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Ahistorically, Edwards can't control his party

Besides being an outlier in Louisiana statewide elective office – the only Democrat – Gov. John Bel Edwards also is an outlier compared to other past governors – he has no control over his own state party.

Louisiana, for a variety of reasons, has the weakest state major political parties of any in the country. Part of that comes from the historical dominance that governors can exert informally, blessed by a political culture that too intensely conceptualizes its chief executive as a man on horseback that keeps order and dispenses or withholds resources. In the past, governors have loomed large over their parties, determining their leadership and directing their resources.

But not Edwards. The party had serious reservations about his ability to win when he set off in 2014 to capture the office. Famously, among others, the party chairwoman state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson had gone to him and asked him to withdraw in favor of throwing their support behind a Republican they thought could defeat Republican Sen. David Vitter. Of course the party revved up support for him when he did well in the general election, signaling a runoff victory where it  became his mouthpiece afterwards, but Peterson and other party officials like recently-departed executive director Stephen Handwerk had their own independent bases of support.

Perhaps one reason why some distance remained between the state’s chief executive and only statewide elected Democrat was the party base and state central committee had solid black majorities, with much of its leadership reflecting that, and Edwards is white. Despite that black majority among registrants, and for many years before that establishing a majority among legislators, its backing of black Democrat Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins for U.S. Senate this fall represents only the second time ever that the state party has endorsed a black statewide candidate before a general election runoff. Black candidates always have played second fiddle to whites in the party, prompting some degree of separation in letting yet another high-profile white figure boss around the party.

But not with a much lower-profile white activist. Months ago, first-term central committeewoman Katie Bernhardt announced she would contend for the chairmanship. Daughter of another party activist the late John Bernhardt, Katie Bernhardt hadn’t had much history with the formal organization. In fact, she or through her firm have donated to select Republicans, including former Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle when he opposed Edwards in 2015. (She did donate to Edwards for his 2019 reelection.) And in 2012, her father defeated Handwerk for a central committee seat.

With her not on Edwards’ team, he responded when Peterson, fighting off both a poor record of electing Democrats and personal problems, declared she would not seek heading up the party again by throwing his support behind state Rep. Ted James, who is black. That automatically should have won the race right there: after recent elections that had at least 108 blacks win central committee seats out of 210 (with likely dozens more appointed, since a number of seats drew no competition), if all voted in racial solidarity James would win.

That won’t happen. Last week, James withdrew, claiming he needed to devote his energies to getting Democrats former Vice Pres. Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris elected to the White House (and Naval Observatory) this fall.

Nobody should believe that. It would be a moral victory for Democrats if Republicans Pres. Donald Trump and Vice Pres. Mike Pence don’t receive at least 60 percent of the vote in Louisiana. There’s nothing James could do to bring his side to victory, and he probably could have done more for the ticket heading up the state party.

No, James quit because he didn’t have the votes. So, what we have here is a prominent black Democrat state legislator with the governor’s backing facing a majority-black panel but unable to defeat a rookie white female. Not only does this incident show how little authority Edwards can exert over the party, but also it may show Edwards actually is considered poisonous by it.

This expectant outcome when the central committee meets in the near future suggests a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the official state party for any future electoral plans Edwards may pursue.

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