Louisiana Elections (copy)

Democratic state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson poses outside her home in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Peterson is running for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District seat which was vacated by Cedric Richmond after he left to be part of President Joe Biden's administration. The runoff election is on Saturday.

In her 21 years as a member in the state House and Senate, Karen Carter Peterson has cast, literally, tens of thousands of votes on legislation.

In a state as conservative as Louisiana, but from a liberal district in New Orleans, Peterson’s career has been much like Sisyphus, the Greek mythology figure forever pushing uphill a huge boulder of liberal legislation.

“I’ve been fighting for progressive causes and had a progressive vision since the day I was elected. And I’ve been unabashed and unapologetic in my stance on progressive issues,” Peterson said.

She sponsored legislation to increase the minimum wage and to help close the pay gap between women and men. She supported other legislators that tried to do the same. But both issues have been non-starters in a conservative Legislature that often sides with business interests. She says she realizes the place to tackle such issues is in Washington, D.C.

“That’s something I hope to do in Congress and work with colleagues there,” Peterson said.

Peterson, 51, is facing fellow state Sen. Troy Carter, also a Democrat from New Orleans, in Saturday’s runoff to replace Cedric Richmond in the U.S. House of Representatives. Richmond left his 2nd Congressional District seat to take a job in the President Joe Biden’s administration.

A Republican legislature in 2011 drew the 2nd District’s lines to include as many Black voters as possible. The 10-parish district covers much of New Orleans, but mostly east of City Park; parts of Jefferson Parish, including Kenner; then strings up the Mississippi River, sometimes only one precinct deep; to include the minority communities around the State Capitol and in north Baton Rouge. 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.

In Congress, Peterson said she will push for the universal health care plan known as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage – it's currently $7.25 – and a Green New Deal that she said would turbocharge the state's nascent renewable energy industry.

Peterson’s positions in the hierarchy of both the state and national Democratic party apparatus will help her in Washington, said supporter Donna Brazile, a Kenner native who is former Democratic National Committee chair and now is a well-known political commentator. “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,” Brazile said.

Peterson would likely align with traditional Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, than liberal firebrands, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York. She would still be the most liberal representative Louisiana ever sent to Congress, Brazile predicted.

Peterson and Carter have similar records in the state Legislature. Both backed out of a scheduled debate Monday to participate in legislative votes. Their legislative differences are nuanced.

“Sometimes that requires not just offense but defense, particularly during the Jindal years,” Peterson said in an interview recently. “I was one of the folks who stood on the front lines against some of the egregious budgets, sometimes I was the only senator to vote against those budgets that cut higher education that cut higher education, healthcare, closed mental health hospitals and underfunded senior programs.”

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

In the Legislature, Peterson has pushed LGBTQ rights and tried to short circuit a constitutional amendment that forbids same sex marriage in Louisiana.

She has been one of the consistent red lights voting against the dozens of bills that increased restrictions on abortion and also endangered the funding of clinics that focused on women’s health, like Planned Parenthood. But Carter often joined Peterson in the small cadre opposing anti-abortion measures that overwhelmingly passed the Legislature.

She sponsored a measure in 2018, which never got a vote by the full Senate, to set an 18-year-old legal limit on marriage that would end an age-old Southern practice of teen-aged brides wedding older men.

Peterson also weighed in on New Orleans wants.

She sponsored and pushed into law a way to navigate New Orleans public schools from state control back to local authority. She redirected a portion of the money collected on rental cars, about $40,000, to the city’s Black chamber of commerce. In 2019 she pushed to passage legislation to move Regional Transit Authority, which runs the city’s buses and streetcars, out of the state’s retirement system

Peterson has never been shy about voicing her opinion at the State Capitol. One time she described, to his face, how little she trusted the business community’s chief lobbyist, Stephen Waguespack, a former Jindal aide and head of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry.

And over the years, Peterson has weighed in on some of the Legislature’s more attention-grabbing bills.

She voted to outlaw cockfighting, popular in some areas of the state. She voted against criminalizing “droopy drawers” for teenagers who allowed their pants to slide down and expose their underwear, even though it was sponsored by a fellow member of the New Orleans delegation and had attracted national attention. She sided with the state’s small dairies, which feared that a single instance of illness caused by unpasteurized milk would drive them into bankruptcy and voted against a brace of millennial mothers seeking pure food for their children in an aggressive campaign to allow Louisiana consumers to buy raw milk.

When the state Senate overhauled legislation that initially would have reviewed – with an eye towards ending them by 2017 – nearly every sales tax exemption and turned the effort into a study commission, Peterson lashed out against her colleagues on the chamber floor.

“We just lack the courage to do what we need to do. They ask us to keep studying because it impacts business. We know it impacts business. It also impacts working families. What’s the harm in making everyone come to the table and prove their value?” Peterson told her colleagues before casting the lone “no” vote against the measure.

“I believe my values are completely with the people of the 2nd Congressional district,” Peterson says. “Many of the people in the district, most of them, can’t afford a lobbyist and I have been their chief advocate.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.