Voters side with congressman in fight for his
political life Jefferson Parish's overwhelming support offsets Orleans
Sunday, December 10, 2006
By Bruce Alpert Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa Staff writers - NOLA.com
Overcoming the specter of a roiling federal corruption probe that threatened to draw the curtain on his 16-year career on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson survived the fight of his political life Saturday, easily defeating state Rep. Karen Carter to win his ninth term in the 2nd Congressional District.
Guilty pleas by aides and associates who admitted to bribing the New Orleans Democrat, and the revelation in court documents that FBI agents had found $90,000 in marked bills in Jefferson's freezer, had prompted pundits to begin inking his political obituary.
Instead, Jefferson, 59, scored a decisive win largely by routing Carter in Jefferson Parish. That may have attested less to his appeal than to the power of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, whose bitter attacks on the challenger appeared to have been a factor in sharply suppressing turnout that Carter needed, especially among white voters.
Jefferson Parish voters also appeared to have taken a cue from state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat who ran third in the primary with overwhelming support in his home parish. Shepherd had indicated that he will run again if Jefferson is indicted and forced to resign, as many expect.
The congressman faced an unprecedented primary scenario in which a dozen candidates lined up against him. Though he ran first, Jefferson's 30 percent showing was widely perceived as a poor performance for an entrenched incumbent and sparked conjecture that his finish owed largely to name recognition.
Jefferson also lacked nearly all the advantages that typically come with incumbency. Carter had a nearly 4-to-1 edge in fundraising in the runoff, raking in cash from business interests that had backed Jefferson in the past and from well-heeled Republicans. Most of the high-profile endorsements, including those of two former Louisiana senators and the state Democratic Party, went to her as well.
Jefferson appeared to have secured victory not in public debates -- there were none in the runoff -- or increasingly vicious ads, but through a grassroots campaign effort that carried him to dozens of African-American churches, and, though he isn't a drinker, to many a 2nd District bar.
Despite the win, Jefferson's problems are far from over. The federal corruption probe, which became public on March 15, 2005, continues, and the congressman has all but said he expects an indictment.
But on Saturday night, Jefferson was all smiles, celebrating his political comeback at an Embassy Suites victory party.
"This is a great moment," said Jefferson, who was flanked by his wife and five daughters. "I want to thank the wonderful, courageous, compassionate, understanding people of the 2nd Congressional District. . . . I think what is called for now is unity on the east bank, on the West Bank, black and white, rich and poor throughout our district with one objective: to recover this great and wonderful city."
Jefferson said he thinks his victory Saturday "says people believe in me and want to trust me." Asked whether he would be reinstated to the House Ways and Means Commitee, a key assignment that House Democrats yanked amid reports of the federal probe, Jefferson declined to comment.
"I'm not going to talk about . . . any of that," he said.
Carter, addressing supporters at the Doubletree Hotel, said she called to congratulate Jefferson before 10:20 p.m. and offered to work with him as a "partner." She also noted that, with the Legislature engaged in a special session that opened Friday, she has plenty of work to do in Baton Rouge, particularly in her role as chairwoman of the House Insurance Committee.
"It's about recovery, and it's about people," she said. "And every day until we get there I promise you, the same promise I made over four months ago, that I will always work hard, I will always represent people, and I will always maintain dignity and respect in public service."
A two-term state legislator from New Orleans, Carter ran a reform-minded campaign, frequently referring to Jefferson's legal woes and alleging that he could not concentrate on helping the district while focusing on his own court fight.
Over the final two weeks of the race, Carter aired a series of television spots that featured children in a spelling bee who tackled words such as "corruption" and "unscrupulous" as details of the probe and business deals involving Jefferson and his relatives flashed on the screen.
The congressman, however, apparently succeeded in convincing enough voters that the federal government had unfairly targeted him with a probe that has included secretly recorded conversations between Jefferson and an FBI informant, and the raid of his congressional office, a first in U.S. history.
Deflecting attention from the investigation, Jefferson played up his role in helping to push though key Katrina-related bills during the 109th Congress.
He went to Washington on Thursday and Friday, missing the usual last-minute flurry of campaigning so he could vote on a bill giving Louisiana a cut of federal royalties from offshore oil and gas production. The measure passed overwhelmingly, but the late-afternoon vote prevented Jefferson from returning to New Orleans on Friday in time for the runoff's only scheduled TV debate, which was canceled.
Jefferson also tried to instill doubts about Carter's earnings for work on public bond transactions and a utilities regulation contract, which he derided as "no-bid" deals; in fact, bond lawyering is a professional service not subject to competitive bidding.
Though generally regarded as a liberal, Jefferson also sought to drive a wedge between Carter and socially conservative voters by stressing her support for abortion rights and her reluctance to back an anti-gay rights amendment asking voters to define marriage as "between a man and a woman."
The Carter campaign countered by noting that Jefferson had gotten high scores from gay rights and abortion advocacy groups.
Besides fighting each other, the candidates also grappled with the altered landscape of the 2nd District.
Katrina's floodwaters emptied many New Orleans neighborhoods, including Jefferson's traditional strongholds among low-income and impoverished African Americans in the 9th Ward and Central City, as well as middle-class eastern New Orleans. That ramped up the influence of the Jefferson Parish electorate, which historically has had little impact on the outcome of 2nd District races. About 120,000 of the district's voters are registered in Jefferson Parish, but turnout was a dismal 15 percent, about half what it was in the primary.
About 270,000 of the district's voters are registered in Orleans Parish, but that number includes thousands who remain displaced by the storm. Less than one in four voters turned out in New Orleans for the primary, and that number appeared to be roughly the same Saturday.
On Saturday, Jefferson crushed Carter in Jefferson Parish, drawing 70 percent of the vote in the suburban precincts, some of it courtesy of Shepherd's endorsement after the primary. Many observers speculated that the Marrero Democrat was banking on a Jefferson indictment and forced resignation, which would give Shepherd another crack at the seat; put to him directly, Shepherd would not deny the claim.
As for the New Orleans also-rans, Carter picked up the endorsement of former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter, who finished fifth in the primary. Republican Joe Lavigne, a New Orleans lawyer who ran a strong fourth last month, stayed neutral in the runoff.
Although Jefferson said he's ready to return to Washington to continue his advocacy for more federal help for recovery efforts, pundits said the victory will confirm for many Americans the stereotype that Louisianians tolerate corruption.
"Jefferson's re-election can't do much good for Louisiana's reputation, which is not high anyway on the scale of political ethics," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "That hurts because the . . . state needs all the backing in the country and the Congress that it can get for the long rebuilding from Katrina that lies ahead."
Speaking Saturday night, Ed Renwick, the longtime director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics, said the lack of support could stem the flow of financial aid.
"I think it will make it more difficult to get money for Louisiana," Renwick said.
In July, Jefferson was stripped of his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee in an effort orchestrated by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who next month becomes House speaker. Pelosi said that she wanted to make clear that Democrats won't tolerate corruption and said that anyone with $90,000 in the freezer has a problem with party leaders.
Pelosi's position makes it unlikely that Jefferson will get any high-profile committee assignment in the next Congress.
Despite his loss of support from much of the political establishment in Louisiana and Washington, Jefferson wasn't totally abandoned. Mayor Ray Nagin endorsed him, repaying Jefferson for backing him last May in his successful runoff for a second term, but he did not play an active role in the campaign.
Jefferson also had financial support from fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the endorsements of many African-American ministers, including his own pastor, the influential Bishop Paul Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. Also in his corner were the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO and the local teachers union.
As political pundits crunch the numbers from Jefferson's surprisingly strong victory, they'll no doubt seek to assess the impact of Lee's angry tirade against Carter for comments she made in Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina.
In the film, Carter lambastes Jefferson Parish law enforcement officials for blocking New Orleans residents seeking escape from the floodwaters and chaos in New Orleans by way of the Crescent City Connection. Though he said he wasn't endorsing Jefferson, Harry Lee clearly hoped to cut into support for Carter.
Jefferson has been a player on the Louisiana political stage for nearly three decades. He won an upset victory in 1978 for the Uptown state Senate seat held by veteran lawmaker Fritz Eagan, then went on to win re-election twice.
During that time, he made two unsuccessful bids for mayor of New Orleans before going to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991 as the first African-American to represent the state since Reconstruction.
Though based on Capitol Hill, Jefferson has kept a strong hand in local politics as head of the Progressive Democrats, a political organization he founded.
The campaign against Carter marked his group's latest tussle with its nemesis, the Central City-based BOLD organization, which counts Carter and her father, former municipal Assessor Ken Carter, among its standard-bearers.
Jefferson has helped elect his daughter, Jalila, to the state House and his sister Betty to the Orleans Parish School Board and then to an assessor's office; his protege, Renee Gill Pratt, to the state House and later the City Council; his sister-in-law, Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, to the Civil District Court bench; and ally Eddie Jordan into the district attorney's office.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.