Editor’s Note: The Bayou Brief will not be making any endorsements in the uncommonly crowded Special Election for Louisiana’s Second Congressional District. This column by supporters of state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson is the first in a series. Tomorrow, we will be publishing a column by supporters of Desiresee Ontiveros, and the following day, we will hear from supporters of state Sen. Troy Carter. If you would like to include a letter of support for a candidate not mentioned, please send a 1,000-word+ draft, with your name and a two-sentence biography, along with original photographs of the candidate to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deadline is Thursday at 1PM CST.
Co-authored by Thomas J. Adams and Dr. Adolph L. Reed, Jr.
It’s election time again. Early voting has begun for the March 20 primary in the special election to replace Cedric Richmond in the 2nd Congressional District, which means chatter evaluating the candidates has intensified. It’s a crowded field with 15 candidates in the race.
We thought it could be useful to reflect on considerations that go into voters’ candidate selection. As is common in New Orleans and the various parts of other Parishes gerrymandered into the District, questions of personality or character so often rise to the fore. These often pivot on the search for, or charges of, “scandal,” broadly defined. And that approach is often frustrating, both because allegations of taint easily can be exaggerated by partisans for one or another camp and because there’s a broad gray area between what counts as generally accepted horse-trading, back-scratching and quid-pro-quo exchange of favors on the one hand and corruption or misfeasance on the other.
Political assessment that rests on personality or character can be demoralizing because any candidate can be made to appear deficient, bereft, or inconsistent and because that focus tends to crowd out consideration of what different candidates actually stand for. Or perhaps more to the point, what they can be made to stand for. That is, not necessarily what lies in their heart of hearts but what interests they feel the need to represent—whether because of their deep underlying commitment or because of their own calculation of self-interest is relatively unimportant. We believe this is the most important basis for differentiating them. That’s especially the case for Congressional candidates, as the winner will be tasked with representing the district’s interest in law-making at the highest and broadest level.
The other main consideration should be whether the candidate can win. Although protest candidacies can make sense at least sometimes, for the candidate to be able to represent constituents’ interests he or she must first win election. In the case of the Louisiana 2nd, where it’s quite possible that the winner of the race will be in a position to stay in the seat as long as they like, these calculations become especially paramount.
That said, let’s look at the field in the race that is before us now. Of the 15 candidates, only three have any serious chance of qualifying for an April 24 runoff, and one of those, Gary Chambers, is a long shot. The other twelve are essentially vanity candidates. Any one of them approaching even ten percent of the vote would qualify as a massive upset. The other two serious contenders are State Senator Troy Carter and fellow State Senator Karen Carter Peterson. Both are seasoned politicians and experienced elected officials. Carter was executive assistant to New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, served in the state House of Representatives, and on the New Orleans City Council before being elected to the Louisiana Senate, where he has been Minority Leader. Carter Peterson served in the state House of Representatives for more than a decade and was House Speaker Pro Tempore in her last two years. She has served in the State Senate since then and has been chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party and remains a Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Both Carter and Carter Peterson are well-connected with significant constituencies and have demonstrated capabilities that would facilitate transition to functioning in the U.S. Congress. For critics of the two—and there are plenty of them—their insider backgrounds are essentially undifferentiated and suggest that there is little meaningful distinction between the two of them.
As Antigravity’s always well-researched voter guide concluded its analysis of Carter: “Overall, it’s hard to trust Carter’s positions or his ability to get things done in a timely manner…We have concerns about his funding sources. He seems content enough with the slow pace of governmental inaction, and has yet to put forth an aggressive stance or plan to change anything.”
That same voter guide ended its recap of Carter Peterson with these words: “Ultimately, Peterson is an establishment politician through and through. She’s saying all the right things now, but her money, legacy, and record are littered with self-serving governance and contradictions.”
Essentially, six of one, half dozen of the other.
Indeed, we suspect many voters in the district feel similarly. Here are two mainstream, career Democratic New Orleans lawmakers, both deeply connected to various rival factions of the state’s minority party—who by virtue of the party’s overwhelmingly minority status, have had little opportunity to do much other than try to make horrid legislation slightly better. Like pretty much anyone who’s been deeply embedded in Louisiana politics for as long as both Carter and Carter Peterson, it’s not hard to find rumors of scandal and corruption as well. From this perspective, on March 20, choose your favorite longshot or protest candidate. If—as seems overwhelmingly likely—it comes to a runoff on April 24 between Carter and Carter Peterson, then it doesn’t really matter. Vote or don’t vote, but certainly don’t give it more than a fleeting thought—and most definitely don’t get involved beyond showing up on election day.
We want to suggest though, that there’s a good deal more to it than that. That, in a somewhat veiled way, the choice between Carter and Carter Peterson strikes at some of the central issues in contemporary American and Louisiana political life, especially as they relate to the issues that overwhelmingly affect those of us that have to work for a living.
Let’s start by asking a question taken from Antigravity’s guide: what, if any, is the significance of Carter Peterson “saying all the right things now?” We think, in fact, there’s a lot. What’s in her platform and priorities matter. Not because they’re necessarily a reflection of her deepest held beliefs—and to be clear, we have no suggestion they’re not a reflection, only that we could care less about the question. Rather, they matter because a) she felt the need to adopt them b) they suggest very specifically where she’ll fall on key pieces of congressional legislation and fights within the Democratic Party, and c) they’re a clear roadmap to holding her accountable should she not honor them.
Carter Peterson’s platform is striking and not just because she—in contrast to Carter—has actually published one on her website. It is, by far, the most ambitious and transformative political platform for working people offered by a realistic candidate for federal office in modern Louisiana history. Her priorities and advertisements lead with her support for Medicare for All. This is especially significant in the Deep South and within the Congressional Black Caucus. Cedric Richmond, the outgoing chair of the CBC and South Carolina Congressman and House Majority Whip James Clyburn have tried to put the full weight of the CBC and the machinery of the Democratic Party in the Deep South against Medicare for All candidates elsewhere. This despite the fact that poll after poll shows that African Americans overwhelmingly support single-payer health care. For his part, Troy Carter has made clear that he stands with Richmond and Clyburn in standing against the vast majority of Black voters—as well as large majorities of white and Latino voters as well. In Louisiana of course, the valence of the issue is even more pronounced given our state legislature and the real possibility of a Republican replacing John Bel Edwards in two years. It’s well within the realm of possibility that even the meaningful if tepid Medicaid expansion that Edwards pushed through could be repealed once he leaves office. Guaranteeing Medicare for All at the national level takes the decision of the health care of District 2 residents out of the hands of people like Jeff Landry, Clay Higgins, and Sharon Hewitt. That alone should demonstrate the particular importance of the district’s representative robustly supporting single-payer.
Part of actually achieving single-payer health care means building an overwhelming majority in favor of it within the Democratic Party—at this stage of American political life there is no other plausible path. It matters little the reasons for their support. When candidates who pledge to support it win—and those who oppose it lose—it’s both numerically useful within the party’s internal fight and sends a clear message to others that if they don’t join in that fight, they risk their political careers. If Carter Peterson adopted her Medicare for All pledge out of a deep-seated commitment to health care as a human right, then great. If she adopted it because she made a utilitarian political calculation that it will help her win, then also great—so long as she wins.
Beyond her support for single-payer, Carter Peterson’s priorities include a variety of other pledges to lend her support to major pieces of Congressional legislation and choose specific sides in key debates within the Democratic Party. From fully funding of the US Postal Service and the pursuit of postal banking to nationwide minimum wage increases to public transit to major climate change legislation her platform places her consistently on the side that benefits working people and against the entrenched economic powers that have so often dictated the party’s direction. And the same principle applies to these issues as it does to health care. In fact, we would argue that in most every case, winning major democratic victories around these kinds of issues requires not necessarily changing hearts and minds, but building constituencies that make adopting these issues a rational and even self-serving political calculation for a whole host of others.
And of course, outlining these priorities provides a clear roadmap to holding a politician accountable. Should a candidate explicitly renege on their pledge—by say, not signing on as a co-sponsor to the Sanders-Jayapal Medical for All Bill or not voting to repeal the USPS’s pre-funding mandate—then in two years voters and other candidates have clear license (and excellent ammunition) to remove that representative from office. Contrast this with a candidate who makes few to no pledges. Bringing that candidate to account is exceedingly difficult. They will have nothing to account for.
The position that political platforms are meaningless unless they’re proposed by true believers or those with long and demonstrable histories of unbending consistency is symptomatic of what we might understand as a broader crisis of purpose in American and Louisiana political life. There’s an old adage that politics is best defined by “who gets what, when, and how.” The question of “why” doesn’t enter into the equation because it rarely has much to do with the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “how.” In the quest to make health care a right, to guarantee living wages, and to secure public goods (the what) for all of us (the who) as soon as humanly possible (the when) via plausible democratic means in our contemporary context (the how), dwelling on the question of “why” effectively turns political life into a crappy television show we can’t stop hate-watching. To be sure, when it comes to Louisiana politics this posture is all too familiar. But when we let our often understandable suspicion of motivation elide exceedingly meaningful differences in policy commitment then politics has ceased to have a purpose at all beyond our own entertainment and sense of self.
About the Authors
Adolph L. Reed grew up in New Orleans, is a resident of the 6th Ward, and a professor specializing in studies of issues of racism and U.S. politics. He is a contributing editor to The New Republic and has been a frequent contributor to The Progressive, The Nation, and other progressive publications.
Thomas Adams is historian and professor focusing on political economy, labor, social movements, and the history of New Orleans. He is a resident of the Upper 9th Ward and co-chair of the Panel of Experts for the New Orleans Street Renaming Commission.