Hari Sreenivasan: As we continue our Roads to Election 2020 in the deep red state of Louisiana, the state Democratic party has elected a new leader in hope of energizing its base, electing more Democrats, and bringing back voters who left as the party struggled with its identity. Louisiana Public Broadcasting's Natasha Williams talked to the new party chair and the Louisiana Senate Minority Leader about their plans to redefine who they are and what they stand for.
Natasha Williams: Katie Bernhardt, the newly elected chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, isn't wasting any time implementing her agenda, just a few weeks away from the presidential election.
Katie Bernhardt: I think one of the biggest issues that we have is, we let other people brand us and we let national news media brand us. Educate our voters on who the Democrats are.
Natasha Williams: Democratic candidates will need massive fundraising and exposure to beat back decades of losses to the state's dominant Republican Party. Governor John Bel Edwards is the only statewide elected Democrat and the deep south's only Democratic governor. Right now Republicans hold a near supermajority in the State House and Senate. Bernhardt, a Lafayette native, is a lawyer, wife, and mother of four and says she will be busy repositioning and redefining the party.
Katie Bernhardt: My first priority is getting through this election strong and then jumping into engagement with new groups of Democrats to grow our party and work with our parishes so that we have a presence of the Democratic party at every parish in the state and good service to our candidates so that not only are we recruiting and running strong candidates but giving them the resources that they need to succeed.
Sen. Troy Carter: The Democrats of 2020 have to be far smarter than previous Democrats.
Natasha Williams: Senator Troy Carter is the minority leader of the Louisiana Senate.
Sen. Troy Carter: If we truly are going to be the party of the people then we have to have a party that looks like the people and fights for the people.
Natasha Williams: Theodore Carter says now as his party fights to win the White House. He agrees with the party chairwoman.
Sen. Troy Carter: Being liberal is not a bad word. Those who have chosen to use conservatism as kind of a dog whistle for other -isms, we have got to stand face to face and reject that and challenge it. Natasha Williams This is a very red state, so how do you get those moderates to come over?
Sen. Troy Carter: One thing is broadening our scope and not making it so narrow that we are so far left that moderates don't see an agenda that includes their interests.
Natasha Williams: But when news broke last week of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both parties quickly took sides. National Democrats are demanding a new nominee not be selected until after the election, but Republicans in Washington are saying they would move ahead. Senator Carter is outraged.
Sen. Troy Carter: To think that something as weighty as the naming of a lifetime appointment for a Supreme Court justice could be done in such a political way, I am certain is making the framers of the Constitution roll over in their graves.
Natasha Williams: And as the new party chair meets with candidates and begins laying out her game plan to unite the party, a federal court recently overturned a controversial absentee voting plan proposed by the Secretary of State to minimize the risk of voting during the pandemic. Bernhardt says she will now go full steam ahead to get as many voters to the polls as possible, safely.
Katie Bernhardt: Just educating all of our members what the rules are, what the deadlines are, how they can participate, is going to be key to our success. So, that's some of the things we are working on as a party.
Hari Sreenivasan: I spoke more with Louisiana Public Broadcasting's Natasha Williams about the political climate in Louisiana where the president is popular with rural voters.
Natasha Williams: The Democrats basically have lost a lot of the rural voters because in their estimation, rural voters feel like the Democratic Party has gone too big.
They've gone to big city politics and they basically deal with issues that don't pertain to rural voters. So President Trump is seizing on that. He comes here often. He got involved, even interjected himself in the governor's race here. So he's very active here because he has an active base.
Hari Sreenivasan: Tell us a little bit about mail-in voting and what the conversation is in Louisiana about that.
Natasha Williams: Well, a federal judge recently ruled that a summer coronavirus pandemic voting plan had to be used rather than a restrictive one that the Secretary of State had tried to implement. Basically, she stopped just short of saying that this was a political move and we are going to not put people in danger while politics kind of rears its ugly head in mail-in voting as well.
Hari Sreenivasan: And how specific are the rules in Louisiana for mail-in voting? Are there any things that would trip Louisiana voters up?
Natasha Williams: Not that I know of. Basically, at this point, the pandemic-affected voters are allowed to get their mail in ballots sent to them, and they basically have to submit them in a timely fashion. It doesn't appear to be anything that's so restrictive like you have to put two signatures on, it has to be sealed a certain way. I haven't run into anything like that at all.
Hari Sreenivasan: And what are the primary drivers of what's getting people interested and engaged in this election?
Natasha Williams: Louisiana is very concerned about healthcare and jobs. Education is also a big deal here. A lot of folks are really kind of struggling with the pandemic. You know, how do I pay my bills? How do my kids get a good education? How will I maintain and get what I need for my family?
Hari Sreenivasan: And in terms of the pandemic, how is the region preparing for what could be another wave in the winter?
Natasha Williams: Well, in New Orleans in fact, even though we're in phase three, a lot of New Orleans is still closed down. The governor has been very sensitive to the fact that people want to go back to work. We need to open our economy. But also gauging those numbers, watching those numbers. And anywhere you go, you see evidence that the state is trying to indicate to you, we're not out of the woods yet. We need to do what we can to kind of, you know, keep that curve going in the right direction.
Hari Sreenivasan: Natasha Williams from Louisiana Public Broadcasting, joining us from Baton Rouge. Thanks so much.
Natasha Williams: Thank you for having me.