Until August 2005.
That's when federal agents raided his homes in New Orleans and Washington, seizing records and pulling $90,000 in marked $100 bills out of his freezer. Fifteen months later, Jefferson faced a large field of challengers but pulled off a victory in the December 2006 runoff against state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson. Six months later, he was indicted on 16 counts of bribery, conspiracy, racketeering and other federal charges. His lawyers have been able to delay his trial in the Northern District of Virginia until Dec. 2 and he may get yet another delay but few doubt that the end is near for the embattled Jefferson. His fellow Democrats in the House have stripped him of his seat on the powerful Ways & Means Committee, and his political stature has fallen faster than a bad bank stock.
Locally, Jefferson's fortunes have been no better. His daughter Jalila, a former state representative, lost a tough fight last November for the state Senate seat that launched her father's career in 1979. His brother and closest adviser, Mose Jefferson, faces two sets of federal criminal charges; his sister, Fourth District Assessor Betty Jefferson, and a niece also face federal charges; and another sister, Brenda, has already pleaded guilty to federal charges and is said to be cooperating against her siblings.
The congressman's once-dominant political machine, the Progressive Democrats, is leaderless and rudderless without Mose and Bill Jefferson at the helm. They have lost their grip on the local Democratic machinery, and now the congressman is days away from what could be his last hurrah.
Six challengers hope to face him in a certain Nov. 4 runoff, but the latest poll has him precipitously close to not even making the cut.
Through it all, Jefferson has kept his composure. He has shunned most debates and instead has focused on face-to-face meetings with his most stalwart supporters: ministers, unions and church congregations. His campaign is virtually broke, yet he soldiers on.
And no one is writing him off.
Here's a closer look at all the candidates in that Second District race: James Carter, 39 Professional & Political: Attorney, first director of federally funded anti-crime Weed and Seed program; current New Orleans City Council member, District C (Algiers, French Quarter, Treme, Faubourg Marigny, Bywater).
Priorities in Congress: 100 percent federal funding for flood protection; amend the Stafford Act to remove the requirement of "up-front" money by local governments; expand the federally funded anti-crime COPS (community policing) program.
Other Issues: As a councilman, helped lead the fight for an inspector general at City Hall and an independent monitor of NOPD; criticizes Jefferson for losing influence and failing to bring resources to New Orleans in the wake of his indictment.
Defining Quote: "Character is what you do when no one is looking."
Key Endorsements: Orleans and Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committees (the latter endorsement is shared with Byron Lee), the New Orleans Coalition, fellow City Council members Stacy Head, Shelley Midura, Cynthia Hedge Morrell and Jackie Clarkson. Troy Carter, 44 Professional & Political: Consultant, former New Orleans City Council member, former state representative. Ran for Congress against Jefferson in 2006; finished fifth. Ran for mayor in 2002; finished fifth.
Priorities in Congress: Getting a larger share of revenues from offshore drilling; getting full funding for coastal restoration projects; and getting "complete Category 5 hurricane protection" for southeast Louisiana.
Other Issues: Favors an independent third-party "assemblage of engineers and planners" to oversee the Corps of Engineers; opposes the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment (to put a ban on gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution), but does not support gay marriage; favors civil unions.
Defining Quote: "I'm a businessman. I've been an insider, and I've been an outsider looking in."
Key Endorsements: Algiers Political Action Committee, Westbank Ministerial Alliance, Algiers Women of Excellence. William Jefferson, 61 Professional & Political: Attorney, member of Congress for nine terms; former state Senator from New Orleans.
Priorities in Congress: Until his indictment in June 2007, he was a leading member of the House Ways & Means Committee, which writes tax measures; he also has been a key player in local and international trade issues. His Democratic colleagues stripped him of his Ways & Means seat soon after his indictment.
Other Issues: Since the FBI raids on his homes and offices, Jefferson has been unable to shake the intense media glare and scrutiny that seem to follow him everywhere, particularly after the feds hit him with a 16-count criminal indictment; he is scheduled to stand trial in northern Virginia on Dec. 2.
Defining Quote: He has promised but not yet produced an "honorable explanation" for the $90,000 in marked $100 bills that FBI agents pulled from his freezer in August 2005.
Key Endorsements: AFL-CIO locals across the metro area. Byron Lee, 47 Professional & Political: Businessman, Jefferson Parish Council member from District 3 since 2004 (Marrero, Harvey, Westwego and a small part of East Bank).
Priorities in Congress: Housing, health care and homeland security. His ads promise to reopen Charity Hospital downtown and Methodist Hospital in eastern New Orleans.
Other Issues: Supports increased offshore oil drilling to ease prices and give Louisiana a greater share of mineral revenues; shadowed somewhat by the indictment of his third cousin and political ally, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who ran against Jefferson in 2006, finishing third.
Defining Quote: "People are sick. People are dying. I'm not afraid to go to Washington and fight for health care."
Key Endorsements: Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, Jefferson Assessor Lawrence Chehardy, and virtually all Jefferson Parish elected officials; split the Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committee endorsement with James Carter. Helena Moreno, 30 Professional & Political: Former TV newscaster making her first bid for public office.
Priorities in Congress: More federal money for coastal restoration, a larger share of offshore mineral royalties, improving health-care delivery in greater New Orleans and improving education.
Other Issues: On the stump, her No. 1 issue is corruption. She says the perception of corruption is what got her interested in politics. However, in an early debate, she was stumped when asked to discuss the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA and other key federal disaster aid. Since then, she has said the Stafford Act should be reformed or scrapped in favor of "the Helena Moreno Act," which she says would help local communities recover lost tax revenues after a catastrophe.
Defining Quote: "I understand that some say that a vote for me is a vote for Bill Jefferson. If I get into a runoff with Bill Jefferson, I'm completely convinced we will beat him."
Key Endorsements: Regular Democratic Organization; Forum for Equality. Cedric Richmond, 34 Professional & Political: Attorney, state representative from eastern New Orleans since 2000.
Priorities in Congress: Reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons, encouraging domestic drilling, passing a college tuition tax credit and letting taxpayers deduct the cost of private health insurance.
Other Issues: Coastal restoration, which he says must be presented to Congress in economic terms. "I'd point out to them the amount of money the United States was losing when we had the oil spill in the Mississippi River. When it affects their farmers and their manufacturers then you'll get their attention." In Baton Rouge, he voted against the controversial legislative pay raise.
Defining Quote: "Exxon last year spent more money on bonuses for their top five executives than they did on research and development for renewable energy."
Key Endorsements: Alliance for Good Government; The Times-Picayune, Louisiana Weekly, and Gambit Weekly; state Reps. Neil Abramson, Jeff Arnold, Walt Leger and J.P. Morrell; state Sens. Ann Duplessis, Cheryl Gray and Danny Martiny; Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau Jr.; Clerk of Civil Court Dale Atkins; Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell; Assessors Tom Arnold and Erroll Williams. Kenya Smith, 34 Professional & Political: Attorney, former executive counsel and later intergovernmental relations director for Mayor Ray Nagin.
Priorities in Congress: Getting $800 million for the Sewerage and Water Board to revamp its infrastructure; adding a "catastrophe" designation to the Stafford Act to remove red tape; ending the "wind vs. flood" debate with regard to insurance coverage.
Other Issues: Congress should exercise greater oversight over the Corps of Engineers and consider letting local agencies compete with the Corps to manage flood-protection projects; spur economic development in New Orleans by insisting that federal recovery agencies spend "core recovery dollars" on contracts with local firms.
Defining Quote: [To Helena Moreno at a forum at Tulane University] "Would you agree that the Stafford Act needs to be overhauled? And if you do agree, would you give your top three recommendations?"
Key Endorsements: None. Smith says he wants "to focus on issues and not endorsements."