On Saturday, Dec. 6, voters in the Second Congressional District will choose between embattled Democratic incumbent William Jefferson and three challengers from other parties — Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao, Green Party candidate Malik Rahim and Libertarian Gregory Kahn. Thanks to his 18 years in Congress and the 16-count federal indictment against him in an alleged bribery and racketeering scheme, Jefferson is known in all corners of the district. Not so his opponents. The demographics of the district clearly favor Jefferson, but the incumbent's baggage is forcing traditionally Democratic voters to look at their other options, as they should. After looking at all the options ourselves, we cannot lend our support to any of the candidates.
Some disaffected Democrats are planning to vote for Jefferson on the theory that he'll be removed soon, giving them another chance to elect a better candidate. This plan ignores a larger truth: What message does it send to the rest of America, which has proven its willingness to take a chance on change with the election of Barack Obama, when Louisiana insists on sending back such a fundamentally flawed character to represent us in Congress? Jefferson was returned to office in 2006 by people who didn't necessarily like him but trusted him to bring home the goods. Now he can't even do that; he has been stripped of his committee posts, other Congress members shun him, and fending off his legal entanglements has become his top priority.
His leading opponent, Cao, strikes us as a Republican analogue to Obama — a self-made man with a fascinating history and an impressive determination. His time in the Jesuit seminary, his work with immigration law, and his service to New Orleans' Vietnamese community all demonstrate the marks of a man who can embrace nuance and various points of view. But in our conversation with Cao, he was too nuanced. On topics such as embryonic stem-cell research, he preferred to treat controversial social issues like abstract philosophical questions. More troubling to us is his enthusiastic endorsement by the Baton Rouge-based Family Research Council, the ultra-conservative organization headed by former state Rep. Tony Perkins. In 1996, Perkins paid David Duke more than $80,000 for his mailing list of bigots; as late as 2001, Perkins was addressing the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. When asked about this endorsement, Cao claimed not to know about it, a position we found hard to believe, as it's listed on his campaign's Web site. While he's clearly the most intelligent candidate in the race and has an admirable record of service, Cao's equivocation on social issues does nothing to dispel our fears that he will take a hard right turn in Washington.
Rahim and Kahn both bring unique perspectives to this race. Rahim has done admirable work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with his organization Common Ground, but we think he'd be more effective in that role than he would in Congress. Kahn espouses the Libertarian Party's individual liberty/small government platform, but his grasp of Washington issues seems the weakest of all the candidates (he was unable to name a single committee on which he'd like to serve, for instance).
As much as we'd like to endorse anyone over Dollar Bill, we cannot. Nor can we subscribe to the cynical view that sending Jefferson back to Congress, hoping he'll be replaced soon, serves Louisiana citizens in any way. It's a terrible message. We therefore make no recommendation in the Second District race. Instead, we recommend that voters follow their own consciences. Unfortunately, whatever you do in the voting booth, you may end up holding your nose.
Morrell for State Senate
Also on the ballot this Saturday is a special election to fill the unexpired term of former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to federal money laundering conspiracy charges. In this contest, we recommend state Rep. J.P. Morrell.
In the short time that he has been in the Legislature, Morrell has impressed us as smart, thoughtful and a straight shooter. He has similarly impressed his colleagues and has developed a reputation for reaching across party, racial and geographic lines to build coalitions in support of his ideas. He has served on some of the most important committees in the House — Appropriations, Budget and the Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs — all of which directly benefit his district and the city. His goals in the Senate include establishing a metro-wide crime district, authorizing "development districts" in residential neighborhoods similar to the Downtown Development District, and getting a vocational high school up and running. We like all these ideas, and we recommend J.P. Morrell for a promotion to the Senate.