The William Jefferson Chronicles

Voter apathy, confusion led to Jefferson's loss, expert says
by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Sunday December 07, 2008, 8:40 PM

In the end, indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's nightmare came true.

From the moment he won the Nov. 4 Democratic Party runoff for the 2nd Congressional District seat he first claimed 18 years ago, Jefferson recognized he faced a challenge in motivating his support base in majority-black neighborhoods to return to the polls once more for the general election.

But black voters who turned out in huge numbers a month ago as the nation elected its first African-American president mostly stayed home Saturday.

The result was a David-and-Goliath outcome, as Republican lawyer Anh "Joseph" Cao, a relative political unknown, toppled Jefferson, the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction and a force on the local political stage for three decades.

In defeating Jefferson, Cao left his own historical mark, becoming the first Vietnamese-American to be sent to Congress.

A precinct analysis of Saturday's election results by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, who broke down the vote by race, shows that Jefferson's downfall was largely a product of apathy and confusion among black voters.

Fraction of voters

Spurred by the candidacy of now President-elect Barack Obama, 163,488 voters in the 2nd District turned out Nov. 4, when the Democratic runoff in the congressional race also was on the ballot. In the congressional election, only registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters were allowed to cast ballots.

Though the universe of voters in that race expanded Saturday to include all registered voters, only 66,846 showed up to the polls, a reduction of 96,642 voters from last month.

Nearly half the decline came in the heavily black areas of the district, the review shows. Given that those precincts are Jefferson's base of support, the huge decrease in these areas prevented him from winning his 10th term, Chervenak said.

One school of thought holds that Jefferson was abandoned by voters who could no longer bear the weight of his legal difficulties. After FBI agents allegedly found $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer and linked him and several relatives to a wide-ranging bribery scheme, Jefferson was indicted on 16 counts of public corruption. His trial is expected early next year.

But in Chervenak's view, "People don't change their preferences that quickly in such a short period of time."

It seems implausible, he said, that "people would come to his defense and support him with their vote in two elections only to stay home for the election that would keep him in office."

Third time around

The dearth of voters showing up at the polls Saturday likely owed to lack of awareness of the election, Chervenak said.

With Louisiana holding closed party primaries for the first time in 30 years, the winner-takes-all general election became the third race of the season, rather than the second, as under the previous system. Complicating matters, Hurricane Gustav forced the first contest to be postponed a month, pushing the general election into December, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Jefferson said during the general election campaign that he encountered many voters who mistakenly thought he had won on Nov. 4.

Cao benefited from the mix of disinterest and confusion, as well as from strong support in heavily white areas, where turnout dropped somewhat compared with last month but not as steeply as in majority black areas.

Given the demographic makeup of the district -- more than 60 percent of voters are black and two-thirds are registered Democrats -- some prognosticators already are forecasting Cao's demise if he runs for re-election in 2010.

"Cao is probably a one-term wonder," said Larry Sabato, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Virginia.

The most GOP leaders can hope for is to celebrate Cao as a symbol of diversity in a party yoked with the image of a "narrow 'rural white male' party," he said.

"The House Republican leadership would be politically foolish if they didn't put Cao front and center, give him good committee assignments and make sure he gets some tasty pork for the district," Sabato said.

But former state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr., a Democrat who heads the COUP political organization, said he's not ready to predict a quick exit for the Republican.

"It will be difficult to get back," he said of the seat in Congress. It's always hard to beat an incumbent."

If Cao works across party lines in Washington and reaches out to African-Americans at home, he could be tough to beat, he said. And with politicians of all races traditionally dependent on the region's white business establishment to bankroll their campaigns, it might be hard for even the most qualified black candidate to assemble enough cash to unseat the congressman, Boissiere said.

"You have to raise money," he said. "Where will the Democrats get it? How many white businessmen will want to fund a campaign against the first Vietnamese-American in Congress? What is the Democratic Party going to do?"

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

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