by Doug Ireland
As a 33-year-old political newcomer, Ronnie Williams Jr.’s recent election as mayor of Natchitoches was hardly the culmination of his dreams, though it sparked joyous celebration for thousands locally and elsewhere.
“I didn’t plan a year in advance to do this. I had friends who suggested I should consider it, and after thought and prayer I moved forward. I didn’t know seven months ago that I would be sitting here as mayor-elect,” he explained. “It’s been a journey.”
Free time is a distant memory and won’t be within his reach for many weeks, at least. Tough decisions aplenty are ahead. Few, if any, are likely to be rushed. Taking the helm in the City of Lights during the coronavirus pandemic heightens the degree of difficulty. Will it be safe to stage the annual Christmas Festival parade, or even the weekly fireworks? He hopes so, but is understandably unsure.
There are the immediate challenges of advancing his campaign platform: public safety and crime reduction, quality jobs creation, transparency, infrastructure improvements, and youth engagement.
Because he didn’t specifically reference tourism, there has been concern that Mayor Williams might deemphasize the city’s support for it. But he knows tourism is an integral part of the Natchitoches economy and brand, and having advocated new economic development, he envisions opportunities in that industry along with others.
In fact, he’d like to see additional festivals and events develop, showcasing more elements of the area’s culture and history. That’s right up his alley as a 12-year veteran social studies teacher at Red River Junior High School, a half-hour up the Red River in Coushatta.
His days making that drive ended with his resignation shortly after his 52-48 percent, 241-vote victory over two-term incumbent, Lee Posey, on August 15. The outcome made him the youngest mayor in the long history of Natchitoches and, more significantly, the first African-American to win election to the office.
He’s determined to make those facts footnotes so that he’s recognized as a thoughtful, open-eared, progressively-minded mayor whose constituency reaches throughout the community, not just into parts of it.
“I want to make sure that I hear the people, including those who did not vote for me,” he said not long before his August 28 early evening inauguration on the downtown Rue Beauport riverbank stage.
It’s telling that this avid reader savors a pair of books by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Williams, about 2005’s ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’ – “she chronicles how President Lincoln composed his cabinet with people whose personalities and opinions were different than his.”
On Goodwin’s 2018 work ‘Leadership in Turbulent Times’, which he’s been reading only to be replaced by a crash course in city business-related materials – “she deals with four different presidencies: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, and how they led through challenging times.”
“The Bible says there’s wisdom in the counsel of many advisors,” said the son of an ordained minister, raised righteously, and now a senior pastor himself at Rockford Baptist Church. Along with his treasured 2008 education degree from Northwestern State, Williams, in 2017, completed a master’s of divinity in Christian Thought from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
While he was growing up in Campti, his parents divorced and he moved in with his father, Ronnie Senior, whose guidance is evident today.
“We went to church a lot, and I listened. I guess a lot of kids may not, but I did,” said the appreciative son. “Jesus is about ‘when you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me’ …. He’s about giving to the poor and empowering people.
“So my commitment to serving others, it’s rooted in my upbringing, my church life, having a community mindset and trying to be who Jesus Christ wants me to be. It’s always been my passion to help others in meaningful, impactful ways. Certainly, nobody gets into the education field to become wealthy. I wanted, and still do, to make an impact on youth.”
Growing up, he was into games small-town kids play. Basketball was his favorite, and he made school teams in junior high and after he transferred to Natchitoches Central High School as a sophomore.
“I was the kid who was something of a loner, but still very friendly. I wasn’t the popular kid but I think everybody liked me.”
Suddenly, in the wake of national tragedy, he immersed himself in current events, and that quickly unleashed a desire to teach social studies.
“The news took over my focus and 9/11 was the event that sparked that perspective,” said Williams. “I knew when I started at Northwestern what I wanted to do.”
He is extremely proud of his NSU education degree and touts that cornerstone program as “one of the best in the country,” key to his successful teaching and coaching career.
“I attribute it to those professors, to the rigors of our studies, and the expectations they had of me.”
That degree, however, is the second-best achievement of his college days.
He first met his wife Tiffany, already a studious type, while at NCHS in the library when he paid a fine on an overdue book she held. They began dating when he was a college sophomore and she was a high school senior. They worked together at Taco Bell and got married by a justice of the peace a semester before he graduated. The Williams celebrate their 13th anniversary December 3 with their three children, ages 7, 4 and 2.
A graduate of the demanding Louisiana Scholars College at Northwestern, she is also an educator, working for a curriculum company after teaching for several years. Tiffany also does a fabulous shrimp boil, he said adoringly, and caters to his love of all types of seafood.
As a preacher, Williams does enjoy gospel music, but not at the expense of R&B standards from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and artists like Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. He might be listening to Bruno Mars, Adele, even The Beatles and – brace yourself – some rap.
“Mostly,” he said almost sheepishly, “that comes from being a junior high teacher and wanting to know what they’re listening to. I don’t agree with a lot of it, the stuff that belittles, is vulgar or promotes violence, but there’s some good stuff … 2004 Kanye West’s ‘The College Dropout’ was a great album.”
Along with his dad, Williams cites his pastor at Living Word Ministries, the Rev. Al Holden, as a pivotal influence. Holden “has always believed in me” and “saw things in me that I didn’t,” said Williams, including in 2013 putting his name in for the post at Rockford Baptist, and encouraging his mayoral candidacy.
Just recently, not surprisingly, considering tenets of his faith, and a newfound perspective, he’s developed admiration for the man he’s replacing.
“Let me create a new word: he’s a ‘cityman.’ A statesman is somebody who puts country above self. After a long campaign, Mayor Posey is showing me he loves the city of Natchitoches. He’s been everything you want an outgoing mayor to be. I’m really appreciative of all he’s doing to help the transition.”
Wrapping up the last city council meeting of his tenure August 24, Posey was on board with Williams.
“I told Ronnie, you call on me, I’ll be there,” he said.
As Williams begins city leadership, he has three top priorities: “uniting our city from any division, finding better ways to fight crime and youth engagement.”
He’s clearly off to a fast start on the first one.