The William Jefferson Chronicles

Many surprised at strength of Jefferson win
Indicted congressman credits old-fashioned campaigning
Monday, October 06, 2008
By David Hammer

There was a strange mixture of stalwart support and utter abandonment at U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's election party Saturday night as the indicted congressman claimed a primary victory in his 10th election campaign for the 2nd District seat.

The party was at Flavorz by Mattie, a little-known restaurant in an eastern New Orleans neighborhood ravaged by the post-Katrina jack-o'-lantern effect. The room was half empty, with only about 35 supporters and family cheering on Jefferson and eating a late dinner of jambalaya and croissant sandwiches.

There were no big political names in the crowd. Supporters appeared to be outnumbered by the media, including multiple anchors from one television station, on hand just in case Jefferson's 18-year congressional career went up in smoke.

But instead, an army of voters invisible to the media and, it seems, to Jefferson's opponents, still swept him to a comfortable first-place showing, 5.4 points ahead of his runoff rival, former TV news anchor Helena Moreno.

He got a larger share of the highly fractured vote -- 25.3 percent -- than anticipated in most pre-election polls, some of which had him running third or fourth.

--- Churches and barrooms ---

After a humble, typically soft-spoken speech, the 61-year-old congressman credited old-fashioned campaigning for pulling him through.

"We go to churches, to street corners, to barrooms, and sometimes we see the same people at the churches and the barrooms in the same day," he joked.

In such intimate interactions, Jefferson has been able to convince a whole swath of anonymous voters to look past his 16-count federal indictment, past the stories in the newspaper and on TV about the $90,000 in marked bills the FBI found in his freezer, past the charges against his brother and sister for allegedly raiding charities they oversaw, past the recordings the FBI says it has of the congressman allegedly taking bribes.

Quoting from Scripture about redemption and using the ecumenical ancient Hebrew blessing, "May the Lord bless you and keep you," Jefferson connected with voters beyond the view of cameras and convinced them that the constitutional presumption of innocence means more than the widespread assumption that his legal troubles have made him ineffectual on Capitol Hill.

 "If other members (of Congress) didn't want to work with me, they could have long ago jettisoned any suggestion I made," he said Saturday.

Jay Lapeyre, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council and a key early backer of City Councilman James Carter's failed primary campaign, said he assumed Jefferson's clout in Congress had been irreparably damaged, especially after he was removed from key House committees. But now, he acknowledges he doesn't know if that's true.

"I have no idea what he could do behind the scenes. I just can't imagine how someone who's been removed from those positions can still be effective," Lapeyre said Sunday.

--- 'Time for him to step aside' ---

Moreno is following that assumption, too, and wasted little time Saturday night bringing up Jefferson's supposedly reduced power and positing that voters are yearning for a change because of it.

"They're sick of the same old, same old," she said at her election night party. "Congressman Jefferson truly is a brilliant man, but unfortunately because of his troubles, he can't effectively serve us in Congress. He's been stripped of his committee assignments. He's been ranked the least effective member of Congress. It's time for him to step aside and let the new leadership step forward."

There's still almost a month for Moreno to make that case before the Nov. 4 runoff, but she's going to need a big boost from vanquished rivals to overcome Jefferson's extensive political capital, pollster Silas Lee said.

He said he imagines a lot of the defeated candidates are a bit shocked by Saturday's outcome and are wondering what to do next.

"The short and sweet lesson learned is, 'Never assume,' " Lee said.

"Jeff continues to defy the political odds and the political handicappers in these elections," Lee added. "People may not see it all the time, but he's able to campaign, and his opponents are not able to define themselves, other than to say they're not Congressman Jefferson."

 Lapeyre said he got involved in Carter's campaign because he saw a desire after Katrina to change the city's reputation as a bastion of political corruption. Indeed, New Orleans voters Saturday overwhelmingly supported a permanently financed inspector general to watch over the doings in City Hall. But Lapeyre said he learned an important lesson about the political landscape.

"We've been excited about the activism around issues, but when you get into candidates you see people have an endless sense of benevolence and forgiveness," he said. "People have reasons to support him that they don't want to admit."

--- 'It was in the bag' ---

There may not be many voters who are willing to announce their support publicly, but some showed up Saturday night.

Volunteers Timothy Ray and Valerie Schexnayder said they were confident all along. Ray said he had no trouble getting people to canvass for Jefferson because many of them approached him to find out how they could help.

Schexnayder approached U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a Lower 9th Ward street last year to complain about problems getting her Road Home aid, but she says the quiet work was done by Jefferson. She said she knows many people who have received that kind of help from him over the decades, and they don't forget.

"I knew it was in the bag," she said. "He's done a lot for Louisiana, and people know you're not guilty until it's proven."

Other voters in other elections have turned against beloved, long-serving congressmen because of legal entanglements.

But Jefferson prefers to think of the elected leaders who were able to leave the House on their own terms, such as Harold Ford Sr. of Tennessee beating federal charges in the early 1990s.

When one TV anchorwoman said to him Saturday night with an air of surprise, "People seem to be giving you the benefit of the doubt," he had a quick, concise response that summed up his belief in the average voter:

"That's the way it's supposed to work."

Back to article index