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Blood on the Water 

Bill Jefferson stunned the political world when he won re-election while under federal investigation two years ago. Now he's under indictment. Can he pull it off again?

Qualifying opens and closes this week for a host of local, state and federal elections across Louisiana, but no race is poised to attract more attention — or more opponents — than Congressman Bill Jefferson's bid for a 10th term. Two years ago, after sensational FBI raids on his homes and offices and the discovery of $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer, Jefferson turned political wisdom on its ear by defeating state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson in the runoff.

Now that he's under federal indictment on bribery and corruption charges, even some of his old friends are lining up against him. They smell blood.

The Democrats running against him include Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee, who has locked up many West Bank and Jefferson Parish endorsements; state Rep. Cedric Richmond of eastern New Orleans, a one-time Jefferson ally who hopes to have most of the Orleans Parish political support; and Helena Moreno, a former WDSU-TV news reporter who is scheduled to announce her candidacy this Tuesday (July 8).

At least two Republicans are eyeing the race — attorney Joseph Lavigne, who finished fourth against Jefferson in the 2006 primary; and Dillard University political science professor Gary Clark, who would be running for office for the first time.

Still others are said to be considering the race. They include state Sen. Cheryl Gray, former mayoral aide Kenya Smith, New Orleans City Councilman James Carter, and former New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter, who opposed Jefferson two years ago and ran fifth. All are Democrats. A host of other, lesser-known candidates is likely to qualify is well.

Qualifying opens on Wednesday (July 9) and closes Friday at 5 p.m. The Democratic and Republican primaries will be Sept. 6, with runoffs (a virtual certainty on the Democratic side) on Oct. 4. The general election will be Nov. 4 — presidential election day. Any candidates running as independents will go straight to the Nov. 4 general election. If Jefferson runs as a Democrat, he'll have to survive a grueling party primary and runoff, only to face one or more opponents in November.

Since his stunning re-election in 2006, Jefferson has suffered a string of political setbacks:

Last November, his daughter, former state Rep. Jalila Jefferson, lost a bid for the state Senate seat that launched her father's political career in 1979.

His brother Mose and sister Betty Jefferson likewise face federal corruption charges for allegedly bilking government-fed nonprofits that the Jefferson family controls. Betty's daughter, Angela Coleman, also is charged.

Mose Jefferson faces separate federal bribery charges for allegedly paying off an Orleans Parish School Board member. Mose has been Bill Jefferson's on-the-ground political muscle for years and is considered one of the best campaign operatives in the state. He is scheduled to stand trial in the bribery case in October — in the midst of his brother's re-election campaign.

The congressman's youngest sibling, Brenda Jefferson, has admitted to misprision of a felony in the nonprofit skimming case and has agreed to cooperate with the feds.

Last October, Jefferson's hand-picked district attorney, Eddie Jordan, resigned in disgrace after losing a federal civil rights case that cost the taxpayers more than $3.5 million in judgments and interest — and after running the office into the ground through sheer incompetence. The office controls dozens of unclassified jobs (read: campaign "volunteers") that are no longer beholden to Jefferson.

Also last fall, Jefferson lost his hold on the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, which controls oodles of campaign cash and marshals an army of volunteers in presidential election years. In the past, Jefferson tapped the committee's resources to build and sustain his local political machine. Now, the committee is led by James Gray, his former law partner and the father of state Sen. Cheryl Gray, who defeated Jalila Jefferson last fall.

His colleagues in Washington stripped him of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Loss of that seat undercuts Jefferson's ability to raise campaign funds.

Jefferson himself is scheduled to stand trial in northern Virginia on federal corruption charges on Dec. 2, exactly four weeks after the Nov. 4 general election for Congress.

With that much stress in his life, some might wonder how Jefferson even gets out of bed in the morning, let alone cobbles together another re-election campaign against a fresh set of opponents. But Bill Jefferson is nothing if not resilient. He announced on June 17 that he would seek another term. His announcement touted his experience and took credit for bringing federal hurricane relief dollars to his district. A recent poll Ed Renwick conducted for Moreno shows Jefferson with a solid base of almost 30 percent — which, if it holds, should be enough to get him into a runoff.

Can he pull off another miracle?

The odds appear stacked against him, but you can never count Bill Jefferson out.

Jefferson's 2006 re-election was an amazing comeback, but that race was unique in several key ways. For starters, it was run under the open primary system. In the primary, Jefferson faced 12 opponents — eight Democrats, three Republicans and one Libertarian. Thanks to the crowded field and a fractured white vote, Jefferson ran first in the open primary with 30 percent of the vote. He was followed by Carter Peterson, who got 21.7 percent and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who won 17.9 percent. Shepherd now faces federal money-laundering charges and likely won't run again. Republican Joe Lavigne ran fourth with 13.3 percent.

In a head-to-head runoff in December 2006 — with nothing else on the ballot — Jefferson beat back what many thought would be a slam-dunk for Carter Peterson.

He did it by turning the tables on her. He criticized her "liberal" voting record in support of gay rights (not a popular issue in black precincts) and benefited from then-Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee's ire at Carter Peterson for her comments in Spike Lee's post-Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. In the film, she criticized Gretna cops for turning back a crowd of mostly black storm victims who were trying to walk across the Crescent City Connection after being stranded for days in downtown New Orleans. The cops fired warning shots over the heads of the crowd, forcing them back to the East Bank. The incident became a flash point between the races and between the two sides of the river.

Amazingly, Jefferson skated on that issue. Not once was he asked if he felt the Gretna cops were within their rights to turn back the refugees, but he clearly loved seeing Sheriff Lee lambaste Carter Peterson for her comments. Lee, no stranger to racial politics, did everything he could to help Jefferson win. "Stay home," he told his constituents, most of them white. Many did, and Jefferson won with 55 percent of the vote.

This time around, everything is different.

Harry Lee is dead, and the coattails of his successor, Newell Normand, are untested. Two more years have passed. Carter Peterson is not running, but West Bank pols are ready to reprise the bridge issue against Richmond, an attorney who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in January 2006 against the city of Gretna and its police department.

Shepherd is sidelined by a federal indictment, but the Jefferson Parish establishment has another candidate: parish Council member Byron Lee, also of the West Bank. Curiously, Byron Lee is Shepherd's cousin and political ally.

Another key difference is the new rule book: This will be the first regular congressional election in more than three decades under a separate party primary system. To keep his job (assuming he runs as a Democrat), Jefferson will have to endure three punishing campaigns.

This will be the toughest election that Bill Jefferson has ever faced. The empire he built over the past 28 years is crumbling around him. His campaign is broke. His April campaign finance report showed slightly more than $57,000 in cash on hand and more than $256,000 in debt — more than $188,000 of which is owed to Jefferson himself. The next campaign finance report is due later this month. It will be telling.

The financial news is bad enough, but the real damage to Jefferson's political flank came in the form of federal indictments against his brother and consigliere, Mose, and his sister, Assessor Betty Jefferson. Mose and Betty have long provided the street sense and get-out-the-vote machinery that has not only kept Bill in Congress but also helped elect a bevy of Jefferson-supported allies to key local posts. Now, some of those old allies are lining up against him, like Richmond. When Richmond first ran for state representative in 1999, Jefferson supported him. Two years ago, Richmond stuck with the embattled congressman, even though it meant opposing Carter Peterson, his legislative colleague.

Now, Richmond says, it's time for a change. He's not the only one.

Here's a closer look at the major announced and potential candidates against Jefferson, starting with the Democrats who have announced:

Byron Lee — The councilman will be the Jefferson Parish candidate in a district that, post-Katrina, has seen voter turnout tilt toward suburban precincts. He'll have no trouble raising money from parish contractors or getting endorsements from parish officials. He claims to have $140,000 in campaign cash. His main strength is his geographic base in Jefferson, but that's a double-edged sword. New Orleans still holds 70 percent of the district's voters. He has one other weakness: his controversial handling of the distribution of hundreds of thousands in slush-fund dollars from a Jefferson Parish landfill. Some of his own constituents have griped that he gives too much to nonprofits with which he or his allies have ties. Sound familiar? His ace in the hole is the continued post-storm displacement of New Orleans voters. Many of them no doubt will return to vote for Barack Obama on Nov. 4, but will they also come back to vote for Bill Jefferson in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary? If not, it will be hard to keep Lee out of the runoff.

Helena Moreno — Untested politically, the former TV news reporter "chose a new assignment" and has lots of family money behind her, along with some encouraging poll numbers. Sometimes being a rookie is an advantage, but running for Congress is the big leagues, and politics is a full-contact sport. She is attractive and articulate, but her resume is weak politically. She cites her coverage of post-storm issues in Washington, but that's a bit like saying she covered some Saints games and thus should be the team's offensive coordinator. Nonetheless, if voters are looking for alternatives, she will stand out as the most out-of-the-box alternative to Jefferson. In a crowded Democratic primary, she will appeal to women and white voters, but she also will be Jefferson's dream runoff opponent. More than 75 percent of the district's registered Democrats are African American. District-wide, nearly 62 percent of the voters are black. In this race, she's the wild card.

Cedric Richmond — The three-term eastern New Orleans lawmaker is a young man on the rise, but he's relatively unknown outside his legislative district. Depending on who else runs, he could be the consensus New Orleans alternative. That's his plan. His strengths include legislative experience (he once chaired the Legislative Black Caucus), his base in eastern New Orleans, and his potential to capture major New Orleans endorsements. His main weakness is the fact that his legislative district was hit hard by Katrina. He'll need a lot of voters to come back on Sept. 6 (or mail in ballots) to put him into the runoff. Interestingly, Richmond's mom grew up with Jefferson in Lake Providence, La., and the congressman backed him when he first ran for state representative in 1999. Also of interest: He voted against the legislative pay raise and, prior to Gov. Bobby Jindal's veto, signed an affidavit declining it. If he makes the runoff, he'll be a favorite to become the next congressman. For him, the real race is the Sept. 6 Democratic primary.

The Republicans — No GOP candidate had announced as of last week, but two said they were considering the race: attorney Joe Lavigne and professor Gary Clark. Lavigne ran against Jefferson two years ago and finished fourth in the crowded open primary field of 13. If he chooses to run in the GOP primary, he would be the favorite but not a lock. GOP registration in the Second District is 75 percent white, but many Republicans recognize that a white has little chance on Nov. 4 against Jefferson or any other black Democrat — particularly when Barack Obama is poised to become America's first African-American president that same day. Enter Dr. Gary Clark. A black political scientist, Clark has extensive governmental experience, starting as a staffer at the Louisiana Legislature and later working for the late Congressman Gillis Long. Currently chair of Dillard's political science department, he also chairs the Finance Authority of New Orleans and previously chaired the Louisiana State Police Commission. He also served for seven years on the city's Civil Service Commission, and for eight years has hosted Dr. Clark Reports, a cable TV public affairs program. Clark acknowledges that conventional wisdom deems his victory "improbable," to which he responds, "These are not conventional times." Indeed.

Other Democrats — Kenya Smith, former intergovernmental relations director for Mayor Ray Nagin, resigned his post recently amid talk that he will run. Smith was embroiled in the recent city credit card controversy, but courting politicians was a big part of his job. Still, the matter presents him with a hurdle right out of the blocks if he runs — in addition to better-known opponents. He says he has made up his mind, but will not announce his decision until mid-week, adding that he will gladly (and easily) defend his city credit card use. Sounds like he's running. Meanwhile, sources close to state Sen. Cheryl Gray say she is considering the race, but she has offered no hints of her intentions. She became interested only after Carter Peterson opted out. City Councilman James Carter of Algiers also is said to be interested, but he reportedly will defer to Gray. The longer she takes to decide, the less likely his candidacy appears — which may be the plan. Finally, former Algiers Councilman Troy Carter could jump in at the last minute. He ran against Jefferson two years ago, finishing fifth. If he runs again, he'll still be a long shot — but he could be a spoiler for somebody else.

Overall, the field is shaping up as a volatile, uncertain mix. That shouldn't bother Jefferson. After all, he has turned adversity to his advantage all his life.

click to enlarge cover_story-17540.jpeg
click to enlarge cover_story-17540.jpeg
click to enlarge Byron Lee
  • Byron Lee
click to enlarge Helena Moreno
  • Helena Moreno
click to enlarge Cedric Richmond
  • Cedric Richmond
click to enlarge Joe Lavigne
  • Joe Lavigne
click to enlarge Dr. Gary Clark
  • Dr. Gary Clark
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