The William Jefferson Chronicles

In New Orleans, allegations don't inter embattled congressman
8/21/2006, 12:57 a.m. CT
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Olga Richard doesn't buy into the accusations swirling around her beleaguered congressman — William Jefferson. She doesn't want to see Louisiana's first black U.S. representative since Reconstruction crash to the ground like a battered pinata.

"He's being made an example of," Richard said. "I want him to succeed not only for African-Americans but for New Orleans and my community."

And although Jefferson, D-La., is the subject of a federal investigation into alleged illegal dealings involving an African telecommunications deal, political pundits say Richard is not alone in sympathizing with Jefferson's plight.

"I've been following what's been going on," said the 48-year-old chemist who is rebuilding her home in eastern New Orleans, which took a heavy blow from Hurricane Katrina. "We're innocent until proven guilty."

A few streets away, Elizabeth Barnes, a 34-year-old hair stylist, can already be counted as a vote in the Jefferson column.

"Before all of this, I really did like Jefferson," said Barnes, who has been living in a federally supplied trailer while her house is rebuilt. "I'm a friend with his wife, personally, so I'll probably vote for him."

In this melting pot city where family trees are intertwined like the spaghetti-like network of underground drainage pipes that keep New Orleans dry, unseating an incumbent is a formidable job — even a congressman like Jefferson with a cloud hanging over him.

Still, there may be a sense of blood in the water as a dozen candidates have qualified to take on Jefferson in the Nov. 7 primary election. It's a challenge for Jefferson, who spent years building a power base in Louisiana's only majority-black congressional district, centered on the city of New Orleans. He first won election to Congress in 1991 and has kept his seat with relative ease.

A private poll taken by pollster Verne Kennedy before qualifying ended Aug. 11, showed Jefferson favored by only 25 percent of the voters, said Ed Renwick, a political science professor at Loyola University.

Jefferson's fortunes and his standing in the Democratic Party took a jog last year after federal investigators raided his New Orleans home and then later searched his Washington, D.C., office for evidence in an investigation of an alleged plan to bribe his way into the telecommunications business in Nigeria.

The FBI says the congressman allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe from a businessman to influence the vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. Investigators said they found $90,000 of that money in a freezer at Jefferson's home in the nation's capital.

Both Jefferson and Abubakar have denied any wrongdoing. Jefferson has not been indicted, though two others have pleaded guilty in the matter.

Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, was sentenced to eight years in prison last month for conspiring to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official.

Vernon Jackson, 53, chief executive of iGate Inc., a Louisville-based telecommunications company, pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson. He has not yet been sentenced.

The FBI raid on Jefferson's office caused a furor in Washington. The Congressional Black Caucus rallied to Jefferson's defense, charging the Democrat was being singled out. But Jefferson, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this article, has become increasingly isolated within his own party after he was stripped of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Congressional Democrats have been using Republican ethical improprieties as a linchpin of their fall campaign to regain power in the House and Senate.

As Jefferson finds himself nudged to the sidelines by his party nationally, he also must craft a strategy to convince voters in Louisiana that he deserves another term in Congress while his legal troubles take their course.

Edward E. Chervenak, a professor of politics at the University of New Orleans, said Jefferson could use the controversy surrounding the investigation to his advantage by saying, "'the government is out to get me,' and that is something that resonates with the African-American community."

Jefferson, Chervenak said, might use the line: "I need your support to stick it to the man."

Jefferson's leading challengers in the congressional race have latched onto his loss of power in the party as their sound bite.

"This city is about moving forward," said state Rep. Karen Carter, a Democrat and a rising force among New Orleans' black politicians. "It's about bricks and mortar and delivering to this city."

Silas Lee, a New Orleans pollster, said "the overarching tone of this campaign will be about whether or not the congressman can lead the district."

Most troubling for Jefferson, political watchers say, is that he has well-financed candidates such as Carter in the race. The field is much different from the more heavily white group that tried to unseat Mayor Ray Nagin earlier this year.

"This time around, significant African-American representation is going to take a good, solid swing at it," said Sidney Arroyo, who's running the campaign of another contender, lawyer Regina Bartholomew.

Despite Jefferson's strong base in the black community, not everyone is willing to overlook his alleged misdeeds.

John Duggan, a 57-year-old merchant in the Uptown portion of Jefferson's district, has no appetite for New Orleans politics after Nagin was re-elected. He compares Nagin's actions since Katrina to those of Benjamin Butler, the Union general whose iron-fisted rule of New Orleans during the Civil War earned him a reputation as "the beast."

"If Nagin can get re-elected," Duggan said, "Jefferson is a shoo-in."

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