The William Jefferson Chronicles

Congressman Bill Jefferson benefited from loyal base

by Michelle Krupa and Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune

Wednesday November 05, 2008, 9:27 PM

U.S. Rep. William Jefferson at his election night party on Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's formula for victory in Tuesday's Democratic Party runoff was not complicated or surprising. He relied on racial numbers -- and loyalty.

Determined to hang on to the 2nd Congressional District seat he won 18 years ago, Jefferson found refuge in his traditional base of voters in majority-black neighborhoods, who turned out in large numbers on the same day the nation elected its first African-American president.

Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction, trounced his opponent, former television news anchor Helena Moreno, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Moreno, who is white and Hispanic, fared far better than Jefferson in mostly white areas -- and did a somewhat better job of attracting crossover votes from heavily black neighborhoods. But with African-Americans representing two of every three voters in the district, she simply could not overcome the racial numbers gap.

Party considerations

Under new state rules, the primary was divided by party, and only registered Democrats and independents were allowed to vote in Tuesday's runoff. With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, Jefferson is considered the prohibitive favorite in the Dec. 6 general election against four little-known opponents.

But with Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao expected to marshal support among GOP faithful, Jefferson has acknowledged that he will have to rethink a grass-roots strategy that has kept him largely out of the public's view.

Though he refused to discuss it Tuesday night, Jefferson can expect criticism for his waning influence in Congress since he was indicted last year on 16 federal corruption charges.

As recently as a month ago, it looked like Jefferson would spend the waning days of the general election campaign inside a Virginia courtroom. But the trial, scheduled to begin Dec. 2, is likely to be pushed back to next year because of appeals.

Despite the legal problems facing him and other family members who have been indicted in separate cases, Jefferson was resolute about his shot at securing a 10th term.

"We have been through some hills and valleys, and we are still standing, " Jefferson told supporters. "We'll have to gather our forces and just get moving again."

District demographics

A precinct analysis of Tuesday's election results by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, who broke down the vote by race, shows that Jefferson's success hinged on the demographics of the district, which includes most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.

Although Moreno dominated Jefferson by a margin of five votes to one in precincts with a majority of white voters, the ballots cast in those areas comprised just 37 percent of Tuesday's total ballot count.

Moreno fared better among African-American voters than Jefferson did among white voters, leaving the congressman with only a 3-to-1 advantage in heavily black precincts.

Jefferson rolled up winning numbers after waging an unusually quiet campaign that concentrated on targeted phone banking and personal appearances. In declining to debate Moreno and staying off TV and radio, Jefferson basically ignored his challenger.

"We ran the race we thought we needed to run to end up where we are. By that I mean, if you're running in the Olympic trials, you don't want to run so hard you strain a hamstring before you get to the final run, " Jefferson told reporters Tuesday night.

In coming weeks, Jefferson said his campaign machine will ramp up by sending out mailers, returning to the airwaves and, with turnout crucial to next month's contest, reinvigorating grass-roots efforts.

Challengers have work to do

Besides Cao, the other three candidates waiting in the wings for Jefferson are Green Party candidate Malik Rahim, Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Kahn and independent Jerry Jacobs.

Cao, a lawyer who moved to New Orleans from Vietnam as a child, appears to be in a position to mount the most credible challenge. Local Republican leaders said Wednesday that they have been working behind the scenes for weeks to lay a foundation for a campaign by Cao, who lost his only previous bid for public office -- finishing fifth in a six-candidate race for a state House seat last year.

"You'll see some muscle next week, " said former City Councilman Jay Batt, who chairs the Orleans Parish Republican Party Executive Committee. "I'm talking about money in the bank and endorsements -- major names."

In addition to Batt, Cao is assisted by such GOP loyalists as Bryan Wagner, also a former City Council member, businessman Louis Gurvich and former Judge David Williams. The Cao team also has brought on Ruth Sherlock, a former finance official for the Republican National Committee, as an adviser.

Batt said the group hopes to collect between $50,000 and $100,000 within a few days to launch a media campaign to inform voters about what he described as Cao's "compelling" life story, which includes work as a missionary abroad and as an ethics and philosophy instructor at Loyola University.

State Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said phone calls from new Cao supporters began late Tuesday.

"A lot of people started calling last night, people that went with Helena, people that feel like (Cao) has a shot, " Villere said. "They just feel like Jefferson is an embarrassment to have in Washington with his background and his baggage."

Money matters

Cao's backers draw hope from knowing there is a pool of 50,000 registered voters, most of them Republicans, who were ineligible to vote Tuesday but who can vote next month.

Jefferson and his opponents face a challenge keeping voters engaged in an election that lacks the zing of the just-completed battle for president and that includes only one other race: a two-way contest to fill a state Senate seat. Adding to the confusion is the election date -- just nine days after Thanksgiving.

Political consultant Cheron Brylski, who has worked with Cao in the past, said his success hinges on his ability to tell voters who he is and remind them to head to the polls. Those tasks, she estimated, will cost about $250,000.

"No matter how you slice it, Jefferson is still the favorite, " she said. "Joseph Cao is a quality candidate, but he is unknown to a majority of the voters. So, to give him a chance, the Republican Party has to show they are serious, and unless they have serious money in the bank, they aren't serious."

Villere agreed that the general election's outcome may turn on who can rally voters in an otherwise low-profile election.

"I don't think this race will be about Democrat-Republican, " Villere said. "I think the people are going to look at the issue of character and who can help out their local district."

Frank Donze can be reached at or 504.826.3328. Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312.

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