State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson Inspired Democrats and Strengthened the LA Democratic Party As Chair

On the surface, it’s easy to place the blame on Senator Karen Carter Peterson’s leadership as Louisiana Democratic Party chair. While it is true that during Sen. Peterson’s tenure Republicans gained seats in the state legislature, the Louisiana Democratic Senate and House Caucuses are also charged with electing Democrats to the legislature. Many registered Louisiana Democrats exited their party, but this notable decline was consistent with a national trend. It’s also true that Sen. Peterson’s efforts as chair led to the election of a Democrat as governor in a deep red state, effectively blunting Republicans’ momentum. An article published in the Advocate last month that was critical of Sen. Peterson’s leadership only told one side of the story without the full context of what was happening nationally. And to suggest Sen. Peterson’s leadership as party chair was anything but a success is to ignore the opinions of almost every major Louisiana Democratic Party official and elected leader. The prevailing belief among elected Democratic leaders and party officials was that Sen. Peterson laid the groundwork for a stronger, more progressive Democratic Party — so much so that former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile recruited Sen. Peterson to become vice chair of civic engagement and voter protection for the DNC. It’s important to examine the nuances of the circumstances and delve deeper into the data when evaluating Sen. Peterson’s record as party chair rather than just looking at the data and hearsay without any context. 

After 8 years of President George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history, in 2008 President Obama was elected as president with a strong mandate and a message of hope and change. With Democrats enjoying rare majorities in the Senate and House at that time, President Obama’s signature healthcare policy proposal had the best chance of success prior to midterm elections in 2010. Consequently, President Obama invested all his energy into getting the Affordable Care Act passed. Meanwhile, on March 23, 2010, only hours after the President signed the Affordable Care Act into law, thousands of angry conservatives met at a small café in Massachusetts to rail against a healthcare law that they saw as a threat to their personal liberties, and launched a backlash that’s been impacting our political discourse ever since.

In 2010, in the aftermath of Obamacare, Republicans won the House back in a landslide, gaining 62 seats in the House. Over the next several years the Tea Party revitalized American Conservatism and strengthened state Republican parties across the nation. Their success eventually culminated in the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. The Tea Party essentially became the cult of Trump. In May 2017, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias reported “Over the past eight years, the Democratic Party has lost a mind-bogglingly large number of races across the country. Their share of seats in the United States Senate has fallen from 59 to 48. They’ve lost 62 House seats, 12 governorships, and 958 seats in state legislatures.”

Clearly, during this timeframe, the Tea Party’s efforts nationwide were largely responsible for Democrats and Independents changing their party affiliations to Republican, to more closely align with their actual political ideology. This phenomenon was happening in blue and red states alike and the data bears that out. Despite this trend, however, in 2015, against all odds, Louisiana elected a Democratic governor, and in 2019 Governor John Bel Edwards was re-elected. 

Tyler Bridges of the Advocate reported that in 2015, leading up to the election for Louisiana governor, state party Chair Karen Carter Peterson was one of four people to meet with then-candidate John Bel Edwards to discuss his candidacy and offer an honest assessment of potential challenges he faced with fundraising. Specifically, former US Senator Mary Landrieu, Linda Day, John Bel Edwards’ campaign manager, Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond and Chair Karen Carter Peterson met with John Bel Edwards to discuss the race.

All we know for sure about that meeting is that Mary Landrieu questioned the prospects of a John Bel victory in the deep red state of Louisiana. She later accepted responsibility and apologized for doubting John Bel’s chances. The Advocate reported at the time that Landrieu said she had “never been so happy to be wrong.”

Chair Karen Carter Peterson campaigned vigorously for the governor, traveling the state and raising substantial funds to support his candidacy. Sen. Peterson’s efforts as chair paid off, and the governor took notice. In his victory speech Governor-elect John Bel Edwards at the time thanked Chair Karen Carter Peterson for her efforts.

Stephen Handwerk, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party from 2012-2020 commented on the state party’s efforts to help elect Governor John Bel Edwards.

“While I wasn’t in the meeting, what I do know is that our entire party structure was focused on electing then-State Representative Edwards as governor. We had 12 staff members completely focused and embedded with his campaign and raised millions of dollars as a team. From securing support from President Obama, to delivering significant investments from the DNC, to traveling the state to engage the progressive base of our party who were nervous about electing a Pro-Gun, Pro Life Democrat as governor, nobody worked harder to elect Governor Edwards than Karen,” Handwerk said. Handwerk also provided Big Easy Magazine the October and November 2015 party filings that demonstrated a substantial amount of money that the state party raised in conjunction with the Edwards’ campaign. The amount raised was shown to be in the millions and was, without a doubt, consequential in helping Edwards secure victory in the governor’s race. 

Another former Louisiana Democratic Party staff person, who spoke on background, expanded on the work that Sen. Peterson did to help elect John Bel Edwards, “It’s inarguable that she defined Jindal as so atrocious that John Bel could effectively run against his record, and she successfully kept the field clear for him so Democrats didn’t split the votes.”

Although John Bel Edwards’ views on abortion and guns concerned progressives like Sen. Peterson, they also understood that Edwards was the Democrats’ best chance to have a Democratic governor and make progress in key areas of the party’s platform. Handwerk explained “Chair Karen Carter Peterson worked to secure an early, unanimous endorsement of John Bel Edwards from the Louisiana Democratic Party and then went on to leverage that endorsement with our allied organizations in state and nationally – to encourage them to follow – and most did.  This was no easy feat given the concerns many senior members of our party had given the soon to be governor’s position on choice.” 

Kathy Hurst, Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) member from the Lafayette region told Big Easy Magazine “Karen Carter Peterson strengthened the party by bringing various factions of the party together to support John Bel Edwards and help in his election. Some progressives, myself included, were not excited about backing him because of his anti-choice positions, but she kept us unified. I also think her hiring of a professional executive director and updating the voter files strengthened the party.” 

In her role as a legislator, Sen. Peterson was often at odds with the governor on issues that progressive voters in her district care strongly about. In 2019, the senator was persistent in her opposition to Louisiana’s anti-abortion ban on the senate floor, and after the governor signed one of the nation’s most stringent anti-choice bills into law, Sen. Peterson tweeted “Embarrassing! Apologies to LA women, particularly for the disrespect to women victimized by rape or incest.”  

Sen. Peterson appears to be quite popular in her district, as she has been easily re-elected to her senate seat. Jac Brubaker said, “I’ve never had to worry about how my state senator, Karen Carter Peterson, would vote when it comes to pro-choice issues. She has always been there on the right side and stood up for women’s health.” Frederick Bell added: “As a voter in her district, and as a young Black man living in the South, I appreciate that she has never held her tongue on issues of racial equity. Sen. Peterson has always been a progressive champion.”

After speaking with many elected leaders in the Democratic party, it became evident that Sen. Peterson had a strong base of support from fellow progressives within the party. Many also claim that Sen. Peterson inherited a defunct party after taking over where former Chair Buddy Leach left off. “We transitioned from a state party that was just keeping the lights on to using technology, training, and youth outreach,” DSCC member Kirk Green told Big Easy Magazine.

After announcing she was stepping down, many other high profile Democrats praised Sen. Peterson’s leadership. State Representative Randall Gaines and the party’s vice chair of elected officials said “As Vice Chair for Elected Officials for the Louisiana Democratic Party, I am personally aware of the tremendous job Sen. Karen Carter Peterson did during her tenure as Chairwoman of rebuilding and revitalizing the State Party. Her awesome leadership helped to pave the way for many of our highly regarded and celebrated achievements. The National Party has gained a tremendous leader.” 

Gov. John Bel Edwards also praised Karen Carter Peterson’s leadership as chair in a statement: “I want to thank Chair Peterson for her more than 8 years of dedicated service to the Louisiana Democratic Party. Over the course of her tenure, we worked together to pass historic criminal justice reforms, expanded Medicaid for working Louisianians , and she was a great partner during my two campaigns for Governor. I know Sen. Peterson’s work is not done, and I look forward to continuing to work with her in the legislature and in her role as Vice Chair of the DNC.” Notably, this was the second time Gov. Edwards thanked Peterson for her role in helping him get elected.

Former Louisiana Democratic Party staff member, Lynda Woolard, said, “I have no interest in attacking past or present party leadership. How I know that the infrastructure built during the Karen Carter Peterson administration works is that last year, when she and I had opposing candidates in the New Orleans district attorney’s race, my candidate, the one who utilized that database for a robust field operation, won. State Representative Mandie Landry has a similar story to tell about the use of the party’s infrastructure for her successful campaign. We used those same resources to great effect in John Bel Edwards’ 2019 re-election, as we brought in a hot shot data director to target voters, and utilized the suite of integrated tools that allowed us to, for example, text millions of voters, as well as host a tele-townhall with the governor that reached 14,000 voters in one night. If the database is maintained and managed, and if candidates take advantage of available training and run full campaigns that include a modern field component, many more can duplicate these types of successes.”

However, the new state party chair may not be so open to utilizing the opportunities created by the previous administration, running instead on a more conservative Democratic power structure. Katie Bernhardt’s campaign philosophy was that the best way for Louisiana Democrats to establish a stronger foothold was to appeal to white working class voters who her supporters believed were disenfranchised by the party’s appeal to a more progressive ideology. Notably, Congressman Richmond, who endorsed state Sen. Troy Carter for Congress, played a pivotal role in supporting and helping get Katie Bernhardt elected as state party chair, following Chair Karen Carter Peterson’s resignation.

Ironically, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson has been criticized by her opponents for both helping to elect a “conservative” governor and for being critical of some of John Bel Edwards’ conservative positions. What is often not discussed is that Katie Bernhardt, who represents the party’s more conservative wing, actually donated to John Bel Edwards’ Republican opponents in both initial election and re-election campaigns. She also channeled money to other Trump-backed Republican candidates, including the controversial Congressman Clay Higgins who once infamously threatened to shoot Black armed protestors. Not surprisingly, some of the same people who supported Katie Bernhardt as party chair were critical of Sen. Peterson’s leadership. While Bernhardt garnered support for a range of reasons from those looking to take the party in a new direction, there was a vocal group of her supporters who claimed that the party was “too black.” These appear to be the same people who have been engineering attacks in the second congressional district race.

One of these Dixiecrats in Steve Scalise’s congressional district, DSCC member Alicia Breaux, who is the district 1 caucus chair and ran unsuccessfully for DNC committeewoman, has a long history of personal grievance against the former party chair, with a laundry list of unsubstantiated claims. She launched a campaign with DSCC member Jim Harlan, who unsuccessfully ran for state party treasurer, to specifically elect a white chair to the party, and secure an executive director who was not a member of the LGBTQ community, in obvious contrast to the previous holders of those positions. Big Easy Magazine has obtained recordings to corroborate this information from an unnamed candidate for DSCC, but many Democratic insiders have heard these whispers first hand. 

“Behind closed doors, I’ve heard white Democrats argue, with sincerity, that the Louisiana Democratic Party doesn’t need to be the ‘Black party,’” Lamar White, Publisher of Bayou Brief told Big Easy Magazine. “I agree with what Beto O’Rourke said at Essence Festival a couple of years ago, that Black women, in particular, are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” White added. 

Currently, Sen. Peterson is running for Cedric Richmond’s seat to be the next congresswoman for Louisiana’s second congressional district. The purpose of this article is not to offer an endorsement in that race, but to present the full context of what transpired at the state party level during Sen. Peterson’s tenure as party chair. What is told by some in the corporate mainstream media is grossly inaccurate as it lacks context. It’s also a story told by those who see progress as a threat to the existing political power structure and who believe the state party should adopt a more conservative agenda that panders to Republicans. It’s important to consider that the Advocate, Louisiana’s main news publication, in all fairness, has not been kind to progressive candidates. After all, this is a publication that endorsed both Bobby Jindal and David Vitter for governor against strong Democratic candidates. Whether Sen. Peterson is the best candidate to replace Congressman Richmond is up to the voters to decide, but Sen. Peterson’s record deserves a fairer, more balanced assessment through the lens of progressive media.   

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