In a speech during an April 2000 visit to New Orleans, President Bill Clinton singled out Karen Carter Peterson, then a 30-year-old, newly minted state representative, for a mention.

“Karen came up and accosted me and chewed me out over something she thought I was wrong about, and then she later thought maybe she'd gone too far. And I told her daddy that I'd be proud if my daughter could talk to the president that way,” Clinton said. “She wasn't disrespectful. She was just aggressive and articulate. And I'm glad to see her being so successful.”

Now 51 and a member of the state Senate, with two decades of public service under her belt, the scrappiness Bill Clinton spotlighted back in 2000 is seen by some as her strongest virtue, and by others as her biggest flaw.

State Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, an ally, recalls a friend’s observation: “Karen always punches up, never down. And that’s an important distinction for those in power in this state.”

“I trust that she'll always speak truth to power because it's what she's always done. Too many times it was up to Karen to speak women’s truth in Baton Rouge,” said Linda Kocher, a New Orleans community activist.

But state Sen. Troy Carter, her chief rival in the race to replace Cedric Richmond in Congress, uses every opportunity to remind voters that he mixes well with others – a thinly veiled jab at Peterson’s confrontational style, and its effect on some people.

It’s the second time Peterson and Carter, both of New Orleans, have run against each other for the congressional seat that traces through a thin strip of mostly Black communities along the banks of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans East to north Baton Rouge. Both ran against a weakened U.S. Rep. William Jefferson in 2006; Carter finished fifth, while Peterson made it to a runoff, then lost.

This time, 15 candidates are vying for the seat. Eight are Democrats, four are Republicans, one is Libertarian, another is independent, one is without party affiliation. Richmond, who held the seat a decade, in January took a job advising President Joe Biden in the White House.

Early voting continues until next Saturday. Election day is March 20 with an April 24 runoff.

“When I go to Washington, my job is not to agree with Steve Scalise all the time,” Peterson said, referring to the all-Republican, all-white male Louisiana delegation’s highest-ranking member.

“I hear from women who tell me that issues that disproportionately impact women aren’t being considered by women. They want a seat at the table. And they know that I’ve not been afraid to speak up,” Peterson said. “When it comes to domestic violence prevention, sexual assault prevention, when it comes to reproductive freedom, people know they have a champion in me and if I go to Washington, that they will be heard. There’s a distinction between me and the boys.”

Louisiana has elected few women to represent them in Washington. Mary Landrieu was elected to the U.S. Senate and served from 1997 to 2015, and U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs. served from 1973 to 1991. Catherine Long won a 1985 special election after her husband, Gillis, died and served out the remaining 21 months of his term in the U.S. House. Otherwise, First Lady Elaine Edwards was appointed to the U.S. Senate for four months in 1972 after Allen Ellender died, and Rose Long was in the Senate for less than a year after her husband, Huey, was assassinated.

A Republican legislature in 2011 drew the 2nd District’s lines to include as many Black voters as possible. About 61% of the district’s registered voters are Black and 63% are Democrats. More than 56% of the district’s voters are women, the highest share of any district in the state.

Peterson, who would likely be closer to traditional Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, than liberal firebrands, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would still be the most liberal representative Louisiana ever sent to Congress. Though most of the state is conservative in its politics – and shifting ever further in that direction – the 2nd District is not. In the last three presidential elections, Barack Obama received 76% of the district’s votes, and both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden got 75%.

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Peterson supports Medicare for All, which would provide universal healthcare insurance through the government, and backs the Green New Deal, which promotes alternative energy. She wants a higher minimum wage, more relief for small businesses, increased initiatives for affordable housing. She backs funding for historically Black colleges and universities.

At the age 29, Peterson made her first run for public office in a 1999 contest between princelings of the New Orleans political elite to replace state Rep. Avery Alexander, the civil rights legend who had died. Jay Banks, now a New Orleans City Council member, was Peterson’s campaign manager and said the young candidate stopped by every home in the 93rd House District to win the 93rd District seat in the state House. Troy Carter backed her runoff opponent.

Peterson moved to the state Senate in 2010.

Peterson said she is most proud of legislation that created BioDistrict New Orleans, which incentives technical medical companies and allows universities to turn research into economic opportunities. She also helped navigate poorly performing New Orleans public schools into state control and then when schools began performing better helped lead them back to local authority.

“It’s not always about the bills that you pass, the bills you author, but it’s also about the fight,” Peterson said. She stood against Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to allow Medicaid to cover low-income workers and against his annual budget proposals. “Sometimes I was the only senator voting against those budgets that cut higher education, healthcare, and closed mental health hospitals and underfunded senior and elderly care.”

Saying she was uncomfortable attending legislative meetings during the pandemic – with a number of lawmakers refusing to wear masks, several catching the coronavirus and one dying from COIVD-19 – Peterson missed much of the 2020 legislative session. She showed for a day in May, however, to use her senatorial privilege to force the resignation of two of Gov. John Bel 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.

She didn’t say why until months later when said she felt Jones had become too cozy with the gambling industry. Jones countered that the move came 15 months after she was forced to admit that she had a gambling problem after someone – not him, he said – leaked that she had violated a self-imposed ban on entering Louisiana casinos.

In 2012, at 42, Peterson was the first woman elected to chair the Louisiana Democratic Party. She hired Stephen Handwerk, who became the first openly gay man to lead the party’s staff. As party leader, she famously advised Edwards to step aside during the 2015 gubernatorial campaign to give a moderate Republican a chance to beat the presumed frontrunner, David Vitter. Edwards refused, Peterson came around and helped elect the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.

When anti-abortion legislation was being debated in 2018, Peterson tweeted: "Embarrassing! Apologies to LA women, particularly for the disrespect to women victimized by rape or incest.” But Peterson also caught flack on her left flank for not calling out the anti-abortion governor, who supported the bill, and continuing to work for Edwards’ reelection.

On the Democratic National Committee, Peterson took a role in voter registration and anti-suppression efforts. She has received endorsements from a number of national names, including voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams; former Democratic National Committee Chair and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; and the former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez.

“She’ll be able to pick up the phone and get through to Democratic officials who already know her from her work with the party,” said former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, a Kenner native who now is a well-known political commentator.

Peterson learned her politics at the knee of her father. A prominent lawyer, Ken Carter also was a major figure in New Orleans politics. He was the city’s first Black tax assessor, a founder of BOLD, and was described as a “combination of clear-eyed realist and starry-eyed optimist.”

Peterson said she used to speak to her father first thing in the morning, bouncing policy ideas off him. He died in 2018 at 74.

“There’s an absolute correlation between his work and my work and serving people in the Central City community and trying to uplift people out of their circumstances so that they don’t have work two, three jobs to make ends meet,” Peterson said. “I’m glad to have had my dad in my life. So many people don’t have that advantage of having that influence in their life. I channel him all the time in my work.”

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