As Democratic colleagues in the Republican-led Louisiana Senate, Karen Carter Peterson and Troy Carter frequently found themselves on the same side of issues popular on the left, from raising the minimum wage to opposing limits on legal abortions.
But as they face each other in a Saturday runoff special election for the state’s lone Democratic-leaning district in Congress, they have seized on often subtle policy distinctions and much starker differences in style.
In an election year that has seen Democrats define themselves in terms of how far they veer to the left, Carter Peterson has sought to distinguish herself as the more progressive of the two.
Carter, who is not related, has the endorsement of the Democrat they are trying to replace, Cedric L. Richmond, now a senior adviser to President Joe Biden. Carter has aligned himself with centrists in the party and touted his willingness to build alliances with Republicans.
“Republicans and Democrats have to work together,” he said in a recent debate. “The notion that we can’t is counterproductive.”
While Carter proposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Carter Peterson wants to boost it to $20. He lines up with Biden’s calls for lowering health care costs through a Medicare-like public option offered alongside private insurance. She joins Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call for universal health care through “Medicare for All.” And in one of their testier exchanges at the same debate, Carter Peterson called Carter’s position on policing, as evidenced in a resolution he sponsored expressing support of the police and opposing efforts to defund law enforcement, as “tone deaf.”
“We need to address the epidemic of police violence in our communities,” she said. “We can’t just reform the police. We need to reimagine public safety.”
Both have also been lining up a who’s-who list of endorsements in an acknowledgment that winning an off-year, low-turnout election could come down to the powerful connections both have made over decades in state and, in Carter Peterson’s case, national politics.
But with their advocates conceding that either candidate would likely occupy a similar space in Congress — both are expected to hedge closer to House leadership than liberal firebrands and to seek alliances with the moderates in the Biden White House — the race is shaping up as a clash of personalities and a referendum on what it takes to advance a Democratic agenda in Washington.
Carter Peterson, who has represented the New Orleans area in the state House and Senate since 1999 and chaired the Louisiana Democratic Party for eight years until 2020, says she isn’t afraid to fight to represent constituents who are often left out of the national conversation.
Louisiana’s 2nd District was drawn to take in Black voters in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and 21 percent of residents are below the federal poverty line.
Carter Peterson came to prominence as an advocate for New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As vice chair of civic engagement and voter protection at the Democratic National Committee, she played a key role in pushing the party to do a better job of elevating Black women and representing their issues.
In her campaign, she has pointed out that she would be only the fourth woman elected to the House from Louisiana. Republican Julia Letlow won a March special election to represent the state’s 5th District after her husband, Luke J. Letlow, died from COVID-19 complications in December, shortly after winning the seat.
‘More of a fighter’
Carter Peterson has celebrated her sometimes confrontational style in campaign videos that proclaim, “I don’t mess around.” Her critics say she is often too aggressive and can rub people the wrong way — a jab, her supporters say, familiar to any Black woman in power.
“Karen is more of a fighter,” said Lynda Woolard, a local grassroots activist and supporter. “I don’t think that is a bad thing unless people look at someone who is willing to fight for them as a bad thing if it’s coming from a woman.”
Carter, a former New Orleans city councilman who was first elected to the state Senate in 2015, projects an air of a mild-mannered coalition builder.
He touts his friendships with his state legislative colleagues and even has endorsements from a few Republicans, which political analysts said could help him win the 16 percent of the vote that went to GOP candidates in the first round of voting in March — if they vote in the runoff.
But Carter Peterson’s allies have attacked Carter as bland and ineffective, while her campaign highlighted his Republican endorsements: “Troy Carter & his Trump supporters. Not for Us!” one reportedly read.
Carter’s campaign has, in turn, attacked Carter Peterson as an opportunist who has only recently come to identify as a progressive, pointing out in mailers that, as the state party chairwoman in 2016, she favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders for the presidential nomination.
Carter top vote-getter in March
Carter was the heavy favorite in the first round of voting in March, winning 36 percent to Carter Peterson’s 23 percent. But since then, Carter Peterson’s campaign has picked up momentum, earning the endorsement of the third-place finisher, progressive Gary Chambers, who won 21 percent, along with support from New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and End Citizens United, a campaign finance advocacy group.
Women Vote!, the independent expenditure arm of EMILY’s List — a group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights — has spent more than $1.2 million on Carter Peterson’s behalf or against Carter since the runoff campaigns began. Carter Peterson has also picked up support from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Black Lives Matter PAC and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, all of which have spent six figures or more on her behalf.
“We are interested in Karen Carter Peterson because of her proven track record of being an unapologetic progressive in the South,” said Glynda Carr, president of Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports Black female candidates and has endorsed Carter Peterson.
Reports through April 4 showed Carter raised $1.1 million to Carter Peterson’s $830,000.
In addition to Richmond’s endorsement, Carter also has received nods from Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and the eight Black Louisiana state senators who are not running in the race. Two super PACs have also spent $160,000 combined opposing Carter Peterson.
One of them, Progress for the People, funded TV ads attacking Carter Peterson for votes she missed in 2020. She says she was avoiding in-person appearances at the state Capitol because her Republican colleagues refused to wear masks or observe social distancing guidelines.