A short drive from the Museum of Public Art and the Knock Knock Children's Museum in Baton Rouge sits the Laborers’ International Union Hall. Anxious and excited Democratic State Central Committee members?gathered there Saturday to decide whether to reelect state Party Chair Katie Bernhardt or choose someone else.

The meeting was delayed. They couldn't get in. The key broke in the lock.

Not sure if that was an omen or a metaphor. Either way, Democrats should've known what was coming.

Former state Rep. Randal Gaines won the contest for Democratic state party chair, but only after chaos, confusion and what some considered a hijacking of Bernhardt's meeting.

Some in attendance recorded videos. If Democrats really want to be unified as a party, those videos should be discarded. It was that bad.

Randal Gaines

Former Louisiana State Rep. Randal Gaines became chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

Bernhardt led the state party for three and a half years. She had important political friends, and pushed Democratic issues but, in the end, she also led the party to a miserable win-loss record.

Republicans won the governorship without a runoff last year. Democrats didn't win a single statewide office. Republicans gained supermajorities in the State House and the State Senate. That's what happens when the Democrats can't field candidates in 44 statehouse districts.

Was Bernhardt responsible for that? U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, cited multiple factors, not just Bernhardt, for the party's failures last election cycle. He said she shouldn't be held responsible for low voter turnout.

Other Democrats, including former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Gary Chambers of Baton Rouge, said she absolutely was responsible.

Bernhardt said "several" supporters were ready to nominate her for reelection, but they didn't get the chance. They got out-maneuvered as the meeting agenda quickly went from basic, informational matters to an election — and Bernhardt got shut out, procedurally, leaving Gaines as the only candidate.

You can't win — or lose — if you're not a candidate.?

So Bernhardt is out and Gaines is in. Unlike some people who lose and then insist that elections were rigged, Bernhardt accepted Gaines' election and wished him well. "I want what's best for the organization," she said.

Gaines, former, three-term state legislator for?St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes, inherits a four-person staff and three consultants with an annual budget of about $300,000, not counting coordinated campaigns and caucuses. Chambers recommended firing the entire staff and all consultants — "anyone who was a part of the elections last year."?

Carter said Bernhardt did some good work, though he acknowledged her "misfires," including a campaign-like commercial promoting herself for governor. Changes are needed, he said, but not the party chair, not in the middle of an important presidential election year.

Gaines and Carter have been friends for 25 years. Carter said he will work to help Gaines and the party succeed.

Shawn Wilson, the 2023 Democratic candidate for governor who got beat without a runoff, said it's time for the party to "rebuild from the bottom up."

"It can't be just a reboot either," he added, referring to the "Blue Reboot" movement among Democrats aiming to oust Bernhardt. "Some of the desire for change was people not even with Reboot."

Wilson cited Gaines as an example; the former lawmaker was not part of Blue Reboot. Gaines talked with Wilson about running for chair before Wilson announced he was running for governor last year. Gaines told me he first talked about it in early 2023.

Louisiana Democrats are philosophically divided into progressive, moderate and center-right factions. Yet, Democrats I talked with said many of the same things about what Gaines must do:

  • Build a grassroots bench of Democratic candidates
  • Build Democratic organizations in rural parishes, if not all 64 parishes
  • Be a peacemaker who can unite Democrats after a rocky stretch
  • Be able to raise money from small as well as large donors
  • Draw upon Congressman Carter, former Congressman Cedric Richmond, former Gov. John Bel Edwards and other influential, high-profile Louisiana Democrats to help raise money for the party

Call it a reboot, a rebuild or a reimagination — Louisiana Democrats have a lot of work to do.

The fractured party seems to agree on what its members want — more Democratic voters, more Democratic volunteers, more Democratic candidates and more Democratic wins.

Gaines told me he knows he faces a big challenge and will need prayers. He's not prepared to offer specifics, but he anticipates staff changes and better messaging from the top in the form of more location-specific "compelling, inspiring messages."

Gaines also must build camaraderie, confidence, protocol and respect within the party itself.

Without that, Louisiana Democrats will keep losing.

Email Will Sutton at wsutton@theadvocate.com, or follow him on Twitter, @willsutton.