Ex-congressman's brother tasted political victory behind the scenes
by Gordon Russell, The Times-Picayune
Saturday May 30, 2009, 9:56 PM
At first glance, Mose Jefferson embodies an archetype of American politics: the man who makes a living, and a life, by attaching himself like a parasite to a famous and powerful relative fortunate enough to win office.
The truth is more complicated. While his once-formidable stroke was derived from the political success of his younger brother, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, the reverse was true as well.
For it was Mose Jefferson, 66, who cut his teeth on politics first, learning the tricks of the trade as a Democratic Party field lieutenant in one of Chicago's most storied -- some would say notorious -- political operations before returning to steer his brother's campaigns in New Orleans.
He learned the craft well. Detractors and admirers alike agree that from the xearly 1980s until Hurricane Katrina, Mose Jefferson was one of the city's premier political tacticians. The organization he ran, the Progressive Democrats, with William Jefferson as its standard-bearer, grew into one of the city's most potent forces.
But Katrina eroded the organization's power, and federal grand juries may have destroyed it. William Jefferson, charged with 16 bribery-related felonies, will be tried in Virginia starting June 9. Mose Jefferson, though never elected to office, has been accused of political corruption in two separate indictments, the second of which was expanded last week to include his longtime companion, Renee Gill Pratt. He has pleaded innocent in both cases and declined to be interviewed for this story.
The second indictment also implicates Betty Jefferson, a New Orleans assessor and elder sister of both Mose and William; Angela Coleman, her daughter; and Gill Pratt, a former City Council member and state representative.
Brenda Foster, a fourth Jefferson sibling, has pleaded guilty in the case, which involves an alleged scheme to loot charities for the poor. She has signed a plea agreement requiring her to testify against her siblings if called upon.
Regardless of how the cases play out, the decline of the Jefferson political machine seems irreversible, given its dismal performance of late. Coincidentally, perhaps, the organization that nurtured a young Mose Jefferson in Chicago and dominated a niche of South Side politics has seen a similar reversal of fortune.
The last time Mose Jefferson left Louisiana was late last year, when he received a federal judge's permission to travel to Dolton, Ill., to attend the funeral of that town's mayor, William "Bill" Shaw. Shaw, along with twin brother Robert "Bob" Shaw, had mentored Mose Jefferson in politics, although now the Shaw machine, like that of the Jeffersons, is in ruins.
Hard work and racism
With the Jefferson family a dominant force in local politics for decades, it's easy to forget they hail from Lake Providence, in the heart of the Delta and a long ride from New Orleans.
Mose and William Jefferson took separate but related paths to Louisiana's biggest city, where many of their eight siblings would eventually join them.
Life in the Delta during the 1940s wasn't easy: Though the family owned a small farm, the Jefferson children had to pick cotton and the large family was crammed into a five-room house.
In town, racial oppression was rigid, and may have launched Mose Jefferson's flight to Chicago. William Jefferson's recent book, "Dying Is the Easy Part" -- which is billed as fiction but reads like an autobiography -- features a chapter that centers on an older brother of the narrator.
The brother is insulted by a group of racist white men. One throws a pool ball at him but misses, breaking a mirror. Though he is handy with his fists, the brother knows fighting isn't an option, and he runs home.
Nonetheless, that night, deputies come to his house to arrest him. The sheriff tells his mother: "Your boy can't be fighting white boys in this parish. If he wants to fight with white boys, then, by God, he's gotta go up North."
His mother, defiant, refuses to turn over her son. "He's gotta go up North to keep somebody from whipping his ass?" she asks rhetorically. "He ain't going nowhere."
Did time in robbery case
But Mose Jefferson did leave the grinding poverty of Lake Providence soon afterward. In the late 1950s, he moved to Chicago, where at least two of his older sisters, including Betty, already lived.
Upon arriving in Chicago, he lived with one of his sisters and attended Marshall High School, spotlighted decades later in the documentary "Hoop Dreams." He dropped out at 16.
The next year, 1959, he joined the Air Force. He served four years and received an honorable discharge, military records show.
He returned to Chicago, where he worked in a factory that made railroad parts, and then as a cab driver, when he and a friend were booked with robbing another man of $450. He wound up pleading guilty and served nine months in the Stateville Correctional Center. He was released in 1967.
During the next 15 years, he came to master Chicago politics. It was a period of wrenching change: African-Americans, who had reliably marched to the orders of the era's white Democratic boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, began to assert power, culminating in the election of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, in 1983.
Learning from masters
Among the most powerful ward bosses of the era were the Shaw brothers, known for an uncanny and perhaps unseemly ability to deliver votes, a quality celebrated at the funeral of Bill Shaw that Mose Jefferson attended in December. The Chicago Tribune reported that Todd Stroger, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, recalled with a grin that his father once complained that "the Shaws were too good. They come back with 100 percent of the vote."
Like Jefferson, the Shaws were Southern transplants -- they came from Hope, Ark. -- and they imparted their love for old-school politics: Shaw elections were won in the streets, with campaign workers and shoe leather, not TV ads. The brothers weren't above trickery, either: U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a longtime foe and son of the civil rights leader, blamed the Shaws when a truck driver named Jesse L. Jackson took him on in 2002.
Then there were the Shaws' ethical snafus. Bill Shaw was simultaneously an Illinois state senator -- serving alongside Barack Obama -- and mayor of the village of Dolton.
While in the Senate, Bill Shaw earmarked millions for the town he ran. As mayor, he appointed his brother to the post of inspector general at a salary of $70,000, causing fits among good-government advocates in Chicago.
Bob Shaw, while serving on the Cook County Board of Review, approved a hefty property-tax reduction for Bill Shaw in 2004, a move that prompted a state investigation. The episode echoed a flap that occurred in New Orleans when Betty Jefferson, a city assessor, slashed the valuation of an apartment complex owned by her brother Mose Jefferson by two-thirds.
Such antics, if entertaining, caused many sober Chicagoans to regard the Shaws as embarrassing throwbacks who had no business holding office.
"The Shaw brothers have probably been the worst force in that whole area of the South Side," said Dick Simpson, a former alderman who now heads the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Simpson described the duo as power-hungry "machine hacks" with little regard for those they governed.
Despite such critiques, the Shaws were a force, and it may be through their intervention that Mose Jefferson in 1986 won a pardon for his armed robbery conviction from the Republican governor, Jim Thompson. Neither Thompson nor Bob Shaw responded to calls for comment.
Lifestyle lacks flash
The pardon came a few years after Mose Jefferson's lanky kid brother, a political rookie, surprised the New Orleans establishment by defeating veteran state Sen. Fritz Eagan.
When, in 1981, the upstart senator boldly decided to take on incumbent Dutch Morial, the city's first black mayor, Mose Jefferson came to New Orleans to direct the effort, squiring his brother around town in a Lincoln with Illinois plates reading "M JEFF."
While Mose Jefferson then had a couple of decades of big-city living under his belt, he retained some of his country ways. He favored a Stetson hat and a big belt buckle, and he kept a toothpick in his mouth.
"He is anything but flashy," said former state Sen. Hank Braden, who has worked with and against Jefferson over the past three decades. "I don't think Mose likes to wear a suit. The only time I've ever seen him in one is at a funeral. He likes to keep it very simple."
James Gray, William Jefferson's former law partner, who has also worked with and against the Jefferson family, said Mose Jefferson's simple tastes make the theft charges against him especially confounding.
"When you look at Mose, there's no hint he might be living high on the hog," Gray said. "He's neat and clean, but he drives a truck. He's not a guy you'd think is blowing a whole lot of money on a regular basis."
What's he like? Gray laughs: "He's like a guy from Lake Providence, frankly."
A tough campaigner
If Mose Jefferson never completely shed his rural upbringing, he was all Chicago when it came to politics, earning a reputation as a peerless director of street forces.
"Things got much more efficient when Mose got here," Gray said. "He's the sort of guy who can walk into a room with anyone and command attention and respect."
A candidate backed by the Jefferson establishment could count on certain things: armies of street workers canvassing voters on election day, fliers in every mailbox, signs in many yards. Mose Jefferson's signature was a blitz on well-traveled neutral grounds, where placards promoting his candidate, placed inches apart, lent an aura of invincibility.
"He was always extremely disciplined -- he was 100 percent, 24/7, always," Braden said. "He was thorough, thorough, thorough. He planned his ass off."
Hardball wasn't the only thing Jefferson learned in Chicago. He and his siblings also learned how to align their business and political interests.
An example: Shortly after Betty Jefferson was elected to the Orleans Parish School Board, she led a committee that pushed for a school-uniform requirement. It soon emerged that, less than two months after his sister's election, Mose Jefferson had formed a company that landed exclusive deals to sell uniforms to certain schools.
In the current case against Mose Jefferson, much of the money that prosecutors say he misappropriated over the years wound up in the account of a limited liability company he founded in 2000 called B.E.P. Consulting. According to court documents, the initials stand for Business, Education, Politics -- a reminder, perhaps, of a belief on Jefferson's part that those spheres are intertwined.
Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3347.