The William Jefferson Chronicles

Stephanie Grace: If Rep. William Jefferson wins re-election, get ready to answer questions
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune December 02, 2008 2:00AM
Categories: News Impact Page

We don't know how many voters will bother to go the polls on Saturday, the third and final leg of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's long re-election fight. More importantly, we don't know which voters will show up on a day when nothing else is on most ballots.

But there is one thing it's safe to predict. If Jefferson is re-elected, despite a 16-count federal corruption indictment and looming trial, voters in the 2nd District will have a lot of explaining to do.


Just like in 2006, before Jefferson was indicted but after the investigation had gone very public, there will be questions. Disapproving questions. Questions like "Don't you care how this looks?" And "Isn't there anyone else you could have elected?" And "What's wrong with you, anyway?"

So in anticipation, I thought I'd jot down a few talking points, to help everyone get started.

1) This wasn't a wholehearted vote of confidence.

Most voters of the 2nd District had the chance to give Jefferson a show of full support in the Democratic primary, and they didn't. Although a 25 percent showing was good enough to move to the next round, 75 percent of voters wanted someone else.

2) It was a triumph of circumstances.

Jefferson became the Democratic nominee, despite a large field full of qualified challengers, because a lot of things broke his way, the biggest of which was the size of the field itself. Five African-Americans with political experience took a collective 55 percent of the primary vote, leaving Jefferson to face white newcomer Helena Moreno, the one rival he knew he could easily beat in the Democratic runoff.

There were a few other events that helped Jefferson along the way.

One was Hurricane Gustav, which delayed the first vote by a month and scuttled any hope his challengers had of building and sustaining momentum.

And there was the court decision throwing School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz off the ballot. Fahrenholtz's presence would likely have eaten into Moreno's support and cleared a path for a stronger opponent to get into the party runoff against Jefferson. But because Fahrenholtz lied on sworn forms saying he hadn't been fined for state campaign finance violations -- he had, repeatedly -- he was ruled ineligible.

3) The political establishment failed to change those circumstances.

Simply put, there was no one figure powerful enough to identify a widely acceptable alternative to Jefferson ahead of time. Perhaps someone like former Mayor Marc Morial could have done it. Current Mayor Ray Nagin didn't even try. And if he had, his track record suggests it wouldn't have done any good. The upshot was that members of the district's business, media and political elite split their support, allowing Jefferson to hang in.

Also, nobody in any position of power recognized that the primary system allowed for a back-up plan. If a well-known pol who at least leans Democrat had qualified as an independent, he or she could have skipped the primaries and gone straight to Saturday's ballot. Up against a damaged Democrat and three little-known candidates, that person could have emerged as a general election frontrunner.

4) The result reflects post-Katrina political flux.

Displacement and a series of scandals have weakened the city's traditional black political organization machines, including the once-feared groups headed by Jefferson and Morial. And while some younger politicians are making their mark, there's no longer a set path to advancement.

5) The result is a reaction to post-Katrina political flux.

In the past year or so, both the School Board and the City Council have gone majority white, and now a white district attorney has been elected. The 2nd Congressional District, which excludes the whitest areas of New Orleans and takes in the most African-American sections of Jefferson Parish, was specifically designed to maximize black voter influence. Against the backdrop of the other changes, there's a feeling in some quarters that this seat should stay in black hands no matter what. Jefferson's best-funded opponent on Saturday is Vietnamese-American Republican Joseph Cao.

6) There's an argument out there that it's better to have a damaged but experienced member of the majority party than a novice in the minority -- at least until Jefferson's legal situation is settled and, if he's convicted, the voters get to try again.

Now, maybe all of this will be moot. Maybe this time next week we'll talking about why Jefferson finally went down, not how he held on one more time.

But given Jefferson's demonstrated talent for survival, it can't hurt to be ready, just in case.

. . . .

Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at

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