The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jefferson hopes to cash in on ties to Obama at polls
by Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune
Monday December 01, 2008, 10:27 PM

There's no reason to believe President-elect Barack Obama cares deeply about the outcome of Saturday's contest for the 2nd Congressional District seat where indicted incumbent William Jefferson faces three relatively unknown candidates.

But as Jefferson bids for a 10th term, the Democrat from New Orleans is invoking Obama's name as often as possible in a clear effort to capitalize on lingering excitement about the historic presidential election.

Jefferson, who is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges, also is depicting Venetian Isles lawyer Anh "Joseph" Cao, the race's GOP standard-bearer, as the puppet of a Republican Party machine that has been pumping resources into the Cao campaign.

William Jefferson's bio.

In contact with reporters, on his campaign Web site and in e-mail messages to supporters, Jefferson has jumped at every chance to link himself to Obama.

"You know how sometimes you can say, 'I know the president, ' " Jefferson said during a recent interview on WBOK radio. "I really do know the president."

Recounting frequent encounters at Congressional Black Caucus gatherings in the past several years, Jefferson claims a close bond with the former senator from Illinois.

"I know how he feels about things down here, and I know how we are going to be able to work together to get things done, " Jefferson said. "So I think this is a very critical time for our community to get someone back in there who knows the president, who will work with the president, who will try to get his agenda done."

Jefferson has gone so far as to suggest that Obama needs him. Though the incoming president will enjoy Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the minority party will not sit by idly, Jefferson said recently.

"In Washington, there's a dividing line, " he said. "The Republicans are going to be fighting very hard to undercut Obama's efforts. I'm going to be fighting hard to get his agenda passed, as will the (other) Democrats in Congress."

Obama's place atop the November ballot was indeed a blessing to Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction. A huge turnout of black voters enthused about Obama's candidacy helped push Jefferson to victory in the Democratic runoff.

While Republican John McCain easily carried Louisiana, Obama received nearly eight of every 10 votes cast in Orleans Parish, which contains a majority of the 2nd District's voters. Given that support, there's no reason Jefferson shouldn't invoke Obama whenever possible, Xavier University pollster Silas Lee said.

"By tying himself to Obama, the congressman is attempting to tell voters that he is still relevant, " Lee said.

"And when you consider how the new president is surrounding himself with highly experienced people, it isn't a stretch for Jefferson to argue that his experience in Washington will be respected by the Obama administration."

Turnout challenge

Lacking the draw of a race for the White House, Jefferson has acknowledged that his biggest challenge on Saturday will be motivating his African-American base to return to the polls.

The congressional election cycle that ends this week is the first one in nearly three decades in which primaries have been divided by party. Last month, Jefferson advanced to the general election by defeating former television news anchor Helena Moreno.

Because two-thirds of the district's voters are registered Democrats, Jefferson is considered a heavy favorite against his three lesser-known opponents: Cao, Green Party candidate Malik Rahim and Libertarian Gregory Kahn.

The strongest challenge to Jefferson's re-election bid comes from Cao, who has launched a television campaign and an aggressive grass-roots effort aided by local and national GOP operatives.

In last month's runoff, Jefferson spent little money to defeat Moreno, who received 44 percent of the vote. But recognizing that the Republican Party was gearing up a legitimate campaign against him, Jefferson said on the night of his victory that "we may have to do more this time."

Last week, Jefferson began airing a TV commercial touting his support from organized labor, which is playing a big role in informing voters that another election is pending.

While turnout hovered around 50 percent in the Democratic runoff, the forecast for Saturday is for the low teens.

In an effort to stoke interest among African-American supporters, Jefferson has claimed the GOP would like nothing better than a slow day at the polls.

"The Republican strategy is for our folks to stay home, folks who voted for me to stay home and not come out and do this because they think it's over with, " he said. The goal, Jefferson said, is to "have a chance to slip in with a Republican."

Jefferson aides say he has been delivering personal reminders to voters to return to the polls Saturday during appearances at local businesses, churches and community centers. His campaign also is using a phone bank featuring messages from Jefferson supporters, including U.S. Rep. Carolyn Sheets Kilpatrick of Michigan, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and local clergy members, the Revs. Paul Morton and Tom Watson.

GOP investment

In the Democratic runoff, Jefferson largely ignored Moreno, who was making her first run for public office.

This time, however, he has taken direct aim at Cao and the Republican Party, making note of the GOP's relatively heavy investment of cash and personnel in the race.

Jefferson has questioned his critics' motives in backing an unproven candidate, charging that "party operatives are reaching out to individual Republicans to give money to this man who they don't even know."

During a radio interview last week, Jefferson noted that Cao had only recently switched his registration to Republican after running unsuccessfully for the state House as an independent.

"He's just an opportunist is what he is right now in this race, " Jefferson said. "Where he can get the money is where he runs, and that's what is happening now."

Prospects for a Cao upset likely rest with the 50,000 or so registered voters, mostly Republicans, who were ineligible to vote in the two Democratic contests. If those voters head to the polls in large numbers, Cao's supporters say he has a fighting chance.

On the other hand, more than 60 percent of the 2nd District's electorate is made up of African-American voters, arguably Jefferson's most loyal constituency. Last month, the incumbent defeated Moreno by outpolling her by a 3-to-1 ratio in heavily black neighborhoods.

Those results seem to indicate that Moreno had little success selling the argument that Jefferson is unfit to serve.

'I am not guilty'

On the campaign trail, Jefferson has said little about the August 2005 raids on his Washington townhouse, during which FBI agents say they found $90,000 in marked bills. He also has stayed mostly mum on the 16-count indictment on bribery charges -- which accuses the congressman of shaking down businesspeople in exchange for his help in dealing with officials in Africa -- that was handed down against him by a federal grand jury in June 2006.

But when Jefferson was questioned by a caller during the recent radio appearance about his legal problems, he reiterated "unequivocally that I am not guilty of any of the charges that have been leveled against me."

In his answer, Jefferson referred to two former Democratic congressmen, Harold Ford Sr. of Tennessee and Floyd Flake of New York, who faced similar questions after being hit with criminal charges two decades ago.

"They both maintained their innocence as I have, they both won their trials and served out their terms in Congress and left on their own terms, " he said. "That is what will happen in my case."

Jefferson also promised he won't change his plea before or during his trial, now likely to be held next year.

"I would not be fighting all these four years . . . and spending our family resources if I were going to plead guilty, " he said. "That's out of the question. I assure you that we will fight this thing throughout the length and breadth of it, and at the end of the day, we expect fully to be vindicated."

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Frank Donze can be reached at or 504.826.3328.

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