By Elise Viebeck - 04/11/11 10:42 AM EDT
It is hard to describe Cedric Richmond’s Louisiana district without understating its problems.
Richmond, a Democrat, represents most of New Orleans, where crime and poverty were entrenched long before the trauma of two hurricanes and last year’s oil spill.
But now, after serving 11 years in the Louisiana statehouse, Rep. Richmond argues that he has a leg up on procedure and enough allies — Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) among them — to make his freshman term a success.
“It’s great to get your hands around national policy as well as international policy,” he said, describing his work on the Homeland Security Committee. “You have to be very well-versed in our relationships in the Middle East and China. As a state legislator, that was obviously a much lower priority.”
In Baton Rouge, Richmond chaired the legislature’s Judiciary Committee and received accolades for his New Markets Tax Credit program, which brought investment to storm-damaged areas.
In Congress, he says his “No. 1 priority” is to sustain shipping on the Mississippi River by defending dredging projects at the Port of New Orleans.
“This affects 29 other states and Canada. I don’t see how the president can take exports seriously if we don’t get this [dredging] done,” he said.
In an interview, Richmond described his childhood in New Orleans East.
His father died when Richmond was 7. His mother, who later remarried, is a public school teacher.
“We lived across the street from a playground. After I did my homework, it was a safe place to play. We were surrounded by mentors in the neighborhood — people who wanted to see us do well,” he said.
Starting in high school, he coached local baseball and basketball teams, and in law school, would sometimes use his loan money to sponsor them.
The lack of funding for children’s sports became an impetus, he said, for his first run for office.
“I want to have the same effect on the kids [I coach] ... give them the idea that the sky is the limit,” he said.
Richmond’s career in politics began early.
After receiving his J.D. from Tulane University Law School and passing the Louisiana bar, he was elected at 26 to represent Orleans Parish and portions of Jefferson Parish in the statehouse.
Two sweeping reelections — with 78 percent of the vote in 2003 and 73 percent in 2007 — foreshadowed his win last November over one-term Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, the 2nd District’s first Republican representative in more than 100 years.
Though Cao touted his “good working relationship” with President Obama, he opposed healthcare reform and the stimulus package, which made him an easy target in the heavily Democratic district.
Richmond used the refrain “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” referring to his opponent’s nay votes, to kick off his own bid. He went on to receive endorsements from President Obama, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and her brother Mitch, the mayor of New Orleans, but also had to defend his record, which includes two ethics violations.
In one case, the state ethics board fined Richmond $2,000 for missing a deadline to disclose legal work he had done for the Department of Social Services. But the board also praised his representation of absentee parents in adoption cases.
In the other case, in 2005, the Louisiana Supreme Court disqualified him from a New Orleans City Council race after finding he had sworn falsely to living in the district he wanted to represent. His law license was later suspended for two months in connection with the dispute.
“I’m not the only person that’s ever been disqualified,” Richmond told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2008.
The paper, though it chided him for the ethics issues, backed him in 2010.
“We believe that Mr. Richmond has the potential to become an important force for the district in Congress. His energy, legislative experience and political acuity make him the better choice,” it said.
Richmond said his favorite memory of the midterm campaign was the premiere of a TV commercial in which Obama endorsed him.
“Everybody started talking about the campaign that day,” he said, after the 30-second ad first aired during a New Orleans Saints football game.
Obama’s comment in the spot — that “New Orleans needs Cedric Richmond in Congress, and so do I” — reflects the special nature of a seat not only traditionally held by Democrats but also where several major relief policies converge.
“They wanted someone [in New Orleans] who would support the president’s key initiatives,” Richmond said.
“People question us all the time. ‘How is New Orleans faring? How are the businesses faring? Are the people coming home? It’s not the same level of interest as right after the storm, but it gives us a chance to talk about the issues.”