The William Jefferson Chronicles

Suburbs, white vote tip the scales to Jefferson
By Michelle Krupa
and Frank Donze
Staff writers -

In the weeks leading up to Saturday's runoff for the 2nd Congressional District seat, dark clouds gathered around U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson's campaign, appearing to signal the end of the New Orleans Democrat's eight-term tenure in Congress.

There was the federal corruption probe that has shadowed him for 21 months, and the mounting government reform movement spawned by Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps worse, Jefferson's base of black voters was still absent from New Orleans' most flood-ravaged neighborhoods, a fate that heightened the influence of Jefferson Parish voters, who had rallied around a suburban candidate in the Nov. 7 primary.

In the end, though, it was the congressman's opponent, state Rep. Karen Carter of New Orleans, who fell victim to the perfect storm.

Jefferson, who crushed Carter by picking up a stunning 57 percent of the vote largely through dominance in Jefferson Parish, managed to transform what seemed like a dire scenario into as significant a political victory as any in his 30-year career.

Nevertheless, political pundits and local elected officials worried Sunday that the congressman's return to Washington under the continuing glare of the investigation will hinder his ability to keep federal aid flowing. Jefferson spent the day with his family, his spokeswoman said, and was unavailable for comment.

Despite those misgivings about his tainted reputation, even some of Jefferson's critics say the laggard pace of the criminal probe may have worked to his advantage.

Jefferson, who has not been charged with a crime, never missed a chance during the campaign to remind voters of the universal presumption of innocence. And after nearly two years of headlines and no indictment, some voters questioned prosecutors' motives.

"He was able to convey to black voters that he was beleaguered, persecuted and unfairly treated by the Republican Department of Justice," University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell said.

"When the nation asks us, 'How does somebody with $90,000 (in the freezer) and the FBI investigation get re-elected?' " Howell said, the answer is that "he was able to discredit the FBI."

Similarly, Jefferson may have benefited from widespread post-Katrina disgust with the federal power structure. Under one theory, if the national government could fumble the region's recovery so badly, its lawyers also could be targeting Jefferson wrongly.

"I think that the people in New Orleans, the people in the southern region of Louisiana, have been hammered for 15 months. And they've been promised Road Home. They've been promised help from FEMA. They've been promised, and they've been promised, and they are just fed up," said New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who backed Carter.

"And in a way, this probably was (them saying), 'I don't believe the federal government anymore.' They were sending a message: 'We don't believe you. We don't have faith in you. We know Congressman Jefferson, and he's always been on our side.' "

The incumbent also managed to mitigate the loss of his traditional base of black voters in Central City, the 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans with newfound support among white voters.

That was particularly true in Jefferson Parish, where despite a drop-off in participation among all voters, the incumbent ballooned a 7 percent showing in the primary into an impressive 57 percent take Saturday in precincts where at least three-quarters of voters are white, an analysis of the results shows.

That result may well have owed to several factors, including the intervention of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, who launched an eleventh-hour barrage of criticism against Carter for her repudiation of law enforcement officers' decision to stop people on the east bank of Orleans Parish from crossing the Crescent City Connection to flee Katrina's floodwaters.

Lee said he bought into the conventional wisdom that Carter was favored by white voters. On Sunday, he took credit for suppressing turnout among white voters in his parish.

"They could either vote for Jefferson or they could stay home," Lee said. "Did it work? Then pat me on the back."

Jefferson Parish voters also may have supported Jefferson for selfish motives. If the incumbent is indicted and forced to resign before his term ends, they could get another crack at electing one of their own, possibly state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat who ran third in the primary by winning Jefferson Parish.

Lending credence to that theory, Shepherd backed Jefferson and never denied that he would make another run at the seat if it becomes open.

Low voter turnout

True to predictions, Saturday's turnout was abysmal. Only 16 percent of voters turned out across the district - which includes most of New Orleans, most of the West Bank of Jefferson Parish and parts of south Kenner - compared with 24 percent in last month's primary.

Historically, in extremely low-turnout elections, white voters tend to turn out in greater numbers than black voters. Such was the case Saturday, when turnout was 19 percent in precincts with heavily white voter registration, and 13 percent in those with heavily black voter registration, according to an analysis by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak. Overall, black voters make up about 62 percent of the district's registered voters.

Those turnout figures appeared to favor Carter, who led the field among white voters in the primary. But in addition to the exponential growth in support among white voters that the congressman managed in Jefferson Parish, the incumbent also doubled his support among white voters in New Orleans.

Jefferson's better-than-expected performance among white voters, coupled with his traditional supremacy among black voters, resulted in Saturday's landslide. "Jefferson enjoyed a 3-to-1 advantage in the heavily black precincts where nearly half of all the voters in Orleans come from," Chervenak said.

Robert McFarland, chairman of the Association of Independent Political Organizations in New Orleans, said that even with the continuing dislocation of many black New Orleanians since Katrina, any political strategy "based on black voters not being here or not coming back to the city won't work."

McFarland said this is the second time since the flood that black voters have flexed their political muscle, citing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's win over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in May's mayoral runoff.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the disparity in voting between Orleans and Jefferson parishes emerged as the tipping point of the race. The incumbent won 71 percent of the vote in suburban precincts. In New Orleans, meanwhile, the contest was much tighter: Carter drew 49 percent, just 1,169 votes shy of the congressman.

Hedge-Morrell said those statistics reveal a wide gap between the two parishes, one she believed had been eliminated by residents' shared Katrina experience.

"I thought we brought our communities together," she said. "This is a very divisive race."

But Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, speaking from decades of experience on the local political scene, said Saturday's election was an isolated event, not indicative of any ill will between the residents or their elected officials.

"It was a political divide du jour," he said. "It had no relationship at all on the major impetus for partnership between parish leaders on the recovery issues that lie ahead."

Broussard said the congressman won overwhelmingly in suburban precincts because "Karen Carter was a stranger to Jefferson Parish." Even Shepherd, whose state Senate district covers parts of downtown New Orleans in addition to most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank, enjoyed some crossover appeal.

Broussard also said low turnout, which was likely due in part to Lee's tirade against Carter, meant voters who were disgusted with the congressman's legal predicament probably stayed home.

"I think when you have low turnout, that favors incumbency because the incumbent has relationships that don't wither with current issues," he said. "They're going to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Lee recoiled Sunday at the observation, posited by political pundits across town, that he was responsible for the Jefferson win. Indeed, the sheriff declined from the get-go to endorse the congressman, given what he described as the incumbent's reduced effectiveness since news broke of the federal investigation.

"I don't want to be known as the person who caused him to win," Lee said. "I want to be known as the person who got Karen to lose."

Chervenak, however, said the "Harry Lee factor" cannot be dismissed. "The fact that voters in heavily white areas to a large degree stayed home and that most of those who did show up gave their support to Jefferson says something about the sheriff's impact," Chervenak said.

Though few dispute Jefferson's continued prowess at the polls, political and civic leaders expressed concerns Sunday that Jefferson, who was booted from the House Ways and Means Committee by his own Democratic party leadership because of the probe, will be less effective in Washington.

Anne Milling, chief organizer of Women of the Storm, said Jefferson's victory flies in the face of recent landmark reforms, including passage last month of a constitutional amendment directing future royalties from federal oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to coastal restoration and preservation projects.

"Certainly it's a concern because of the message it sends across the country," said Milling, whose organization, with its signature blue umbrellas, has made it a mission to invite members of Congress to see Katrina's horrific effects firsthand.

"We've been advocating what a reform-minded state this has become, and city I might add," she said. "He's certainly not guilty at this point; everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But it's a perception, and it's just not the one we want to communicate."

In her concession speech, Carter expressed a similar sentiment.

"We were always concerned about what our national image would be and how it would affect the recovery and the dollars that flow from there," she said. "Time will tell how (Jefferson's victory) will affect it. I'm hoping that it won't have an effect."

New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas, who backed Carter, said he is less concerned about perceptions than the results the congressman can deliver.

"I would hope ... he's able to at least get back in his party and assume some positions that can help us with funding and recovery," Thomas said. "We don't need any elected officials just holding seats."

Bruce Alpert contributed to this report. Michelle Krupa can be reached at or (504) 826-3312. Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.

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