|Bill Jefferson, Helena Moreno work to shore up support in congressional runoff|
by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Monday October 13, 2008, 10:22 PM
After laying low for more than a week, the Democratic Party runoff candidates in the 2nd Congressional District are revving up their campaigns with high-profile events that reflect their bases of support.
Incumbent William Jefferson made the first move Monday, when he appeared at a Central City banquet hall surrounded by more than two dozen influential African-American ministers who pledged their support for the congressman's effort to win a 10th term even as he awaits trial on federal bribery charges.
Former TV news anchor Helena Moreno, the first-time candidate who finished second in the Oct. 4 primary, will follow suit today, when a group of prominent business executives, all of them white, hosts a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for her at Palace Cafe in the French Quarter.
Jefferson and Moreno will square off in a Nov. 4 runoff, with the winner advancing to a Dec. 6 general election. With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, the winner on Nov. 4 will be considered the prohibitive favorite against four political unknowns.
Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction, led the seven-candidate Democratic primary field with 25 percent of the vote, much of it drawn from heavily black neighborhoods. Moreno, who is white and Hispanic, was the only non-African-American candidate in the primary. She garnered about 20 percent of the vote, largely owing to support in heavily white areas.
The ministers who stood shoulder to shoulder with Jefferson on Monday represent a sizeable cross-section of the city's black faith communities: large Pentecostal congregations that emerged in the 1990s, major old-line churches active in the civil rights movement and smaller neighborhood churches.
Vouching for Jefferson's integrity and stressing that all defendants are innocent until proved guilty, the ministers argued that even with his legal problems, the incumbent would be far more effective than Moreno in advocating for residents of the 2nd District.
"We still have one of the most powerful men in Congress, in spite of what people say, " said Bishop Paul Morton Sr. of Greater St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church. "In this season of trouble and problems and situations that we're facing, we cannot take a chance by electing the wrong person."
Morton said he believes Jefferson is innocent. But the minister broached the prospect that a Virginia jury might find the congressman guilty of one or more of the 16 charges against him, which could force Jefferson to leave Congress before his term expires.
"If he wasn't (innocent), I would at least rather go back and have a special election than to put the person in who will mess up our state and the things we need for our state, " Morton said. "We don't have time to settle."
Asked whether they had been approached by Moreno for an endorsement, the ministers broke out in a chorus of "no."
Moreno's chief media consultant, Greg Buisson, said his candidate is focused on bringing "honor and pride back to this district" and has invested her time in trying to win the hearts of undecided voters.
"Congressman Jefferson has been in office for a long time, and we are aware of who his long-term supporters have been, " Buisson said, referring to the clergymen. "It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to spend a lot of time to try to get them to change their minds."
Instead, Moreno has been going door to door in predominantly black neighborhoods and meeting with African-American community leaders, including some pastors, in an effort to win backers in areas dominated in the primary by her black opponents, Buisson said.
Buisson, however, said he was not ready to name names.
"When we believe it is time to announce that support, we have every intention to announce the support that we get, " he said.
The host committee for Moreno's fundraiser today, meanwhile, is a who's who of the region's white business establishment. The list includes backers who have been with Moreno since the start: investment banker David Voelker and Democratic Party booster Calvin Fayard, along with developer Joseph Canizaro and shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger, two of President Bush's most prolific Louisiana fundraisers.
Also in the fold are key financiers who backed New Orleans City Councilman James Carter in the primary, such as manufacturing executive Jay Lapeyre and maritime entrepreneur Gregory Rusovich.
Rounding out the roster are landfill magnate Fred Heebe; Rick Conway, who has directed companies in a range of industries; Taylor Beery, former policy director for Gulf Coast recovery czar Donald Powell; Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand; and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick.
Despite this week's wave of endorsements, some of the most coveted backers remain on the sidelines. Jefferson and Moreno said they have spoken with the five candidates who lost the Democratic primary, but none has chosen sides. Many Orleans and Jefferson parish elected officials who lined up behind the also-rans also have stayed mum.
Morton said the ministers did not step forward earlier because they did not want "to offend other people."
"We felt the congressman would come through, and so this is our time, " Morton said. "Men of God always pick the right time."
Eugene Green, Jefferson's chief of staff in Louisiana who also is working for his campaign, stressed that the ministers offered their endorsements on behalf of themselves, not the churches they represent. Federal law bars churches that enjoy tax-exempt status from participating in political activity.
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Bruce Nolan contributed to this report. Frank Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3328. Michelle Krupa can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3312.