|Jefferson lies low as congressional runoff nears|
by Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune
Saturday October 25, 2008, 10:11 PM
With just eight days to go in the Democratic Party runoff for the 2nd Congressional District, the embattled but increasingly confident incumbent, William Jefferson, seems committed to a stay-away strategy, limiting contact with the news media and largely ignoring his opponent, former television news anchor Helena Moreno.
As he awaits trial on federal corruption charges, Jefferson has only staged one campaign event since he finished first in the crowded Oct. 4 primary. And he has yet to share a podium with Moreno, now making her first bid for elected office, although it's possible both will appear today at a rally staged by the Jeremiah Group alliance.
Jefferson took a similar low-profile approach in the first round of voting when he led the field with 25 percent. The incumbent took a pass on gatherings of his six challengers and instead focused his attention on shoring up his loyal voter base, visiting senior citizen centers and churches.
In the runoff, Jefferson's refusal to mix it up with Moreno appears to be founded on the belief he can do so with little risk.
"I don't have anything to prove in a debate," Jefferson said tersely during his lone news conference this month, an impromptu affair after an Oct. 13 endorsement from about two dozen local ministers.
Asked to distinguish himself from his challenger, Jefferson, who is seeking a 10th term, was dismissive.
"Well, it's quite obvious," he said with a laugh. "I've been a legislator for a good long time in the state Senate and the Congress. And she has not, and that's what the job is about. ... I don't have anything to say about Helena Moreno. I think that that speaks for itself, the difference between us -- me and her -- in legislative experience."
Moreno spokesman Greg Buisson said his candidate would relish a face-to-face meeting.
"She wants to talk about the issues," Buisson said. "She wants to challenge him on the reasons for some of his votes, and she wants to lay out her plan. But we can't force him to engage."
Lacking a sparring partner, Moreno has been forced to go solo on radio, television and before community and political groups such as the French Quarter Business Association and the Alliance for Good Government.
TV stations snubbed
Officials at WWL-TV, the city's top-rated station, said Jefferson refused to appear with Moreno last weekend on their Sunday morning news show. Through a spokesman, the congressman even rejected a subsequent offer from news anchor Dennis Woltering to pose questions to the candidates separately.
Meanwhile, WDSU-TV news director Jonathan Shelley said while Moreno has agreed to tape an interview to air next weekend, Jefferson didn't respond to an invitation.
Eugene Green, the Jefferson campaign spokesman, said decisions on which events the congressman attends are based on his scheduling demands. But he acknowledged that Jefferson has no plans to debate his opponent before Election Day.
"We are using the methods we feel are best to reach the people who are likely to vote for us," Green said.
Given his serious legal problems, some analysts say Jefferson's stealth campaign looks wise.
"It's smart because he doesn't get beat up," said political consultant Cheron Brylski, who worked for the congressional primary's sixth-place finisher, former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter. "The less media coverage he gets, the less people are reminded about why he is in trouble. And that way, he's able to frame his message when he communicates with his base."
Moreno is sticking to the script she used to finish second in the primary with 20 percent of the vote, arguing that she offers 2nd District voters an opportunity to restore Louisiana's tattered reputation in Washington.
"We have to make sure we put someone new into this seat, someone who will gain the respect of the rest of the country, so that we do have a voice again," she said.
"He's been in office 18 years, we all know that," Moreno said. "But unfortunately, despite his 18 years in office, he is completely ineffective. There are 435 members of Congress. He ranks 434th when it comes to effectiveness."
Moreno bases that claim on an assessment last spring by the nonpartisan research group Knowlegis, which ranked members of Congress on more than 20 criteria, including positions on committees, ability to pass legislation and influence within their party.
In the wake of the federal probe that has produced a 16-count indictment, Jefferson has lost his committee assignments and is shunned by many of his fellow Democrats, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But Jefferson disputes the notion that his influence has waned, noting that he has played a key role in delivering billions in federal recovery dollars to the region and that he retains the support of many influential members of Congress, including some who have contributed to his campaign.
"Just look at the evidence," he said. "There isn't anyone who can say that they've done more than I've done -- brought (congressional) members down here .¤.¤. got the money out of Washington for our levees, our hospitals, whatever it is. That's really not an issue. I have extraordinary support among the membership of the Congress."
Jefferson said the only questions he hears about performance come from the news media and his opponents.
"When I see people on the street, they say, 'Thank you, you're doing a fine job. Keep working at it, keep going.' And I think it will be shown in the results of the election."
Besides Jefferson's low profile, another extraordinary trait of the runoff campaign has been the dearth of advertising by his campaign and scarce endorsements for either candidate.
While the candidates for U.S. Senate and Orleans Parish district attorney bombard the TV and radio airwaves with commercials, Jefferson and Moreno have been silent since the primary.
One clear reason: lack of cash.
The latest campaign finance reports filed with Federal Election Commission show that Jefferson and Moreno each raised about $200,000, less than the amount raised individually by three candidates who failed to make the runoff.
Heading into this weekend, spokesmen for both candidates wouldn't predict when their respective television campaigns might crank up. It seems likely that Jefferson and Moreno are rationing their limited war chests for the final days.
Meanwhile, none of the also-rans in the primary has backed one of the two, nor have any of the elected officials who backed one of the losing candidates.
To date, the only announced support for Jefferson has come from members of the clergy and the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, whose membership was sharply divided between backing the incumbent and staying neutral. In the primary, the committee backed New Orleans City Councilman James Carter.
The Alliance for Good Government, which endorsed state Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, in the primary, is supporting political newcomer Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Republican who will meet the Democratic Party nominee in the Dec. 6 general election.
Neither Jefferson nor Moreno, who has the financial backing of several prominent business leaders, has announced a single endorsement from an elected official. And there is widespread speculation that the political establishment from Orleans and Jefferson parishes will remain on the sideline.
Race looms large
A basic challenge facing Moreno, who is white and Hispanic, is the racial dynamic of a contest where more than 60 percent of the district's registered voters are black. Jefferson can take comfort in his status as the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction.
Black and white elected officials alike might fear that backing Moreno could damage their standing among black voters in future races, particularly on a day when powerful support from African-American voters is expected for Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.
"Many black voters feel like the only reason Ms. Moreno is in the runoff is because she found herself in a situation where the black community split up its votes in the primary," said political consultant Bill Rousselle, who is not working for either candidate.
"Even with a damaged congressman like Bill Jefferson, her candidacy is being viewed in some circles as an effort to diminish African-American political power in the city," he said.
But the prospect of endorsing Jefferson is also fraught with risk.
"At this point, it's political suicide to be seen with Bill Jefferson," Brylski said. "And if you endorse him, in essence you're endorsing his behavior."
Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3328.