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Jefferson Win Poses Dilemma for Party

G.J. Hodge cheers at a victory party for Jefferson. Many supporters who voted for him dismissed the corruption allegations against him as unproved.
G.J. Hodge cheers at a victory party for Jefferson. Many supporters who voted for him dismissed the corruption allegations against him as unproved. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 10 -- Rep. William J. Jefferson may be a pariah in some Washington political circles, but voters in this storm-battered city weighed in over the weekend with their own verdict regarding their scandal-plagued congressman: He's still our guy.

Voters gave the Louisiana Democrat an emphatic reelection victory over state Rep. Karen Carter, even though his campaign had been weighted with revelations that federal authorities had videotaped him taking $100,000 in alleged bribe money, and that $90,000 of it had been found inside a freezer in his apartment in the District. The investigation led House colleagues to dump him from a key committee, donors abandoned him and the state Democratic Party switched its allegiance to his opponent.

But before cheering supporters at a hotel room on election night, Jefferson called his win "a great moment" and said, "I thank almighty God for making it possible."

He declined to discuss the probe.

Divinely inspired or not, his victory now poses a quandary for Democrats, some of whom have shunned him politically, and possibly also for the city. Leaders here seek to project an image of civic probity as they lobby for more federal money for recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

"This has to be seen as troubling," said Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University. "I don't think his victory does any good for New Orleans as it presses its claims on the national government."

The federal corruption investigation, now 21 months old, was front and center in the campaign.

Carter pushed the corruption issue in television ads, saying that the cloud of suspicion alone would make him an ineffective representative. Jefferson responded with his own ads, in which he attacked Carter and looked evenly into the camera to tell voters: "I have never taken a bribe from anyone."

But while the allegations were widely discussed here, exactly what people made of them seems to have depended at least partly on race.

Though both candidates in the runoff were African American, voters generally split along racial lines.

Jefferson won 57 percent of the vote to Carter's 43 percent. He won 79 percent of votes in largely black precincts, while she won 76 percent of votes in largely white precincts, according to a post-election analysis by Greg Rigamer, a consultant for the Carter campaign.

For some of Jefferson's core black constituency, "they've heard the news" about the allegations. "They just don't believe it," Brox said.

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