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Cedric Richmond endorsement before joining White House roils Louisiana race

Cedric L. Richmond, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, during a roundtable meeting on the American Rescue Plan on March 5.
Cedric L. Richmond, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, during a roundtable meeting on the American Rescue Plan on March 5. (Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg News)

In his final act as a member of Congress, Cedric L. Richmond weighed in on the race to fill his soon-to-be-empty seat.

After representing Louisiana’s 2nd District since 2011, Richmond was leaving to serve as a senior adviser to President Biden. He threw his support behind Troy Carter, a state senator vying for the safely Democratic seat in a special election this Saturday.

That decision blindsided some of Richmond’s colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who had received mixed messages from him about choosing sides in the hard-fought primary, which pits Carter against 14 other candidates, including Karen Carter Peterson, a state senator and former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. The race has divided heavily along gender lines, with Peterson garnering endorsements from many Democratic women and Carter mostly backed by men.

Some Democrats also complain that Richmond’s endorsement has effectively thrust the White House into the middle of the race — even as Biden’s aides insist that the president is not weighing in on primaries and that Richmond has not been involved in the contest since entering the White House.

Yet Richmond’s likeness is ever-present in the district, local Democrats say, and his direct line to the president has helped Carter rack up endorsements.

“Everyone wants access to the White House and the resources that come with that,” said Gary Chambers, one of the candidates running in the special election. “No one wants to get overly involved against Cedric.”

Richmond’s endorsement has also revived criticism from some ethics experts about the ability of members of the executive branch to engage in personal politics. Carter and White House officials say Richmond has not assisted the campaign in any way since joining the administration, though federal law would allow him to do so in a personal capacity.

Political observers say the March 20 special election is probably headed to a runoff under Louisiana’s election rules, given the crowded field and the need for a candidate to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win. Carter and Peterson appear likely to lead the field.

Jeff Crouere, a Republican radio host in New Orleans, said the race is also shaping up to be a proxy fight over influence in the district between Richmond and other local leaders.

“His reputation is on the line now that he is with the Biden administration,” Crouere said about Richmond. “If they happen to lose this election, that’s a big blow to his legacy, his reputation and his influence.”

Carter has earned the backing of 12 members of Congress — 11 of whom are men — and most are CBC members, including two of Biden and Richmond’s closest allies: Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). The only female member of Congress to endorse Carter is Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the chair of the CBC, which Richmond headed from 2017 to 2019.

Peterson, by contrast, has nine congressional endorsements, eight of whom are women. Three are CBC members, and Peterson’s backers also include Stacey Abrams, the influential former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, and Donna Brazile, former interim chair of the DNC.

“It’s kind of the same old thing: the boys versus the girls,” said Yolanda Caraway, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Peterson. “I don’t know that it’s new now, but it’s probably more prevalent because of how Black women have been showing up.”

In recent years, Democrats have increasingly credited Black women for their work to turn out voters across the country, particularly in high-profile Senate races, including Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama in 2017 and Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock’s victories in January in Georgia. Activists say Black women have long been loyal foot soldiers for the Democratic Party, but that their work has often been overlooked.

“We would love to see the first Black woman elected from Louisiana,” Caraway said. “To me, Troy would be the same old, same old. Karen is something new and different and fresh.”

Carter said he was asking voters to select the best candidate for the job, “gender notwithstanding.” In an interview, he frequently referenced his wife’s service as a brigadier general in the Army.

“I respect women in leadership positions,” he said. “My wife, who I love dearly, is a woman in a leadership position, but she earned it because of her work, because of her work ethic, because of her ability to lead. Not because she is a woman, but because she is the best person for the job.”

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Richmond was one of Biden’s earliest endorsers and served as the first national campaign co-chair and as a key adviser. He then co-chaired Biden’s presidential transition and is now one of the highest-ranking Black staff members in the White House, where he is a conduit to members of Congress and has taken a leading role on racial equity issues.

Carter said he wished Richmond could be more involved in his campaign, but his team was careful to ensure Richmond’s participation ended once he started at the White House.

“Anyone who has gotten a coveted endorsement would want to tell people,’’ Carter said. “I’m telling as many people as I can that I’m proud to have the endorsement of Congressman Cedric Richmond, but he is busy doing the work of the White House and is not working day-to-day in the work of our campaign.”

After his senior White House role was announced in mid-November, Richmond cut an ad for Carter’s campaign.

“In my last act as your congressman, I am proud to support Senator Troy Carter for Congress,” Richmond said in the video, concluding that “Troy Carter is the right person at the right time to continue fighting for Louisiana.”

Richmond’s image has since been plastered across Carter’s mailings being delivered around the district. And in the days before leaving office, Richmond worked to consolidate support among community leaders and elected officials for Carter behind the scenes, according to four people in the district, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of political retribution from Richmond or his allies.

White House officials say Richmond has not engaged in any political work outside his job since assuming his new role on Jan. 20, and Carter said that was an intentional decision by Richmond. The Hatch Act, a law that places limits on political activity by federal employees, permits certain political activity by executive branch officials as long as it is not in an official capacity. But some government ethicists have been pushing for reforms to the law, first passed in 1939, arguing that the public often perceives involvement by administration officials as synonymous with support from the president.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, officials frequently flouted the law’s restrictions with few repercussions.

“Four years of the Trump administration should be proof that permissive rules allowing for personal capacity political activity by senior White House officials will be stretched to their limits,” said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration who left the Republican Party in 2018 and has been calling for reforms for more than a decade. “While they’re in government service, senior White House officials should not be able to engage in partisan politics because everyone knows they’re using the power of the White House.”

Beyond the political fights in Washington, some residents in the 2nd District would like national figures, including Richmond, to stay out of the race altogether. Kenny Garrett, a community activist in New Orleans, said the district — which is majority Black and one of the poorest in the nation — is the only Louisiana district represented by a Democrat in Congress and needs someone who can bring resources back to constituents.

“It should not be nationalized, because whoever wins is going to owe favors to the outsiders and not address our community that’s in dire need,” he said.