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Don't Count Jeff Out 

With all the trouble in the world bearing down on him, Congressman Bill Jefferson actually got some good news last week when a bevy of opponents qualified against him. Yep, having lots of opposition actually plays into Dollar Bill's hands -- as far as his re-election prospects are concerned.

Jefferson, of course, is up to his eyeballs in a federal bribery investigation these days. FBI agents raided his congressional office in May and seized a pile of computer records and other data -- more than nine months after agents raided his homes in New Orleans and Washington and extracted $90,000 in marked $100 bills from his freezer.

Since then, two of Jefferson's associates have pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to bribe an unnamed congressman, and of course we all know now who that congressman is.

Through some tough-minded lawyering and heavy-handed political power plays (with unexpected assistance from Republican House and Senate leaders, no less), Jefferson has managed to postpone the Justice Department's review of the evidence taken from his congressional office. That, in turn, has effectively delayed an indictment of Jefferson, probably until after the election. The primary is Nov. 7, with a runoff, if needed, Dec. 9.

It would have been so much tidier for Jefferson's opponents if the feds had managed to indict him by now. There's no shortage of political vultures circling overhead, but most were waiting for him to die, politically speaking, before swooping down to pick over his carcass.

Not Derrick Shepherd. The West Bank state senator announced early on that he was running against Jefferson no matter what. Shepherd lives in Marrero but represents a huge swath of New Orleans -- much of the Seventh and Eighth Wards, as well as UNO and several lakefront neighborhoods. He is a tireless campaigner who carries his home base of black West Bank precincts handily and consistently, and he wears well among white voters by campaigning in his military uniform. He has served in the Navy, the Marine Corps and remains in the Army JAG Corps.

Interestingly, Shepherd is not all that popular among his colleagues, who claim he is an opportunist. Coincidentally, that's also what David Vitter's legislative colleagues used to say about him; Vitter is now in the United States Senate.

When Shepherd made it clear he was running, he forced the hand of others who covet Jefferson's seat. By Friday afternoon (this column was written before qualifying closed), Jefferson had at least nine opponents, including state Rep. Karen Carter of New Orleans; former City Councilman Troy Carter (no relation to Karen) of Algiers; Republican newcomer Joe Lavigne of New Orleans; school board attorney and first-time candidate Regina Bartholomew of New Orleans; and several others.

It's no surprise that Shepherd and Karen Carter got into the race. Both are ambitious, and Carter's family is part of the BOLD political group in Central City, which has battled Jefferson for decades. She has long been seen as a potential successor to Jefferson -- though not necessarily so by the Jefferson faction. That makes Troy Carter's candidacy a wild card. His surname will surely cause some ballot confusion, and his West Bank base will cut into Shepherd's vote.

Having that many opponents virtually guarantees Jefferson a spot in the Dec. 9 runoff. The only question is who will be his opponent? With so many prominent and promising black opponents (including the two Carters, Shepherd and Bartholomew), it's possible that Jeff could face a white Republican -- Lavigne -- in the runoff, which would virtually assure his re-election in the overwhelmingly black district. (Apparently Lavigne hasn't seen the results of the recent mayor's race in New Orleans.)

This race is about more than mere numbers, of course. Jefferson and his family have one of the state's most effective political machines, and no one is better at street campaigning that Jefferson's brother Mose, who always runs the congressman's operations locally. And this time they're defending Masada, so they'll spare no expense and give their foes no quarter.

Given Jefferson's keen political skills, the natural sympathy that some voters accord a guy on the ropes -- particularly one who's being "harassed" by the feds and who has not, as of yet, been formally accused of anything -- and the potential for his African-American foes to chop up the black vote that no longer supports or tolerates him, Jefferson is almost in the catbird seat.

Unless, of course, he winds up with a black opponent in the runoff, in which case all bets are off.

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