For Jefferson, anger and applause
After a recent candidates’ forum in the French Quarter, a woman rushed up to Rep. William J. Jefferson and embraced him for several moments.
“I’m praying for you,” the stranger said quietly, her arms encircling the Democratic congressman’s neck. “You need to keep it going.”
Over the weekend, as Jefferson finished a handshaking tour of a store in the Gentilly neighborhood, onlooker Mary Scott called out: “Take care sweetie. You’re going to be all right.”
The eight-term congressman’s campaign outings are punctuated with expressions like these, which he calls “uplift” after a year that found him surrounded by scandal and ousted from the Ways and Means Committee. The FBI raided his home and office, and said it had a videotape of him taking a $100,000 bribe and that it had found $90,000 wrapped in foil in the freezer of his Washington home.
Jefferson has been implicated in a developing federal probe -- the FBI has accused him of offering to bribe a Nigerian official and of accepting kickbacks to help a U.S. telecommunications company land deals in Africa.
Jefferson, who has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, is adamant that he will survive.
“A lot of people think they have the opportunity” to win, Jefferson said as he wrapped up his Saturday walkabout. “I think they will find out they won’t.”
Publicly, Jefferson has remained stoic and composed, saying that he has lawyers to handle his legal matters while he concentrates on his job. But during the French Quarter forum, the congressman repelled his opponents’ barbs, insisting that none of them was squeaky clean.
“I’m not going to sit here and pretend we have all these shining knights here,” Jefferson said. Later he told reporters, “I can’t stand the hypocrisy.”
Jefferson’s seat was once considered one of the safest in the House, but there are now 12 candidates vying to replace him as representative from the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
“This will be the greatest test of his political career, whether he survives or not,” said Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, an independent think tank in Baton Rouge, La.
Jefferson’s competitors in the Nov. 7 race include Republicans, Democrats and a Libertarian. Four have prior name recognition and significant campaign donations: state Rep. Karen Carter, former City Councilman Troy Carter, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd and lawyer Joe Lavigne.
If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will participate in a runoff on Dec. 9. Political pundits believe a runoff is inevitable, and that Jefferson will probably be one of the candidates.
“If he gets a white Republican,” he could win, Ed Renwick, associate professor of political science at New Orleans’ Loyola University, said of Jefferson’s chances in a runoff. “But if he gets a black Democrat, which he likely would, he would be the underdog.”
Observers predict that Jefferson will probably be pitted against Karen Carter, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party. Carter, 36, is from a political family -- her father, Ken Carter, was one of New Orleans’ first black property assessors -- and argues that she “will restore credibility and respect to political service.”
“When the arrogance of power diminishes the right of people like you and me and citizens across this great region, it is time for change,” she said at the French Quarter forum. If she succeeds in unseating Jefferson, she would be Louisiana’s first African American congresswoman.
In a 60-second TV ad, Jefferson, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, says the U.S. was “built on some fundamental rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the presumption of innocence afforded to every person, unless proven guilty in a court of law.” The government, he says, has “yet to bring a single charge against me.”
He then lists the work he has done to help New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and adds that “now is not the time for an unproven person to go to Washington and to try to fight for our recovery.”
His supporters have circled the wagons around the man they say has always been there for them.
“He did a lot to help people get back into the city after Katrina,” said Murray Carroll, 71, as he waited for Jefferson to speak at the William J. Guste Senior Homes near downtown. “I’m not into all that negative stuff. I give him my support. He has a good record.”
“I know it isn’t true what they’re saying.” said Mary Williams, 67. “He’s innocent until proven guilty. I find they’re picking on him.”
In Jefferson strongholds it is rare to hear a bad word about him. Jefferson has said his support would primarily come, as it typically has, from African Americans, who made up at least 65% of his district before Katrina, and from working class whites and organized labor.
“He has built up a strong political constituent home,” said Brandt, the research analyst. “So it’s not surprising that he could still have a significant following in his district. The investigation has been slow. There is no indictment at this time, much less a trial or his conviction. That is working to his advantage.”
But Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, said the hurricane’s displacement of African Americans, and the prospect that the electorate would probably “be whiter” than in the past, could cost Jefferson.
“The odds are against him winning, because Karen Carter will likely capture the overwhelming white vote and the white vote will be a larger part of the electorate this time around,” said Howell.
Renwick, the Loyola professor, said that Jefferson would have to push hard to ensure that blacks who say they support him come out to vote. Overall voter turnout in the September state and local elections was around 11%, pollsters said, with just 6% of African American registered voters casting ballots.
Although many of Jefferson’s supporters say he has never let them down, others say they won’t vote for him this time around.
“I think this is yet another example of a politician betraying the trust,” said photographer David G. Spielman, 56, who lives in the Uptown neighborhood where Jefferson also has a home. He has voted for the congressman but said he would “absolutely not” cast a ballot for him Nov. 7. “We need new blood, Spielman said. “We need somebody with a clean set of hands.”
Last weekend, Jefferson spent what has become a typical Saturday for him, this time in the Gentilly neighborhood, another of his strongholds. He stood on the median strip of a busy corner and waved to motorists before crossing to a once-bustling strip mall that was flooded by storm waters, but where businesses are beginning to open.
“I know your brother,” one woman shouted, as Jefferson wandered the aisles of a supermarket. “I’m on your side,” another said.
At the nearby Palms Barber Shop, Jefferson took a seat alongside several other men, and got a trim. The barber shaped and smoothed the graying edges around Jefferson’s bald patch. When the congressman tried to greet the women seated under hair dryers in the adjoining beauty salon, one customer gave him a piece of her mind.
“Don’t just come see me when it’s election time,” Phyllis Jenkins, a 38-year-old accounting student at Southern University at New Orleans, told him. “Help me come home. Show me that you’re serious. Show me what you’re going to do.”
At the senior homes, Jefferson told of a man he met on the campaign trail who asked the congressman to pray for him.
Jefferson did not grasp the significance of the stranger’s request. The next Sunday at church, Jefferson opened the Bible to Job 42:10.
“When Job prayed for his friend, he was himself released from his problem,” Jefferson said. “That was his message. I pray for this man every night, even though I don’t know his name. This is what God is telling me. It’s all about service to the people. It’s not about me.”
The audience cheered, and added a chorus of “ah yes” and “that’s right.”