The William Jefferson Chronicles

Bill Jefferson, Helena Moreno to meet in runoff for Congress
by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Sunday October 05, 2008, 8:47 AM

Despite the dual impediments of an upcoming federal trial on public corruption charges and a slew of well-financed opponents, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson ran first in Saturday's Democratic Party primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat that he has held for 18 years.

He will battle former TV news anchor and first-time candidate Helena Moreno of New Orleans in the Nov. 4 contest. With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, the winner of the party runoff is almost certain to claim the congressional seat.

With 482 of 492 precincts reporting late Saturday, Jefferson led the seven-candidate Democratic field with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Moreno with 20 percent. The general election is Dec. 6.

For Jefferson, it was only the second time since he captured the seat in 1990 that he has been forced into a runoff. Two years ago, he handily defeated state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, though she outspent him by a 2-to-1 margin.

--- Federal probe ---

This time, Jefferson managed to fend off a field of primary opponents who together raised $1.5 million -- compared with his $200,000 cache -- in their effort to unseat him.

Jefferson has seen his fortunes crumble since the federal probe into his business dealings became public more than three years ago.

Six months after he was sworn into a ninth term, a federal grand jury indicted him on 16 counts of public corruption related to his business dealings. Earlier this year, two of his siblings were indicted on separate charges that they stole money from charities; six other Jefferson relatives also were implicated in that case.

The congressman's trial is set to start Dec. 2.

Flanked by his wife and daughters at the eastern New Orleans eatery Flavorz by Mattie, Jefferson, 61, thanked supporters for sticking with him.

"I cannot tell you how much gratitude I have in my heart tonight for what you have done to undergird the work that my family and I have undertaken for so many years together," he said. "Give us your support, give us your prayers as you have, and we'll keep delivering for our area."

--- Crowded field ---

Moreno, 30, was a well-known news personality at WDSU-TV before she quit in March to explore a run for Congress. With support from local business executives and political power brokers from both parties, she managed to surge ahead of five opponents with extensive political resumes.

Moreno is vying to become the second woman ever elected to represent Louisiana in the U.S. House, following former Rep. Lindy Boggs, a New Orleans Democrat who held the 2nd District seat before Jefferson.

As the only white candidate in the primary field, Moreno also would make history by winning in a district where 62 percent of registered voters are African-American. Jefferson is black.

Speaking Saturday night at The Foundry in the Warehouse District, the former journalist, who built her campaign on a promise to restore "honesty and integrity" to the 2nd District seat, touted her runoff berth as a sign of progress.

"Tonight we've got some breaking news," Moreno said to a roar of applause. "Tonight, we've said yes to change. Tonight, you said Louisiana is rising. Tonight, you said honest leadership is one of the most important characteristics that you look for in a representative."

Running third was one-time Jefferson protege state Rep. Cedric Richmond of eastern New Orleans, followed by New Orleans City Councilman James Carter.

Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee came in fifth despite sweeping support from the suburban political establishment. Rounding out the Democratic primary field were former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter and Kenya Smith, a former top aide to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

--- Chaotic campaign season ---

While the field of candidates included familiar names, the contest proved anything but typical. Under new state rules, the primary race was divided by party. Only registered Democrats and registered independents were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. There was no GOP primary because only one Republican candidate, Anh "Joseph" Cao, qualified.

Cao will appear on the Dec. 6 general election ballot, along with the winner of the Democratic runoff, Green Party candidate Malik Rahim, Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Kahn and independent Jerry Jacobs.

Saturday's primary was originally scheduled for Sept. 6, but the election was postponed at the last minute after Hurricane Gustav forced a massive evacuation.

The 11th-hour extension virtually paralyzed the campaign because the candidates exhausted much of their cash by late August putting up television and radio commercials. Tapping shoestring budgets, the campaigns struggled through September, focusing on grass-roots initiatives and only reviving their advertising efforts during the past week.

Gustav and a subsequent threat from Hurricane Ike also wreaked havoc on a forum and debate schedule, allowing Jefferson to avoid virtually any questions about his legal problems.

Turnout was low, running at about 20 percent with a few precincts still out.

Jefferson spent much of the final two weeks of the campaign in Washington, where Congress has been wrestling with the Wall Street bailout legislation that passed Friday. As recently as two weeks ago, an independent poll found that about a quarter of voters remained undecided or wouldn't state a preference.

2nd Congressional District

482 of 492 precincts | Votes | Pct.

William Jefferson | 17,223 | 25

Helena Moreno | 13,510 | 20

Cedric Richmond | 11,782 | 17

James Carter | 9,117 | 14

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