Louisiana House Race Sets Up a Democratic Showdown in New Orleans

DONALDSONVILLE, La. — The first competitive special congressional election of the Biden era is most likely heading to a runoff next month, but the battle lines are already drawn ahead of the initial balloting on Saturday in the race to succeed former Representative Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana.

At the center of the debate: which of two New Orleans Democrats positioned to face off in April can better leverage their connections to lift a South Louisiana district hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I would be a freshman with the relationships of a senior member,” State Senator Troy Carter, one of the two lawmakers, said after a sign-waving session on Thursday morning at a busy New Orleans intersection. He was alluding to his endorsements from Mr. Richmond, who left Congress to become a senior White House aide, and from prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat.

But after a meet-and-greet 60 miles up the Mississippi River, his chief rival, State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, said the extensive contacts she had made serving in the State Legislature and on the Democratic National Committee would better benefit voters — and she poked fun at her opponent and his patron, Mr. Richmond.

“I don’t need to have the ear of the ear of the ear of the toe of the thumb of someone,” Ms. Peterson said, adding that she would not “have to call the White House” to reach cabinet members because she already knew many of them.

After sending a succession of powerhouse Democrats to Washington, from Longs to Landrieus, Louisiana has become so red that its only Democratic representation in the nation’s capital hails from its lone predominantly Black seat, the Second Congressional District, which stretches from New Orleans along the so-called river parishes to Baton Rouge. This small foothold of power brings obvious limitations, but it also confers outsize influence in the party — and never more so than when Democrats have full control of the federal government, as they do now.

The eventual winner will have clout not only with a range of political and judicial appointees in the state but also over how Louisiana benefits from the infrastructure bill that is among the next priorities for President Biden. And few regions in the country have the varying needs of South Louisiana, with its dependence on two sectors of the economy that suffered heavily from the coronavirus: tourism and oil and gas.

The all-party vote on Saturday, which will head to a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one reaches a 50 percent threshold, is not the state’s only special congressional election. Voters in the heavily Republican Fifth District in North Louisiana will go to the polls to fill a seat that was supposed to be held by Luke Letlow, 41, who won election in November before dying of Covid-19 the next month. His widow, Julia Letlow, has the support of most state and national Republicans and is heavily favored.

It’s in New Orleans, however, where the politics are, as ever, most complex, competitive and more than a little piquant.

The field to replace Mr. Richmond is 15 strong and includes the Baton Rouge-based civil rights activist Gary Chambers Jr., who has developed a following in the state capital.

Yet the race has been dominated by the two New Orleans state senators, who would largely vote the same way but represent competing political factions and are running sharply different races as it relates to the seat’s previous occupant.

When he announced in December that he was resigning to take a senior position in the White House, Mr. Richmond said he would most likely offer an endorsement. Anyone with more than a passing interest in New Orleans’s byzantine web of political relationships and rivalries knew what that translated to: He would support whoever emerged as the strongest candidate against Ms. Peterson.

With its one-party dominance, New Orleans is a city riven not by partisan divisions but by the sort of personal feuds that often shape municipal politics. And, to put it mildly, Mr. Richmond and Ms. Peterson are not allies.

“New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, and this is a multigenerational turf war between the political organizations they came up in,” said Clancy DuBos, a longtime political analyst in the city.

This, of course, all mattered very little outside the famous crescent between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

But then Mr. Richmond joined the White House and Ms. Peterson jumped in the race to succeed him. She was quickly joined by Mr. Carter, who, with the departing congressman’s blessing, boasted, “I would have the ear of the guy who has the ear of the president of the United States of America.”

Which is why Ms. Peterson, sitting in a folding chair as her supporters helped themselves to a post-event jambalaya feast near the levee in Donaldsonville, was grinning as she cracked to a visiting reporter about ears, toes and thumbs.

A former state Democratic chair and national party vice chair, Ms. Peterson said she would be able to deliver for the district without going through the West Wing.

Citing the names of the transportation, energy and housing secretaries, she said, “They personally know me and my work.”

Without directly mentioning Mr. Richmond in her remarks to the group, Ms. Peterson implicitly contrasted herself with the former congressman. In a part of the state known as “cancer alley” because of its convergence of illness and petrochemical plants, she presented herself as more pro-environment and said she had heard complaints “that people have been absent.”

Mr. Richmond has been criticized by some for being too close to industry and insufficiently attentive to the district’s rural communities.

Ms. Peterson’s best applause line, though, might also reflect her best chance to prevail.

“There’s never been an African-American woman to serve, in the history of Louisiana, in Washington in the federal delegation,” she said. “When women aren’t at the table, we’re usually on the menu.”

At a moment when Black women want to see more of their counterparts in positions of power — a view much of the Democratic base shares as Black women run this year in high-profile elections in places like New York City, Virginia and Ohio — the message plainly resonated.

“I’m all for women right now, we just need representation,” said Angela Steib, a Donaldsonville resident who attended the get-together.

For his part, Mr. Carter is quick to highlight his support from an array of local female leaders, including the New Orleans City Council president, Helena Moreno — and to intimate that he would be more effective in Washington than Ms. Peterson because of what she acknowledges is her hard-charging approach.

“We have a very different style,” he said.

Philosophically, the two have not been that far apart in the past. But Ms. Peterson has sought to outflank Mr. Carter on the left in this race, portraying herself as an insurgent even as she trumpets her service as a former state chair and her roster of endorsements, which include the backing of Stacey Abrams and Emily’s List, the group that supports women who are in favor of abortion rights.

Asked to describe her style of politics, though, she avoided an ideological label, instead calling herself “responsive” and “honest.” Mr. Carter said, “I am center-left.”

In a sleepy spring special election, though, the winner may be determined by which of the two leading candidates has a stronger organization. Both have a long history in local office, both have sought this seat in the past and they have been competitive financially, although Emily’s List has given Ms. Peterson third-party help that Mr. Carter lacks on the airwaves.

The early voting ahead of Saturday was dismal, with most of the ballots mailed in by older voters. In a city that loves its politics, there is an unmistakable somnolence to this race, one that locals attribute to the pandemic and fatigue from the 2020 election.

That, however, could change once it becomes a head-to-head contest — and especially if the state’s two other Democratic power brokers in office join the fray and make the proxy war complete. Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans is a Peterson ally who has, notably, not yet endorsed anyone, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is closer to Mr. Carter, has also stayed on the sidelines.

Asked about the mayor’s potential support, Ms. Peterson suggested that the race was about to become enlivened.

“She will speak to her position on the race at the appropriate time,” she said, failing to suppress a smile.

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