The William Jefferson Chronicles

Results show voters keep the faith in Congressman William Jefferson
by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Sunday October 05, 2008, 9:18 PM
Michael DeMocker / The Times-Picayune

Congressman William Jefferson and his granddaughter Phaelin Jones enjoy election night at the eastern New Orleans restaurant Flavorz by Mattie. He made the runoff, despite his recent indictment and pending corruption trial.

For more than three years, critics presaging Rep. William Jefferson's political demise have derived their assumptions from the nine-term congressman's mounting legal problems, which have cost him stroke on Capitol Hill and handcuffed his ability to raise campaign money.

But even his staunchest enemies marvel that Jefferson, whose trial on 16 federal charges of public corruption is set to begin in early December, has maintained his hold on a loyal bloc of voters who appear unfazed by the allegations of wrongdoing.

It was the backing of those faithful, concentrated in African-American neighborhoods, that was key to Jefferson's success Saturday, when he surged ahead of a pack of well-financed, politically seasoned opponents who lined up to unseat him.

Jefferson led the Democratic Party primary's seven-candidate field with 25.3 percent of the votes, followed by former TV news anchor and political newcomer Helena Moreno, who earned 19.9 percent. The two will square off in a Nov. 4 party runoff that will appear on the same ballot as the highly anticipated presidential race.

With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, the winner will be considered the prohibitive favorite in the Dec. 6 general election, which also will feature candidates from the Republican, Green and Libertarian parties and an independent. The 2nd District covers most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.

Familiar names

Both runoff contenders capitalized on their near-universal name recognition -- Jefferson's built during a 30-year political career that began in the state Senate and Moreno's the result of her daily appearances on WDSU-TV, where she worked for nearly eight years before quitting in March to run for Congress.

Moreno was able to differentiate herself as the only female candidate, the only white candidate and the only candidate with no experience working in government. She was helped by the fact that the other five challengers closely resembled each other: All were black men with limited experience in politics and a limited base of supporters.

"The reason she got in had much more to do with the inability of the next generation of black political leaders to agree on who should run against Bill Jefferson," said Bill Rouselle, a veteran political consultant. "I remember a time when the city's black political organizations would meet and use their collective powers to get that one person selected. We don't have that type of cohesiveness at this point."

For his part, Jefferson benefited from the personal ties he has forged with constituents across the district for nearly two decades, said Silas Lee, a pollster and Xavier University political scientist.

"Voters don't just think in terms of issues, they also think with emotions," Lee said. "How they feel about a particular candidate often has much to do with the relationships that are built over time. He was the statesman in this race in terms of tenure, and with tenure comes the ability to create political capital."

Along racial lines

But Jefferson's popularity, which spurred voters to return him to Washington seven times by overwhelming margins between 1992 and 2004, appears to have become increasingly racially polarized. Two years ago, after news of the FBI probe into his business dealings broke, he was forced into the first runoff of his incumbency with scant support from white voters.

A precinct analysis of Saturday's election results by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, who broke down the vote by race, reveals that Moreno cashed in on support from white voters.

Moreno, who is Hispanic, was the only non-African-American on the ballot. In majority white precincts, she earned 45 percent of the vote, more than three times the portion of votes received by her nearest competitor, Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee.

Meanwhile, Jefferson picked up 35 percent of the votes in heavily black precincts, reflecting a 14-point advantage over his closest challenger, state Rep. Cedric Richmond of eastern New Orleans.

Though solid, Jefferson's showing in heavily black precincts marked a steep decline compared with the 50 percent support he racked up in the open primary for the 2nd District seat in 2006, when he faced three serious African-American opponents.

For her part, Moreno fared poorly in heavily black precincts, earning just 6.8 percent. Only former mayoral aide Kenya Smith did worse.

Despite Jefferson's downward trend in heavily black precincts, the advantage that he may have lies in the fact that 62 percent of all voters in the district are African-American.

Further complicating matters for Moreno is the expectation that turnout among black voters on Nov. 4 may reach record-breaking levels as Democratic Sen. Barack Obama makes his bid to become the nation's first black president.

Moreno has said she is undaunted by the prospect, arguing that Obama's message of change dovetails more strongly with her promise to bring fresh leadership to the 2nd District seat than voters' notions about her race.

"It's clear (that) the people in this area really do want change," she told supporters at a victory party Saturday night. "People talk about race, but I'm here to fight for all of us -- black, white, it doesn't matter."

Moreno also could get a bounce from any endorsements she nails down from the primary also-rans. Her biggest potential boon, however, may be impossible to snag. Third-place finisher Richmond, who raked in 17.5 percent of Saturday's vote, and Moreno sparred viciously during the primary campaign, swiping at each other on matters of "honesty and integrity" that came to characterize the contest.

The state lawmaker, who as recently as two years ago counted Jefferson among his political mentors, also took deep digs at the congressman in the run-up to the primary. It remains unknown whether Richmond -- or any of the felled candidates -- will pledge their loyalty in the runoff contest.

'A vendetta'

It is clear, meanwhile, that Jefferson intends to push the notion that the indictment against him is nothing more than the government's unproven accusation and does not reflect on his ability to serve.

"People have a good understanding that the Constitution says that unless you are found guilty, you are innocent," he said late Saturday. "I hope that more folks out there .¤.¤. will get a firm grip on that, because that is how it is in America."

In his analysis, Chervenak said he found support for the idea that a portion of voters in African-American neighborhoods buy into Jefferson's implication that the government may be out to get him.

Voters in heavily black precincts, where Jefferson cemented the lion's share of his support, showed the weakest support for a citywide proposition on Saturday's ballot to enshrine the job of the inspector general in New Orleans' city charter and dedicate a percentage of the city's annual budget to the office, the analysis shows.

Critics of the inspector general initiative have complained that no such position existed when the city's highest officeholders, such as the mayor, were white. They have alleged that the job was created to target African-American politicians.

In heavily black precincts, voters leaned 2-to-1 in favor of the proposition, while in heavily white precincts, the margin was 10-to-1, according to the analysis. The proposition passed with 77 percent support.

"For them, (Jefferson's) legal situation is nothing more than a vendetta by the federal government to bring Jefferson down and remove a black elected official from office," Chervenak said. "They are viewing the (proposition) as just another effort by white politicians to target black officials."

Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312. Frank Donze can be reached at or 504.826.3328.

Back to article index