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Gaines takes over as La. Democratic Party chair after Bernhardt ousted in procedural fluke

Katie Bernhardt’s tenure as Louisiana Democratic Party Chair was marked by accusations of inefficiency and incompetence. It ended Saturday in a catastrophic procedural failure. 

Months after its endorsed candidate suffered a spectacular loss in the 2023 gubernatorial election, the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) met at the Laborers’ International Union Hall and ousted the party chair in an equally remarkable fashion. 

Bernhardt’s final moments as chair passed in turmoil after nobody nominated the sitting chair, who had lost her own DSCC seat last month. Amid shouts, grumbles and glares, the Bernhardt wing of the party, bolstered by Democratic powerhouses from New Orleans, attempted to save their candidate. A motion to reopen nominations to include Bernhardt failed overwhelmingly, and nothing more could be done. 

Randal Gaines, a former state representative from LaPlace, won the chairmanship by default. 

“We have a talented group of leaders, and I think we have some eager, more extreme members of the party, and they need to take this opportunity to come together if we’re ever gonna see the success we want,” Bernhardt said in an interview after the meeting. 

Some said Bernhardt’s nomination failure was emblematic of her tenure, during which she oversaw an overwhelming loss of ground for Democrats at all levels of government. She was chosen chair in 2020 to replace Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who was later jailed for pilfering from the state party and her election campaign fund to support her gambling addiction. 

Bernhardt’s task was to restore confidence in the state party among major Democratic donors while developing candidates for statewide elections and local offices of note.

Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis was among those calling for Bernhardt’s ouster. 

“I think the end of this meeting demonstrates what the Democratic Party has dealt with for the last four years and competency, lack of clarity and no leadership and so I’m not surprised that this meeting started off rough and it started off wild…” Lewis said in an interview after the vote.   “But in the end, Democrats from all walks of life, all political values in a big vote decided it is time to move in another direction.”

Gaines had the backing of the reform-minded Blue Reboot caucus, a group that won several DSCC seats, including Bernhardt’s. His supporters also included party veterans, with several sitting state representatives among them. 

After Bernhardt failed to get a nomination from the floor, as is required by the bylaws, she took the microphone to pitch her candidacy anyway, which was met with outrage from members who wanted her replaced. 

The packed Union Hall fell into chaos. Executive committee members initially claimed Bernhardt had been nominated but could not name who had done so when pressed by members. 

Lafayette DSCC member Jackson Voss asked the nominator to identify themselves. No one did so, and a motion to close nominations had already passed without objection. 

After further shouting, state Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero, took the mic. 

“I’m embarrassed by what’s happening here,” Green said before calling for nominations to be reopened. 

His motion failed, 98-61. 

Lewis disagreed with Green’s assessment. Passionate discourse is not embarrassing, he said, but what happens when a diverse group of people come together. 

“Democracy is messy,” Lewis said in an interview. “While this is not what I think any of us wanted to do, how we wanted to conduct this meeting, we had to do it in a fair and just way, and I think that’s what prevailed.” 

After eight years of holding the governor’s mansion, the Democratic Party no longer has a single statewide elected official. Bernhardt and former Gov. John Bel Edwards were criticized for being insufficiently supportive of Democratic candidates last year, including former state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, who lost in a blowout to then-Attorney General Jeff Landry in the primary election. 

Low turnout contributed to Landry’s win that helped him avoid a November runoff. There were more than 1.1 million registered Democrats in Louisiana as of last October’s election, and only 36.3% cast ballots. Turnout among Republicans, who exceeded 1 million, was nearly 47%. 

Following the resounding loss, many Louisiana Democrats, including Wilson, called for a shakeup in party leadership.

In a statement to the Illuminator, Wilson congratulated Gaines and Blue Reboot for their work to bring about change within the party. 

“Building on the momentum this hard fought change has created, I believe citizens in every one of our 64 parishes will see positive change within the party,” Wilson said. 

Despite the backlash against Bernhardt, who many blamed for Wilson’s loss, her fate remained up in the air until Saturday. 

In the final days leading up to the meeting, U.S. Rep. Troy Carter and his predecessor, Cedric Richmond, called DSCC members to whip votes for Bernhardt, several committee members told the Illuminator

The body was made to leave by the union before all election results could be announced. Those announced include first vice chair Katie Darling of St. Tammany Parish, second vice chair Kyle Grace of Iberville Parish, vice chair for elected officials state Rep. Denise Marcelle of Baton Rouge and treasurer Dustin Granger of Sulphur. 

Bernhardt said she anticipates remaining involved in Democratic politics. 

Source: Louisiana Illuminator; Author: PIPER HUTCHINSON

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