The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jefferson's career steeped in historic moments
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Sunday December 07, 2008, 8:36 PM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. William Jefferson made history coming and going.

When he was elected to Congress in 1990, replacing Lindy Boggs, he was the first African-American since Reconstruction to represent Louisiana in Washington, and one of the first to represent any Southern state.

With Jefferson's defeat Saturday, Louisiana will become the only Deep South state -- and one of three states of the Old Confederacy -- without a black member in Congress. The other two states of the Confederacy, Tennessee and Arkansas, have much smaller black populations than Louisiana, which has the largest percentage of black residents of any state but Mississippi.

"That's certainly a step back from where we were," Jefferson said Sunday afternoon, between attending an anniversary celebration at Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries and settling into watching the Saints game at home.

But in his low-key, analytical style, Jefferson said it would be a mistake to overstate what happened Saturday and its implications for black representation in New Orleans and Louisiana.

"It's all the confluence of many events," he said of his narrow loss to Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao, a relative unknown whom, as far as Jefferson knows, he has never met. But, Jefferson predicted that the interruption in African-American representation in the Louisiana delegation will prove short-lived.

Cao's victory was historic in its own right. He is the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress. As Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, noted Sunday, "Louisiana's political tradition is one of historic firsts, and Mr. Cao's service in Congress will bring to Washington a particularly meaningful voice for our Vietnamese-American community."

But, unlike Jefferson's election in 1990, which was the culmination of a long struggle in the streets and the courts to bring voting rights and representation to African-Americans in the South, Cao's victory was more an accident of timing, said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, a close observer of the Congressional Black Caucus. Of Cao's congressional career, he said, "I don't think he's going to be there very long."

For Jefferson and Cao, the confluence of events included Hurricane Gustav, which knocked election day into the political doldrums of December and the afterglow of the historic election of Barack Obama as president. Obama's candidacy drew an enormous black turnout but also may have sated many African-Americans' political appetites for the season.

"I think they built up a great head of steam for the Obama race, and, frankly, I think many people really thought they had already done their job," said Jefferson, who encountered many voters who thought his race was decided when he won the Democratic primary Nov. 4.

Jefferson noted that Louisiana did not contribute to Obama's victory -- he won only 14 percent of white voters in the state -- a consequence of time-honored racial polarization that defined his own re-election bid. "He didn't win the places where we live," Jefferson said of Cao, referring to majority-black precincts.

A precipitous drop in black turnout also cost Democrats any chance of seizing a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia last week, or of winning Louisiana's 4th Congressional District race on Saturday.

Of course, Jefferson's indictment on corruption charges in June 2007 has shadowed his career and his campaign, drying up contributions and leading Obama and the national Democratic campaign apparatus to steer clear of him.

"He was on his own," said David Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, when the Democrats were fighting to regain a majority in the House, every seat mattered, and Democrats couldn't afford to be choosy. But this time, Democrats were padding an ample majority, and Jefferson's legal troubles meant "he was more of a problem than an asset," Bositis said.

Vincent Sylvain, a New Orleans political analyst and consultant, characterized the mood in the black community Sunday as subdued.

"They are surprised but not shocked," said Sylvain, adding that there is also an undercurrent of possibility. "This is a new opportunity for the black community to come up with a game plan to start the next generation of leadership."

But two former Jefferson chiefs of staff -- Weldon Rougeau and Eugene Green, who ran this year's campaign -- separately suggested it is too soon to write the political obituary for Jefferson, 61.

"I would not count him out," Rougeau said. "If he gets over these legal difficulties, there are still a lot of people who admire him. He's a very tough-minded person who works hard to get what he wants. He's able to overcome, and he's still a fairly young man."

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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