Over the weekend, state Sen. Karen Peterson acknowledged she has a gambling addiction. She became the second legislator in two years to do so, following state Rep. Dee Richard who said he had an addiction while taking medication. That came to light when he paid a fine to settle with the Louisiana Board of Ethics for using campaign money to fund his habit, after he said he had kicked it.
Peterson got caught in the act. Apparently, she has engaged in this for many years, and in an attempt to stop herself, she voluntarily filed to bar her entry into casinos and to draw a legal citation if found in one. She picked up just such a charge last month, and a reporter apparently got tipped on it. The reporter made a public records request, found the infraction, and her outlet disseminated the story, leading to Peterson’s public admission.
While Peterson – daughter of the late Ken Carter who served as an Orleans Parish assessor and whose children are active in politics and government – has ascended high on the ladder of political influence, she could have climbed some more rungs. The chairwoman of the state’s Democrats as well as the Senate’s Governmental and Affairs Committee and a national party officer, she ran against former Rep. Bill Jefferson in 2006, acquitting herself well by running competitively in the runoff.
Jefferson then was under investigation for crimes for which he later would be convicted. By 2008, he was under indictment and Peterson clearly would have been his heir apparent. But she had married by then and passed on a run, which allowed Jefferson to scrape into the general election (this occurred during the 2008-10 period of party primary elections) where he lost. It’s unclear whether she had a problem then, but it could have played a role in her declining a race that likely would have resulted in sending her to Washington.
It’s also uncertain whether her addiction relates to her sometimes bizarre behavior as a legislator. Although reticent to the media, in prolific social media use or speaking in committee or on the Senate floor, she has a reputation for making the most intolerant, brazenly partisan pronouncements. While that can be chalked up to the rough-and-tumble of politics, other incidents such as manufactured outrage over a birthday cake and uncivil behavior towards other legislators suggest personal demons gnawing at her that may manifest as well in a gambling addiction.
Debts from compulsive gambling can get a legislator into a lot of trouble, as Richard discovered. Most disturbingly, it can spill over into the policy area, where legislators charged with writing the laws that oversee gaming (remember, “gambling” is to be suppressed by the Legislature) who find themselves potentially owing favors to operators may not always act in the public interest around this matter. Peterson already has stumped for legislation that seemed in the best interest of an operator last year when Harrah’s, which runs the New Orleans casino, wanted a contract extension later determined overly generous.
Accordingly, Peterson needs to resign from the Legislature and political life, not just to keep public confidence in the Legislature, but also to help her sort out her personal life. Knowingly trying to violate her own request displays urgency in working through some things, and she doesn’t need the outside distractions. Hopefully, she will do the right thing and those who interact with her in all facets of her life, regardless of party, will give her whatever support she needs to lick this sickness.