A Tale of Two Carters

As two veteran New Orleans politicos battle for the state's only solidly blue seat in Congress, how much will endorsements really matter?

Louisiana state Sens. Karen Carter-Peterson (left) and Troy Carter (right) face one another in the April 24 runoff election for the Second Congressional District.

In early December of 2020, Miami lawyer Howard Srebnick told his client that if they took their chances at trial, then he could likely get the felony weapons possession charge kicked out.

No, there wasn’t any dispute that the gold-plated Remington 1911 pistol that police found while searching the luggage of a chartered plane from Los Angeles to Miami belonged to his client. It was, admittedly, a Father’s Day gift.

It was also true that because of a decade-old felony conviction, his client was prohibited from owning a firearm, as well as the six rounds of ammunition he’d packed alongside the fancy new weapon. Presumably, they would need to deal with that before worrying about the small amounts of cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, heroin, and prescription-strength cough syrup the cops also found buried on board.

But Srebnick believed all of the evidence was inadmissible; the search, he said, was illegal. Fruit of the poisonous tree.

Despite this, however, and despite the fact that he faced up to ten years behind bars if convicted, his client, Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., pleaded guilty, telling the judge about his tumultuous childhood in New Orleans, about how he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade but eventually earned a GED and was later admitted into the University of Houston, about how he had methodically pieced his life back together.

He was to have been sentenced on Jan. 28, but Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., better known as Lil Wayne, had an ace up his sleeve. Well, actually, he had a Trump card.

In one of his final official acts, only hours before he and his wife would meet up with the moving vans outside of Mar-a-Lago, President Donald J. Trump issued a pardon for the musical megastar and the pride of New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood. During his four years in the White House, Trump used his singular power to issue pardons and commutations in all sorts of ways that seemed to violate basic principles of justice and due process and were, at times, flagrantly nepotistic and transparently corrupt. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of his pardon for Lil Wayne wasn’t the cavalier manner in which the rap artist had sought the reprieve but the fact that it ranks as one of the least controversial decisions of the Trump presidency.

Make no mistake: There are legitimate constitutional and legal, not to mention moral, arguments in support of the pardon. Carter has been an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform, and his case illustrates how the machinery of mass incarceration entraps people, particularly African American men, for life. In a country in which it is often more difficult to register to vote than it is to buy a semi-automatic weapon, what is accomplished by locking up someone like Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. for as long as a decade simply because he fessed up to owning a $15,000 pistol that, as far as we know, may have never been fired a single time?

As Van Jones recently observed in a documentary about a similar and even more egregious case involving the rapper Meek Mill, the American system of mass supervision—that is, the often onerous restrictions placed on people while on probation or parole—is critical in perpetuating mass incarceration.

At the same time, however, it would be foolish to believe that Trump’s decision to pardon Lil Wayne was, in any way, a sincere recognition of a broken system or to ignore what it really was: a political transaction between two incredibly wealthy and powerful men, notwithstanding Carter’s earnest and well-supported opinions on criminal justice reform.

I mention all of this for a reason.

Former president Donald J. Trump and Lil Wayne. Source:Twitter

On March 20, two other New Orleans natives, who also happened to be named Carter, state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter-Peterson (no relation to one another or to Lil Wayne), both secured spots in the April 24 runoff election to determine who will represent the state’s second congressional district, the seat recently vacated after six-term incumbent Cedric Richmond took a job as a senior aide to President Joe Biden (Technically, Richmond was elected to a sixth term but only served a few days before the new administration was inaugurated).

During the crowded jungle primary, the battle between the two Carters, both of whom are longtime politicos, was often defined less by their ideological differences and more by their personal relationships with those either in power or in proximity to power.

Troy Carter presented himself as a reluctant recruit, someone who had no interest in campaigning for the job until Richmond personally asked him to consider it. Elect me, he says, and, thanks to my friendship with your former congressman, you’ll have a representative with a direct line to the White House.

Carter-Peterson, on the other hand, is the opposite of reluctant. Her campaign website was live within minutes of Bloomberg reporting that Richmond would be stepping down to join the Biden administration. She came prepared with her own slate of endorsements, including one from Stacey Abrams of Georgia, and with a response to her rival’s claim of having the ear of Richmond, who had the ear of the new president, telling the New York Times that she did “not need to have the ear of the ear of the ear of the toe of the thumb of someone.”

Both Carter and Carter-Peterson have run for the seat before, losing to then-eight-term incumbent William Jefferson in 2006, a year after Jefferson became the target of a federal investigation into public corruption but a year before he was criminally indicted. In that race, Carter-Peterson (then known as Karen Carter) managed to muscle her way into the runoff, while the other Carter finished in a disappointing fifth place.

One thing is for certain: Neither of them are as close to the current president as Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. was with the former president.

But is there any reason to believe that voters actually care about which Carter is closer to which proxy for the president? Troy Carter can boast about once playing a round of golf with President Biden, way back when he was former Vice President Biden and on a nationwide book tour for Promise Me, Dad, his tribute to his late son Beau, a tour, by the way, that conveniently allowed him the test the waters for a third run for the White House and that began in each city he visited with a poignant and slickly-produced video refresher on Biden’s biography. (I also met Biden during his stop in New Orleans, and although I wasn’t invited to the golf game, I did manage to elicit a vintage Biden response after addressing him as “Mr. President.” “Not yet,” he said. “I dunno. Not yet.”).

Karen Carter-Peterson can likewise boast about her connections to an entire roster of high-level political appointees, which she nurtured during her two terms as chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party and as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Louisiana state Senator Karen Carter-Peterson announces the vote total of the state’s Democratic presidential delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Carter-Peterson, who is currently running for the congressional seat vacated by Cedric Richmond, narrowly secured a spot in the runoff on April 24 against fellow Democratic state Sen. Troy Carter after a surprisingly strong third place finish by Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers. Photo by the Bayou Brief.

Ultimately, though, their competing claims of presidential access are distinctions without much of a difference, and as Peter Athas pointed out in his most recent installment of his column, the 13rd Ward Rambler, regardless of which Carter wins on April 24, the next U.S. representative from Louisiana’s second congressional district will be the most junior member of the House.

Put another way, he or she will arrive with less seniority than Marjorie Taylor Greene, the delusional QAnon enthusiast from Georgia who, after being banished from serving on committees earlier this year, has used her skills as a professional troll to build bipartisan support for her inevitable removal from office. The next member of Louisiana’s federal delegation will also have less seniority than Lauren Boebert, the gun fetishist and seditionist sympathizer from Colorado who somehow became famous for taking a day off from her “gun-themed restaurant” in order to make an eight-hour roundtrip drive just so she could tell Beto O’Rourke that there was “no way” he would be taking her precious AR-15s as part of the hypothetical gun buyback program he pitched during his short-lived presidential campaign.

Of course, seniority doesn’t automatically translate into influence, especially for members of the minority, and no matter which Carter ends up on Capitol Hill, Louisiana’s second congressional district will be represented by someone with vastly more influence than Captain Clay of Louisiana’s 3% 3rd District or any of the novelty acts that voters in other states sent to Congress for the amusement of Fox News’ primetime audience. Indeed, there’s a legitimate argument that, no matter who wins, Louisiana’s newest member of Congress will also immediately become more powerful than any other member of its delegation except Steve Scalise, whose position as House Minority Whip provides him with a seat at some of the most exclusive tables in American government. This is not only because both candidates belong to the party that currently controls the House, the Senate, and the Oval Office, it’s also because the second district stretches, improbably, all the way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

It helps too that Joe Biden has long held a special affection for New Orleans. His daughter Ashley is a Tulane graduate, and during her time in the Big Easy, her parents would sometimes sneak away for an extended weekend. They cultivated friendships here and over the years have championed many of the people and the causes that were vital to the city’s recovery. They never once promised to build Louisiana’s tallest building or paraded around with renderings of a Biden Tower, nor did they ever install a sign promoting an eponymous skyscraper or forget to remove the sign until years after quietly abandoning their grandiose plans. Similarly, the Bidens also never attempted to sweet talk their way into a casino license or file a lawsuit demanding that Louisiana change its rules because they missed the deadline for submitting a proposal for the Biden Princess Casino. Consequently, their affection for the city has been largely reciprocated by the people of New Orleans.

President Joe Biden, then former Vice President, in New Orleans in 2019. Photo credit: Cayman Clevenger, Bayou Brief.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t meaningful differences between the two Carters or that residents of the second congressional district should believe that they would vote the same way on all of the issues. Troy Carter gravitates toward the political center more often than Karen Carter-Peterson. Although they both have been involved in politics for their entire professional careers, they take vastly different approaches.

KCP, as she is known among fellow Democrats, is a disrupter. She is controversial, unapologetic, willing to be provocative and confrontational, particularly if it means exposing the hypocrisies of those on the political right or advancing the principles and values held by those on the left. More than 20 years ago, as a member of the state House, she championed a bill to ensure workforce protections for transgender employees. The reaction by her opponents was viciously cruel, and she likely understood her bill was doomed from the start. After former Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the deceptively-titled Louisiana Science Education Act into law, providing a backdoor for creationists to present religious mythology as “science,” Carter-Peterson filed a bill to repeal the law. Predictably, it failed. She came back with the same bill the next year and the year after that and the year after that. The statute may still be on the books, but the hearings proved to be so embarrassing to the state Department of Education, they quietly scrubbed any mention of the law from the guidelines they provide to schools, effectively removing it from the state curricula.

Not surprisingly, her approach hasn’t always made her endearing to her predominately white conservative colleagues in the legislature, nor has it always settled well with the more moderate members of her own party, who point in particular to two different decisions she made to illustrate their criticism. The Advocate has repeatedly reported on a 2015 meeting Carter-Peterson attended at the New Orleans airport with then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards during which Carter-Peterson allegedly attempted to convince Edwards to step aside in the race for governor and run instead for state attorney general. The fact of Edwards’ eventual victory would later become evidence to her critics of not only Carter-Peterson’s poor political acumen but also framed as a betrayal of the very political party she led as state chair. But there are serious deficiencies in the version of the story that has been told and retold in The Advocate. For one, it’s a version that was originally relayed by a former Edwards campaign staffer who didn’t actually attend the meeting.

There’s no question that the meeting took place and that, understandably, Edwards left feeling insulted and ambushed by the apparent subterfuge. But Carter-Peterson wasn’t the only other person in attendance that day; Cedric Richmond and Mary Landrieu were also present, as well as Edwards’ campaign manager Linda Day. Although she helped arrange the meeting, there’s no reason to believe that Carter-Peterson was at the center of some sort of nefarious plot to have the candidate who had already received her endorsement drop out of the race at the top of the ticket. How can I be so certain?

Because Mary Landrieu has openly acknowledged that she was the one who floated the idea. “I have never been so happy to be wrong,” she later said. (Remember, at the time, the conventional wisdom was that David Vitter would breeze into office easily. There’s a reason veteran Louisiana political journalists Tyler Bridges and Jeremy Alford titled their book about Edwards’ election “Long Shot”).

It’s worth noting that shortly after the meeting, Richmond apparently made it clear to Edwards that he disagreed with Landrieu’s suggestion. Carter-Peterson’s mistake, it seems, wasn’t arranging the meeting; it was in allowing her deference to the former three-term U.S. Senator to create, at least momentarily, an impression of tacit approval.

Carter-Peterson’s critics also point to her more recent and less understandable decision to use an arcane state law to prevent Edwards from reappointing several people to various boards and commissions. Most notably, she blocked the reappointment of Ronnie Jones as chairman of the state’s Gaming Control Board. Jones contends Carter-Peterson falsely believed that he leaked a story involving her struggle with gambling addiction. She claims, somewhat unconvincingly, that she was merely motivated by a desire to ensure that the fox wasn’t guarding the hen house, pointing to Jones’ decision to work for a casino consortium after she effectively fired him from his job with the state. Perhaps even more bafflingly, she also blocked the reappointment of her former colleague and ally, Walt Leger III, from the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

In Carter-Peterson’s defense, she claims that her main motivation was a desire to increase the diversity of appointees and that she had repeatedly raised those concerns, both publicly and privately, in the past. Although in the grand scheme of things, her decision to block an all-white slate of appointees hardly qualifies as the kind of outrageous abuse of power the editorial board of The Advocate breathlessly claimed it to be, it’s the kind of thing that in a low-turnout election could make a difference.

L-R, Joshua, Troy Sr., Ana, Troy Jr., Milo (feline), Millie (canine: dachshund), Beaux (canine: standard poodle). Courtesy of the Carter campaign.

Troy Carter isn’t the kind of politician who actively courts controversy, though he occasionally finds it. He’s less of a firebrand and more of a smooth operator. In the family portrait provided by his campaign, Troy’s the one holding Milo, the family cat. One gets the impression that he tells a lot of dad jokes.

For someone whose career in politics has spanned more than 30 years, beginning as an assistant to New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and whose name has appeared on the ballot nearly a dozen times, including successful campaigns for the state House, the New Orleans City Council, and the state Senate and not as successful bids for New Orleans Mayor and Congress, the extent to which he has stayed out of the news, at least the statewide news, seems even more remarkable than the occasions on which he has been in it.

This explains, in part, why despite finishing the primary as the clear frontrunner, with 36% to KCP’s 23%, he managed to come in a distant third place in East Baton Rouge Parish, trailing Carter-Peterson by nine points and Baton Rouge native Gary Chambers by seven. A well-timed endorsement from Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome certainly won’t hurt his chances, but it’s difficult to know whether it will help either, particularly considering Chambers’ decision to endorse Carter-Peterson.

Outside of New Orleans, Carter may not be as well-known as his rival (though he did post solid numbers in the rural and sparsely-populated parts of the district), and depending on who you ask, that may be an advantage. Still, with only two weeks before the primary election, Carter appeared to be in a position to potentially score an outright win, but a series of strategic blunders, like skipping out on the one and only televised forum, and a convoluted attack against Carter-Peterson, falsely suggesting she was responsible for laying off 7,000 public school teachers after Hurricane Katrina and implying that she somehow orchestrated the hiring of her future husband at the Recovery School District years before they began a relationship, may have weakened support for both of them.

Like KCP, Troy Carter was an early supporter of LGBTQ rights. In 1993, as a freshman state legislator, Carter introduced the state’s first significant gay rights bill. “(Louisiana) should not be discriminating against people for what they do in the privacy of their own homes,” Carter said at the time. The Alexandria Daily Town Talk worried Carter’s bill was nothing more than “forced acceptance.” “What would (the bill’s passage) mean?” the paper’s editorial board wondered. “Affirmative action and quotas for gays? Legalization of same-sex marriage? Forced granting of spousal benefits to homosexual couples?” (If only one could travel back in time to warn them that their prophecy would come to pass, except for the gay quotas prediction, thanks to a majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court). In the event that you are confused by the paper’s position on Carter’s proposal, its slippery slope quickly takes a vertical plunge. “And how long would it be before others with differing sexual leanings—pedophiles, for example—would demand similar protection?”

That year, Carter would also introduce a bill that sought to prohibit people from purchasing more than 12 guns a year (As it turns out, the same people who feared gay quotas were also opposed to gun quotas).

Carter spent only one term in the state House before graduating to the New Orleans City Council, where his two terms coincided with the administration of Mayor Marc Morial. In 2002, he made a bid for the Mayor’s Office, but finished in fourth place against the eventual winner, a promising and successful business executive named Clarence Ray Nagin.

Carter made his way back to Baton Rouge, this time as a member of the upper chamber, in the same 2015 election that brought a former Army Ranger and country lawyer from Amite into the Governor’s Mansion and ended the political career of Louisiana’s first Republican U.S. Senator since Reconstruction, David Bruce Vitter.

Prior to this year’s election, the criticism against Carter had been largely parochial, which may be at least partially attributable to his decision to take a significant break from elective politics after falling short in his 2006 campaign against “Dollar Bill” Jefferson. He’s been accused of being a “shitty landlord.” Through his political action committee, he’s made some problematic endorsements in local races, including an inexplicable decision to support the reelection of school board member who was best-known for being an outspoken homophobe. His PAC has also had issues with the state Ethics Board. The criticism may very well be valid, but it’s difficult to imagine that it’d carry much weight with anyone who doesn’t keep up with the inside baseball of Orleans Parish politics.

The larger issue he faces is the perception that his politics are now increasingly more moderate than the district he seeks to represent. His candidacy has been quietly and sometimes not so quietly supported by Republicans, like Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng, daughter of the parish’s legendary former sheriff, Harry Lee, as well as an outside PAC funded by Republican operatives. In the state’s other five congressional districts, Carter’s “cross-over” appeal would be an advantage; in the second district, however, it could be the kiss of death.

There is also at least some concern that Cedric Richmond’s decision to essentially recruit him to run for his old seat would somehow obligate him to the former congressman and allow Richmond to further consolidate his power over state Democratic politics from his office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and while Richmond continues to be broadly popular among the district’s voters, there were signs that his support may have not necessarily been as deep as it was always perceived to be. Today, the district is much more progressive than it was when he was first elected, a little over a decade ago. Back then, his less-than-adversarial relationship with the petrochemical industry and Big Oil and his famous friendship with Steve Scalise were touted as signs of the kind of pragmatic approach necessary for a district that needed all the help it could get from a GOP-led Congress. That’s not the case any more.

In fairness, some of this criticism is objectively unfair to Richmond, who deserves credit for his early and steadfast support of a president proving to be one of the most progressive in the nation’s history. It’s also not entirely fair to Carter either, nor is it necessarily a bad thing that a senior aide to the President of the United States and a former six-term congressman recruited and encouraged him to enter the race. It also deserves mention that while Carter’s attack ad against KCP fell flat, so too did an ad by the progressive, pro-choice organization EMILY’s List, which is supporting Carter-Peterson and for some reason decided to attack Carter for attending a star-studded party in Los Angeles back in the 1990s while on a junket to promote New Orleans during his stint on the city council.

So, who will win on April 24?

After the jungle primary, political observers and pollsters couldn’t help but point out that Gary Chambers, the Baton Rouge activist and outspoken progressive who assembled a truly impressive operation practically overnight, had actually earned more votes than Karen Carter-Peterson did in her own district. (Carter-Peterson bested Chambers in his backyard as well, but that was less surprising than what he was able to do in Orleans Parish). Chambers’ solid numbers in Orleans were almost entirely framed as a rejection of Carter-Peterson, a facile but logical conclusion that nonetheless entirely misapprehends the electorate. Gary Chambers ran to the left of Karen Carter-Peterson, who is running to the left of Troy Carter. Chambers may have narrowly missed making the runoff, but his campaign proved a hugely important point about the appetite for progressive disruption. In that respect, the fact that a relatively unknown leftist candidate from Baton Rouge far exceeded everyone’s expectations in Orleans Parish, where the plurality of the district’s voters live, doesn’t say nearly as much about dislike for Karen Carter-Peterson’s politics than it does about an electorate looking for a candidate to the left of their former congressperson.

Of all of the seemingly endless endorsements that have been made in this race, Chambers’ decision to throw his support behind Carter-Peterson may prove to be the most consequential, though one gets the sense that the majority of his voters would have migrated to Team KCP regardless of any formal declaration of support.

A couple of years ago, after the entire slate of the Bayou Brief‘s endorsed candidates lost their races, we decided to get out of the endorsement business. Personally, I think endorsements matter far less than people imagine. When Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, he carried the endorsement of only one major newspaper in the United States, which, incidentally, was the only major newspaper in the United States also owned by casino magnate and GOP megadonor, the late Sheldon Adelson.

That said, I do have one final note of caution to voters in this district: Despite what some may claim, Troy Carter is, in fact, a capital-D Democrat, and no, Karen Carter-Peterson did not support Bobby Jindal, unless by “support,” you mean that she agreed with his decision to suspend his campaign for the White House and sell off the spare parts of his electoral machine to Rick Scott and Josh Hawley.

In my opinion, either Carter would serve Louisiana and her people far better than any of the seven Republicans the state is currently sending to Capitol Hill. I like both Carters.

Actually, I like all three Carters, including Lil Wayne (not for his chummy relationship with Trump but for figuring out how to work Frank Minyard’s name into one of his songs).

Clarification: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, which the author attributes to his own admiration of the acclaimed virtuoso of the American short story, the late Donald Barthelme of Houston, Texas.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello.