LA Congressional Candidate State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson Discusses Pressing Issues in Interview With Big Easy Magazine

Courtesy of Facebook

Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson is one of several candidates running to fill Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district seat that was recently vacated by Congressman Cedric Richmond when he accepted a role as Senior Advisor in the Biden Administration. The special primary election will be held on March 20, and early voting is currently underway through March 12. If no candidate in the race receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary election, there will be a runoff election on April 24. 

Sen. Peterson has an extensive history in public service, which began at the age of 18 when she served as a Delegate to the Democratic National Convention. At the age of 30, Mrs. Peterson was elected to the Louisiana state house, where she served until 2010, when she was elected as the new state senator to District 5, which encompasses the stretch along the Mississippi River from Canal to Jefferson Avenue and includes the CBD, the Warehouse and Garden Districts, Central City and parts of Uptown, Mid City and Carrollton areas. While serving in the state senate, in the spring of 2012, Sen. Peterson was elected as the Chair for the Louisiana Democratic Party until she stepped down in July of 2020. After working to successfully elect Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards in 2015, in 2017 Sen. Peterson was elected as Vice Chair of Civic Engagement and Voter Protection at the Democratic National Committee. Peterson is also endorsed by Voting Rights activist Stacey Abrams and former interim Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile. 

Sen. Peterson answered questions about the most pressing issues affecting the voters of Congressional District 2. We discussed issues related to environmental injustices, a living wage, criminal justice reform, healthcare, student loan debt, and education reform. We also gave Sen. Peterson a chance to address recent criticism related to her role as Louisiana Democratic Party Chair and to explain the scope of her work as an attorney at Denton’s law firm.


Editor’s note: some of Karen Carter Peterson’s responses have been lightly edited for brevity/readability purposes


You’ve been a champion of a $15 minimum wage for a long time, and you recently filed a bill that would raise the state minimum wage to $15. What do you say to small businesses that argue that they can’t afford to sustain operations if they have to increase their minimum wage to $15/hr?

First of all, I support increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 here in Louisiana. I’ve filed – this is the fourth time, I think – I’ve filed it again last week to increase the minimum wage. People should not have to work two or three jobs to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head. I believe that $15 should be the floor and not the ceiling, because even that is not necessarily enough, with inflation, for people to sustain their families. 

So there’s a bill, the Raise the Wage Act, that I support. It provides for five steps from now through 2025 that would gradually increase the minimum wage. But to the people – particularly the small businesses that talk about it – it’s an anti-poverty program that will put people in a better position, again, to have less need for social services and to be able to support their family. In Louisiana, we’re particularly impoverished. I think small business people who say, “Look this is not good for our economy, I’m going to have to lay people off,” I will say this to them: If you look at states that have raised the minimum wage, they have seen a greater job growth than states that have not. That’s fact. I don’t think that raising it and small business support is at odds with each other. I think we can lift people out of poverty while supporting small businesses and benefiting them in the long run.

This is the way that it helps small businesses: employee turnover reduced, increased worker productivity, increased consumer spending when you put more money in people’s pockets. All of these offset increased payroll costs. I think it’s a talking point that if people really dig in and they look at the data, they’ll see that it’s a really good thing and it helps small businesses and economic growth.

Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge lies the River Parishes, whose residents are regularly exposed to massive amounts of pollutants from the petrochemical plants. How do you reconcile people’s concerns about jobs with people’s health, and what would you do to ensure environmental justice and people’s health and safety are top priority?

First of all, I don’t know if we have to reconcile. There are people who have both opinions: that these are high-paying jobs and that these same jobs are polluting the community that they live in. I was in Gonzales yesterday and I was having this conversation with people who work at the plants who also have family members that have died of cancer, or asthma, or lung disease – so many different health implications as a result of living in that area. 

Let me say broadly that climate change is a global emergency and we don’t have time to waste. We don’t have time to kick the can. I’m not going to be a congresswoman who kicks the can. We need to take urgent action to protect our future and future generations. There are too many low-income families and communities of color in particular drowning in cancer-causing pollutants in the district, and that needs to end. It’s not going to end overnight, but we can certainly start taking steps. 

Our response to pollution and climate change has to be rooted in the understanding that environmental and climate justice is also linked to racial justice, economic justice, healthcare justice. We need to take aggressive action and we can’t wait and have this conversation every two years when we elect people to congress. And it’s a partnership – it’s not only the federal level, it’s the state level as well. How about this: enforcing regulations that are on the books right now? Penalizing companies that don’t comply with emissions standards. Right now. There’s stuff on the books right now. So this is not just a congressional issue.

As a state legislator, I championed legislation to take action on the crisis. I believe that everybody should have the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. There are bills that I filed to establish, for example, the real time monitoring and warning system to alert first responders and neighbors of dangerous events. That was at the state level. I also authored legislation to get a handle on the lead contamination in the drinking water systems. I’ve already done this at the state level. I would want to continue to do that at the federal level. 

On the Green New Deal:

I support a Green New Deal. That’s pretty clear now. I think it’s an opportunity for Louisiana to lead in clean energy… I support the pause [in oil and gas leases at the federal level], because the pause is there to see what the impact of these leases is on the environment. That’s a good thing. There are implications associated with that. How much money do we get – if there are no more leases – for coastal restoration and protection? We could include money, in my opinion, and I would be fighting for that – money in the Green New Deal for coastal restoration and protection. Those same leases – because there is a pause and if they’re reduced – would create an opportunity for saving our federal waters and land. When we do that, we can have more opportunity on that same land and water for wind production. Studies show that there would be a 30% increase, I think, in wind production by utilizing those lands. 

Members of Louisiana’s Republican delegation have said that Biden’s energy policy will devastate Louisiana’s economy and the revenue the state receives. What is your response to that? Do you have to work with petrochemical companies?

I think we have to have conversations… What I’d say to them is that we can’t kick the can any more. You need a disrupter in these situations in the sense that you have to show leadership in addressing the issue head-on. Otherwise it’ll fester. Like racism. The majority of people in this country are saying, “we want to tackle climate change.” We have a crisis. Some of these same Republicans that want us to maintain the same status quo and want us to not talk about transitioning to greener and cleaner economies or energy resources are the ones that are not supportive of the pause on the leases, are not supportive of anything to do with – like the Paris Climate Agreement. I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and defer to them. I don’t think that they’re in the right place. 

Louisiana should be taking advantage of grants, like other states, to transition from oil to wind and solar energy. This is completely consistent with Gov. Edwards and what he has already said he wants to do. The governor is not anti oil and gas, and people aren’t anti oil and gas. I mean, fossil fuels and, yes, carbon emissions need to be reduced. We need to take direct action to be able to do that.

Many have called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt per student by executive action. Biden is reluctant to do so, citing concerns that it’s beyond the breadth of executive authority. Given the partisan gridlock, what is your stance on student loan debt cancellation (legislation vs executive action)?

I certainly support the $50,000 loan debt forgiveness. As someone who went to college as well as graduate school (I went to law school), it wasn’t that long ago that I paid off my debt. It’s an impediment to economic growth for an industrialized country. If we want a better society, we need to – on the front end – expand options for covering the cost of tuition for community and technical colleges and [four year] colleges. But on the back end for those people who have that inordinate debt, I think there needs to be forgiveness and it needs to be done quickly because it makes for a stronger economy and people being able to sustain their families. I am not for $10,000, I am for $50,000.

Do you think that’s within the scope of executive action?

Absolutely it is. It’s kind of crazy to say you can do $10,000 and not $50,000. It’s just an amount of money you’re willing to commit to. As a lawyer – the rule about what can go in [the executive action] is not going to be based on how much it is. It’s whether or not you can do it. 

You’ve been a vocal proponent of Medicare for All. Some members of the Democratic Party believe that the public option would be a more viable path forward, given the current political climate. What would be your answer to these people? Would you be willing to compromise?

I’m always willing to compromise, but I think that you have to live your values and when you tell people that you’re going to fight for something you need to go and fight for it if you’re going to be their elected representative. You’re essentially their lobbyist. I want to be true to what I tell people, because I want to be able to be held accountable.  

Opponents of Medicare for All – particularly Republicans – believe that such legislation would have a negative impact on the labor market, costing jobs and massively increasing the deficit over time. What would your answer to them be?

Those same Republicans – four of them in Louisiana – voted against the COVID relief package, which does the things that they are arguing a Medicare for All bill would do. It’s always the same rhetoric when it comes time to advocate for progressive causes. I’m not going to shy away from something that I know will not only have a good impact on our economy, but I know that it’s going to save lives. That’s why I fought so hard for the Medicaid expansion in the face of [then-Governor] Bobby Jindal. Even when they were adamantly against it, he wouldn’t sign, I filed bills to create a state exchange. They didn’t pass. But I’m not going to shy away from what’s right for people. 

I believe healthcare is a human right and not a privilege. I would be sponsoring and co-sponsoring Congresswoman Jayapal’s bill for Medicare for All. She has that bill in the House. She’s the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and I’m proud to have her support. I think the best way to get universal healthcare, which I support, is through a single-payer national health insurance program like Medicare for All. It’s quality healthcare at no cost. If nothing else, the unemployment crisis of this pandemic has shown that we can’t tie healthcare to employment. People need it all the time. Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, people need it, and fundamentally as a society, it’s a moral issue.  

After Hurricane Katrina, Recovery Act 35 expanded the criteria under which schools were eligible to be managed under the Recovery School District (RSD). While some have hailed efforts under the RSD as being responsible for improved academic performance of Orleans Parish public schools, opponents have pointed to lower test scores, fiscal mismanagement, and issues with access and equity. Looking back now, do you think Act 35 was the right way to go?

I’ve always supported a strong public education system and worked to support children, teachers, families, and supported every teacher pay raise that has ever come up. I have been working over my entire time as a legislator with community leaders and advocates to strengthen accountability for local school boards, and to ensure that children could have access to a quality education. There was a time – before Katrina – that local school boards were not doing the right thing. There was a lot of mismanagement of funds, and we weren’t getting the job done. So the status quo was unacceptable.

After Katrina, the state superintendent – and this is really important – the state superintendent refused to provide emergency funding to reopen public schools. I am not a state superintendent, I’ve never worked for the school district. The failure to provide that emergency money to reopen the schools led to teachers and support staff being fired. I had nothing to do with that. But people try to say – they create a narrative that I fired teachers. It’s just not true. It’s a blatant lie. The fact is, after Katrina in 2005 I voted against the state takeover. Look at the record. I voted the same way that Cedric Richmond voted, alongside nearly the entire delegation, but people continue to distort the facts about my voting history. I sat at the table with Steve Moynahan, Brenda Mitchell, former Senator Cheryl Gray.

But what is important to remember is that our public school system – again, before Katrina – the high school students had maybe a 50/50 chance of graduating? Fortunately, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement over the past 15 years. Today, many of the students who are disadvantaged economically are graduating at a higher rate than their peers in other large parishes across the state. So there has been some progress.

The other thing is, I did return the schools in 2016. I authored the bill to return the schools. Facts matter.

Editor’s Note: Senator Peterson is correct – she was a vocal opponent of the state takeover of public schools and of the school voucher program that came to the state at that time. You can read more on this topic here.  In 2016, Senator Peterson authored Act 91, which returned New Orleans public schools that were under jurisdiction of the RSD back to the Orleans Parish School Board.


What do you see as some of the major challenges for education reform today, and what legislation will you support to ensure fairness, equity, and justice in our education system?

That’s a great question. To the points I just made, I think we’ve come a long way in advancing education. I’ve been guided by the principle that we’ve got to do right by the kids in our community. I know what a strong education has meant for me. In order for them to succeed, we need to have the technological support, we need to deal with broadband and internet access. I mean, 25% of students in public schools in Louisiana in this pandemic don’t have access to virtual learning. What does that mean? They’ve been left behind for an entire year. Not just in the New Orleans area, but think about all these rural communities that don’t have access.

My entire career education is something that I’ve fought for, and I’m proud of – a better system, that is – I believe, particularly in this pandemic, there’s some specific things we can do with respect to the virtual learning and making sure there are resources to help teachers catch up students after this pandemic is over. There’s going to be a lot of work to do – I hate to say extended school years – but a lot of kids in the public system are falling behind. So there’s going to be a need for support for parents and for teachers to be able to get kids back up to speed from where they were. 

Continuing to do what I’ve done in the legislature, which is to put resources in their hands, making sure that teacher pay is equitable – because educational justice and opportunity is directly relatable to racial justices or injustices and economic justices or injustices. When you educate a young person, they’re able to be a productive member of society. There is a reduction in criminal activity as a result of that. Studies prove that, and we know that. You don’t have to choose a life of crime and you have safer communities when you have a more educated populace.

You recently filed legislation that, if passed, would result in the end of private prisons in Louisiana by 2029. What are some of the larger issues with private prisons and why is that legislation so pivotal to reforming the criminal justice system?

I would hope that this would carry over and that he would go beyond the executive order. But with my bill, it’s just been abusive with respect to the labor market. Twenty-one years you see a lot with the Dept. of Public Corrections, and I don’t think it has to be that way. There’s a better way. 

First of all, some of the pieces of the criminal justice reform package have been really good in improving the cost efficiency in reducing prison populations. Sometimes I feel like the private prisons are in place to sustain the economy of the private sector – in certain individuals – and it’s not directly really related to a good public safety system and criminal justice system. I really think they have been abusive.

What legislation would you support on a federal level that would be broader in scope than President Biden’s executive order to end federal contracts with private prisons? 

In Congress, I’ll support the End for Profit Prisons Act by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. I also support President Biden’s executive order to end federal contracts with all private prisons.

I believe we must end the era of mass incarceration, beginning with ending the war on drugs that disproportionately targets Black and Brown communities. In Congress, I’ll push to legalize marijuana on the federal level, expunge records for marijuana related offenses, and reinvest marijuana revenue in communities harmed most from mass criminalization.

At least 16 states have already legalized marijuana with more on the way, so de-scheduling is needed at the federal level to let states set their own policies without federal interference. Creating a safe, legal and regulated system for adult-use marijuana is important for fixing a broken and hypocritical criminal justice system that has unfairly incarcerated young, Black teenagers and men from neighborhoods like Hollygrove and Central City while college kids at Tulane and LSU engage in the exact same activity. 

We must also right the wrongs of an unjust system by expunging past convictions. This is an opportunity for Congress to really put our money where our mouth is on criminal justice reform by establishing a federal tax and dedicating revenues to assist people most harmed by this failed policy, through reentry programs, job training, and substance abuse treatment for men and women leaving the system so that we can reduce recidivism.  It is patently unfair that there are young Black men from the 7th ward or Central City sitting in Angola prison for marijuana related offenses, while in other states, suddenly white-owned businesses are making millions of dollars in a growing multi-billion dollar industry for doing the same damn thing. In Congress, I will also support licensing support for formerly incarcerated individuals so that they can have an opportunity to legally enter the market.

A recent article in The New Orleans Advocate|Times-Picayune was critical of your leadership as state party chair. Can you speak to that? What do you feel are some of your major accomplishments as state party chair? Can you discuss how some of your efforts as state party chair laid the groundwork for a stronger state Democratic party?

Well, that’s a great question. I’m proud of the work I did leading the Louisiana State Democratic Party. I had been serving as the Democratic national committeewoman prior to becoming chair, and I was recruited by progressives to run. They asked me to step up. I really wasn’t thinking about being chair at that time, but they wanted something different. 

They felt like the party wasn’t growing, and wasn’t reflecting progressive values, which are: standing strong for reproductive freedom, standing strong for supporting working families and unions, standing strong against environmental injustices. Some of the things where it’s kind of tough sometimes to stand out front, we weren’t – as a party- necessarily taking those strong positions. You know, teetering – which we see too often in southern states. Too many DINOs (Democrats in name only). Let’s be who we are and let’s fight for it. And that’s what folks said, “Come on, Karen, we’ll fight with you.” 

So I was pretty much recruited, and I ran for the office. But once we got there, the number one task was to make sure that we armed the campaigns that were going on and organizers with the best tools to talk to voters directly. We invested in digital tools and data. We moved around the state – and when I say “we,” I was joined by Stephen Handwerk, he was a great partner for eight years. We quadrupled the investments from the national party to the state party as a result of my leadership. We stood toe-to-toe with the Republican Party. When Gov. Jindal was there, part of that coincided with my leadership, and I didn’t sit by the sidelines because “it’s a Governor.” You’ve seen in Louisiana so often that people just want to get along, notwithstanding what the party of the Governor is. 

Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans elected their first African American women mayors during my tenure. I’m proud of that. I’m not saying that I’m responsible for their elections, but I’m telling you that as the first African American woman to serve as chair of the party, I invested in those communities, I helped to build a groundswell of Democrats and organizers with the “Blue Dats” – that was me. College Democrats, high school Democrats – college was revitalized, high school Democrats was launched during my term, and we trained 4,000 progressives and Democrats in digital data targeting with the tools they needed to organize.

Do we still have work to do? Of course we do! But I know that I was on the front lines, and I am proud of the leadership that I offered. I became chair in 2012. Bobby Jindal was Governor. John Bel Edwards decided to run, and that entire three-year period I was moving around the state building a network and a foundation of Democratic Party activists. Many of these groups – college Democrats, high school Democrats, as well as women’s organizations – were revitalized or launched, and we were organizing. And that absolutely was a major factor in him getting elected in 2015 – notwithstanding what some journalists may say – as evidenced by Gov. Edwards thanking the Louisiana Democratic Party, and me for the work that I did. 

So I don’t get caught up in all that. You asked me the question – I’m not looking for credit because this was done with a whole bunch of people and I enjoy party building. I ran for my first office when I was 18 years old. I’m proud of what the party stands for, and I’m always going to fight for Democratic values. 

Several years ago, Barack Obama said that progress comes in incremental steps. What makes progress possible? Does progress happen incrementally, in your opinion, or is it revolutionary?

It could happen either way. But at a time like this, after insurrection, in a state where we have such high poverty rates, I believe that we need disruptors. And we need good trouble. We can’t wait for those who would like to maintain the status quo or slightly adjust and wait for small incremental changes. I’m not that person. That’s why I’ve been fighting so hard. When it comes to fighting for the minimum wage, I told you I filed the bill four times. It needs to happen and it needs to happen at the federal level. That’s why I want to go fight there. Because it hasn’t happened in Louisiana. I know – it’s not inconsistent with my values, I’ve filed the bill before – but I know that with what we have right now in Congress with the House and the Senate, and the White House, we can do it. We can prioritize it. We can’t wait for incremental change when it comes to that.

We can’t wait for incremental change when it comes to pay equity with women. We’ve got to do all that we can to minimize that pay equity gap and the disparity. And it’s tied to minimum wage, because there are more women earning minimum wage than men. We’ve gotta close the gap there. We also need to strengthen Roe v. Wade. Because we don’t know what’s to come in the mid-terms and beyond. We need to do it right now, and make sure we’re very clear that women should be able to control their bodies, and they should be able to do what they want with their bodies, in consultation with their doctor. Period. Hard stop.

Climate change – we see what some companies, good actors are doing with setting timelines for zero carbon footprint. Other companies are doing nothing. There are currently regulations on the books that some companies are violating. They need to be held accountable for current law, but we also need to transition from petrochemical companies incrementally to more cleaner and greener energy resources. Wind and solar. That may take some time. We’re not closing down all the petrochemical plants, even when I get elected. I don’t tell people that. I’m not pandering. That’s a good example where incremental – not slow, but incremental – change may be important versus immediate, revolutionary change for women on pay equity or for all working families with increasing the minimum wage right now.

Some have expressed concerns about your ability to be tough on petrochemical companies given your work with Denton’s law firm. Can you tell us about your work at Denton’s and why this should not conflict with standing up to petrochemical companies?

First of all, I’m never gonna lie – I’m gonna serve with integrity, as I have served. Nobody calls me a liar, nobody says, “She’s wishy-washy, she doesn’t tell the truth,” that’s not one of the things they say. They say a lot of things, but that’s not one of them. I’m committed to tackling the climate crisis and getting the Green New Deal passed, so let’s start with that.

I don’t work at Denton’s any more. I resigned to run for Congress. But when I was there – it’s certainly one of the largest law firms in the world, and they do have an energy practice that I’m affiliated with. They serve both green energy and other energy spaces. It’s not just oil and gas companies. There are some oil and gas clients, but also green energy clients, wind and solar, etc. And I didn’t do any of that work… As counsel for Denton’s – while I worked there – I worked on public policy issues for clients all across the firm’s practice groups – which are vast, you can look at the website – and on business development. My scope was that. I don’t have any oil and gas clients. And other people have said that – I don’t really work for the City Council of New Orleans. None of that is true.

Jenn Bentley contributed to this report.

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