Gov. John Bel Edwards, attempting to strengthen the Democratic Party’s chances in this fall’s U.S. Senate race, urged the state Democratic Party leadership to back one candidate on Saturday.
His personal pick in the race: Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish.
“It’s not just theory or conjecture that we can win races in Louisiana, but we have to work together,” Edwards said. “The best shot for us to be successful is to have one candidate.”
Edwards, a former two-term state representative who was thought to be a long shot in the governor’s race just a year ago, said he knows from his own experience running as the lone Democrat in a four-man race for governor.
The Democratic State Central Committee meeting at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge Saturday was part organizational, part campaign event. The mood was mostly celebratory, as Democrats have control of the Governor’s Mansion again for the first time in eight years. Edwards, who was sworn in Jan. 11, received several standing ovations and people crowded around him to speak one on one or get a photo after he spoke.
The governor already had acknowledged that he encouraged Campbell to get into the race, but his speech to the key members of the state party Saturday was a clear appeal to the party to coalesce around him.
Campbell faces Democrats Caroline Fayard and Josh Pellerin and several Republicans in the Nov. 8 election. Under Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system, all candidates — regardless of party — will appear on the same ballot. A runoff will take place between the top two candidates on Dec. 3 if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote. The runoff can be between candidates of the same party if they come in first and second in November.
Edwards stopped short of calling on other Democrats to get out of the race but stressed that he thinks the party needs one Democrat who everyone can get behind and ensure a spot in the runoff.
Campbell called Edwards’ endorsement “monumental.”
“It’s the biggest endorsement you can get, and I’m very grateful for his support,” he said.
Fayard, a New Orleans lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010, said she hopes to eventually win the governor’s support.
“I totally respect the governor, but I’m more interested in getting the endorsement of the people of Louisiana,” she said after Edwards’ speech.
The gathering was mostly meant to be an organizational meeting of the party, which elects new members to the central committee every four years.
But it got off to a rocky start.
As Edwards waited to take the stage, members argued over party leadership in a tense exchange.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson eventually won re-election as the party chairwoman in a landslide 135-11 vote — but only after a direct confrontation over the job she’s done in the role over the past three years and specifically her attempt to dissuade Edwards from running for governor at all.
Some Democrats wanted to quickly re-elect Peterson, of New Orleans, but a vocal minority pushed back — holding up the leadership elections for nearly half an hour and raising objections about proxy votes, procedural moves and how fast the process was going.
Belinda Parker Brown pushed for Mozella Belle, of Campti, who has held other offices within the state party structure, to be the new chairwoman.
Brown carried a sign with a photo of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump that read: “A vote for Karen is a vote for Trump.”
“This is America, people,” Brown told the crowd. “Give somebody a chance. Stop the dumb stuff.”
A man in the crowd shouted back: “This is America, but you need to get that sign out of here.”
The crowd repeatedly had to be called to order.
Brown pressed on, railing against “favoritism, nepotism and cronyism” that she said she sees in the party.
“I have to speak the truth,” she said. “We need fresh ideas. We need new faces. We need new people. We need to give them a chance.”
She turned directly to Peterson, who was seated at the head table on the stage.
“You asked our governor to get out of the race,” Brown said.
As The Advocate reported, three months before last fall’s gubernatorial primary, Peterson and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu privately asked Edwards to run for attorney general instead because they didn’t think he would win the governor’s race.
The crowd jeered and called for Brown to wrap up her speech.
“To compare anyone who is a Democrat to Trump — that’s asinine,” said state Rep. Pat Smith, of Baton Rouge.
Peterson, for her part, acknowledged that her three years as chairwoman haven’t been flawless.
“I’ve not been perfect,” she told the crowd, “But there’s not one day that has passed by that I have not tried to advance the cause of Louisiana Democrats.”