The William Jefferson Chronicles

U.S. Rep. William Jefferson cruises past Moreno to December runoff

by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune

Tuesday November 04, 2008, 11:00 PM

With his trial on federal corruption charges looming and questions swirling about his effectiveness in Congress, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson cruised to an easy victory Tuesday in the Democratic Party runoff for the 2nd Congressional District.

On Tuesday, November 4, 2008 at the Fine Arts Center in Central City, Congressman William Jefferson, his wife Andrea by his side, addresses the crowd after his victory.

The decisive win over Helena Moreno, a former TV news anchor and political newcomer, ensures Jefferson a spot in the Dec. 6 general election. With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, Jefferson seems the hands-down favorite to win a 10th term against four poorly financed opponents with scant name recognition.

With 469 of 492 precincts counted, Jefferson had 56 percent of the vote compared to 42 for Moreno. Early results from the secretary of state show Jefferson and Moreno at a dead heat in Jefferson Parish, which comprises about 30 percent of the district. In New Orleans, the incumbent holds a 4-to-3 margin.

An early review of poll results seemed to confirm what political observers had predicted: that Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction, would dominate in precincts with a high percentage of black voters. More than 60 percent of voters in the district are black.

Meanwhile, Moreno, who is white and Hispanic, appears to have drawn the bulk of her support in heavily white areas.

Jefferson will face off in December against Republican candidate Anh "Joseph" Cao, Green Party candidate Malik Rahim, Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Kahn and independent Jerry Jacobs.

Under new state rules, the primary was divided by party, and only registered Democrats and independents were allowed to vote in Tuesday's runoff. No other parties held primary contests because none had more than one candidate qualify.

All voters will be allowed to cast ballots in next month's winner-take-all contest. The district covers most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.

Tuesday's election marked only the second time since Jefferson captured the seat in 1990 that he has been forced into a runoff.

It also happened two years ago, when the congressman easily defeated state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson in a contest that featured weeks of scathing TV and radio attacks and endorsements by high-profile public officials on both sides. The campaign unfolded in the wake of revelations that FBI agents had found $90,000 in marked bills in Jefferson's freezer and linked him and several relatives to a wide-ranging bribery scheme.

Jefferson was indicted last year in connection with the allegations. But despite the escalation of his legal problems -- and the subsequent indictment of his brother and his sister in separate federal cases -- the atmosphere of this year's campaign was far less contentious than the 2006 election.

Though six Democratic challengers jumped into the race and raised a combined $1.7 million to try to unseat Jefferson, they made only veiled references to his indictment. Instead, they offered pledges of change and promises to serve with "honesty and integrity."

Jefferson benefited from the fact that five of his opponents -- all younger African-American men with some experience in government -- struggled to differentiate themselves from their peers, despite spending heavily in the weeks leading up to the scheduled Sept. 6 primary.

The impact of the costly media blitz, however, was blunted by the postponement of the primary due to Hurricane Gustav. Amid the distraction of the storm cleanup and with war chests largely depleted, Moreno stood out as the only woman, the only non-black candidate and the only political outsider in the Democratic pack.

Jefferson led in the Oct. 4 primary with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Moreno with 20 percent.

But with money hard to come by, both campaigns were unusually quiet for the first three weeks of the runoff period. Despite Moreno's willingness to meet the incumbent face-to-face, a confident Jefferson said he didn't "have anything to prove in a debate."

At the same time, the primary also-rans shied away from endorsing either candidate, as did most political and community leaders who had backed one of the five losers. The hands-off attitude likely owed both to potential supporters' reluctance to publicly support the wounded congressman and skepticism about Moreno's ability to win.

It was only in the final days that Moreno aired a TV spot that questioned Jefferson's ability to influence the agenda on Capitol Hill.

The congressman, who didn't use radio or TV ads in the runoff, hit back with an e-mail to news outlets touting relationships in Washington that he said have helped him champion spending and policy priorities related to hurricane recovery.

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