When then–Representative Steve King, a white nationalist Republican from Iowa, attacked Hurricane Katrina victims in 2019, he learned that you don’t mess with Karen Carter Peterson. King claimed at a 2019 town hall meeting in his district that Iowans were prepared to help one another after disasters hit, while Louisianans responded to the 2005 hurricane by “looking around saying, ‘who’s gonna help me, who’s gonna help me?’”
Peterson, a progressive Democrat who has since 1999 represented New Orleans in the state House and state Senate, tore into King.
“I am thoroughly appalled at the comments Rep. Steve King made surrounding my city of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, leaving 1,800 dead with tens of thousands more homeless and impoverished. He has no right to comment on what our people have been through or continue to spread these falsities,” declared Peterson, who at the time was chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “His dog whistle comments today are a further display of his racist, white supremacist beliefs and call on prejudiced, hate-filled stereotypes that he has no problem displaying. There is no place for this sort of hateful rhetoric in our government and we need our leaders to show that they will not tolerate it.”
That was classic Karen Carter Peterson. She’s an able and effective legislator who knows how to work across lines of ideology and partisanship on issues such as Medicaid expansion. But she is not about to let her constituents be targeted or bullied. Nor will she back down on issues of economic, social, and racial justice.
It’s that track record that leads supporters of Peterson to argue that if she is elected in an upcoming special election for an open US House seat representing southern Louisiana’s Second Congressional District, the veteran legislator will come to Congress as a change agent who is prepared to serve as an unapologetic progressive.
Peterson, whose campaign ads literally conclude with her declaring. “I don’t mess around,” has stirred excitement among activists in Louisiana and nationally who argue that she could be a transformational member of Congress from a region, the South, that could use some aggressively progressive representation. “Karen has never been afraid to speak truth to power on behalf of working families,” says Stacey Abrams, the voting rights champion and former Georgia legislator who has known Peterson for years and is one of the Louisianan’s most ardent backers. Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and longtime CPC leaders Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) recently declared, “Karen Carter Peterson is exactly the kind of fearless leader we need because she’s already spent years at the forefront fighting for working families and progressive change across Louisiana. She’ll be an ally in our shared struggle for progress, justice, opportunity, and equality—and we’re proud to throw our support behind her in this race.”
Peterson finished second on March 20, in the initial round of special election voting to fill the seat vacated by Cedric Richmond, a Democrat who joined the Biden administration as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Now she faces a fellow Democratic legislator, Troy Carter, in an April 24 runoff to represent a majority-Black district that stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Carter, who has support from a number of centrist Democrats and a key Republican—Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng—finished first in the initial voting, with 36 percent, versus 23 percent for Peterson. But Peterson is now running with a vital endorsement from the third-place finisher, Gary Chambers Jr., an outspoken progressive activist who won 21 percent.
So this is a competitive contest between two experienced Democrats. Carter is no conservative. If elected, he would be the most liberal member of the very conservative, Republican-dominated Louisiana delegation in D.C. But Peterson has worked to distinguish herself by taking boldly progressive stands in favor of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, legalization of marijuana, and a racial justice agenda that begins with this recognition: “In Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, Black families earn half as much as their white neighbors and are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty. Nationally, the typical white family holds 10 times more wealth than the typical Black family. We need transformative solutions to right our nation’s history of racial inequity.” To that end, Peterson says, “I will support Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s legislation to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans, ensuring that this commission takes into account the interlocking systems of oppression that Black women have faced throughout our country’s history.”
What’s striking about Peterson’s agenda is not just its clarity but also the fact that it touches on so many issues. For instance, she’s earned strong support from Peace Action, the group that works to avoid wars and reduce military spending. “In terms of foreign policy, she continues to be outspoken for progressive transformation,” says Peace Action’s Jon Rainwater, noting Peterson’s announcement that “I am committed to ending the forever wars and doing it responsibly” and her support for “prioritizing diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement tools, rather than occupying countries and overthrowing regimes to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Peace Action also endorsed former Ohio state senator Nina Turner in the upcoming special election to fill the Cleveland-area US House seat formerly held by another Biden appointee, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marcia Fudge.
The prospect that Peterson might join this Congress is an energizing one for progressives nationally and on the ground in Louisiana. Both Peterson and Carter sought the endorsement of Gary Chambers Jr., whose speak-truth-to-power activism has earned him a strong following, especially in the Baton Rouge area.
Chambers endorsed Peterson as a candidate who “has pissed a lot of people off—kind of like me.”
“I’m putting aside my ego and my personal feelings to help her become the next congressperson, and the first black woman elected congressperson from the state of Louisiana,” says Chambers. “They counted me out, and they’ll probably count her out. But together, we can be a force. Let’s go to work, y’all.”