'Unapologetically progressive': Karen Carter Peterson fights to become first Black woman Louisiana sends to Congress
Published March 18, 2021, 11 a.m.
The longtime Louisiana state senator is vying for the open seat once held by Cedric Richmond -- one that would propel her to become the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
"When women are not at the table and seated, we are typically on the menu," Peterson, 51, told CNN in an interview. "I don't like that we've never had an African American woman serve from Louisiana in our congressional delegation. That needs to end."
Peterson is one of 15 candidates running to succeed Richmond in the 2nd Congressional District, a solidly blue seat that represents an area stretching from inland Baton Rouge to waterside New Orleans and snaking through the River Parishes. Richmond, who was easily reelected in November, was tapped by President Joe Biden to join the White House as senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement. Early voting started March 6 in the special election and the final day to cast a ballot is Saturday. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff next month.
Peterson faces steep competition from state Sen. Troy Carter, who has the support of Richmond and is her closet rival in fundraising, and activist Gary Chambers. Peterson and Carter have faced off for this seat before; both ran for it but lost in 2006.
Peterson's campaign comes as the political power of Black women has reached a zenith, with Kamala Harris becoming the first Black and South Asian vice president, and as Black women seek to use their collective power to fill state legislatures, governorships and congressional seats with their own.
That burgeoning organizing and fundraising apparatus backed by Black women has lined up behind Peterson, with a litany of key endorsements, including the influential quartet of seasoned Black women political operatives -- Donna Brazile, Minyon Moore, Leah Daughtry and Yolanda Caraway.
Black women groups like Higher Heights for America PAC and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams have also gotten behind Peterson.
"I'm really careful about endorsements, and I have friends that I love, and I've got to make different decisions for, but Karen has been in the trenches with me for more than a decade. She has fought with me for more than a decade. She has believed in the power of our people, and she puts her money and her heart where her mouth is," Abrams said in a video sharing her endorsement for Peterson.
"She is yet another example of the multiple pipelines that groups like Higher Heights and Black woman organizers have been designing over the last, frankly, decade to two decades," Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights, said in an interview. Carr described Harris' trajectory as a "pipeline blueprint" -- one that would "accelerate our work," adding that that's something Peterson's own ascension would do.
Peterson also garnered support from Our Revolution, a Bernie Sanders-backed group, and Emily's List, the political action committee that backs women who favor abortion rights.
"Here is a woman who has been serving her state legislature in the deep South, unapologetically progressive and also has shattered firsts in her own right," Carr said.
A rival for Louisiana's 2nd
One of Peterson's key opponents, Carter, has broken his own barriers -- and has the support of Democrats in Washington, including Richmond himself.
A longtime Democratic politician, Carter is a familiar face to voters in the area. He was the first African American elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1991. He was then elected to the New Orleans City council in 1994. And in 2015, he was elected the first African American senator for Louisiana's state District 7, according to his biography. Notably, Carter has been endorsed by Richmond, who first took office in 2011, as well as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Joyce Beatty -- the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus -- and Ro Khanna -- a reflection of the Washington influence on the solidly Democratic seat.
Carter touts Richmond's endorsement frequently. His name is listed first on Carter's campaign website endorsement page, his face has appeared on mailers, and Richmond even cut an ad for Carter posted in mid-January to his Facebook (the ad now appears to have been removed).
Khanna told CNN that his endorsement of Carter came as the result of an organic working relationship with Richmond.
"Cedric came to me when he was leaving and he said look, you'll really like this guy Troy, and he, I think, will work with you to build on the work we've been doing on building bridges," Khanna told CNN. "I spoke to him and I was impressed by him. He talked about his wanting to build with the Progressive Caucus."
Clyburn also told CNN that he first met Carter during his work as the congressional liaison for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and when Carter asked for his endorsement recently, he obliged. Clyburn said no one other than Carter asked for his backing.
Policy-wise, Carter supports raising the minimum wage, abortion rights and Medicare for All, his campaign says, but not the Green New Deal, a de-facto progressive litmus test.
In campaign materials, he has touted support from local Republicans, and, in an interview with CNN, he emphasized the importance of working across the aisle.
"In this business, relationships matter. Having the ability to work with people, having the ability to get along, having the ability to build alliances along, above or beyond the imaginary line of Republican and Democrat, but to be able to cross those aisles that's imaginary," Carter said.
Peterson's allies say Richmond's presence looms large around the district.
"I would say he's a heavy influence, not because of what he's physically doing, but simply because he's putting his endorsement out there," said state Rep. Candace Newell. " And other people are attaching the names together."
Carter frames Richmond's support as an immense advantage.
"It's more than just a friendship, it's based on a record of accomplishment," Carter told CNN. He said Richmond's endorsement sends the message, "here's someone that I'm telling you, as a senior adviser to the President, I'm very comfortable working with. Therefore, he will have access to the White House, to the President, to resources, perhaps above and beyond what a freshman member might otherwise have."
Carter's campaign committee outraised Peterson's by tens of thousands of dollars, according to Federal Election Commission filings filed March 1. Carter reported raising $519,000 compared to Peterson's $450,000.
The White House did not respond for comment.
Chambers, another key candidate in the race, did not respond to a request comment.
'I'm not afraid to stand in the cut'
The first time Peterson saw her name on the ballot, she was 18 and running to be a delegate for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Eleven years later, she bested seven opponents to win a state House seat in a runoff. The second Black woman to hold the seat, she's been in the legislature for the last 21 years, and in her current seat since January 2010. She later became the first woman to chair the Louisiana Democratic Party and a vice chair of civic engagement and voter participation of the Democratic National Committee.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Peterson said her dad raised her and her sisters to be "independent thinkers." That prompted her to eventually attend her hometown law school at Tulane University with a goal of helping people, after obtaining her bachelor's degree from Howard University, the famed "Mecca" of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
"Fundamentally, that's why I ran for office," she said. "I'm not afraid to stand in the cut, shake things up when it needs to be shaken up and get things done."
As a deep south Democrat, Peterson touts her progressive laurels. She's endorsed Medicare for All and the sweeping Green New Deal, and hopes to join the Progressive Caucus if elected. Of her most cherished accomplishments, she heralded her efforts to expand Medicaid in 2016.
Peterson drew national attention and Republican pushback in 2013, after she said opposition to Obamacare in her state boiled down to racism. And no stranger to confrontation, Peterson has bucked her own party's leadership during her time in office, calling out Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over his anti-abortion stance.
Peterson supporters, like Newell, acknowledged the high scrutiny Black women face when running for or holding office. Peterson, she said, is no different.
"Her ability to continue to stand in and fight," Newell said. "I'm taking notes. Because as a woman, and as a Black woman, you're going to get attacked a little bit more harshly than the males that you work alongside."
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