What do progressives want for the future of Louisiana Democrats?

By: - November 10, 2023 10:53 am
Rep. Mandie Landry speaks July 18, 2023, during the veto override session at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

Rep. Mandie Landry speaks July 18, 2023, during the veto override session at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Perschall for the Louisiana Illuminator)

Progressive politicians in Louisiana say that the Democrats’ big loss in the state’s gubernatorial primary last month shows that the party’s push to bring back the moderate rural and suburban voters it has lost to the GOP in the past few decades is misguided. They believe there needs to be a more aggressive push for left-leaning policies to keep voters engaged and boost turnout in cities.

State Rep. Mandie Landry and Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis are likely two of the state’s highest-profile progressive elected officials. Both successfully ran races in recent years that outflanked more centrist, party-backed competitors.

Now, in the aftermath of Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s outright victory in the October primary — winning 52% of the vote and turning the governor’s mansion red for the first time in two terms — the progressives say the party needs to better appeal to its own voters and consider restructuring itself from top to bottom.

Lewis represents Louisiana’s 3rd district, which encompasses Baton Rouge and New Orleans’ metropolitan areas. He said the party has not adequately fought for issues that affect everyday people, such as economic security.

“The biggest voting bloc in our state is not the Republican Party. It’s the non-voter,” Lewis said. “They’re not voting for a reason, not because they’re apathetic, but because they looked at elected officials, and said, ‘No one speaks for me. No one fights for me. No one stands up for me. Why should I spend time voting for someone who’s going to get up there and not work for me?’”

Davante Lewis
Davante Lewis speaks at a candidates’ forum in Lutcher held Sept. 21, 2022, for the District 3 seat on the Louisiana Public Service Commission. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Political analysts, and some Democrats themselves, have attributed the low performance of this election to poor organization, a lack of spending and a failure to field enough candidates, given that some races won by Republicans went uncontested. Critics also point to party infighting, at times between the Democrats’ more moderate and more progressive members.

The voter turnout for this gubernatorial election was extremely low, especially in heavily-Democratic New Orleans, which voted 83% for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, compared to 40% statewide. Only 36% of eligible voters cast their ballots across the state. In New Orleans, the turnout was 27%. With the highest-profile race now off the ballot, voter turnout is expected to be even lower for the general election next Saturday (Nov. 18).

By contrast, in the 2019 gubernatorial election, 38% of eligible Orleans Parish voters cast their ballots, with nearly 50% coming out in the closely contested general election that year.

Mandie Landry said the party’s issues, especially in the gubernatorial election, can be attributed mainly to work — or lack thereof — from the top echelons of the party. She said that the party appeared not to have supported its gubernatorial candidate, former State Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, nearly as much as it should have.

“And then leading up to the election, there was no ‘get-out-the-vote’ here in New Orleans or anywhere throughout the state,” Landry said. “Just getting the message out through mail and media — it seemed like there was almost nothing of that happening.”

Many in the party have called for state Democratic Party Chair Katie Bernhardt to resign after the lackluster performance, and critics have taken issue with party decisionmaking in recent years.

Under Bernhardt’s leadership, the party and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards backed political newcomer Madison O’Malley, over Landry in her effort to win reelection to the House District 91 seat this fall. Last year, party leadership also changed the rules to endorse both Lewis and his opponent, incumbent Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere, spending money on Boissiere alone.

Bernhardt did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In an op-ed for The Advocate last month, Bernhardt urged Democrats to focus on the upcoming general election, describing work that her team was doing to organize get-out-the-vote efforts and campaign events, along with rallies and meetings.

Louisiana Democrat Party chair Katie Bernhardt (Louisiana Illuminator illustration)

“Division leads to defeat. Unfortunately, some are looking to stoke divisions to advance their political agenda. This divisive rhetoric is untimely and counterproductive,” Bernhardt wrote.

“She didn’t take any responsibility,” Robert Collins, a professor of public policy at Dillard University and a political analyst, said of the op-ed. “All she said was, ‘Everybody’s beating a dead horse and focusing on the negative and I’m trying to focus on the positive, we still have three statewide candidates. And I’m working for them.’ Although I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s working for them.”

Collins said Mandie Landry’s own race, fending off a challenger backed by her own party, illustrates the future potential paths for the party — one that hews closely to the current Democratic establishment, or one that takes a page from the party’s more progressive members.

That election was a proxy for the broader rifts within the party, Collins said.

“A lot of people are arguing [that] the future of the Louisiana Democratic Party is not with the establishment people and that it’s with the progressives,” Collins said.

Landry said she believes the endorsements weren’t based on ideology, but rather on the deep-rooted structural and organizational issues that have been brewing in the party for some time.

“I think the divisions are just the people and the groups and the cliques who’ve been in charge in the state party and in New Orleans, and just among Democrats in general for a long time, who want things to continue as they are, which is just run by them,” Landry said. “Versus those of us who are like, ‘No, we can be more aggressive and public about our views, and we need to recruit more people and the way we’re doing things has clearly failed.’ Yeah, the way they do things is old-fashioned.”

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Khalil Gillon, Verite
Khalil Gillon, Verite

Khalil Gillon is a New Orleans native from Algiers. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School and is a graduate of Louisiana State University in political journalism. Passionate about politics, Gillon ran a podcast called “The State of Today” that focused on current issues.