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.
Moreover, although Jefferson lost some key Democratic endorsements, he did pick up those of two others who are particularly influential in the black community: New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Bishop Paul Morton, often named as the city's most influential black minister. Jefferson appears to have won votes by attacking Carter for supporting same-sex marriage.
In conversations with voters here on Sunday, the racial divide was apparent. "I just wish we could one day elect someone who wouldn't look ridiculous to the rest of the country," said Betty Holahan-Smith, 45, a white voter from the Lower Garden District. "First, we had 'Chocolate City' Nagin. Now we have 'Dollar Bill' Jefferson."
"If the federal government really wanted to help New Orleans, they would have indicted him and taken him out of the game," said Tom Gault, 50, who is white and a Democrat, outside his townhouse in the Garden District. "It amazes me that people would vote for someone who may be indicted soon."
But after Sunday services at the First Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Bywater neighborhood, a group of three friends, all African American, concurred in their support for Jefferson and dismissed the allegations as unproved. Though two of Jefferson's associates -- a business partner and a former staff member -- have pleaded guilty in the bribery scheme, they cautioned against a rush to judgment.
"I just kind of felt if they had something on him, why haven't they indicted him?" said Tyra Bryant, 34, of Jefferson Parish. "I'm not even sure it's really true."
"He hasn't done anything the rest of the folks up in Washington haven't done -- he just got caught," said Sharon Williams of Mid-City.
Carter seems to have forgotten who she is, Williams said.
"Sometimes when you are an African American and you get too high on yourself -- well, Karen Carter thought she was a Caucasian," she said. "You have to always remember where you came from."
While the racial divide formed the basic demographic framework of the election, however, what played a critical role in the outcome was Jefferson's curious ability to appeal to white voters in suburban Jefferson Parish. A campaign led there by Sheriff Harry Lee blasted Carter for appearing in Spike Lee's Katrina documentary, in which she criticized the parish's law enforcement for turning back fleeing residents.
In a concession speech on Saturday night, Carter pledged to work with Jefferson, especially on post-Katrina rebuilding.
"I guess the people are happy with the status quo," she said.