Shawn Wilson has spent the past decade serving as the right-hand man for three secretaries at the state Department of Transportation and Development. Now, he is about to become the leader.
“I learned a lot from each of them, and I plan to incorporate some of those lessons in my leadership style,” he said.
Wilson, 46, will assume an office that is one of the biggest lightning rods for criticism in state government.
Louisiana has a roughly $12 billion backlog of road and bridge projects, and repeated efforts to make a dent in the list have failed in the Legislature.
Motorists across the state, and especially in Baton Rouge, complain daily about traffic tie-ups, inadequate roads and a frustration that things are only getting worse.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, a veteran of Baton Rouge-area transportation fights, had high praise for Wilson’s appointment earlier this month by Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards. “He is very knowledgeable of DOTD and the process,” White said.
“I think he (Wilson) will be successful,” he said. “But to be successful, we have to give him the tools and money to build some roads and repair some roads.”
A bid to do just that failed miserably in the Legislature earlier this year.
Edwards, a Democrat, made clear when he named Wilson that he believes the state has to change the way transportation dollars are used before voters are asked to pay more.
But road and bridge advocates say that, after years of opposition to tax hikes by Gov. Bobby Jindal, relief may be on the way.
“I haven’t talked in depth to Shawn, but I know he is going to take an aggressive approach to try to figure out a strategy to address that backlog,” said Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association.
Wilson, who is from New Orleans, started his career at DOTD in 2005, serving as confidential assistant to then-Secretary Johnny Bradberry.
The title was changed to chief of staff under William Ankner, who succeeded Bradberry. But Wilson’s role as a sort of all-purpose fixer remained the same, including during the past six years working for DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas.
That meant talking to state lawmakers, making telephone calls, meeting with reporters, coordinating special events or answering questions from local government officials.
“It is really to do the dirty work or heavy lifting,” Wilson said. “My job was to help the secretary to be as successful as they could be.”
Derrell Cohoon, a veteran lobbyist for Louisiana Associated General Contractors and heavily involved in road and bridge issues, agreed.
“A problem solver, first and foremost,” Cohoon said of Wilson. “He is smart, he is articulate (and) he knows DOTD business up and down for someone that I would consider an outsider.”
Wilson originally intended to pursue a nursing degree at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The death of his father and other factors changed those plans. Instead, he got a degree in urban and regional planning from UL-Lafayette in 1993.
Since then, he has gotten a master’s degree in public administration from Southern University and, just recently, a Ph.D. in public policy, also from Southern.
Wilson and his wife, Rocki, live in Lafayette.
She is an administrator at Westside Elementary School. The couple has two children — a senior at UL-Lafayette and an eighth-grader.
Wilson takes on his new job Jan. 11; the salary is $176,900 per year.
When and what kind of revenue-raising measures will be on the table — the state gasoline tax is often mentioned — is unclear.
“I know he (Edwards) is interested in having a world-class transportation system, and you can’t do that overnight,” Wilson said.
“And you can’t do that with the limited resources we have available at the moment.”
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