|Jefferson political prospects still bright|
Probe doesn't produce flood of challengers
Monday, July 24, 2006
By Frank Donze
Simple logic dictates that U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who sits squarely in the cross hairs of a sprawling federal corruption investigation, should be considered politically vulnerable as the fall election season draws near.
But with the deadline to sign up for the Nov. 7 congressional race less than three weeks away, the silence on the campaign trail is deafening. In fact, the embattled eight-term New Orleans Democrat has drawn only one announced opponent, a political unknown.
Theories for the surprisingly slow start to what was expected to be a lively contest for the 2nd District seat are complicated.
Topping the list is money, of which a challenger will need plenty to oust Jefferson, who has never faced a serious test at the polls since winning the job in 1990. Political handicappers say the minimum price tag for the contest is $500,000, a sum that may be difficult to raise in New Orleans' post-Katrina economy.
Also figuring into the mix is Jefferson's iconic stature as the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction and the prominent role he has played in steering federal aid to the region since Katrina.
And although the details that have emerged about Jefferson's alleged offenses do not paint a pretty picture, he has not been charged with a crime, a fact that appears to be keeping some potential candidates -- particularly other black elected officials -- on the sidelines.
For his part, Jefferson has declared his innocence, promising to provide an "honorable" explanation for the allegation that he engaged in a bribery scheme to promote projects in West Africa. Jefferson's unwavering stance and the failure of the federal government to hand down an indictment have combined to put the campaign cycle into a state of suspended animation.
"You don't want to bury someone before they're dead," said state Sen. Ann Duplessis, who said she is not interested in running. "It's just political protocol, and I think it's appropriate.
"Congressman Jefferson has not been proven guilty of anything. And the bottom line is who will be right to represent us in Congress. Who can be effective. Period. That's what we need the most right now."
Constable and former state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr., one of several elected officials eyeing the race, offers a variation on that theme.
"I think everyone is waiting to see if there is any validity to the charges that have been discussed," Boissiere said.
"Right now, the congressman is enjoying a good working relationship with the local political establishment. As a result, he's getting the benefit of the doubt. But if an indictment comes down, you could see some serious movement."
If formal charges are the missing ingredient in the recipe for a crowded race, time is running out.
With the Aug 9-11 qualifying period just around the corner, political newcomer Joseph Lavigne, a 30-year-old Republican lawyer, remains Jefferson's lone challenger.
Eastern New Orleans state Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat, has said he'd enter the race, but only if Jefferson declines to seek another term.
As a New Orleanian struggling to rebuild his life after Katrina, Richmond said he recognizes the importance of having a seasoned veteran on Capitol Hill. As an example, he cites the Gulf Opportunity Empowerment Zone legislation, co-authored by Jefferson. The GO Zone program offers tax breaks to qualified developers that provide an opportunity to recoup 50 cents on every dollar invested in areas hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"What people forget is that Congress is based on seniority," Richmond said. "They have very strict rules. And to place someone new there would really put us at a disadvantage. If you have an option, I think you don't want to lose that type of experience at this point in time."
Several other current and former public officials maintain they might run even if Jefferson seeks re-election, but no one has pulled the trigger.
The list includes City Council President Oliver Thomas; state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero; Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III, the son of the constable; state Rep. Karen Carter of New Orleans; former City Councilman Troy Carter, who is not related to Karen Carter; and Kenya Smith, executive counsel to Mayor Ray Nagin. Like Jefferson, all are Democrats.
Thomas, ranked as perhaps the most formidable of the potential challengers, says he is keeping his options open, but allies of the councilman say he has his sights set on the 2010 mayor's race. Meanwhile, if the Boissiere family gets into the race, it would be the father or the son, not both.
At this point, the only movement within the political class appears to be coming from Shepherd, who is expected to announce his candidacy next Monday, two days before qualifying begins.
Political observers say Lavigne, and Shepherd if he runs, may have to spend as much time and money letting voters know who they are as they would highlighting the incumbent's legal woes.
Jefferson, a fixture on the Louisiana political stage for a quarter century, has near universal name recognition in the district. With seven of 10 voters registered Democrat, the district covers much of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and a small part of Jefferson's east bank.
Although Jefferson currently has a $325,000 war chest -- paltry by congressional standards -- strategists say it's more than enough to wage an effective campaign if no major opposition surfaces.
Lavigne has banked about $200,000, but handicappers say he will need considerably more to make a serious first-time bid. As a Republican, Lavigne is looking to represent an area where GOP registration is less than 10 percent. Shepherd has not yet filed any federal campaign finance reports, and has only about $11,000 in his state Senate account, reports show.
Whoever decides to take on Jefferson will have a wealth of ammunition to fire at the incumbent.
Separate raids on his New Orleans and Washington homes last summer, followed by guilty pleas by two of his associates in the alleged bribery scheme and capped off by the unprecedented raid of his Capitol Hill office, have grabbed headlines nationwide.
A detailed affidavit to support the raid showed Jefferson scheming during wiretapped conversations and revealed that he hid $90,000 in marked bills. The money is alleged to be part of a bribe he vowed to pass on to Nigeria's vice president on behalf of an American business associate but that instead was found by federal agents in Jefferson's Washington freezer.
As if that weren't enough bad news, the dark clouds hovering over Jefferson prompted his congressional colleagues to remove him last month from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee -- offering potential opponents yet another opportunity to question whether the congressman still possesses the stroke to get things done.
With New Orleans under an intense spotlight as billions of dollars in federal assistance begin to flow into the storm-ravaged city, the litany of alleged sins against Jefferson might seem more than enough to persuade a scandal-weary electorate to make a change.
But veteran strategists say a basic maxim is still in play: It is difficult to beat a somebody with a nobody.
"This will be a short race," said political consultant Ron Nabonne. "And even though there's been a lot of negative publicity, there is still no formal indictment against him.
Defeating Jefferson would take someone with name recognition and sufficient money to exploit these negatives that exist against him right now, Nabonne said.
Pollster Silas Lee said no matter who runs, Jefferson will be tough to beat.
For those ready to write Jefferson's political obituary, Lee recommended a look back to the just-finished New Orleans mayor's race, which Nagin, under fire for his handling of the post-Katrina recovery, won with surprising ease.
"This is very serious business what's going on with Congressman Jefferson, and comparing it with the criticism leveled at Nagin is like apples and oranges," Lee said.
"But remember, they were saying the same thing about Ray Nagin. Back in November, people pronounced the mayor dead. The perception of political vulnerability and the reality of political vulnerability are two different worlds."
While Jefferson has refused to explain why he believes he is innocent, he has offered a glimpse of how he might handle his legal dilemma as he campaigns for re-election.
In his limited comments, Jefferson has portrayed himself as the victim of a political and racial double standard, a message that may be well received in a predominantly African-American district still suffering as a result of the federal government's slow and spotty response to Katrina.
"There's a perception among some black voters that African-American elected officials are targeted more harshly than white officials," said political consultant Cheron Brylski, who added that many of Jefferson's constituents may be wondering why the government, which appears to have ample evidence of wrongdoing, has not formally charged the congressman after an investigation that has lasted 16 months.
"It's amazing it's taken this long to resolve this matter," Brylski said. "Is the man guilty, or not? Is he being charged with crime or not?"
"It's unfair to those who are thinking about running against Congressman Jefferson, it's unfair to the citizens of New Orleans -- because we need someone to represent our interests -- and it's unfair to him."
Nabonne said part the low interest in the race could in part be a product of speculation that the Katrina diaspora may result in a drastic reconfiguring of the 2nd District after the 2010 census to account for an already significant population loss that was accelerated by the storm.
To preserve Louisiana's only minority congressional district, the boundaries may be shifted to take in the River Parishes and areas in and around Baton Rouge. In the end, a majority of the district's voters may live outside Orleans Parish.
The prospect of a district with so much unfamiliar territory could make high-profile city candidates reluctant to take the plunge.
And even in the teeth of an indictment, Jefferson could retain a certain amount of political magnetism.
"He has been very effective, particularly since the storm," pollster Lee said.
"You can't accuse him of being distracted from doing his job no matter how hard he was hit. He's continued to fight for the needs of his constituents."
If an indictment does not come down and Jefferson can keep attention focused on his accomplishments, Nabonne said the incumbent could beat the odds.
"No one has ever questioned his abilities, and voters could decide that they know what they have in Jefferson," Nabonne said. "Electing someone without those skills, they might say, is no good for the district and no good for me."
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Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3328.