The (Second) Louisiana Progressive?

Troy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt, Whit Martin, and the Mantle of Louisiana Progressivism

Left to right: Congressman-elect Troy Carter (D-LA02) and the late Congressman Whitmill Pugh Martin (P-LA03)

“I am going back and [will] tell the North it must follow in the footsteps of the Progressives of Louisiana.”

—Theodore Roosevelt, Sept. 8, 1914.

“When Col. Roosevelt, Bull Moose, retired to his berth aboard a speeding Pullman at midnight Monday night, apparently, he was the happiest man in the nation,” The Times-Picayune reported the following day. The congressional midterm elections were only a couple of months away, and the former president was back on the trail, hoping to whip up support for a slate of candidates who promised to make life difficult for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. “Fourteen hours of most strenuous receptions, conversations, and orations had left him a tired [man]…. But those same fourteen hours had gone to confirm in his mind his belief that the Progressive party is about to achieve that dream of a quarter of a century, the breaking of the Solid South, and he was content.”

Two years before, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt had fallen short in his bid for a political comeback and a then-unprecedented third term in the White House, this time running not as a Republican but as a member of his own party. He’d founded the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, after losing the Republican nomination to his handpicked successor in the White House, William Howard Taft.

A banquet honoring President Theodore Roosevelt during his visit to New Orleans in 1905. Source: Louisiana Digital Library.

He’d actually visited New Orleans before, once in 1905 at the beginning of his second term in the White House and again in 1912 for a brief stop during his campaign against Taft and Wilson.

But the Roosevelt who arrived in New Orleans at 7:50 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Sept. 7, 1914 was different. In the span of under two years, Teddy Roosevelt, who continues to hold the distinction of being the youngest person ever elected to the presidency, was suddenly, at the age of only 55, an old man.

Just four months earlier, Roosevelt had returned from South America, where he’d taken a harrowing expedition in search of an uncharted, mythical river, the River of Doubt, deep into the heart of the Amazonian darkness. The journey had nearly killed him, but it also had left no doubt about his status as an American icon.

At the time of his trip to New Orleans, he was arguably the most famous and most admired person in the entire country.

Initially, he planned on staying for less than a day, but when the state’s future governor, John M. Parker, a prominent New Orleans cotton broker and “the chief Progressive organizer in the South,” wrote a “passionate letter” urging him to also visit Louisiana’s third congressional district, also known as the “Sugar Bowl,” where, suddenly, there appeared to be an opportunity for Progressives to pick up a bunch of votes, Roosevelt agreed to extend his stay.

After a full day in New Orleans, capped off with a speech in front of a sold-out audience of 5,000 people at the French Opera House, he left by his private train the following morning for the small town of Franklin, where two out of every three residents had signed a petition urging him to visit.

From Franklin, he headed by car to New Iberia for a public speech. Along the way, he made a brief stop in Jeanerette. Several hundred people had gathered just to catch a glimpse of the former president. But nothing would compare to the reception that awaited him in New Iberia.

A cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt in anticipation of his visit to New Orleans published in the Sept. 7, 1914 edition of the Times-Picayune.

Mayor Alphe Fontelieu had organized a calvary of some 400 bandana-clad, mounted Rough Riders to intercept him in the outskirts of town.

“Colonel,” the mayor told him, “we have a horse for you and wish you to take command of our troop.” Roosevelt joyfully accepted and led the entourage into town where, according to news reports, a crowd estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people packed the streets of downtown.

“Roosevelt addressed the crowd in sections because of its size,” wrote Richard Collins, a former history professor at LSU, in his 1971 article “Theodore Roosevelt’s Visit to New Orleans and the Progressive Campaign of 1914.” “He received his most enthusiastic applause when he concluded in French.”

On the way back to New Orleans that afternoon, he made more than 20 different stops, and in each town, massive crowds gathered for a chance to see the old Bull Moose in person.

While his two-day, nearly-nonstop visit to Louisiana was an undeniable success, it remained unclear whether his presence alone would be enough to ensure victories for the men running under his Progressive banner.

Only a day before his train pulled into the station at the foot of Canal, Louisiana Progressives had seemed hopelessly deadlocked as they met in New Iberia to select their party’s nominee for the third district. Finally, on the 119th ballot, a local judge, 47-year-old Whitmell Pugh Martin, emerged as the party’s choice. Prior to joining the bench, Whit Martin had been the area’s district attorney, and before that, he served as superintendent of schools. But despite his impressive resume, Martin faced an uphill battle in what was effectively a one-party state.

“When the first Louisiana Progressive convention met in New Orleans on August 3, 1912, most of the new Bull Moose were old Republicans from the sugar producing parishes,” noted Collins. “The Republicans had been a part of the Lily White faction of the Republican Party whose main political impetus had been opposition to Democratic free trade practices. With Republicans in office nationally the Lily White Republicans were reduced to ineffectual internal squabbling. In spite of a Progressive campaign trip to New Orleans in 1912 and a favorable court decision placing the Progressives on the ballot without a primary, the results of the 1912 election were disastrous to Louisiana’s Progressives. Wilson won Louisiana with 60,966 votes, trailed by Roosevelt with 9,323, and Taft with 3,834.”

Teddy Roosevelt (right) would return to Louisiana in 1915, when John Parker (left) invited him on a bird-watching expedition on the aptly-named Bird Island, which has subsequently disappeared due to coastal degradation. The following year, as a member of Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, Parker was defeated in his bid for Louisiana governor. Months later, he secured the Vice Presidential nomination of the Progressive Party, but the party would spiral into obscurity after Roosevelt defected back to the GOP. Parker would subsequently rejoin the Democratic Party, and in 1920, he was elected Louisiana’s 37th governor.

There was reason for guarded optimism, however, provided that Progressive candidates in Louisiana could get their message in front of voters before Election Day.

During Wilson’s first year in office, he made good on a campaign promise and signed into law the Revenue Act of 1913, better known in its day as the Underwood-Simmons Act. The law re-established federal income taxes and dramatically reduced tariff rates, landmark legislation that fundamentally reshaped the way government collected most of its revenue and had long been a priority for Democrats nationwide.

There was just one problem, at least for Democrats in Louisiana.

Buried in the legislation was a provision that not only reduced tariffs on imported sugar; it called for their complete elimination by the year 1916. This was an issue that created an opening for Louisiana Progressives, and they were eager to exploit it.

“[Judge Martin] offered the most ingenious argument for local Progressivism by asserting that he had not left the Democratic Party but rather that the Democratic Party, by renouncing its pledges and principles, had left its constituents,” Collins explained.

In what had seemed inconceivable only a few months before, that November, Whit Martin prevailed over Democrat Henri L. Gueydan, 57%-43%, carrying five of the district’s eight parishes and becoming the first Progressive candidate from the South to win a congressional election.

It would take another 58 years before Louisiana voters would send someone other than a Democrat to Congress. In 1972, future governor Dave Treen became Louisiana’s first Republican member of Congress since Reconstruction, winning the same seat once held by Martin.

In 1916, again running as a Progressive, Martin won reelection by razor-thin margin, only 99 votes, against the young sheriff of St. Martin Parish, Wade O. Martin, Sr. (That’s right. U.S. Rep. Martin’s opponent was a Martin from St. Martin Parish).

1916 also marked the beginning of the end for the Progressive Party. Roosevelt rejoined the Republicans, and John M. Parker, his friend and chief organizer in the South, switched back to the Democratic Party.

For his part, beginning in 1918, U.S. Rep. Whit Martin would never face another opponent again, serving an additional six consecutive terms, all as a Democrat, until his death in 1929.

Martin was not only Louisiana’s first and only Progressive to win a federal election, he also remains the only person in state history to have served in the United States Congress without being a member of either the Democratic or the Republican parties.

****

Congressman-elect Troy Carter addresses supporters at his victory party on the night of April 24, 2021 after defeating state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson in a runoff election for Louisiana’s Second Congressional District. 15 years prior, Carter and Carter-Peterson both fell short in their bids to oust incumbent U.S. Rep. William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson. Photo courtesy of Big Easy Magazine.

Last month, when Louisiana state Sen. Troy Carter defeated his Democratic colleague, state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson, in a special election to fill former U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s seat in the Second Congressional District, the press, particularly the national press, declared that his victory amounted to a repudiation of progressivism. While it is undeniably true that his opponent made more direct appeals to far-left and leftist voters and to a constellation of like-minded national organizations and SuperPACs, it also gives the false impression that either Carter’s campaign or his record were somehow not, on balance, substantively progressive.

Both Carter and Carter-Peterson are veteran politicians. In fact, this isn’t the first time they’ve squared off against one another in a congressional race. 15 years ago, they both attempted to unseat the disgraced incumbent, William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson. Carter finished in fifth; Carter-Peterson narrowly captured a spot in the runoff but was ultimately unable to dismantle the machine that had made the Jefferson family into one of New Orleans’ most powerful political dynasties.

This year’s race between the two Carters was complicated by the strong performance of Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers in the jungle primary, where he finished in third place with 21% of the vote, only two points behind Carter-Peterson. He polled surprisingly well in Orleans Parish, even winning a plurality of votes in Carter-Peterson’s own state senate district.

On July 15, 2016, Gary Chambers (left) officiated the funeral service at Southern University for Alton Sterling. The service featured remarks from the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (right). Photo credit: Lamar White, Jr.

The 35-year-old Chambers, an erstwhile pastor turned social media provocateur and activist, had previously mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for Baton Rouge Metro Council and State Senate District 15, losing both in landslides.

Last summer, he attracted a massive following on social media after briefly earning national attention for a viral video in which he excoriates a member of the local school board for shopping online during a discussion on changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. But he started drawing attention in the Baton Rouge area in 2014, when he began publishing the Rouge Collection, a website he promoted as a “Baton Rouge’s black-owned media platform” but that ultimately became more like a personal blog (prior to that, Chambers’ only other documented venture in political advocacy had been a quixotic effort to launch a boycott against the rap artist Meek Mill, who Chambers believed to be blasphemous). It’s also worth noting that after the police killing of Alton Sterling in 2016, Chambers played a prominent role in the subsequent protests and was asked by the Sterling family to officiate the public funeral service, where he shared the stage with the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

He was recruited to run for the open congressional seat by Shaun King, a Kentucky native and controversial Black Lives Matter activist (“one of the most followed and shared activists and journalists in the world,” he boasts on his website, The North Star) who has generated intense criticism from fellow activists, including DeRay Mckesson (“[The] person who paints your house before he steals your car has still committed theft,” Mckesson wrote of King in a detailed critique published on Medium in 2019).

King began promoting Chambers as a potential candidate as early as Nov. 17, 2020, the day that Richmond announced he would be stepping down from Congress in order to take a job with the incoming Biden administration. Two weeks later and more than a month before Chambers would officially declare his candidacy, King heralded the Baton Rouge activist on his website, publishing an article underneath the headline “Shaun King: Gary Chambers Is the Revolutionary Candidate We Need” and urging readers to donate directly to Chambers. The goal, he said, was to raise $250,000.

According to reports filed with the FEC, Chambers, all told, raised approximately $400,000, with the overwhelming majority of his financial support from out-of-state donors. Among his itemized contributions, he received more money from one state, California, than he did from the state he sought to represent in Congress. His two biggest donations in Louisiana, a pair of $2,500 checks, appear to be from business entities, which would be a violation of federal campaign finance law. On Jan. 19, he reported receiving $2,500 from Parker’s Pharmacy in Baton Rouge; ten days later, he received the other $2,500 from LaFleur Industries, a Baton Rouge-based affordable housing developer. (His top two California donors were tech entrepreneur Adam Pisoni and the actress Milla Jovavich).

Chambers’ confrontational approach and his knack for self-promotion may have been already familiar to voters in Baton Rouge, where, in the jungle primary, he finished in second and two points behind Karen Carter-Peterson with 33% of the vote. But in Orleans Parish, he was largely unknown, which is why his second place finish there was so surprising (two points ahead of Carter-Peterson with 27% but still well behind Carter, who captured 39%). He fashioned himself as an unapologetically leftist candidate, advocating in favor of free college, student loan forgiveness, reparations (or a study to assess reparations), and a single-payer healthcare system. All of which are policy positions that would find a larger audience and greater appeal in New Orleans than anywhere else in the district. It’s why, for example, he earned the endorsement (albeit tepid) of Antigravity Magazine, which noted a peculiar exchange that occurred when he was asked about Shaun King:

“When Chambers was questioned about his association with King, he got defensive, saying ‘I’m not your typical person running for office, I’m loyal to those who are loyal to me.’ Bit of a reactionary tautology there. Chambers later said, ‘So take this note early, don’t ever come at me about who I associate with.’” 

For Carter-Peterson, Chambers’ endorsement, which he provided only after announcing he intended to interview both remaining candidates, was considered critical. Ultimately, however, although he did promote her on social media, Chambers proved to be a non-factor (and perhaps not as loyal as he proclaimed himself to be). In an interview with The Advocate, Chambers faulted Carter-Peterson for not carrying Orleans Parish in the runoff (“That’s more a reflection on Karen and less on me”) but appeared to take credit for her winning the majority of the vote in East Baton Rouge Parish, claiming her victory in the state’s capital city was a repudiation of the “political elites” and the “political establishment.” Never mind that Carter-Peterson, until only recently, had been the chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party for the past eight years and the vice chair of civic engagement and voter participation for the Democratic National Committee.

Chambers also recently announced the launch of a new nonprofit, Bigger Than Me, which his friend Shaun King enthusiastically reported under the headline, “Gary Chambers launches a brilliant new organization to help progressives across the Deep South.”

It could be that Chambers’ performance in the jungle primary is evidence of an impending seismic shift in the politics of Louisiana’s Second Congressional District. It may also be that this is what could happen when someone leverages a massive social media following in order to raise close to a half a million dollars for a ten week campaign. Or, possibly, Chambers primarily attracted people searching for a “protest candidate.” More than one Chambers voter tweeted that they ignored his endorsement advice and voted for Troy Carter in the runoff.

However his role is characterized, he did manage to move Karen Carter-Peterson further to the left.

Both runoff candidates had long track records of supporting criminal justice reform, LGBTQ equality, raising the minimum wage, equal pay, and a litany of other Democratic priorities. And although they took different approaches, both also backed “Medicare for All” proposals.

They differed slightly on one key issue: The Green New Deal.

Carter-Peterson unabashedly supported it, earning her the endorsement of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among others. Carter, on the other hand, said he supported the Green New Deal as a “framework.” For what it’s worth, they also both signed a pledge to not accept campaign donations in excess of $200 from anyone associated with the oil and gas industry, and after certain donations were flagged, both claimed they had returned the money in controversy.

Carter-Peterson’s decision to make the Green New Deal one of her signature priorities was a calculated risk. The district is home to Cancer Alley, which, more than almost anywhere else in the country, had suffered the public health consequences and the disastrous effects of economic dependency on an under-regulated, exploitative, and all-powerful industry. There are even fewer places that have experienced the realities of environmental racism more than Cancer Alley.

If you were to poll the district on the individual components of the Green New Deal, you’d likely find overwhelming support. But one recent internal poll of the district, according to a source with direct knowledge of its findings, revealed that fewer than 30% of voters support the general concept of a Green New Deal. Much like Obamacare (at least initially), the term itself— Green New Deal— has already been negatively defined by its conservative opponents.

Even though the district is majority Black and skews overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats, this is Louisiana, after all, and it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that voters need more than gimmicky slogans before they can be convinced that the solution isn’t worse than the problem it seeks to address.

#StopFormosaPlastics: St. James (Formosa site). Photo by RISE St. James. Image transformed by Bayou Brief.

Consider, for example, St. James Parish, a tiny and sparsely populated sliver of the Acadian Coast situated in between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and perhaps best known for the plantation forced labor camp, Oak Alley. The parish is home to nearly the same number of White residents as Black residents (48% White, 50% Black), and typically, those voters give Democratic candidates a heavy advantage. The last Republican to carry a majority in St. James Parish was Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Last December, after only a month’s notice, Shell Oil closed down its refinery in Convent, Louisiana, which had been the backbone of the local economy and a “mainstay” of the parish since the 1960s. The refinery was outmoded, and, according to Shell, it prevented the company from achieving its goal of reducing carbon emissions. While its closure was an unequivocal victory for the environment and an inevitability for an industry that depends on a non-renewable resource, that’s hardly a consolation for the 400 contractors and 695 employees who suddenly found themselves out of a job.

Up against this backdrop is the construction of an enormously controversial $9.4 billion plastics “complex” by the Taiwan-based Formosa, the world’s sixth-largest chemical company. The plastics plant promises to add 1,200 new jobs to the local economy.

Karen Carter-Peterson vowed to fight against its construction. Troy Carter said he would hold Formosa accountable for any damage they inflict and would work to end the current practice of self-reporting and ensure that an objective third-party monitors emissions instead.

The tiny parish of 22,000 drew outsized attention during the runoff election, and it was the only parish in which voter turnout exceeded 20% (22.7%, to be precise).

Troy Carter carried St. James Parish, 66%-34%.

****

What does it mean to be a Louisiana progressive? And what does any of this have to do with the election of Whit Martin in 1914?

In Roosevelt’s era, the term “progressive” obviously carried different connotations than it does today and even than it did in the years that immediately followed.

Huey P. Long embraced the label, naming his very own propaganda outlet Louisiana Progress (he changed its name to American Progress when he began setting his sights on the White House).

If there’s a consistent theme that connects the progressives of the Bull Moose generation to the progressives of today, it’s a shared opposition to the concentration of wealth and a belief that corporate influence and power distorts our democracy.

But progressivism has always been flexible and not rigidly dogmatic. No matter what label you prefer, competing parochial interests are a part of practically all policymaking, and what could appear to be progressive in one place may seem regressive in another. Take, for example, tariffs on sugar. Cheaper, imported sugar is great for everyone, except if you live in Louisiana’s “Sugar Bowl.”

Huey P. Long and a Ramos gin fizz. Photo credit: Leon Trice. Photo source: Tulane Digital Library. Image credit: Bayou Brief

We may all agree that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to pull the permits for the mega-billion dollar Formosa plant, but if you are one of the thousands of voters—predominately Democratic voters, mind you—who either recently lost your job or has a family member of friend who lost their job at the now-mothballed Shell refinery and the only thing you see in the horizon is Formosa, with its promise of creating 1,200 jobs, then you probably aren’t all that interested in hearing about all of the theoretical jobs that could be created under a “Green New Deal;” instead, you want to know how your congressman or congresswoman intends on ensuring you can find work without having to move away from the place you have always called home.

Troy Carter may be a “moderate” compared to Karen Carter-Peterson; he’s certainly more moderate than Gary Chambers. But as Stephanie Grace of The Times-Picayune recently pointed out: Look at the folks standing beside him on Election Night.

“If voters had rejected progressivism,” she writes, “and if Carter was running away from it, then why was [Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason] Williams there? And what was City Council President Helena Moreno, another of the city’s leading progressive politicians, doing on stage with him? Clearly, something else was going on here.”

The irony to all of this is that the election was framed as a battle between a moderate or even right-leaning conservative versus a principled progressive not because voters in the district came to define it as such but because out-of-state SuperPACs and interest groups spent vast sums of money—both in support of Carter-Peterson and against her—selling this narrative.

This wasn’t, as the great James Carville said, rejection of “wokeness,” because to quote from the headline of Grace’s column, wokeness “was never on the Congressional ballot.” (To be fair to Carville, he elaborates on his general thesis about “wokeness” in a recent interview with Vox’s Sean Illing, and placed within the larger context, his analysis makes a great deal of sense).

Again, was Carter-Peterson “more” progressive than Carter? Yes. But if the Republicans in Jefferson Parish who turned out to vote for Troy Carter believe that he’s somehow ideologically aligned with them, I imagine they are in for a surprise. That said, if he proves to be a humiliating embarrassment to the people who stood on stage with him on Election Night, especially D.A. Williams, who Carter called “the leader of the progressive movement,” the seat won’t be his for long.

Unfortunately, as many anticipated, the runoff election between the two Carters became unusually negative and, at times, unsettlingly personal. The final televised forum, at least in my opinion, was difficult to watch, with both spending most of their allotted time either accusing each other of lying or defending themselves against an accusation of lying, and at some point, it became obvious that the two previously had a warm relationship. Carter-Peterson reminded Carter that, not long ago, he had taken a photo with her husband and that he knew her mother and had known her late father. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone watching at home could’ve left feeling inspired by the exchange, but it did prove at least one thing: New Orleans is, in many ways, still a small town, and Louisiana is still a small state.

****

Nearly 80 years ago, U.S. Sen. Tom Connally, a Democrat from the tiny town of Marlin, Texas, quipped, “Anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about politics should go down to Louisiana and take a postgraduate course.”

It’s still solid advice, especially if you’re planning on spending money to introduce voters to people they already know.

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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. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.