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Jefferson on the Bubble 

Congressman Bill Jefferson is in the fight of his life, and it's anybody's guess as to how he'll fare. The eight-term New Orleans Democrat has not had a serious challenger since he first won the seat in 1990. Now he's got 12 opponents, nine of them Democrats and at least four of them with a shot at making the Dec. 9 runoff. No one expects the race to be decided Nov. 7.

Jefferson's Second Congressional District includes most of New Orleans -- except for Lakeview and parts of Uptown -- as well as south Kenner and most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank. Officially, it has a solid black majority, most of which is on the East Bank of Orleans Parish.

Since Hurricane Katrina, however, there's no telling who lives where or, more importantly, who will show up to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7. In contrast to the mayor's race last spring, no provisions have been made for satellite voting centers to accommodate persons still displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Early and absentee voting will occur, as usual, at parish courthouses.

Displaced voters still living outside New Orleans must request ballots in order to vote and can do so via the Internet (www.sos.louisiana.gov). That process involves downloading and filling out a form, signing an affidavit and returning the application and ballot request to the Registrar of Voters office by Nov. 4 -- and then waiting for a ballot in the mail, which must be filled out and returned by Nov. 7. Faxed returns are allowed.

Thousands of New Orleans voters cast their ballots that way in the mayor's race, but far fewer did so on Sept. 30. No doubt Jefferson, who heads up south Louisiana's most effective get-out-the-vote organization, will pull out all the stops to get his voters to the polls on or before Nov. 7. A huge segment of Jefferson's base is among those displaced voters, and the difficulties entailed in requesting and casting ballots could seriously affect his chances -- particularly after more than 14 months of voter displacement.

Many suspect that the district's West Bank precincts, which historically accounted for a minority of the district's electorate, could well produce a majority of the votes cast in the primary. The West Bank was relatively unscathed during Katrina.

That bodes well for the two major Democratic challengers who live on the West Bank -- state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero and former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter of Algiers. Jefferson is splitting his Central City and East Bank base with state Rep. Karen Carter, whose district includes Central City and who has emerged, with Shepherd, as Jefferson's major Democratic foe.

Geopolitics aside, the extremely low voter turnout in the Sept. 30 statewide special election has bolstered enthusiasm in the camp of Jefferson's most visible Republican challenger, political newcomer Joe Lavigne. Less than 12 percent of New Orleans voters went to the polls on Sept. 30, and turnout in black precincts was less than 7 percent. Moreover, the four Republican candidates for secretary of state captured more than 17,200 votes citywide -- more than 54 percent. Turnout should be higher on Nov. 7, but it's anyone's guess as to how much.

At the first candidate forum last week, the hot topic was the ongoing federal bribery investigation of Jefferson. Under the law, Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty. On the campaign trail, however, the presumption of innocence doesn't even make the radar screen.

Jefferson's opponents are making hay over the question of whether the embattled congressman can continue to be effective. He already has been stripped of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, fueling criticism among his challengers that he no longer is able to deliver for what is arguably the nation's neediest district.

To make matters worse, national Democratic leaders have written off Louisiana as far as street money is concerned. That means Jefferson will have to lube his turnout machine with his own grease -- and the latest campaign finance reports show him raising less money than Karen Carter during the most recent reporting period.

Being the incumbent usually carries significant advantages. That will cut both ways for Jefferson this time around.

click to enlarge Under the law, Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty. On - the campaign trail, however, the presumption of innocence - doesn't even make the radar screen. - A.J. SISCO
  • A.J. Sisco
  • Under the law, Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty. On the campaign trail, however, the presumption of innocence doesn't even make the radar screen.
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