Political State

Fortune 500 CEO leads state's Democrats

Jim Bernhard is a multi-millionaire executive running the multi-billion dollar leviathan The Shaw Group, but he's still restless. He exudes the drive and enthusiasm he once displayed as a ditch digger at Bernhard Mechanical Contractors, the 86-year-old family business in Lafayette. "I am always amazed when people want to meet me," Bernhard says in a rare relaxed moment after becoming chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party last month.

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.