Campaign '06: Playing the Victim in Louisiana

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A word of advice for the pundits who started writing U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's political obituary months ago: Not so fast.

Granted, things look bad for the beleaguered eight-term congressman. Last year, federal agents raided Jefferson's New Orleans and Washington, D.C., homes, carting out boxes of documents and $90,000 stashed in a freezer. That raid and a subsequent invasion of his congressional office were part of an ongoing investigation into whether Jefferson demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other payment for his help in landing Kentucky technology firm iGate lucrative contracts in Nigeria and Ghana. The money was allegedly funneled to a company owned by Jefferson's wife, Andrea Green-Jefferson, and to a legal firm where one of the couple's daughters works. Jefferson has not been charged and has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. Two associates in the shady deal, however — former congressional aide Brett Pfeffer and iGate CEO Vernon Jackson — pleaded guilty to bribery charges and have agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Such looming legal troubles, along with the fact that Hurricane Katrina decimated his district and scattered his traditional base of supporters, would be enough to sink most politicians. But "Dollar Bill," as his detractors dubbed him years ago, is a fierce campaigner and formidable power broker who has muscled his way out of tight spots before. "There's a question mark on this one right up to the end," said Louisiana political consultant Elliott Stonecipher, of the District 2 race. Jefferson's "historic ability to turn out black votes that others couldn't find or turn out is why you never, ever, ever say this man is not going to win reelection. Bill Jefferson is one of the masters at this game, and you just don't ever count him out."

Still, Jefferson has never faced anything quite like what he's up against this go-round. Katrina scrambled the district's demographics, reducing the African-American majority that would presumably work in Jefferson's favor. And he's also facing opposition from within his own party: Democrats hope to blast their way to a majority this fall by tagging Republicans as cultivators of a "culture of corruption" with some high-profile cases, including former representatives Tom DeLay of Texas, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and sex-scandal plagued Mark Foley of Florida to use as fodder. Jefferson could be the Dems' Achilles' heel in this morality play, and it's no secret that the party leadership, who stripped him of his influential seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, want him out of the way.

And for perhaps the first time in his congressional career, he's facing some formidable opponents. In the Nov. 7 open primary, he'll go up against 12 other candidates, including Louisiana state representative Karen Carter, who has the backing of the state's Democratic establishment; former city councilman Troy Carter (who is not related to Karen); and state senator Derrick Shepherd, who launched his campaign with a direct attack on Jefferson's fitness to lead. There's even a well-financed Republican, attorney Joe Lavigne, vying for the solidly Democratic seat, and such is the state of things in New Orleans these days that he has a mathematical chance of making it into a December runoff with Jefferson or another Democrat if no single candidate gets 50% of the vote in the first round.

Jefferson, for his part, has lined up a slew of endorsements of his own: labor groups, a phalanx of influential African-American ministers, and most prominently, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "It's across the board, and it's wide and deep, and it shows the support we continue to have, the great reservoir of goodwill we continue to enjoy in this district," Jefferson said at the red-bean-and-hot-dog-fueled opening of his New Orleans campaign headquarters this month. The election could hinge on the 40,000 displaced voters who drove in or voted absentee in the last mayoral race, helping Nagin coast to a second term. "We know who those voters are, we can find them, we can talk to them," Jefferson said. "Before we were just shooting blind, but now we have a road map to the voters. And of course the mayor will be helpful, because most of them voted for him. "

Nagin, no stranger to controversy, said he was just returning a favor by backing Jefferson. "He was one of the few elected officials that supported me during the mayor's race, and I told him that if he needed my support, I would reciprocate," Nagin said. The mayor insisted that Jefferson's experience and relationships in Congress would make him effective, even as the clouds of scandal grow darker. "I think that he will still be effective — more effective than somebody who's a rookie, absolutely," he said, adding, "Until he's indicted, I think we ought to presume he's innocent until proven guilty"

It was a stunning move for Nagin, who before Katrina cast himself as a crusader against corruption and a darling of the city's largely white business establishment. But the storm altered the New Orleans political terrain along with the physical landscape, and Jefferson may end up taking a page from Nagin's reelection playbook: Position yourself as a champion of the dispersed and dispossessed, the victim of piling-on by outside forces, and rally those still living outside the city to the cause. Nagin, however, had one advantage that Jefferson lacks: his chief opponents in the mayoral race were white, making it easy for him to portray the contest as a power grab in a demographically shaken "chocolate city," as he so memorably put it. Jefferson's major challengers, on the other hand, are African-American.

With only a few weeks left in the campaign, and with the stakes for the struggling city so high, the fur should be flying. But on the surface, at least, the campaign appears low-key: few television ads have aired, Jefferson skipped a September candidate forum, and no recent polls have been announced. The incumbent touts his connections in Congress and his record of bringing big-money projects home to the district, including Katrina recovery funds for schools and streetcar repairs, as reason enough to deserve reelection. His opponents, for the most part, are appealing for change rather than risk alienating voters by attacking Jefferson outright.

What really counts is who turns out to vote on Nov. 7: New Orleans campaigns really work at the grass-roots level, with targeted radio spots, door-to-door canvassing and election-day drives, exactly the kind of efforts that have paid off for Jefferson in past elections. New Orleans pollster Silas Lee expects things to heat up as the election draws near. "It's going to be a very intense and emotional race, without a doubt," Lee said. "This election is by far beyond any of the challenges Bill Jefferson has faced in the past. But he's not afraid of a challenge, and the odds do not seem to discourage him."