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 fight to clean up Lafayette Parish could get some added ammunition with two ordinances up for votes Tuesday by the City-Parish Council targeting litter-bugs.
By striking a deal to lessen the blow of health insurance changes on state workers, school employees and retirees, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration lowered the volume of criticism but gave itself and local school boards a new budget headache.
With the airport tax coming up for a parishwide vote in about a week, the Broussard City Council and its mayor have come out in support of the proposal.
Protesters rallied peacefully in several Louisiana cities in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michal Brown.
US cities bidding on Olympics; Guard prevents more Ferguson riots; storm threatens travel and more national and international news for Wednesday, November 26, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
The U.S. rep billed LSU for work allegedly performed on the same days Congress voted on major legislation and held important committee hearings on energy and the ACA.
Abysmally low participation by the public has prompted the council to scuttle the 2014 survey with plans to simplify it and try again next year.
The village now says the ordinance will likely be overturned and authorities will more vigorously enforce existing leash laws.
Bill Cassidy cast an early ballot Tuesday, seeking to draw renewed attention to a race that has fallen off newspaper front pages and away from people's minds as they plan holiday meals and shopping schedules.
Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
After a convincing defeat at the polls on Nov. 4, Earl “Nickey” Picard has decided to let bygones be bygones with his former right-hand man Brian Pope, announcing his support for his former employee’s runoff bid to become Lafayette’s next city marshal.
Saturday the athletic department did everything possible to ensure the 2014 Ragin’ Cajun seniors remembered fondly their last home game. Rain and lightning never arrived but turbulence did in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Even stranger than the Republican Party’s decision to hold a “unity rally” earlier this month for Congressman Bill Cassidy in a Baton Rouge bar, Huey’s Bar, was the fact that the establishment was named after Louisiana’s most famous Democrat.
Bar Code is not a gay bar.
After failing to pass a medical marijuana bill last year, state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, is telling supporters he will return in 2015 with legislation that focuses on different applications like oils and pills.
Voters, obviously, are not yet tuned into the 2015 ballot, despite the intriguing races it will host.
By now, the story of how longtime LSU coach Dale Brown discovered Shaquille O'Neal has been told many times: Brown happened upon a massive 13-year-old at an army base in Germany, stayed in touch with him and eventually became like a second father.
Fate simply wasn't ready to give the New Orleans Saints a break from longtime nemesis Steve Smith.
Lafayette Police have had a busy day.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will use $130 million in patchwork financing from a tax amnesty program, insurance settlement, uninsured motorist penalties and other excess funds to close most of the state's midyear budget deficit.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she disagrees with President Barack Obama's actions on immigration, hoping the latest controversy doesn't worsen her campaign difficulties.
Gay-rights advocates challenging Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban announced Thursday that they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case before it is heard by a federal appeals court.
Thinking himself the “son of God,” the man charged with the 2013 killing of an officer of the Chitimacha Tribal Police will not stand trial following a ruling Thursday on his mental competency.
Either Saints coach Sean Payton doesn't want to tip Baltimore off as to who'll start in New Orleans' secondary on Monday night, or he really doesn't know yet.