The William Jefferson Chronicles

Stephanie Grace: Story is loser, not winner
by The Times-Picayune
Saturday December 06, 2008, 11:23 PM

You could say that Saturday's surprise victory by Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao means that Louisiana has a new political star, a mild-mannered giant slayer ready to take Washington by storm.

Or you could say the real story is that embattled nine-term Democrat William Jefferson, who's been asking voters to bear with him, to understand, to wait out his legal travails for three and a half years now, finally asked too much.

Sorry to rain on Rep.-elect Cao's victory parade, but I'm going with the latter explanation.

The truth is that Saturday's results don't say much at all about Cao, a nice guy who landed in the right place at the right time.

He'll get some attention for finally bringing down Jefferson, who had survived four previous elections despite a federal investigation, the loss of all his committee assignments and much of the Democratic Party establishments clear desire to see him gone.

Cao will also get a well-deserved burst of publicity from being the first Vietnamese-American in Congress.

But he'll go to Washington as perhaps the littlest-known, least examined representative and the one who, courtesy of Saturday's low turnout, got fewer votes than any of his future colleagues.

And given the make-up of the 2nd Congressional District, which is 62 percent African-American and more than 66 percent Democrat, he'll also be the most vulnerable incumbent for the next cycle. Expect at least some of the African-American Democrats who've tried before, and perhaps a few new ones, to start planning their 2010 campaigns immediately.

Which brings us to the real question here: Why was Cao able to do what Karen Carter Peterson, Derrick Shepherd, Troy Carter, James Carter, Cedric Richmond, Byron Lee, Kenya Smith and Helena Moreno could not -- either in 2006, when Jefferson was just under investigation, or this year, after a 16-count indictment and with a criminal trial looming?

The answer is that lots of voters in the district seemed to think it was important to keep Jefferson around. Or to keep the district in the hands of a Democrat, an African-American or both. Or even to re-elect Jefferson and hope he gets convicted sooner rather than later, so that they'll get yet another shot at electing someone else.

But too few thought it was important enough to go to the polls on a cool winter day, a week after Thanksgiving and a month after the psychological end of the long election season, with almost nothing else on the ballot.

There were strong signs that Jefferson's support had limits when, in 2006 and 2008 primaries, a majority of voters chose other candidates. A special trip just to save his skin? That, apparently, was the last straw.

So the news Saturday was that, while Jefferson still invokes some loyalty, the bulk of the passion is on the other side. It's significant that the noisy GOP campaign on Cao's behalf didn't prompt much of a backlash.

This was a victory for those who printed signs asking voters to Stop $ Bill and End the Embarrassment and the doorknockers asking whether people are tired of Bill Jefferson's scandals.

Until now, circumstances had always broken Jefferson's way, but on Saturday, they finally turned against him. Hurricane Gustav pushed the general election from Nov. 4, when the huge presidential turnout favored Jefferson, into December, when it became a question not of preference but of relative motivation.

In the end, more 2nd District voters felt strongly about beating Jefferson than about keeping him. Finally, it seems, his luck ran out.

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