By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Under the glare of an FBI investigation, a politically vulnerable Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) will face a dozen challengers in his bid for reelection, including some well-known Louisiana names.
When the 5 p.m. filing deadline for the November election passed yesterday, eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian had filed to run against the eight-term incumbent, a sharp contrast to two years ago, when he faced one challenger.
The candidates include state Sen. Derrick Shepherd (D), state Rep. Karen Carter (D) and former state representative and New Orleans City Council member Troy Carter (D).
"We can no longer afford to be laughed at anymore," said Troy Carter, 42, who is not related to Karen Carter. "One has to agree with the level of pressure on him, it's a distraction. It's difficult to be focused."
For more than 16 months, Jefferson, 59, has been the target of an FBI investigation. Two business associates, Brett Pfeffer and Vernon L. Jackson, have pleaded guilty to bribing the New Orleans lawmaker. Jackson said he gave Jefferson hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for using his congressional position to promote cable television and Internet ventures in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.
Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been indicted. House Democrats expelled him in June from the Ways and Means Committee after considering the accusations, which included the FBI's discovery of $90,000 of alleged bribe money in Jefferson's freezer.
Under Louisiana election law, all the candidates will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters will appear in a runoff election Dec. 9.
With New Orleans still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, many candidates said this week that they plan to focus on the city's recovery and Jefferson's performance.
"I plan on running on the issues, the needs of the people," said Shepherd, 37. "I think he owes everybody an explanation about the investigation, but that's for him to decide."
Added Democratic candidate M.V. "Vinny" Mendoza, 47, a real estate investor and organic farmer: "I don't bank on the problems of other people. This past year, he has not done anything for the people who hurt."
Political analysts say Jefferson could benefit from the large field of challengers if his voter base remains relatively strong, leaving the other candidates to divvy up the vote in the Democratic congressional district.
"It wouldn't be easy to beat him as long as he wasn't indicted," said Edward Renwick, a Loyola University political scientist. "He'd put up a tough fight even if he is indicted."
Melanie Roussell, Jefferson's press secretary, said yesterday that her boss still has a loyal base and does not see himself as vulnerable.
"Of course the candidates say he is, and he believes they're wrong," she said. "He's had the most productive year in his 16 years in Congress."
Political observers say the FBI probe will remain an issue.
"The investigation will play a key role," said Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University, pointing out that Jefferson has a "good amount of support."
"It's not a sure thing he'll get defeated," Brox said, adding that Jefferson's chances would quickly diminish if he is indicted before the election.
Voter Al Smith, owner of the Uptown Recycling in New Orleans, may be proof of that.
"If he would get indicted," said the longtime Jefferson supporter, "that would be a big reason to start considering another representative."