Monday, October 23, 2017

Unstoppable Julie Stokes: Louisiana Lawmaker Honored as Homer L. Hitt 2017 Distinguished Alumna

By Rebecca Catalanello

Julie Skinner Stokes is on a phone call. Outside her ninth-story office window, cars hurry back and forth along Causeway Boulevard. “Yes,” she says to the caller. “Well, thank you.”

A giant pink wreath hangs on the door of her new office.

She hangs up, smiles and shakes her head. “It was mine to win,” she says, summarizing what the person on the other end of the phone told her.

Join Us!

What: Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumni Gala

When: Thursday, Nov. 2, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: The National WWII Museum Freedom Pavillion, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans, La. 70118

Tickets: May be purchased online.

Since getting a Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis in July, the Louisiana representative from Kenner surrendered her campaign for state Treasurer—which she was favored to wintook a planned family vacation to Utah, cut her hair into a tidy bob, started once-a-week chemotherapy treatments, moved her business offices into a new building, formed a bipartisan caucus of 28 fellow legislators to discuss state tax reform, signed on to take her 13-year-old  to and from school every day, and finally met with a contractor on a lingering leakage issue in the master bathroom of her family home.

“I figured eventually I was going to be taking a shower and the whole shower was going to end up on the car and the garage underneath,” she says.

It’s not the first time Stokes, 47, has found herself moving near full-speed amid crisis. In 1991, she was holding down an accounting internship in pursuit of a career as a certified public accountant, organizing rush for her Alpha Xi Delta sorority and preparing for her senior year at the University of New Orleans when her father suffered a heart attack while fishing on Father’s Day.

Edward Thomas Skinner, 46, had been an otherwise healthy construction engineer who had operated heavy equipment on the Superdome. When he became ill, he had been part of the team laying the new Interstate-310 west of New Orleans. The heart attack thrust Skinner into a coma for two-and-a-half-months before he died. Six days prior, Stokes’ maternal grandfather died suddenly as well.

The losses were stunning for Stokes, especially for “an only child of an only child,” as she puts it. Wading through her grief and that of her grandmother and mother, with whom Stokes lived, she remembers plodding forward at first as if by remote control. Hours after her father’s death, Stokes, who was about to be the first in her family to complete a college degree, arrived at one of the closing events of rush, where she stood arm-in-arm with her sorority sisters in a circle, swaying as they sang a closing song.

It was an emotional beginning to her last year of college, an image that would stay with her for the rest of her life as a symbol of the community and family she found at UNO. “It was a sense of belonging that I had never had,” she says. “We called each other sisters.”

Stokes, who has been named UNO’s 2017 Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Alumna by the UNO International Alumni Association, finished her otherwise difficult senior year like she finishes everything—in stride.

She served her senior year as president of Alpha Xi Delta and graduated in 1992 with an accounting degree and four job offers. She spent 10 months at the firm of KPMG before joining Ernst & Young, where she said she regained her footing personally and professionally, launching a career immersed in numbers and obsessed with researching and fixing systems that need work.

Engaging, detail-oriented and mission-driven, Stokes approaches her life and work with equal attention to specifics as to end-goals.

Elected in 2013 to represent District 79 in the Louisiana House of Representatives, the Republican lawmaker has taken stances that sometimes counter the party line.

Raised by a mother whose meticulous money management was a way of life, Stokes says she inherited her mother’s sensible frugality and her father’s “renegade” tendencies. As chair of the Sales Tax Streamlining & Modernization Commission, she has spent hundreds of hours poring over the state’s budget and tax laws and is one of the few Republicans to say publicly that she believes the state’s budgetary crisis is tied to revenue shortages, not exclusively wasteful spending.

“I’ve got spreadsheet after spreadsheet after spreadsheet,” Stokes says, referring to her own detailed analysis of the state’s budget and tax systems. Her work has earned her honors such as being named ones of State Tax Notes’ Tax Legislators of the Year. She serves on the executive committee of the National Conference of State Legislators and is on a first-name basis with analysts at the Tax Foundation, the nation’s leading independent tax policy research center.

She believes that the work of repairing Louisiana’s budget relies on reaching bipartisan consensus to halt what she finds to be the damaging rhetoric of politics and find a reasoned middle ground. “We are no longer talking about adequately funding a government and trying to find the most competitive way to do that,” she says. “Now, the fight is over half of the legislature telling the people that we’re endangering the future of Louisiana’s children and the other half telling them we’re flush with cash and wasting their money.”

On the same day her Treasurer’s campaign sent out a press release saying she was withdrawing from the race due to cancer, Stokes and Rep. Malinda White, a Democrat from Bogalusa, began formulating plans to assemble a bipartisan caucus to try to discuss how to communicate a reasonable, fact-based bipartisan message of reform.

Stokes has spoken in favor of taking a more moderate stance on equal pay for women than the state’s Republicans have traditionally favored. She voted in support of a 17-cent increase in the gas tax as a way, she says, "to help ensure the future of the Louisiana economy by adequately maintaining and enhancing Louisiana’s crumbling roads and bridges." And, in 2016, she made national headlines when she spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives, reprimanding her male colleagues for behavior that she described as “utterly disrespectful and disgusting,” after a fellow Republican filed a joke amendment on a bill that would have set maximum age and weight limits for exotic dancers.

Laughter erupted and some lawmakers responded by laying dollar bills on the podium. Stokes jotted a few words down and took the floor.  “Looking out over this body,” she said then, “I’ve never been so repulsed to be a part of it. It has got to stop.”

Before taking public office, Stokes says, she felt somehow spared the workplace chauvinism that she heard other women speaking out against. But she said that her experience in Baton Rouge as one of 17 women in the state legislature has awakened her to the realities of what it takes for women to succeed in a male dominated workplace. In the week that led up to the exotic dancer bill, Stokes says, the CPA had twice been told jokingly by male colleagues that a woman’s place is barefoot and pregnant, not involved in a state’s finances.

In 2016, the Girl Scouts of America named Stokes one of four “Women of Distinction” for eastern Louisiana. New Orleans CityBusiness has twice named her a “Woman of the Year.” And she was selected this year to participate in Governing Magazine’s 24-member Women in Government Leadership Program.

Stokes learned about her cancer prognosis on July 1. She was at Sake Café in her neighborhood of Chateau Estates for Friday dinner, a standing weekly date with her with her husband of nearly 20 years, Larry Stokes (B.A.,’77, Ph.D.,’89) and their two children, Brandon, 15, and Taylor, 13. The week had been flush with back-to-back campaign events. She was visiting with someone at another table when Brandon brought her the phone and told her she might want to take it.

It was Dr. Ralph Corsetti, her friend and an oncological surgeon at Ochsner. It had been seven weeks since Stokes first noticed a lump while showering. Even after her aide scheduled an appointment for her to get it checked out, she actively compartmentalized the prospect of it becoming anything to worry about. “I would take it out, I wrap it up and I push it to the wall and decide, ‘I’m going to keep going until I’m sure that I cannot.’”

Stokes moved to a table outside to listen to what Corsetti had to say. She jotted down notes as her husband looked over her shoulder.

When she hung up, the two of them walked back to the table. All around the restaurant, there were people she knows—neighbors and people she’d represented for four years. She could not risk breaking down here.

“We’re just going to eat,” she told her family. “We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be fine.”

At home, she says, she and her children, husband and mother talked and comforted one another. Any thoughts she had about continuing the campaign were extinguished over the next few days as she met with her oncologist and talked with her staff about the realities of five months of chemo.

The first few months of treatment, she says, have been kind. Shortly after the news, her friends, family, colleagues and constituents surprised her to by taking to social media on qualifying day to pose in pink with the hashtag “#FightLightJulie.” She’s enjoying spending time with her family and goes into the office at Stokes & Associates on most days.

Tuesdays are for chemo. She’s noticed she’s exhausted by Friday, though.

“Like normal people,” inserts David Zoller, her district aide in Kenner.

She hears the hard part comes in the final treatment stages.

Stokes has tried to be at peace with not running for Treasurer, but she says it’s something she’s still processing. A practicing Christian, she talks about learning to “give back this dream” and trust that the right path will emerge. She looks at her children and says she feels compelled to do work that could make the state a stronger place for them—a place with attractive jobs, competitive wages, educational opportunities that will make them want to raise their children here, too.

“Never fixing these problems doesn’t work for me,” she says. “I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old who I would like to think would possibly have a future in this place.”

She’s made public appearances, like moderating a livestreamed panel on women and politics at LSU and meeting with the Committee of 100 Louisiana, an alliance of business and educational leaders concerned with furthering the state’s economic prospects.

Being honored by UNO, she says, has been humbling. Stokes will be formally celebrated Nov. 2 during a 7 p.m. gala at The National WWII Museum that will raise money for student scholarships—like the one that made it possible for Stokes herself to attend the University.

“I continue to be grateful for the experience and education I received from the University of New Orleans,” she says. “I can safely say that I would not be who I am today without my time at UNO.”