New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson is ending her often controversial tenure as the head of the Louisiana Democratic Party after eight years.
The party on Thursday issued Peterson’s announcement that she would not seek a third term as party chairman, opening the door to several candidates who have been talking with Democratic leaders over the past few weeks about challenging her reelection.
“My career has always been focused on using my voice to return power to those who need it the most – the working families in our state struggling with an unfair economic system, African American and Latinx citizens facing unrelenting challenges and biases, and our LGBTQ+ communities,” Peterson said in a press release announcing that she was ready to pass the torch to a new generation.
“Our party must remain resolved to end systematic racism, create real economic opportunity for everyone, and promote freedom and equality for all in Louisiana and across our nation,” she said.
Peterson will continue as the Democratic National Committee Vice Chair of Civic Engagement and Voter Participation, which deals with voter registration and suppression efforts. She took the role last year, leaving many of the state party executives wondering when she would step down as party leader.
Donna Brazile, a New Orleans native who had served as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, said Peterson was needed on the national level given the stakes of the election this fall when the president, the House and much of the U.S. Senate is up for election.
The Louisiana Democratic Party continues to decline under a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards.
Several people have told party members they are considering a run to replace Peterson as chair of the state Democratic Party, including Baton Rouge state Rep. Ted James, who said he would decide by the weekend, and Lafayette lawyer Katie Bernhardt, who issued her public announcement moments after Peterson made hers.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who as party head will have a lot to say about Peterson’s successor, “is meeting with the candidates and will be making a decision on who he will support prior to the election,” said Richard Carbo, a political advisor to the governor. He expects the election to be held in late August. Just who gets to vote is still to be decided in Saturday’s election, which includes members of the Democratic State Central Committee on the ballot.
Edwards in a prepared statement thanked Peterson. “Over the course of her tenure, we worked together to pass historic criminal justice reforms, expanded Medicaid for working Louisianans, and she was a great partner during my two campaigns for Governor,” he said.
But their relationship was often strained.
Peterson famously advised Edwards to step aside during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign and give a chance to a Republican more moderate than the presumed frontrunner, U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Edwards refused and went on to beat Vitter, becoming the only Democratic governor elected in the Deep South. He was reelected in November.
When anti-abortion legislation was being debated two years ago, Peterson castigated the governor. Edwards, who often mentions his Roman Catholic faith, supports anti-abortion positions.
“Shame on any governor that signs a bill that does not have exceptions for rape and incest,” Peterson said at the time. “Your religious views are not to be imposed on every citizen of this state.”
In late May, Peterson forced the resignation of two of Edwards’ senior appointees: Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the state gambling board, and Walt Leger III, the chairman of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
Leger, who as House speaker pro tem during the last legislative term was the Legislature’s highest-ranking Democrat until 2020, and remains close ally of Edwards.
Peterson's move against Jones came 15 months after she was forced to admit that she had a gambling problem after someone leaked to WWL-TV that she had violated a ban on entering Louisiana casinos.
Also on Peterson’s watch the number of registered Democrats, who once dominated electoral politics in Louisiana, declined about 10%, losing 148,834 voters to total 1.25 million Democrats as of July. The number of Republicans grew by 20% to 948,850 registrants during her eight years as state Democratic Party chair.
In March 2019, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson was forced to acknowledge publicly that she was a gambling addict after she violated a state g…
The party lost its majorities in both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature to the GOP and – apart from Edwards – hasn’t elected an official in a statewide race in more than a decade. The party often has been unable to field full slates of candidates in recent statewide and congressional elections.
Despite the statistics, Democratic Party executives gave Peterson credit for breathing new life into a long moribund party structure after wresting control of the hierarchy from former U.S. Rep. Buddy Leach in 2012. She was 42 years old at the time and the first woman to win the party chair.
“When she assumed office, we had nobody,” said state Rep. Kyle Green, of Marrero and one of the party’s vice chairs. Democrats couldn’t field a well-known candidate in 2011 to challenge Republican Bobby Jindal’s reelection as governor.
Peterson hired staff, reorganized the party’s base and fundraising. “She helped elect and reelect a Democratic governor in a ruby red state, you can’t discount that,” Green said.
Rep. Randal Gaines, of LaPlace and also a party vice chair, said Peterson set the foundation from which the party can increase its membership, particularly among men and women aged 18 to 35. “We have to appeal to younger, more progressive people who share our positions on lifestyle, jobs and education,” Gaines said.
Peterson’s father, Ken Carter, was president of BOLD, Black Organization for Leadership and Development, one of the political clubs that controlled New Orleans politics for decades. She was elected to the Louisiana House in 1999, representing the upper French Quarter along with parts of central City and Mid-City.
In January 2010, she became a state senator representing the neighborhoods along the Mississippi River from Canal to Jefferson Avenue. She is serving her third term as state senator.
Tyler Bridges and Will Sentell of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report