminal justice reform as the lens through which he sees the world,” says Liz. “He’s been consistently committed to this work for a really long time, so it’s no surprise [he’s now DA-elect]. This feels like what he was meant to do.”
Of course, Liz was there that day for a reason, too. At the time, she was director of intervention services at ReNEW Schools, an organization working with thousands of children in underperforming schools across the city. Two years later, Liz would serve as the founding executive director for what was then known as the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, now the Center for Resilience, a nonprofit organization that works with local children that suffer from behavioral health problems and treats them through partnerships with teachers, doctors, mental health professionals and other key players. In a sense, that fair shake Jason has been working tirelessly for his entire career to provide adults (and kids tried as adults) in the New Orleans criminal justice system, Liz, too, has providing the city’s most at-risk children, many of whom have been exposed to daily traumas from a young age due to the city’s high crime, murder and incarceration rates. “We’re serving kids who primarily get referred to us because of really challenging, disruptive behaviors in a school setting,” says Liz. “They’re physically or verbally aggressive towards adults, they may be kids who engaged in property damage or have lots of angry outbursts that feel really unmanageable and scary [to educators]. Even schools that are well equipped with psychologists just aren’t designed to be able to support [these kids] from a facility or an intervention standpoint.”
The majority of the children that the Center works with have experienced a significant life trauma such as the loss of a caregiver due to death or incarceration. Many have also been victims themselves or exposed to violence within their homes or communities. The Center does a family history before taking in any child to whom it’s been referred, and Liz remembers one child’s mother not being able to pinpoint when or if her child had been exposed to any specific traumas growing up. After a second meeting with a psychologist, it was revealed that he’d witnessed his father being shot in front of the family’s house, and a few months later, getting hit and dragged by a car. “It hadn’t even registered for this mother that those were traumatizing events,” says Liz, “because the violence in some of our communities is so commonplace and normalized.”
Think about that from a macro perspective, and you’ll quickly see the importance of programs like the one Liz runs at the Center. “Think about who’s committing the crimes and the fact that most of the most violent crimes occurring in New Orleans are the result of small situations that are quickly escalate out of control,” says Liz. These are the children that grow up in violent neighborhoods and end up not having the proper coping mechanisms, or resolution or stress-management skills—and are constantly in “fight or flight” mode. Eventually, they end up becoming the ones committing crimes as adults and getting thrown into jail, with little hope for a future. “From a crime standpoint, incarceration doesn’t solve that problem,” says Liz. “If there’s a violent crime that’s committed, we need to make sure that the perpetrator is held accountable, but you also want to make sure you’re getting the right interventions and matching that to the level of need in the community from a kid’s standpoint in a country and state that has consistently charged youth as adults.” (Charging children as adults is something that Jason campaigned on doing away with in New Orleans.) Speaking of which, Liz has invited Jason to come in and spend time with kids at the Center throughout the years. “It’s fun to have a partner who’s not exactly in the same field you’re in, but there’s a lot of overlap,” she says.
Having graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 1995, Liz went on to earn a bachelor’s in Italian Language & Literature from Smith College, and then an M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Culture, Communities, and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. She’s called New Orleans home since 2002, having weathered the heartache and destruction of Hurricane Katrina and experiencing the sheer joy of becoming a first-time mother. (She has a 3-year-old son with Jason, and is stepmom to his 21-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son; the couple married in 2017.) She says that the reason she ended up in New Orleans, doing what she’s doing now, had a lot to do with her upbringing in Saratoga—though, maybe, not in the ways you might assume. Her mother, Gretchen, an art teacher in the Saratoga public school system, was a strong, independent woman, who literally built her own home from the ground up when she couldn’t afford an apartment in town. She served as a powerful role model to Liz growing up. (Full disclosure: I grew up down the street from Liz, and we were childhood friends.) But, somewhat ironically, it was her parents’ divorce, when she was a young girl, followed by a string of unimaginably traumatic events, that set off a domino effect of grief and loss that she feels has driven her to want to affect positive change on the children she works with daily. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce, Liz lost her childhood best friend to a brain tumor while in elementary school. Then, her mother’s partner, who had become a father figure to Liz, died by suicide around the same time. And then a grandparent died by suicide when she was 12. “When you look at people who have experienced trauma, the real trauma is not the event, it’s what happens in response to it,” says Liz. “Do you have enough protective factors to help you experience and weather that trauma and be OK? Or do you not have any of those things, and you’re going to be significantly impacted?” Liz had the former in her mom and believes that it led her to be an empathetic person. (Nowadays, she emphasizes that her relationship with her parents, both of whom are still local, is stronger than ever.) That sense of empathy, in turn, led her to join Teach for America after college, and she wound up doing a stint teaching on the Texas-Mexico border. “That was the first time I lived in a community that was primarily one of color,” she says. “The town I taught in was about 80 percent Mexican-American or Latinx.” Following that experience, she had a brief brush with academia, before moving to New Orleans and taking up a staff position at Teach for America. That led to the creation of the Center, and the rest is history.
As is often the case, candidates running for office tend to make big promises they can’t always keep. It stands to reason that a promise like the one Jason made to overhaul New Orleans’ criminal justice system, making it fair and just for all involved, seems like a rather difficult and complex one to keep, even during a six-year term. He doesn’t even officially become DA until January 11, but when I talked to Liz on December 22, she said “he was up until 10:30pm last night at the kitchen table drafting and redrafting an org chart, because [his role] is going to require a complete restructuring, and I think, a pretty significant staffing shift. He’s going to be hiring all new folks. It’s a really big undertaking. There’s a lot of national attention on the race.” That wider-lensed focus has led him to connect with a number of other progressive DAs across the country, in cities that have a similar need to overhaul their justice systems, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin. “There’s this sort of loose cohort of progressive DAs from around the country who are sharing insights and ideas, and there’s a lot of momentum,” says Liz.
While Jason’s profile has risen exponentially since the election, it’s entirely possible that this role could lead to an even higher calling, if the stars were to align just so. For example, Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana’s second congressional district, which includes New Orleans, will be leaving Congress in January, after being named to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. So there will be an empty seat to fill. (For the record, Richmond endorsed Jason’s competitor in the DA’s race). “We have a joking conversation that we can’t move to Baton Rouge or Washington, DC,” says Liz, with a laugh. “[I tell him] you’re going to do this and do this well, because this reflects your life’s work and passion.”
Given all the life-changing work she’s been doing herself, one can’t help but wonder if Liz has designs for a political run someday, too. “I very much live by the mantra of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,'” she says. “What I’ve seen, though, through Jason’s experience in politics, is it is such a tough job. It requires so much compromise, and it often feels like so much of your time is spent not on the things that you’re going to be doing when you run for office. The ultimate answer is that it would depend on the office.” In other words, definitely maybe.