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Linda Beene, a lifelong resident of Haynesville, Louisiana, likes to meet candidates before she votes.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the Black 65-five year-old maintenance worker drove to an outdoor gymnasium in Homer, a small town in the northwest corner of Louisiana, to meet Adrian Perkins, the state's newest Democratic upstart running for Senate.
"I voted for Bill Cassidy because he came to my church. But I won't do that again," Beene told Perkins of the Republican incumbent. She votes in local elections based on the candidate, not the party, she said.
Perkins nodded and smiled. He told Beene he could see how Cassidy might have seemed like the best candidate at the time. His opponent is a bedfellow of Trump, Perkins pointed out, and has failed to lead with scientific reason (even though he's a physician) during a health crisis that has exacerbated deep flaws in the state's economy and healthcare systems.
Beene agreed. "Now that I've met you, I can vote for you," she said.
If the Democratic Party were to create a candidate in a lab for victory in the South, Perkins would be it: He's Black, an outspoken Christian, holds degrees from West Point and Harvard Law School, has a military track record including service in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had a successful first term as mayor of Shreveport—a position he's held since 2018. Plus he's young, bearded, and handsome.
Still, Perkins is a long shot in Louisiana, a state that hasn't elected a Black person for statewide office since Reconstruction and has only elected one Democrat in the past five Senate elections. That's why face-to-face encounters, even masked, are so important; he's winning over undecided voters.
Much of Perkins' likability comes from his clear-headed plans during the pandemic. Perkins launched his campaign in July, when Louisiana was leading the nation in numbers of COVID-19 cases per capita. The day after his announcement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed his candidacy. In the days that followed, hard hitters in the party began showing their support, including Senator Cory Booker, Vice Presidential candidate and Senator Kamala Harris, and former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. Eventually, President Barack Obama threw his weight behind Perkins, too. Overnight, it seemed, the 34- year-old had already established a place for himself in the roster of national Democrats, even as COVID-19 was limiting his ability to campaign around his home state.
Campaigning, meeting people like Beene, and gaining their support will make the Senate race more competitive. That might increase Perkins' visibility on the national stage, positioning him as an important leader in the Democratic Party.
A government we could believe in
Perkins the politician is an optimist. He doesn't see his senate run as impossible.
He's earnest in his beliefs on what he's promoting on the campaign trail, because he said he's lived through the kinds of economic hardship he wants to help Louisianans overcome.
One of three boys, Perkins was raised by a single mother. His mom picked him up from school and brought him with her to her third job of the day, cleaning office buildings in downtown Shreveport.
"She had to be a superwoman," he said. "Parents shouldn't have to work that hard to raise a family. I've read the studies, but I've also lived it. I've been in that household, watching my mom work two jobs. There were still nights when she would go to bed rather than eat dinner with us because there wasn't enough food to go around. That's not right. That's not dignity. She shouldn't have had to do that."
When Perkins has a chance to talk to people, that story and his politics resonate.
We met last month in New Orleans at Vyoone's Restaurant in the French Quarter. He ordered French toast, drank a glass of iced water and, before our food arrived, was greeted twice by enthusiastic supporters eating nearby.
Jatavian Williams, a New Orleans-based lawyer who is originally from Shreveport, brought his 5-year-old daughter over to our table to meet the mayor. Williams had heard Perkins on the radio recently and was impressed by his poise.
"I thought, this guy sounds like the next Obama!" Williams said, laughing. "We need you up there, man."
I wondered whether he got that a lot, the Obama comparison. In the wake of Trump, it can be jarring to hear Perkins speak with a kind of intention about the things he believes in. I asked him whether politicians should still carry themselves with a loftiness.
"The means outweigh the end," he said. "You talk about speaking bluntly, but if what you're speaking about is false, or if it's harmful to the fabric of our society, or if it's divisive, your means outweigh your end. What's the point of getting into a government that no one believes in?"
I asked him why he returned to Shreveport—or even Louisiana—when he could have gone anywhere. He has joked he would be making a lot more money using his Harvard Law degree as a practicing attorney instead of moving back home to be a politician, where he faces racist voter suppression tactics that have barred other talented candidates from gaining access to offices they are more than qualified to fill.
"I was able to live this American dream because of Shreveport. Growing up in a high crime, low income neighborhood, I was still able to go to West Point, despite having a single mother," he said. Perkins was the first Black class president in the academy's 200-year history. For his service overseas, he earned a Bronze Star.
"I was able to go to Harvard Law School despite my grandfather being a sharecropper. Because of my mom, because of my family, because of my grandparents. Because of the teachers who stayed after class to make sure I got the concepts down when I struggled with them. Because of deacons at my church who looked after me and filled in that fatherly figure and made sure my pants were pulled up. My community was what allowed me to accomplish these things, so I feel indebted to it."
Leadership in crisis
Although the pandemic prevented his campaign from traveling around the state, it was the work Perkins did toward crisis relief that caught many Louisianians' attention.
He issued a citywide mask mandate in Shreveport—which two separate businesses sued him for—and had been working on addressing basic income inequality before the pandemic further disrupted the lives of residents living paycheck to paycheck.
He wanted to keep working on his mayoral legacy, but COVID-19 threatened that progress.
"One hundred percent full-disclosure, at the beginning of this year I had no desire to run. Just zero desire. My first year in office was successful. We had a lot of momentum that we were building going into year two. I ran on a platform of public safety, economic development and technology. My first year was the safest year in Shreveport in 45 years." Shreveport Police confirmed homicides dropped by 29 percent in 2019.
At a virtual town hall in July, Perkins said Shreveport had a $20-25 million budget shortfall thanks to the havoc the pandemic wreaked on economic development in the city. His office inherited a $1.2 million debt when he was sworn in, but his administration had worked hard to grow that to a roughly $4 million surplus before the pandemic hit. "It's been wiped away," Perkins said. Casinos and manufacturing plants, two of Shreveport's biggest industries, have shut down. The steel company where Perkins' brother works had, as of July, laid off three-quarters of its workforce.
So Perkins went to bat, pleading with Washington to extend funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. As he announced his candidacy, 260 Shreveport residents had passed away from COVID-19, an average of two people each day.
"What I got from D.C. was harmful—politicizing the pandemic. I said, you know what? We can't have this kind of leadership. They're not showing up in a time of crisis. They're not showing up at all. So, I stepped up and decided to run for office."
At home, people weren't so pleased to hear that the mayor was looking for a new job. A letter to the editor of the Shreveport Times, published just a few days after Perkins' announcement, criticized him for abandoning his unfinished work in Louisiana for Washington, and according to the New Orleans Advocate, even longtime Perkins supporters questioned the mayor's sudden jump into a race that would take him away from the promise he made to Shreveport just a year earlier.
Since then, he said he's been hearing the same questions from people across the state: "How am I going to pay for my family to eat tomorrow? How am I going to pay rent or my mortgage?"
These concerns, coupled with the weight of the lives his city had already lost, saddened him.
In response, Perkins does something politicians aren't known for: He admits he doesn't have all the answers.