Former two-time Olympic decathlete and LSU track champion Claston Bernard declared Friday that freedom, faith and family are the binding roots of this nation and that he will defend them against socialism and other forces of division if elected next month to Congress.

Bernard, a Republican and naturalized U.S. citizen from Jamaica, also promised to push for educational programs that will help the residents of the 2nd Congressional District lift themselves out of poverty. He also emphasized the common humanity of Americans of all races and political persuasions.

"When I see Black Americans, I see Americans. When I see White Americans, I see Americans. When I see Native Americans, I see Americans," he said during a kick-off rally on a brisk, but sunny afternoon Friday at Crescent Park near Donaldsonville's riverfront. "We are one people with one goal. Hard work, hard work is what is going to get us ahead."

Bernard, 41, who lives across the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville in Gonzales with his wife, Quantez, and their two daughters, announced his bid to replace six-term U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. Richmond is leaving the seat after then President-elect Joe Biden tapped him for a position in the White House in mid-November.

A special primary election is set for March 20. Early voting starts March 6.

The 2nd Congressional District is a sprawling one that traces mostly African-American communities along both sides of the Mississippi from the eastern tip of Orleans Parish at the Rigolets to portions of North Baton Rouge just above Baker.

The district was designed a decade ago to be a majority-minority one that would favor a Democratic candidate, especially one from New Orleans. Sixty-three percent of voters are registered Democrats, state figures say.

Richmond's departure has attracted 15 candidates in all, including two New Orleans Democratic legislators, state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson. The race has also drawn other interest out of the Baton Rouge area besides Bernard, with local political provocateur Gary Chambers, a Democrat.

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Bernard, who owns a home inspection business and once ran as a Democrat for Gonzales City Council in 2012, has the state Republican Party's endorsement over three other Republicans.

His rally Friday drew around 80 people but included former Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone, state party Chairman Louis Gurvich and state Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales.

Gurvich and Edmonston spoke, touting Bernard's candidacy and its chance for success against the crowded Democratic primary field.

During Bernard's speech and in a later interview, he emphasized his willingness to reach out to residents and ask them how he can improve their well-being. More than 21% of the people in the congressional district live below the poverty line and nearly 33% of the children, census statistics say.

One of his campaign planks would be to use business tax credits to funnel money to after-school programs.

Bernard's wife has family ties to Donaldsonville. The western Ascension Parish city has its own struggles with poverty and opportunity, which fueled an unsuccessful electoral challenge to the longstanding city leadership last year.

Bernard asserted that his campaign will appeal to a sizable segment of African-American voters who are Christian conservatives "who don't really have a place in the Democratic Party."

"But they don't really feel like the Republican Party has done enough for them. I am the guy who is willing to go there and say, 'Hey, let's make this about fixing our community.'"


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.