Unbowed Jefferson Keeps Up the Fight
Sunday, October 22, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- At a barbershop in the Third Ward, in an area still woozy from Hurricane Katrina's knockout punch, the chatter was about what to do with Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.).
"He's got my vote. I like Jefferson," shop owner Charles Harris said as he finished up a haircut. "They haven't indicted him, number one. Whenever they come up with some concrete evidence, that might change things."
"I ain't voting for him 'cause of the $100,000 in the freezer," retorted one of Harris's customers, a former Jefferson supporter who declined to give his name. "You find $100,000 in your freezer, I ain't voting for you."
Jefferson has represented this part of New Orleans in the House for the better part of two decades, becoming the first black lawmaker elected to the United States Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction. He has held seats on the Budget and Ways and Means committees. But in the Third Ward and elsewhere, some voters are no longer deciding on Jefferson based on his résumé or his legislative record, but on the $100,000 the FBI allegedly videotaped him accepting from an FBI informant.
FBI agents later found $90,000 in marked bills in Jefferson's freezer, wrapped in foil. The other $10,000 was missing but accounted for.
As Jefferson campaigns for a ninth term, the Harvard Law School graduate has shed little light on the federal investigation of bribery allegations, other than to insist on his innocence. In a TV ad, he talks about "the presumption of innocence afforded every person" and says, "For over 18 months, the federal government has investigated me and has yet to bring a single charge against me."
That message appears to be resonating among voters like Harris, and so, despite the constant threat of a federal indictment that sources familiar with the probe say is a foregone conclusion, the 59-year-old congressman is confidently campaigning.
Jefferson is showing up at public events, ready to work the crowd and touting a record of passing key legislation and getting funds to help post-Katrina New Orleans. Recently he went on the offensive, publicly accusing two of his 12 opponents of being "ethically challenged."
"He's a formidable candidate," says Danny Ford, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, which endorsed another candidate. "He's not been indicted or convicted. He's got a lot of support."
Twelve challengers -- eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian -- are running against Jefferson in the Nov. 7 election. Unless the winner gets more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff in December. Political observers said they expect Jefferson to be in a runoff and possibly win, unless he's indicted.
Some in Jefferson's district say the absence of an indictment, after such a lengthy investigation, settles the matter for them.
"I think to the common person, this has gone on so long, if the feds had something they would have indicted by now," says Michael M. Davis, a member of the Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committee, which has endorsed Jefferson.
But other voters have little doubt about the ultimate outcome.
"There will be a special election when he's convicted," predicted Jim Monaghan Jr., who owns Molly's at the Market, a popular watering hole on Decatur Street. "How can he not be with 90,000 frozen dollars?"
State Rep. Karen Carter, Jefferson's most formidable challenger, adds: "It's not about innocence or guilt. The Justice Department will take care of that. There's a cloud of suspicion that hinders the incumbent's ability to be effective."
Carter has the endorsement of the state Democratic Party, which for the first time in decades turned its back on an incumbent. And his own party earlier this year kicked him off the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Jefferson "is not the underdog, but he's certainly playing that card to supporters," said Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
At a recent afternoon's campaign stop at the William Guste high-rise apartments in the Third Ward, a tieless Jefferson took off his suit coat, rolled up his sleeves and began shaking hands and exchanging hugs with a sea of smiling, receptive voters. Many of them were African American and middle-aged. Some wore "Don't Mess With Jeff" buttons.
Among those in attendance was Joshua Travis, 64, who said: "You're innocent until proven guilty. Ain't that the American way?"
Another attendee, a 58-year-old man who declined to give his name, said the FBI probe makes no difference.
"All of them are stealing. He just got caught. Since he's been in office, he's one of the few black officials who has been able to get in office and do something for the people," the man said.
After giving a spirited stump speech, Jefferson got personal.
"People ask me, 'Jefferson, how you keep on going with all that's going on . . . and people saying things about you?' I tell them how to do it. You know how to do it. I just turn it over to God.
"When you see me going around the campaign, when you see me with my head up at work, that's how it gets done. . . . Keep working and keep praying and keep praying."