The William Jefferson Chronicles

Rep. Jefferson still has influential allies in Congress
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Saturday October 11, 2008, 9:19 PM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Danny Davis is from Chicago, but he feels a special kinship with Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans.

Davis grew up in Parkdale, Ark., 30 miles along the poorest stretch of America from Jefferson's hometown of Lake Providence.

"I know about the heritage of picking cotton, of slopping hogs, of going to a little rural school, of walking dusty roads, of wondering if there was any way out of the cotton field and was there any way to stop the sun from shining so hotly in July and August?" said Davis, whose wife later taught school in Chicago with one of Jefferson's sisters.

Since arriving in Congress, Davis, now in his sixth term, has been friends and allies with "Jeff," as he calls him, in his ninth term.

And what of the federal corruption charges on which Jefferson is expected to face trial later this year or early next?

"So far as I'm concerned, Congressman Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty, so, at this point, he's not guilty of anything; he is my friend and I certainly hope that he gets re-elected," Davis said.

Sticking together

Accused of soliciting bribes to help companies land contracts in Africa, Jefferson may be viewed as a pariah in some quarters. But thanks to Davis and others, he also maintains some level of influence on Capitol Hill, wired into what has become one of the most consequential networks in Congress: the Congressional Black Caucus.

At what has to be a wrenching personal time for the intense, but soft-spoken Jefferson, members of the caucus have offered him a safe haven of friendship, respect and invaluable support.

The CBC Political Action Committee has only disbursed $40,000 this election cycle, $5,000 each to eight candidates, Jefferson among them. Nearly a quarter of the $200,000 he raised this cycle came from caucus sources, including a dozen members and four alumni, including Cleo Fields of Louisiana. It is caucus members who have vouched publicly for Jefferson's continued clout in Congress, with both Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas appearing in his TV ads.

Shadowed, as he has been, by the corruption charges, probably few would go as far as Jefferson himself, who in a statement on his campaign site boasts that his ability to deliver for his constituents since Hurricane Katrina makes him the "ideal candidate" for the 2nd Congressional District.

Michael Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said considering the slow pace of recovery it is easy to find fault with Jefferson's leadership. But, said Fauntroy, whose uncle, Walter, served many years as the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, "he's right in arguing that he was the one that could get more done than anybody else in that race."

And, the Black Caucus has never been in a better position to help one of its members.

"It's the most senior caucus in the Democratic Caucus," said CBC Executive Director Joe Leonard, a historian. The average CBC member has served 14 years, compared to the House average of nine.

Common ground

The 42-member caucus includes the chairs of three primo committees -- Charlie Rangel of New York at Ways and Means, John Conyers of Michigan at Judiciary and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi at Homeland Security -- and 16 subcommittees. Add Clyburn and the prospect that the only senator in the caucus, Barack Obama, may be living in the White House come January, and the CBC is poised to exert unprecedented influence

All the CBC members are Democrats. They do not all think alike, but they share large black constituencies and a lot of political common ground.

After news broke of the federal bribery investigation of Jefferson, the New Orleans congressman was stripped of his coveted membership on Ways and Means. But that did not mean he had to forfeit the chits he had accumulated and relationships he had forged. Rangel, through his political action and campaign committees, contributed $11,000 to Jefferson's re-election effort.

Especially in the arcane world of tax and trade, said Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, "he continues to be one that the CBC looks to for leadership."

"Every time we get into these thorny issues, we turn to Bill Jefferson for advice," Butterfield said.

On New Orleans' recovery, Leonard, the caucus executive director, said "he keeps the caucus on point at least biweekly reporting on Katrina assistance."

Jefferson finished first in the Oct. 4 primary thanks to a fractured field that included five other black candidates. He faces a Nov. 4 runoff against second-place finisher, Helena Moreno, a television journalist and the only candidate in the field who was not black. If, as expected, Jefferson prevails in November, he would be the prohibitive favorite against the almost unknown Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao in the Dec. 6 general election.

But to Fauntroy, Jefferson's 25 percent primary showing is hardly a triumph. "This is a shockingly low number," Fauntroy said. "The reality is he's hurt, wounded."

Not counting him out

Like many, Fauntroy cannot imagine how Jefferson keeps his seat in the long run. "Innocent people don't put $90,000 in the freezer," said Fauntroy, referring to the most vivid detail of the bribery-and-fraud indictment against Jefferson.

Said Butterfield, "before coming to Congress I was a judge for 15 years, and there were many, many cases where at the beginning of the case I said privately to myself, this guy has got to be guilty based on a reading of what the evidence is, and I couldn't conceive of any other outcome.

"There are two sides to every story and Jefferson continues to tell us there is another side and when he has his day in court, it will be revealed."

Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and a longtime observer of the caucus, said he thinks many in the CBC believe Jefferson will beat the charges.

"They are not looking at him as gone," said Walters. And he agrees.

"There is a long history in which local and federal prosecutors sort of disempower black elected officials -- keeping them off balance," Walters said. "Jefferson is one of the most powerful -- if not the most powerful -- black politician in the state of Louisiana."

Changing mentality

According to a study by G. Derek Musgrove, a historian at the University of the District of Columbia, of the 95 African-Americans who have served in Congress between 1929 and 2006, "34 have been subjected to a congressional ethics investigation, a municipal, state or federal criminal investigation, indictment and/or conviction; an IRS audit and/or IRS surveillance; municipal, state or federal surveillance and/or counterintelligence; or been ejected from office during their tenure in Congress. If we expand our view to examine these individuals' entire political careers, this number increases to 43 of 95."

What is more, Musgrove found that "at every stage in United States history, black members were more likely to be indicted and less likely to be convicted than their white counterparts."

Musgrove said Jefferson arrived in Congress at a time when black officials felt most under siege. But, he said, the evidence suggests that siege lifted with the Clinton and then Bush administrations, and with it the siege mentality among many black officeholders and voters that the establishment was out to get them.

"In his case, Jefferson made a very weak attempt early on to resurrect those ideas," Musgrove said, "but they just didn't catch on."

Musgrove believes members of the CBC are sticking with Jefferson out of a natural tendency among members of a caucus not to throw one of their own to the wolves.

"When it comes down to it, members would prefer to leave this to another party to decide," he said.

Because most members represent heavily black constituencies, the political cost of sticking with Jefferson is small. And if helping Jefferson means helping New Orleans, why not, Davis said.

"It's almost like everyone represents New Orleans and wants to do whatever we can to help New Orleans," he said. "But it's also because when Jeff comes, he comes with logic and he comes with a rational position that makes sense. It's generally a pretty easy sell."

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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