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.
The Lafayette superintendent insists the budget is illegal and vows to fight on.
"I am not a scientist," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said numerous times, a response that other members of his party have parroted.
Republicans are running strong races against endangered Democratic incumbents in states such as North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska. Republicans are also looking to replace retiring Democrats in Iowa and West Virginia with a GOP lawmaker.
Republican congressman Vance McAllister is trying to make up to Louisiana voters for getting too close to a married former employee.
You may not like all of “it,” but U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, unlike many of her colleagues, isn't sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Congress.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro says he "can't wait" to play against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The heat keeps rising for Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal as a new slate of corruption allegations surfaced this week.
If opposing defenses sell out to stop the Packers' passing game, they risk being gashed by powerful running back Eddie Lacy, a New Orleans-area native.
At the horn the officiating crew trotted to the tunnel and left security personnel to clean up after them.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Sign "ninjas" cleaning up clutter; NYC doctor positive for Ebola; Ferguson grand jury decision nears; and more national and international news for Friday, October 24, 2014.
We can safely assume incumbent Chief K.P. Gibson isn’t too worried about this challenger.
Nationally, Republicans must gain six seats to win Senate control. The most competitive races, many in states where Obama lost in 2012, remain too close to call.
The Baton Rouge Republican has repeatedly battled a perception within his own party that he perhaps wasn't the best choice to carry the GOP banner.
Even if Jimmy Graham's production dips while the star tight end recovers from a shoulder injury, it looks like Drew Brees won't have much trouble finding other targets.
A former campaign manager for Senate candidate Rob Maness is striking at the Republican contender's tea party support, saying Maness only sought to appeal to conservative organizations because he needed money for his campaign.
Ninety-two percent of public school teachers were rated either effective or highly effective in a report the state issued marking the second year of a new statewide evaluation process.
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.