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 City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday, April 16, 2014:
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.
Now that lawmakers have shot down efforts to cap annual interest rates for payday loans, supporters for stricter regulations of the storefront lenders are rallying behind another strategy.
The Appropriations Committee held public testimony day, letting people talk about what they like or don't like about Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget recommendations for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lafayette police are investigating the death of a 21-year-old woman whose body was found early Sunday in a drainage ditch in Girard Park.
Former Grant parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley says he's running for the U.S. House seat currently held by Republican Vance McAllister of Swartz.
Louisiana-Lafayette got strong starting pitching and timely hitting to hold off Arkansas-Little Rock 6-3 in Sun Belt Conference baseball in Lafayette, La.
Chris Williams knows how to pilfer from the public coffers, this time with a back-pay lawsuit filed three years ago against the Lafayette Housing Authority, which netted the former city-parish councilman a cool five figures.
McAllister's office vowed that he intended to stay in office — for now. As for questions about whether he would stand for re-election in November, those were dodged.
The Green Army's Lafayette brigade has announced it will pay a visit Friday morning to Sen. Page Cortez to urge him to vote against Sen. Robert Adley's SB 553, which the group is calling the "Big Oil Bailout Bill of 2014."