The Unlikely Comeback of William Jefferson

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The resounding reelection of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson this weekend has left many in New Orleans scratching their heads, wondering how the scandal-plagued Congressman could have coasted into a ninth term even as a federal bribery investigation swirled around him. And more to the point, how effective can Jefferson be with a majority that ran on an anti-corruption campaign — particularly at a time when the city and Louisiana are in desperate need of federal help in the region's Hurricane Katrina recovery effort?

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who orchestrated Jefferson's ouster from the powerful Ways and Means Committee even before the Democrats won back the House in November, seems unlikely to restore Jefferson to a position of influence, and Jefferson may find it harder to work with his Democratic colleagues as long as the clouds of suspicion follow him. "He looks like a person who will have political difficulties operating in the House, and that's not good for his constituents," says Loyola University political scientist Ed Renwick. "If he doesn't operate from a position of strength, that makes it very hard to get bills that are favorable to us passed."

Jefferson himself seemed untroubled by such questions Saturday evening as the vote tallies showed him walloping his runoff rival, state representative Karen Carter, by a 20-percentage-point margin. (Because of Louisiana's peculiar open primary system, the two top finishers in November's election, both Democrats, squared off weeks later.) Jefferson, in his victory speech, vowed to "do all that I can, all that is in my power, with the help and grace of God, to serve you as fully, as effectively as I possibly can."

That will be a very tall order for the veteran politician. Jefferson is the target of a federal probe into allegations that he shook down a Kentucky entrepreneur for $100,000 in bribes and lucrative contracts for a business owned by Jefferson's wife in exchange for the Congressman's help in procuring contracts for the Kentucky technology firm, iGate, in West Africa. Two people connected with the case, including former iGate CEO Vernon Jackson, have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Throughout the campaign, Jefferson denied any wrongdoing. But he never offered an explanation for the $90,000 in marked bills federal agents confiscated from a freezer in his Washington D.C.-area home, only promising, when pressed, an "honorable explanation" in due time.

New Orleans voters — at least those who bothered to show up at the polls; turnout for the runoff election was an abysmal 16% to 17% — may be willing to wait for that explanation. But some observers here worry that the rest of the nation may be losing patience with the city, and are asking that outsiders consider the election in the volatile post-Katrina political context. They fear that New Orleans could be viewed as not taking corruption seriosuly. "The national perception of this — 'How did they reelect a guy with $90,000 in his freezer' — is not what I'd consider the truth," says demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher. "This is far more complex. And I would ask the people of this country, especially those that are in a position to make a difference in New Orleans and Louisiana, to wait until this whole thing runs its course."

This "whole thing" is the investigation, which many believe will net an indictment for Jefferson. If he is forced out of Congress before his term ends, Louisiana's governor could call for a special election to fill the seat. And as far-fetched as it sounds, many pundits say the possibility of an indictment was one of the reasons some people voted for the incumbent. As in this year's mayoral race, antipathy to the challenger was strong enough to prompt conservatives who would normally oppose Jefferson to vote for him, with the idea that it would be harder to dislodge Carter if she were elected, or to stay home, which played into Jefferson's hands. With Jefferson out in a year or so, they figured, it would be easier to replace him with someone more palatable than Carter, whose stance on some hot-button social issues, such as gay rights and late-term abortion, were to the left of Jefferson's and those of suburban voters.

Jefferson played up those differences during the campaign, tacking to the right and touting the support of many New Orleans area African- American ministers, who are key in the city's get-out-the-vote drives. And he benefited from a late-in-the-game outburst from Harry Lee, the controversial sheriff of neighboring Jefferson Parish, much of which falls within the congressional district. Lee, incensed by Carter's appearance in the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, in which she took Jefferson Parish officials to task for turning back pedestrians trying to escape New Orleans via a bridge over the Mississippi River, lambasted Carter in the campaign's final days, declaring his "utter contempt" for the state representative while stopping short of endorsing her opponent. The stunt helped the incumbent win big in Jefferson Parish.

Most important, perhaps, is race, a factor in any New Orleans campaign, particularly post-Katrina. Although both Jefferson and Carter are African American, Carter, who had the backing of the state's Democratic establishment as well as the city's business community, was seen as the candidate of choice for the wealthy and the white — a perception that works against candidates in a city where thousands of displaced, mostly poor black residents are still struggling to get back in their homes. Here, too, Jefferson was able to turn his legal troubles to his advantage; for thousands of people who feel betrayed by the Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, it's not a stretch to empathize with a man being pursued by its employees at the Justice Department.

It's also easy for many to see a champion in Jefferson, who rose from a poor North Louisiana upbringing to become a Harvard-trained lawyer and the first African American to represent Louisiana in Washington since Reconstruction. The question now is, will he still be able to deliver the goods?