U.S. Rep. William J. Jefferson, the beleaguered congressman at the center of a federal bribery investigation, pulled off what many had believed would be impossible: He won reelection Saturday to Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District seat.
Jefferson, plagued by more than a year of scandal, received 57% of the vote in complete but unofficial returns. His challenger in the runoff election, Democratic state Rep. Karen Carter, had 43%.
Voter turnout was only about 16% on what turned out to be a cold and windy election day.
At a victory celebration, Jefferson called for unity “on the East Bank, on the West Bank, [between] black and white, rich and poor, with one objective: to recover this wonderful city.”
In conceding, Carter told supporters that she had called Jefferson and offered to work with him because “we certainly can’t do this alone.”
Political analysts said voters in the district, which spans most of New Orleans and the West Bank of neighboring Jefferson Parish, were more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with change.
“It’s a vote for continuity,” Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans, said of the results.
Jefferson trounced Carter among African Americans and had a strong showing in Jefferson Parish, according to a preliminary analysis by Greg Rigamer of GCR & Associates Inc. More whites voted for Jefferson than blacks did for Carter, according to the analysis. Both Jefferson and Carter are black.
Analysts believe that Carter’s fate might also have been sealed by her failure to garner enough votes in Jefferson Parish, where Sheriff Harry Lee mailed out fliers during the final week of the campaign urging parish residents not to vote for her.
Lee and other Jefferson officials were outraged over comments Carter made in a recent Spike Lee documentary, criticizing Jefferson law enforcement officials for blocking Katrina evacuees from crossing a bridge to safety in their parish in the aftermath of the storm.
Jefferson, 59, has held his congressional seat for 16 years and rarely faced a serious challenge for it. The climate changed this year as a federal bribery probe unfolded. He was ousted from the House Ways and Means Committee after agents in an FBI raid said they found $90,000 stashed in a freezer of his Washington home.
Jefferson has not been charged with any crime, and insisted he was innocent.
Many voters believed him.
“I think they lied on him,” Curtis Mimms, 82, said as he arrived to cast his ballot at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood. “I think he can do the job.”
When the congressman dropped by the seminary Saturday he was greeted with hugs, handshakes and smiles.
Alfreda Baker, 55, said she voted for Jefferson because residents needed someone tough to ensure a break in the logjam in disbursing funds so homeowners could rebuild.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s been so long. We’re taxpayers,” said Baker, a retired educator. “Jefferson has proven that he knows who to go to. [Carter’s] a new person. She’s still just feeling her way.”
Perrilyn White, 48, said Jefferson had “been consistent in his dedication to our city regardless of what he’s done for himself.” Since Katrina, Jefferson has introduced numerous pieces of legislation in Congress to help residents and businesses rebound.
The son of sharecroppers who went on to earn three university degrees and walk the halls of power, Jefferson’s story has inspired many supporters.
Many voters said they respected Carter -- a seven-year state legislator from a politically active family -- but still considered her “a new kid on the block.” Carter, 37, had run on a platform of restoring “credibility and respect to political service” and had argued that Jefferson’s legal troubles prevented him from offering effective leadership.
“His election might not necessarily translate into an important position [within Congress],” said Brox, the political scientist. And, he said, Carter supporters might argue “what difference is your election going to make if you’re not going to be on any important committees?”
Commentators said low temperatures and brisk winds, holiday shopping sales, and distraction over home rebuilding and other recovery activities usually tackled on weekends contributed to low voter turnout.
Many polling stations stood empty for large parts of the day.
“It’s nothing particular against Jefferson or Carter,” Brox said. “It is just a really bad time to hold an election.”