Louisiana's last congressional race is a rock fight between Democratic state senators

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
State Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, speaks on January 20, 2021 after qualifying to run for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District seat.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, speaks on January 20, 2021 after qualifying to run for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District seat.

Louisiana's campaign for the 2nd Congressional District seat has escalated into a bruising rock fight between prominent Democratic state Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson as they sprint toward the April 24 runoff election.

Since Carter and Peterson share many positions in the state's only blue speck on the Louisiana congressional map, the once cordial colleagues are offering voters contrasting personalities, often through personal attacks.

They're seeking to replace former Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond, who gave up the seat to join President Biden's senior leadership team.

Carter finished first in the 15-candidate primary with 36%, while Peterson earned the other runoff spot with 23%.

Both of the New Orleanians claim the other drew first blood.

"I'm disappointed; I'd hoped it wouldn't get to this," said Carter, 57, a management consultant who has served in both the Louisiana House and Senate and on the New Orleans City Council. "I'd much rather talk about issues, but I was hit so many times with erroneous information.

"I'm a southern boy. My mother taught me not to hit first. But she also said, 'Son, if somebody hits you, you have to hit back.'"

Peterson, 51, an attorney who has also served in the state House and Senate and is the former chair of the Louisiana Democratic party, dismissed Carter's accusations as lies.

"It's an absolute falsehood," Peterson said. "He's been the one throwing bombs."

Peterson claims she hasn't leveled one attack ad from her own campaign dime, though some of those supporting her like the Emily's List political action committee have taken after Carter in her stead.

There are degrees of policy separation between the two, most notably on the environment.

Peterson supports curbing any expansion of petrochemical plants in the Mississippi River parishes, where she believes the population is being poisoned, as well as oil and gas development she says is choking the planet with greenhouse gases.

Carter, too, said he seeks to address "environmental justice," but is less rigid. Instead, Carter says he seeks a safe balance between the environment and the economy, stopping short of supporting a complete ban on development.

He also wants Louisiana to wean itself from economic dependence on fossil fuel rather than abruptly close the spigot.

Those positions also illustrate the differences in the candidates' political strategies and the contrasts in their personalities.

Carter is seen as a congenial bridge-builder who believes he can be more effective for his constituents through consensus, while Peterson is seen as a more abrasive advocate who sometimes can't abide compromise and is generally considered the more liberal of the two.

It's also how they see themselves and each other.

"People who know us best have endorsed me; people see that and know it means something," Carter said, advancing a narrative that Peterson can be difficult to work with. 

"I want to build a gumbo where all of the flavors can come together. Sometimes she burns the roux."

Carter secured the endorsements of key colleagues in the Legislature like Senate Select Committee on Women and Children Chair Regina Barrow, whose committee has taken the legislative lead in holding LSU accountable for a sexual harassment scandal first uncovered by USA Today.

He also has the endorsement and support of Richmond, who remains popular in the district and whose political style more resembles Carter's than Peterson's. Carter touts "having the ear of the guy who will have the ear of the president."

"It's a tremendous benefit," he said.

Peterson dismisses Richmond's endorsement as irrelevant. "This isn't about who was serving in office," she said. "It's not a coronation."

She also defends her more aggressive approach to advocacy, saying too often politicians surrender without a fight and without advancing their policy an inch.

"I'd rather be respected than loved," she said. "I'm a fighter. If you want the status quo, I'm probably not your candidate. I believe in advocacy through action. Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable.

"I'm not going to be tap dancing around issues that impact people's lives. We don't need someone who's going to go along to get along."

On Monday Peterson landed the coveted endorsement of Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers Jr., who surprised political analysts with a third place finish in the primary behind Carter and Peterson, about 1,500 votes short of the runoff.

"Its a reaffirmation progressives are united for change," Peterson said.

Early voting for the election is 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. April 10-17 except Sunday, April 11. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is 4:30 p.m. April 20, while the deadline for a registrar of voters to receive a voted absentee ballot is 4:30 p.m. April 23.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1