When I told Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, last week that she may be the last true liberal in the Louisiana Legislature, she didn't try to shake the label or qualify her record, one which dates to her winning a House seat in 1999.
Instead, she offered a polite, "Well, thank you. I'll take that, I'm proud of that." She was back in New Orleans after visiting the White House, where a friend of hers lives.
Peterson isn't the only liberal Democrat in the Legislature, but she is among the very few who consistently champion liberal causes without second-guessing herself or soft-pedaling her positions.
The senator's district affords her this freedom. It stretches from downtown New Orleans, including the Superdome, through parts of Treme and Mid-City, up South Carrollton Avenue toward the Riverbend and into Jefferson Parish to Bunche Village. Her 5th District is 62 percent Democrat and 52 percent African-American. "My votes may not be the same as those cast by lawmakers from north Louisiana or rural areas, but then again we don't have the same constituencies," she says.
During the session that adjourned June 6, Peterson tried to repeal Louisiana's creationism law, opposed a number of pro-gun bills, stepped into heated abortion debates, advocated for equal pay for women (she was in D.C. last week for the 50th anniversary of the federal Equal Pay Act), and pushed lawmakers to accept President Barack Obama's Medicaid expansion, which Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republicans blocked.
Peterson, who also chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, cast the only vote in the Legislature this session against the state budget, which was supported by Jindal. She said it was the first time she has voted against a budget since being elected. "By constraining our options and ignoring some hard truths, this budget is more broken than ever," she said before casting her vote against the spending plan.
It doesn't take a highly paid political consultant to discern that Peterson is exposing herself to political liabilities by taking such stances. That she's the chair of the state Democratic Party only makes her a bigger target, and she admits as much.
A few days after the session adjourned, the Louisiana Republican Party officially dubbed Peterson the "biggest loser of the 2013 legislative session" because she opposed the budget and made an "absurd statement that opposition to Obamacare is driven by racism."
From the Senate floor, Peterson said of the federal health care debate: "It's not about how many dollars we can receive. It's not about that. You ready? It's about race. I know nobody wants to talk about that. It's about the race of this African-American president." She didn't directly call anyone racist, as has been alleged, but her statement was a clarion call nonetheless, coming as it did from a party leader. In the aftermath, she hasn't directly addressed it.
State GOP Executive Director Jason Dore says there could be political ramifications. "It will be interesting to see if Democrat candidates, including (U.S. Sen.) Mary Landrieu, begin to distance themselves from this extremely liberal and out-of-touch Democratic Party chairwoman," he said.
Predictably, Jindal jumped on the anti-Peterson bandwagon, calling her health care comments "pathetic." Media tried to corner her at the Capitol to get a response, rather than an explanation. "The political heat, the volume, was really turned up," she said. "I had not seen that in all the years I've been up there."
What remains to be seen is whether Peterson can maintain her liberal stripes, serve a high-profile Senate district and guide the Louisiana Democratic Party through elections for the U.S. Senate and governor. Peterson says she plans to put a crackerjack Dem team in place and stay in "very close contact" with her constituents, but she didn't offer details as to how she would accomplish those goals simultaneously.
Given the challenges she faces as party chair and the controversy surrounding her "It's about race" remark, Peterson will have to do a lot of juggling to stay ahead of her rivals in the GOP — and keep up with her colleagues in the Senate. With Obama faring better than Jindal in recent state polls, she may have a fighting chance.
Then again, if Republicans continue their attacks, she'll likely spend as much time defending herself as she does her liberal Democratic values. That will make the next two years the most challenging of her career.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at Jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ alfordwrites.