The William Jefferson Chronicles

Voters Oust Indicted Congressman in Louisiana
Published: December 7, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Representative William J. Jefferson was defeated by a little-known Republican lawyer here Saturday in a late-running Congressional election, underscoring the sharp demographic shifts in this city since Hurricane Katrina and handing Republicans an unexpected victory in a district that had been solidly Democratic.

The upset victory by the lawyer, Anh Cao, was thought by analysts to be the result of a strong turnout by white voters angered over federal corruption charges against Mr. Jefferson, a black Democrat who was counting on a loyal base to return him to Congress for a 10th term.

A majority of the district’s voters are African-American, and analysts said lower turnout in the majority black precincts on Saturday meant victory for the Republican.

With all precincts reporting, Mr. Cao, who was born in Vietnam, had 49 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Mr. Jefferson, who had not conceded as of late Saturday night.

The election was delayed by Hurricane Gustav.

In heavily white precincts, turnout was about 26 percent, while it was only about 12 percent in the heavily black precincts, said Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans demographer and analyst.

The exact percentage of blacks here, like the population itself, is unknown after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but is thought to be 55 percent to 60 percent, down from around 70 percent before the storm. The City Council has turned majority-white after years of being led by blacks.

“It’s clearly shifted,” Mr. Rigamer said of the population. “You have fewer African-Americans in the city than previously.”

But Mr. Rigamer also suggested that the corruption charges against Mr. Jefferson pushed whites to the polls in unusual numbers. “The bottom line,” he said, “is this is an issue-driven race that ignited turnout in the white community.”

In another Louisiana Congressional election that Hurricane Gustav delayed, Republicans appeared to have narrowly held on to a seat in the northwestern part of the state, as voters sent a physician, John Fleming, to replace Representative Jim McCrery, retiring after 20 years.

The big surprise of the day, though, was in New Orleans, as Mr. Jefferson, long a political powerhouse in the city’s neighborhoods, saw his Congressional career ended by a lawyer new to politics.

Mr. Jefferson, shunned by national Democratic Party figures and low on money because of his pending trial, was counting on — and appeared to be getting — strong support from local leaders. In 2006, he was handily re-elected though the bribery scandal had already been aired.

This year, a number of the city’s top black pastors announced their support for him just days before the election.

But it was not enough. Mr. Cao, promising ethics and integrity, offered voters a break from the scandals associated with the incumbent and his siblings, several of whom have also been indicted.

Mr. Jefferson, 61, awaits trial on federal counts of soliciting bribes, money laundering and other offenses. Prosecutors contend that he used his Congressional office to broker deals in African nations, and say he received more than $500,000 in bribes.

Mr. Cao, 41 and known as Joseph, fled Vietnam at age 8 after the fall of Saigon. His father was a army officer who was later imprisoned for seven years by the Communist government. Mr. Cao, who has never held elective office, has been an advocate for the small but prominent Vietnamese community here and has a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University.

“Knocking Jefferson off is something you don’t want to bet on,” Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana political analyst, said Saturday night. “These elections continue to show us that there is a smaller, different and more progressive New Orleans that is emerging.”

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