Extreme Makeover: Louisiana Democratic Party Edition

The warning signs that the 2023 election cycle would be a shit show came early when the Louisiana Democratic Party’s Chair, Katie Bernhardt, released a commercial in January promoting… well, no one is exactly sure what. The video opens up with voters (played by actors) complaining about Louisiana politics, and eventually segues to Bernhardt saying she “remembers when our future was brighter than our past.” She then shoulders a shotgun and appears to shoot a clay pigeon (via multiple cuts), and in the next scene, as a voiceover she says, “Call me Katie, and I’ll call it like I see it.” Some people reasonably figured it was an attempt to position herself as a gubernatorial candidate; Bernhardt stated it was a commercial bringing the party awarenessdespite never saying which party she was with. This led to the departure of the party’s vice chair, District 21 Rep. Travis Johnson, and prompted calls for Bernhardt to resign.

She didn’t. Other members of the executive committee could have called for her resignation and stepped in as interim chair. But that didn’t happen either.

Instead, a comedy of errors ensued in the election cycle. Before a single ballot was even cast, the party essentially forfeited the House, failing to run challengers in several Republican-held districts. Then, establishment Democrats like Bernhardt and then-Gov. John Bel Edwards spent more time trying to oust a member of their own party—incumbent Rep. Mandie Landry—just for her to win by almost 40% more votes than her next closest challenger. Then there was the gubernatorial race. Shawn Wilson was a Black candidate in a state where just 34 years ago white voters wanted a former Klansman, David Duke, to be governor—and he was left to fend for himself. Absent the necessary financial support to run competitive races, Democratic electoral efforts floundered.

In contrast, the LAGOP had so much money they couldn’t spend it all during the election cycle. Landry raised $11 million from around 11,000 donors. He even had a fundraiser alongside Donald Trump, who found time to visit Louisiana between several court cases, where the elites of Louisiana could spend roughly $23,000 to take photos with the twice-impeached, four time-indicted, 91-time charged former president. In the month prior to the election, according to Times-Picayune journalist Sam Karlin, the Democrats spent $28,000. The GOP spent $1.2 million—and former Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry won the election.

Now, the executive positions of the state are filled to the brim with a host of far-right politicians, including Treasurer John Fleming, who once said in a complaint about a proposed tax hike by President Obama: “by the time I feed my family, I have maybe $400,000 left over.” If the Democrats had any interest in putting up a fight, they could have simply played that quote on a loop throughout the state.

When picturing the state of not just the Louisiana Democratic Party, but all Democratic parties across the South, I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Lyndon B. Johnson after the signing of the Civil Rights bill: “We may have lost the South for a generation.” More than a generation later, the prophetic remark has come true, turning the entire region into a blood red sea of queer-rights oppression, bigoted rhetoric, and voter rights suppression. As our Southern states slowly become theocratic hellscapes totally absent of laws protecting women’s autonomy and racial equality, the Democrats appear to have fallen asleep at the wheel. Falling in line with others in the Deep South, Louisiana is now essentially a one-party state, with no functional opposition. So how did we get here?

Not so long ago, Democrats dominated Louisiana. Some of the state’s most memorable politicians, including the eccentric Huey P. Long, were Democrats. From 1880 to 1960, Louisiana chose a Democratic nominee for president, except when the State’s Rights Party candidate, Strom Thurmond, won in 1948, and Eisenhower in 1956. A Republican wasn’t elected to the state House from 1920 to 1964. Only one Republican held a statewide office in 1991, and it wasn’t until 2004 that a Republican, David Vitter, won a U.S. Senate seat.

Dr. Robert Collins, Professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University, told me that the root of the Louisiana Democrats’ problem is also a national Democrats’ problem: Democratic voter registration has been dropping all across the South for decades.

According to former GOP chairman Haley Barbour in the Washington Post, over four decades Republicans “built up fundraising and organizing capacities” in the Democrats’ backyards, particularly in the South. By 2016, the GOP had control of 32 statehouses and 33 governors’ mansions. As polarization took over the nation, statewide elections and voter registration broke down along national party lines. People no longer saw a difference between a state party and their national counterparts. Democratic Party registration in Louisiana declined about 20% between 2003 and 2023; between 2015 and December 2023, Democratic voter registration declined by about 182,000 people. Meanwhile, Republicans gained over 191,000 more voters.

But there are other, darker reasons for the Democratic Party’s erosion in the South: their embrace of racial equality. Through the late 1800s to mid-1900s, the Democrats were a party infested with the ideology of Southern white supremacy; Republicans were the party of Black suffrage during Reconstruction.

In 1960, just 13% of white Southern voters saw the Democrats as the party pushing racial integration. Then three years later, JFK spoke out on TV against racial discrimination in the South. Southern Democrat support sank dramatically. By 1964, close to half of Southerners viewed the Democrats as the party of integration. White Southerners left the Democratic Party at a rate of 17% higher than white voters everywhere else from 1958 to 1980. Race was the dominant factor. A study found “before 1963, [white Southerners] were slightly to the left [on domestic policy issues],” and “while the 1960s also saw the political organization of women and other minority groups, the authors find no evidence that white Southerners who have negative views of women, Catholics, or Jews were more likely [to] leave the Democratic Party in 1963. The exodus was specific to those who were racially conservative.”

According to Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman in 2005, from the ’70s into the ’90s, “the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community… Some Republicans gave up [and tried to] benefit politically from racial polarization.” Mehlman would later apologize to the NAACP for the GOP using race as a wedge issue, in a gambit known as the Southern Strategy.

Controversial GOP operative Lee Atwater admitted in a leaked call that using racism was a central part to winning the white Southern vote for Republicans. In the call, he lamented that Republicans had to say “cut taxes” or “states’ rights,” instead of just saying “nigger” like they did in years prior. However, he added that the byproduct was still the same: “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

From there, the GOP set their sights on the Southern states. Louisiana held firm for a while. But in the ‘90s, Louisiana created term limits. Albert Samuels, head of the political science department at Southern University, told WWNO that term limits, which passed in 1995, hurt the Democrats more, and most “were pushed out of [state seats]… which Republicans began to win.”

As voters left the party, so did politicians. Thirty Louisiana lawmakers switched from Democrat to Republican from 2001 to 2019. John Bel Edwards admitted on his radio show he was pressured by President Trump to switch parties.

There are many smaller factors leading to Democratic Party loss of power in the South, but race and people fleeing the party are the largest factors that broke the party. No better quote meets at the fulcrum of both issues than what Charles Melançon, former state Democratic lawmaker and congressman, told WWNO: “white friends started telling me I needed to become a Republican because I was in the party of the ‘N-word.’”

The party’s loss of power in the South led directly to the Louisiana Democrats’ poor performance in 2023. However, calls for the party to reform started long before. One of those critics is Lynda Woolard, Democratic strategist and activist, and an organizer for Blue Reboot. Blue Reboot is a diverse coalition of Democratic activists who are fed up with party leadership. Their end goal is to save the state from Jeff Landry and other extremists in his ranks, and build the Democrats into a competent opposition party.

Their methods primarily involve reforming the party’s governing body: the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC). Blue Reboot candidates want to have Chair Bernhardt replaced, and rebuild the party with new leadership. For the reformers, changing the governing body is crucial because the DSCC elects the party’s chair. The chair has a lot of responsibilities, including recruiting candidates and fundraising—two things they struggled with during the 2023 elections. There were concerns that the current chair didn’t have the skill and experience for her post going back to 2020, which is the last time party elections were held. Woolard said, “The fact that [the executive committee] still are not calling for [Bernhardt] to step down is absolutely mind-boggling.”

The recruitment for Blue Reboot has been a months-long process across the state. It started as a loose network of organizers that began recruiting late spring and early summer in the wake of Bernhardt’s commercial. Woolard is an advisor and one of the organizers of the movement, and sees their process as aligned with the party power structure they are shooting for.It was a highly collaborative and decentralized process that resulted in a diverse group of candidates who look very much like a cross-section of the people of Louisiana,” Woolard told me.

So far, 108 reform candidates are running for 210 DSCC seats, two seats for each of Louisiana’s 105 House districts. Registered Democratic voters are the ones who choose their district’s DSCC members. The elected DSCC members then vote on the Democratic voters’ behalf for the chair and executive committee members. Those leaders are the ones who will set the tone for the party for the next four years. DSCC members recruit candidates, educate voters, maintain relationships with Democratic Parish Executive Committees, and build programs to recruit Democrats. According to Gambit, of the 95 unopposed seats, nearly half are reform candidates.

The reformers consist of returning DSCC members like Kathy Hurst (DSCC 43A), but also new leaders like Mel Manuel and Jeremy Thompson, co-founders of Queer Northshore. Their group started as a social club but pivoted to activism. They eventually branched out and also co-founded St. Tammany Library Alliance. With fending off book ban attempts in a town where a trans child’s sign was burned down for stating “ban hate, not books,” the duo are no strangers to pushing back against attacks from far-right extremists. Thompson and Manuel are candidates for DSCC seats 77B and 77A respectively; Manuel is also running for Congress against Steve Scalise.

There are members within the collective who identify as progressive, but there is no progressive litmus test for those wanting to join the reform movement. Believing that state legislators should be more focused on the legislature, Woolard added, “[Blue Reboot candidates are] committed to the state party being a strong ally to [state legislators]. We can both have great respect for our elected officials AND inject new leaders into the system. That’s our goal.”

In addition, the reformers want to prepare future Democratic school board members, parish council members, and legislators—an approach referred to by political strategists as building a backbench.

The reformers have kept some aspects of their campaign strategy secret. However, Woolard told me Blue Reboot wanted to support DSCC candidates in every way possible, including helping educate voters on what the DSCC does, and providing data to candidates. Woolard told me that DSCC candidates were advised not to commit to a candidate for chair too early. So far, the field for chair is just Randal Gaines, a recent former state representative, and Bernhardt. Davante Lewis (Louisiana Public Service Commissioner for District 3), is mulling over the idea of hopping in the race.

The obstacles in front of those hoping for a progressive shift in the party may come as much from fellow Democrats as from Republican opposition—establishment Democrats believe Louisiana’s voters don’t want to, in the words of James Carville, “lurch to the left.” The Southern Democrats’ power depletion over the decades has created a serious identity crisis, with the debate between moderates and progressives at its center. Dustin Granger, unopposed DSCC 35B candidate, who also ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer last year, told me, “Gov. John Bel Edwards’ long shot win, along with the rise in Trumpism, has accelerated this crisis” and they are “a party that many don’t know what we stand for.”

In 2022, Gary Chambers, a progressive, and two other Democrats challenged Sen. John Kennedy (himself once a Democrat until switching parties in 2007). Chambers went viral for burning a Confederate flag and smoking a blunt in his political ads. Chambers felt as though he was snubbed by the establishment: After Chambers had already been endorsed by a subcommittee, the central committee circumvented typical procedure in order to endorse all three Democratic candidates. Chambers claims the snub was based on race. Bernhardt defended the endorsements, saying, “It’s a progressive vs. moderate battle, not a racial battle.”

The Democrats’ identity crisis also extends to legislation. The 2023 legislative cycle was nerve-wracking for LGBTQ residents, even with Gov. Edwards’ veto pen giving some solace. But the anti-queer sentiment was bipartisan. Six House Democrats voted in favor of Louisiana’s version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill: Roy Adams, Chad Brown, Mack Cormier, Kenny Cox, Travis Johnson, and Pat Moore. In addition, eight Democrats voted along with the GOP to overturn Edwards’ veto on the gender affirming care ban bill: Reps. Roy Adams, Robby Carter, Chad Brown, Mack Cormier, Travis Johnson, Dustin Mille, and Sens. Katrina Jackson and Greg Tarver.

Queer teens watched as the GOP upended their lives, with the assistance of some Democrats who were either too ignorant or cowardly to stick up for them. Both are likely in equal measure, with Rep. Kenny Cox stating he didn’t know what LGBT stood for, and Edwards saying some people were scared to vote against the gender affirming care ban. Edwards isn’t off the hook; he is anti-choice, along with other Democrats. This has led some people to consider the Democrats the moderate wing of the GOP.

Multiple reformers believe the solution to the Democrats’ disaster lies in doubling down on progressive ideas. “I’m looking for an unapologetically progressive leader whose vision for the state is one of radical change,” Mel Manuel told me. They added they want a chair who doesn’t shy away from supporting policies like universal basic income, and who notices that citizens are being crushed by low wages, inflation, and high costs of education, health care, insurance, and housing. They added that more and more jobs are being made obsolete by artificial intelligence, and that the bare minimum for the chair, or anyone calling themselves a Democrat, is racial justice, reproductive freedoms, LGBTQ rights, and universal health care.

Granger told me the party needs to “energize the progressive base” and attract independents away from the GOP, as well as “reduce the base GOP energy.” He added, “[Democrats] barely put up a fight” and “pretend we don’t believe in our values… If we’re afraid to be Democrats, why in the world will people want to join us?” Granger, whose platform included ending the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, was the party’s top vote-getter in 2023, receiving over 321,000 votes; Wilson only got about 275,000 votes.

Jeremy Thompson, of Queer Northshore and St. Tammany Library Alliance, echoed similar sentiments about what they want in a chair. But they also told me what their other priorities would be as a member of the DSCC: They want to “give LGBTQ+ folks a voice in our parish and state, and to help keep queer and trans stories alive in our libraries,” and to revitalize the DSCC infrastructure in order to mobilize voters and get the party’s message out.

“[Democrats] have a sleeping machine across the state, and I intend to focus my time on revitalizing this machine,” Thompson said. They have audited the party infrastructure, and roughly 70% of the state’s Democratic Parish Executive Committees (DPEC) were inactive, including not having online activity; and 16% of DPECs currently have no members. The DPECs serve similar functions to the DSCC, but on the parish level. When all DPEC seats are filled, along with precinct captains each DPEC recruits, there’s close to 4,800 Democratic leaders across the state working toward a common goal: getting more Democrats elected through educating and mobilizing voters, and recruiting candidates, amongst other duties. Thompson said, “It’s like an extensive satellite network that no one bothered to repair.”

This state of disrepair was on full view in 2023. Voter turnout for New Orleans in 2023, which is 63% Democrat, was 15%. Statistics on Black voter turnout were more jarring still. Democrats have grown used to just believing that Black people are going to show up no matter what. 2023 was a referendum on that. Slightly less than a quarter of Black voters showed up to vote. Of those who did, 17% voted Republican.

Considering the GOP’s increasing tyranny, the old guard of the Louisiana Democratic establishment are deluding themselves if they think they can siphon support from a party that no longer has voters, but acolytes. Living behind white picket fences high enough to ignore that the world around them is changing, the knee-jerk reaction of the Republican base is to treat anyone outside of their in-group as a threat.

But within their bigotry is a path forward for Democrats: They have a bigger tent. “Louisiana has demographic advantages with women, African Americans, and young people. We have a lot of people ready to build,” Granger told me. “The [voters] who went MAGA aren’t coming back anytime soon… The identity crisis that has plagued us for years must come to an end… [Democrats] are the Jobs Party. We are the party of economic growth. We are the party of unity and building the future.”

This big tent is even obvious to Republicans, who skewer Democrats for “identity politics,” but have been trying (and failing) to recruit diverse candidates to compete. Even they know that their current power grab is not sustainable if they do not open their party up to more Americans.

The farther the GOP goes to the right, the more they box themselves in, especially on abortion and women’s autonomy. Dr. Collins said the party should look to Kentucky for electoral and messaging strategy: “[Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear] was able to win reelection by emphasizing the issue of choice on abortion… then specifically [targeted Democratic] areas of the state.” Similarly to Kentucky, according to a recent survey, 53% of Louisianians don’t agree with the current abortion restrictions.

As of this writing, the Landry administration is moving through its agenda with terrifying speed. He’s sent 150 national guard members to the Texas-Mexico border, targeted the state’s climate change task force, wants the state to resume executions, and has denied federal food aid for Louisiana’s poor, amongst other things.

Many Americans have become disillusioned with the two-party system. However, the disaffection of the majority while engaging the few is how people like Landry get elected. Apathy and nihilism are the spaces in which fascists and authoritarian figureheads thrive. Louisiana needs a strong opposition party. Says Granger, “I’m asking everyone to join us, the time is now.”

For more information on registering to vote, the upcoming election, and the Louisiana Democratic Party, check out sos.la.gov, louisianademocrats.org, and bluerebootla.org.

illustrations by Deanna Larmeu

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