|Odds facing Rep. Jefferson's re-election bid grow longer|
by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Saturday June 14, 2008, 8:02 PM
By most accounts, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson defied the odds two years ago when he won re-election under the intense glare of a federal investigation of his business dealings.
Though that victory bolstered the perception that the embattled Democrat can never be counted out, handicappers say the road back to Washington for Jefferson looks even more precipitous as he gears up to run for a 10th term in his 2nd Congressional District seat.
Just more than a year ago, the Justice Department indicted Jefferson on 16 counts of public corruption charges. Though Jefferson staunchly defended his innocence, his colleagues swiftly stripped him of plum committee assignments.
This month, the muck thickened for Jefferson. The congressman's sister, Orleans Parish 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, along with his brother and political adviser, Mose Jefferson, were indicted on charges that they conspired to loot more than $600,000 in taxpayer money from three charities they set up to aid inner-city youths. At least six other Jefferson relatives were implicated in the indictment.
The latest legal troubles followed the April indictment of Mose Jefferson on separate charges that he bribed the former president of the Orleans Parish School Board.
The fallout appears to have put a serious crimp in William Jefferson's fundraising. Heading into the 2006 election, he had a $325,000 war chest. Jefferson's latest finance report shows that as of March 31, he had $57,000 in the bank, plus more than $255,000 in debt. The latter sum included nearly $190,000 of his own money loaned to the 2006 campaign.
The confluence of events has placed Jefferson's political career "on the brink," according to veteran New Orleans political consultant Bill Rouselle.
"I'm a big Yogi Berra fan, and I never say anything is over until it's over," said Rouselle, who has handled several losing campaigns against the Jefferson family. "And I've seen miracles in my lifetime. But this is one I'm skeptical can happen."
Seat attracts interest
Jefferson's trial was originally set for January, but it is now scheduled to begin Dec. 2, after the fall elections. His associates say they expect him to run, but the incumbent has been cagey about his intentions. Jefferson says he never makes a formal announcement.
"I'm not going to announce it. I never do. I just qualify and run," he said recently.
With Jefferson enmeshed in controversy, challengers have begun to eye his seat, which represents most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner. Though nearly a month remains before the July 9 start of the three-day qualifying period, state Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee announced last week that they are running. Former WDSU-TV news anchor Helena Moreno is expected to declare her candidacy July 8. All three are Democrats.
Several others have said they are pondering a run, including three New Orleans candidates who ran two years ago: state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat who lost in the runoff; Republican lawyer Joe Lavigne; and former City Councilman Troy Carter, a Democrat.
Also rumored as candidates are Kenya Smith, who will resign Friday as an aide to Mayor Ray Nagin; and Republican Gary Clark, a political science professor at Dillard University.
With Lee running, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat who finished third in 2006, is likely not to run. A cousin and longtime political ally of Lee, Shepherd pleaded innocent in April to federal charges stemming from a money laundering scheme.
Candidates have to decide soon whether to fling their hats into the ring -- and figure out how to maneuver under new election rules.
After three decades, Louisiana has eschewed the open primary system in congressional elections in favor of closed party primaries, meaning Republican and Democratic candidates will compete in their own primaries.
The primaries will be Sept. 6, with party runoffs slated for Oct. 4 if necessary. The general election is Nov. 4. Under the new system, independents and unaffiliated candidates do not participate in the primaries but are guaranteed a spot on the Nov. 4 ballot, when the nation also will choose a president.
Election watchers said they expect to see numerous candidates jockeying for position.
"There's blood in the water, and they can sniff it," University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak said. "People see this as a golden opportunity."
The change in political dynamics is perhaps best illustrated by Richmond's decision to challenge Jefferson, whom he endorsed in 2006.
Just two years ago, Richmond cited the importance of having a seasoned veteran in Congress, adding that he would run for the seat only if Jefferson retired.
Kicking off his campaign Wednesday night, Richmond declined to comment on Jefferson's legal problems or criticize the incumbent, saying only that voters are ready for a change.
"I think the congressman, over his tenure, he did a good job," Richmond said. "I just don't think the people of this district can take much comfort in tenure right now. They have to take comfort in the hope for tomorrow."
Jefferson Parish factor
One wild card this year will be the impact of the Jefferson Parish electorate, with voters in parts of the West Bank and Kenner making up about 30 percent of the 2nd District's registered voters.
In 2006, Shepherd harnessed the support of the Jefferson Parish political establishment. After finishing a strong third in the primary, Shepherd played a pivotal role in the outcome by endorsing the incumbent, who won the runoff with a whopping 70 percent of the vote in Jefferson Parish while squeezing past Peterson in Orleans Parish with just 51 percent.
Jefferson's suburban support two years ago also owed to a campaign by the late Sheriff Harry Lee to defeat Peterson as retribution for her comments in a Spike Lee documentary. Peterson chastised Jefferson Parish law enforcement officials for blocking New Orleans residents' escape from the flooded city across the Crescent City Connection after Hurricane Katrina.
Chervenak said a replay of that scenario is unlikely with the bridge incident nearly three years old and Lee absent from the political stage for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Another variable could be the party-primary system, though the six-to-one edge enjoyed by Democrats in the district suggests that the ultimate winner will be decided in the October Democratic Party runoff.
Nevertheless, Lavigne, who finished fourth in the 2006 primary, said he might run so the incumbent can't cruise to victory in the November general election because the GOP didn't field a qualified candidate.
"My biggest concern is making sure the people of the 2nd District have a choice besides Bill Jefferson," Lavigne said.
New Orleans political consultant Ron Nabonne said he expects Jefferson to recycle the 2006 script, reminding voters repeatedly that he has not been convicted of anything.
"If I were he, I would say, 'Look at the Bush Justice Department and how they have gone after Democrats across the nation and gone after their own U.S. attorneys,' " Nabonne said. "I would say that these charges are baseless and politically motivated."
But pollster Bernie Pinsonat questioned whether the innocent-until-proven-guilty argument will be as effective this time around. "He's going to have to ask voters to buy in that his whole family should be presumed innocent of all these different charges," Pinsonat said. "Boy, that's a lot of people."
Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com
or (504) 826-3328.