Bernhard is an ardent LSU football fan, and his competitive zeal is a family trait. His father lettered three years as a tackle at LSU during World War II. Bernhard, the son, brings the same thick-chest presence to his boardroom. When he was 32, he founded The Shaw Group with two partners. Eighteen years later, the company is a Fortune 500 powerhouse towering above south Baton Rouge as visitors cruise down I-10 at Essen Lane.
"We have offices bigger in Houston and Charlotte than we do in Baton Rouge," Bernhard says. He's resisted offers to migrate to bigger markets. "Almost all of our competitors are in Houston, and we have had many overtures to move there," says Bernhard. The CEO is aware of the clout his company carries nationwide. "We are among the top five employers in 27 congressional districts outside Louisiana," he says.
In his day job, Bernhard travels the world and manages 18,000 employees across the globe.
As chair of Louisiana Democrats, Bernhard will manage 3,500 Democratic officeholders. In his new capacity, he sounds more like a candidate than a slice-and-dice political operative. "We are going to offer a Louisiana agenda," Bernhard says. "If we can come up with an agenda that truly solves one of our problems with education or poverty, we will be successful."
Despite his calls for unity, Democrats are hoping Bernhard's leadership will stem a Republican trend in the state. The GOP captured five of Louisiana's congressional districts in November, and David Vitter became the first Republican to ever win a U.S. Senate election in Louisiana. Longtime Democrats are unhappy that Vitter has a six-year lease on the Senate seat held by Russell Long and John Breaux for the past 54 years.
Party activists endorsed the selection of Bernhard as chairman after President Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry by 16 percentage points in this state. Louisiana voted for the Republican nominee for president for the fifth time in the last seven elections. Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to secure Louisiana's electoral votes since Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976.
Until a year ago, Bernhard was a political independent and had supported Democrats Richard Ieyoub and Kathleen Blanco in the 2003 governor's race. Even though his company contributed $100,000 to the second inauguration of President Bush, Bernhard says his migration to the Democratic fold should come as no shock. "The richest man in America, Bill Gates, is Democrat," he notes. "The second richest man in America, Warren Buffett, who is certainly a corporate titan, is also a Democrat."
Bernhard is aiming to lead a major environmental initiative in the state. "We need to move our advertising on the wetlands to CNN and Washington, D.C.," Bernhard says as his voice grows louder. "There's an issue that all people in Louisiana can lock arms together. We need to get a little bit angry. We need to get more vocal and say the rest of the country isn't going to use the Mississippi River and destroy our state."
The Shaw jet flew Raymond Blanco, the governor's husband, to the LSU bowl game in Orlando on New Year's Day. Traveling with Coach Blanco was an official with Shintech, a company that Shaw hopes to assist in building a $1 billion plant in Louisiana. The junket was the first controversy of Bernhard's tenure, and Blanco is reimbursing the Shaw Group $360 for the ride.
"We are going to run an ethical Democratic Party," Bernhard says. "We are going to have to be extra careful in perception because of Louisiana's problems in the past. Even if there is no ethics violation, we are going to have to go the extra mile."
Skeptics including Republican businessmen and members of the Louisiana League of Women Voters maintain Bernhard will have difficulty embracing the art of compromise, often a necessity in the rough and tumble world of Louisiana politics. Bernhard says he is an advocate of conciliation, not conflict. "When anthrax needed to be cleaned up in the United States, we were the company," Bernhard says. "When the lights went out in New York, we were the company that restored power. When hurricanes ravaged Florida, we got people back in the houses and restored power."
At 50, Bernhard is no longer a young man in a hurry. He's a middle-aged man with a new mission, but his formative years in Lafayette shaped his attitude. "Having been the boss' son, I didn't go right into the executive office," Bernhard recalls. "We were busting concrete and digging ditches and putting in roof drains. It makes you appreciate being in another man's shoes."
It will be fascinating to see which side of Bernhard prevails in his new post ' the empathetic kid from Lafayette or the tough guy who runs a Fortune 500 company. The Louisiana Democratic Party is likely to follow one of the images of its leader.
U.S. District Judge James Brady had ruled that the corrections department must reveal by this week the information about where it obtained its two lethal injection drugs.
The enrollment period ends this month.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday, March 12, 2014:
So far the Democratic agenda includes proposals to expand Medicaid; increase the minimum wage; offer equal pay to women; heighten regulations on predatory lending practices, like payday loans; and add more transparency in the governor’s office.
Hot-button education issues ranging from Common Core to charter schools have some lawmakers pushing to scrap the appointing process and go back to electing the state's super.
Police say the handcuffed man fatally shot himself in the back, but his family isn't buying the story.
Gov. Bobby Jindal offered a budget proposal that suggests new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.