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State Reps. Royce Duplessis and Mandie Landry face off in high-profile state Senate race

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Louisiana House of Representatives
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State Rep. Royce Duplessis (left) faces off against Rep. Mandie Landry (right) in a special election in the New Orleans-based 5th State Senate district.

Karen Carter Peterson’s stunning resignation and guilty plea to federal wire fraud charges left an unexpected vacancy in her highly-coveted Senate district and set the stage for the most intriguing state legislative race of 2022.

The contest quickly drew two of the biggest names from New Orleans’ Democratic party: state representatives Mandie Landry and Royce Duplessis.

Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics.com said that’s not surprising.

“I doubt there are many Senators who don’t envy what this district has to offer to the person that holds this seat,” Alford said of the district that is home to the Superdome, Xavier University, the LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane and Loyola, and it runs down the river to pick up parts of Metairie and Jefferson Parish. “It’s a really dynamic, politically dynamic district and there’s a lot at stake in this one.”

Duplessis and Landry are “big players” in the state’s Democratic party, Alford said. Both are young, progressive Democrats. Duplessis is 39 and Landry is 44. Both are ardent supporters of abortion rights, criminal justice reform and other progressive issues. But the candidates have their own strengths, styles and approaches to governing.

Duplessis, for example, has made a name for himself as a leader on criminal justice reform at the statehouse.

“My approach has really been trying to be smarter about how we deal with the issue of criminal justice,” Duplessis said in an interview. “When a large percentage of men and women who are currently incarcerated will be released at some point, what resources are we putting in place when they return to our communities that would set them up for failure?”

Duplessis sponsored legislation to ease reentry and incentivize businesses to hire returning citizens. He also led the debate on limiting solitary confinement for juvenile offenders and expanding options for medical parole.

Mandie Landry, an attorney by trade, has focused on reproductive rights. Before her time at the State Capitol, she represented abortion clinics in court. As a lawmaker, Landry fought this year’s expansion of the state’s abortion trigger ban at every step of the legislative process.

And since the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Landry has garnered even more visibility as a leading advocate for abortion rights.

“It’s more important now than ever to have people in office who understand those issues and can educate others on them.”

While Alford can understand how voters and the media might reduce the race to candidates’ positions on criminal justice and abortion, he thinks their legislative records deserve a deeper look.

This year, Duplessis sponsored a raft of successful bills that would provide for universal screening for perinatal mood disorders and require school districts to teach mental health. In one of the surprises of the session, he was able to win enough support from his Republican colleagues to pass a bill to limit the release of mugshots prior to conviction and nearly succeeded in passing legislation to automate expungements of criminal records for low-level offenses.

Landry has sponsored legislation to protect renters from eviction after natural disasters and to automatically extend Medicaid benefits to postpartum mothers for a full year after giving birth — a bipartisan investment of $20 million in maternal health.

She also fought losing battles to decriminalize sex work, ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ children, empower cities like New Orleans to enact stricter gun laws and protect the benefits of low-wage workers. Though those bills failed in the majority-Republican legislature, the effort won her the endorsements of the labor giant AFL-CIO and Everytown for Gun Safety.

Duplessis is running with the endorsement of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and the New Orleans Democratic Party establishment. But the state party has not endorsed either candidate, and many of their legislative colleagues have stayed quiet as well.

Silas Lee, a Democratic pollster in New Orleans, said with so little separating the candidates’ voting records, the race may come down to style rather than substance.

“Here you have basically two candidates who are very close — I would say identical — in terms of positioning and ideology,” Lee said. “I think it’s going to come down to voters feeling energized by one more than the other, if this candidate can create a sense of identification with the voters and a comfort level with the voters.”

And that question of identity looms large in this race. Karen Carter Peterson, a Black woman, embodied those two important constituencies.

District 5 was drawn as a majority-Black district in 2011, but was transformed by gentrification over the last decade. The district had a 50% Black voting age population, but that figure cratered to just 43% by the 2020 census. In this year's redistricting session, state lawmakers stretched the district’s boundaries across the Mississippi River into Marrero to bump up its Black voting age population back up to 50% — a configuration that would likely benefit Duplessis, who is Black. But those boundaries won’t be used until next year when candidates will run again to seek a full term.

Duplessis said voters should keep that in mind when they head to the polls in this fall’s special election.

“African-Americans make up one-third of this state, and we heard a lot of talk and fight about the congressional districts, but equally as important is fair representation in the state House and Senate,” Duplessis said in an interview “Senate District 5 is no different, and that is another important factor as we look at this race, and we look at the candidates.”

Landry is quick to note that the House district she currently represents has a majority Black population, and that she defeated a Black candidate to win the seat in 2019. She credits the victory to her support for policies that cut across racial divides.

“Voters cross lines all the time, and me being elected shows that voters feel confident that someone will represent them even if they don’t look like them,” Landry said.

Peterson was also the only woman in the state Senate who supported abortion rights. Her brash, no-holds-barred style has been missing from those debates in the Senate since she left.

“Karen Carter Peterson was the kind of Senator who would kind of stand her ground and wouldn’t be afraid to kind of pull the pin on a hand grenade and stand on it. That’s something I could see Mandie Landry doing,” Alford said. “Royce Duplessis fits kind of an archetype of a pragmatic politician that, you know I’ve seen him a number of times walk across the aisle when he didn’t have to in order to forge deals at the capitol.”

The candidates’ own comments seem to reinforce those characterizations.

“I’ve never backed down on issues that I believe in, and I don’t think anybody should. But you have to be able to bring people along to get anything done.” Duplessis said.”I’m not running for the Senate just to advocate. I’m running for the Senate to get things done.”

But Landry thinks that undersells the importance of having an advocate willing to speak unapologetically for unpopular positions.

“For me, it was a no-brainer when Karen resigned,” Landry said. “(Voters/Constituents) need one person in the Senate who is an expert who can really talk about and educate people on what has become the pressing issue of the day.”

Early voting for the Nov. 8 election begins Oct. 25.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.