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A Different Kind of Democrat 

After the pounding it took in the last round of elections, the Louisiana Democratic Party needed to search for new leadership. That's not a shot at former party chair Mike Skinner, a Lafayette attorney. Rather, it's a reflection of one of the fundamental rules of politics: winning matters.

When the party chose Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard as its new chair several weeks ago, it signaled that it was ready for the kind of sea change that many believe the Democratic infrastructure needs at all levels, from the national headquarters down to the parish committees.

Bernhard heads the Fortune 500 company headquartered in Baton Rouge, a company he built from the ground up in less than 15 years. It is now a $3 billion-a-year global enterprise with 18,000 employees.

Bernhard, 50, didn't start dabbling in politics until recently. He backed former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub for governor in 2003, then jumped head-long into Kathleen Blanco's runoff effort. They became fast friends. He co-chaired Blanco's transition team, then hired her campaign manager and political protege, attorney Jeff Jenkins, to work for Shaw. Last year, Bernhard toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate, but opted instead to remain at Shaw.

As a captain of industry whose company gets lots of government contracts, Bernhard might appear to be more at home in the GOP -- especially right now. He says he remains a Democrat because that party still strikes him as the one that cares more sincerely about America's poor and disadvantaged. All the same, his company recently donated $100,000 to President Bush's inauguration committee. Bernhard says he had nothing to do with that decision, but freely admits his company has a long history of giving to both parties -- and that it likely will continue to do so.

Clearly, this is a different kind of Democratic Party leader. He won the job with Blanco's full support, and he appears to have the backing of other major Democratic players as well, including Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans.

What do Democrats think of his company's contributions to the GOP?

"I told them up-front that there couldn't be any sort of litmus test, or else I wasn't the guy for the job," Bernhard says. "I think we need to move beyond that."

Bernhard says his goal is to build a party that develops sound positions on important issues, then recruits candidates who support those policies. "I want to see us having debates about real issues, not personalities," he says. "We shouldn't be electing people just because they're popular."

These days, Bernhard is criss-crossing the state to meet with newspaper editors and local party leaders, mostly introducing himself and his vision. As part of his effort to build a party of ideas, he wants to conduct thorough research into major issues, propose realistic solutions, and then present them for public debate. He says he will ask all 3,500 Democratic elected officials in the state to donate at least $100 each to help bankroll the party's rebuilding effort. "If you can't give $100 as an elected official, you can't really call yourself a Democrat," Bernhard says.

Look for Bernhard to write a substantial check himself, which no doubt is a big reason he was given the job.

Beyond that, it will be interesting to see how Bernhard balances the seemingly incompatible roles of big business leader and political party boss. He dismisses the notion that he will face serious conflicts of interest. For example, as Democratic Party leader, his job will be drafting candidates to run against Republican incumbents -- some of whom may have received donations from his company. Which entity will have first call on his loyalty?

"I have never had any politician interfere with my company's efforts to get a government contract," Bernhard says. "I just don't think that's an issue." For now, the energetic Bernhard is in the throes of a political honeymoon. A Catholic parent who coaches his children's Little League teams, he may present exactly the kind of moderate face and style the party needs.

click to enlarge It will be interesting to see how Jim Bernhard balances the seemingly incompatible roles of big business leader and political party boss.
  • It will be interesting to see how Jim Bernhard balances the seemingly incompatible roles of big business leader and political party boss.
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