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Bill Jefferson and Joseph Cao 

Very Different Tracks

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Former Congressman Bill Jefferson caught one more lucky break last week — a small one, but a man in Dollar Bill's position has to count his blessings these days — when a federal judge delayed his trial on 16 corruption counts until May 26. The delay notwithstanding, Jefferson appears headed to jail unless the U.S. Supreme Court gives him his luckiest break of all and throws out most of the charges against him, which his attorneys will ask the high court to do.

  Meanwhile, the unlikely giant killer who unseated Jefferson on Dec. 6, new Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao, is on a very different track. Cao helped negotiate the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds for area hospitals, which have been reeling after treating thousands of indigent patients (without adequate reimbursement by the feds) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He also landed a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as well as the Homeland Security Committee. Both are important to local recovery and economic development efforts.

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  In his early votes, Cao sided mostly with the GOP caucus but broke ranks on one critical vote — in support of the S-CHIP bill to provide health care to poor kids. He was unapologetic to his Republican colleagues afterward, telling The Times-Picayune, "First and foremost, I do believe that children, especially children of indigent families, should have access to health care, and I believe that we, as a governing body, have the duty to take care of those children who are in need and do not have access to health care."

  Finally, a Republican who can be a compassionate conservative. I wonder if House Minority Leader John Boehner still thinks Cao is "the future of the Republican Party."

  While a Democrat no doubt would have voted even more often with the prevailing political views of Louisiana's Second Congressional District, Cao is not afraid to buck the GOP — as he promised during his warm reception by the party caucus.

  (On that note, I should point out that this newspaper took no position in the Cao-Jefferson race of Dec. 6. We took that position because Cao repeatedly equivocated on several key issues during our interview. We thought at the time that his vagueness masked a right-wing agenda. Turns out he was trying not to let the RNC know that he has a heart. Good for him.)

  It will be fun to watch Cao navigate the Beltway's swirling political waters. He could be full of surprises. At the same time, it will be sad to watch the Jefferson saga continue to unfold. I'm not sad for Jefferson, but rather for the people who put their faith in him over the years. If he goes to trial, the sordid details of Jefferson's venality will put Louisiana back in the news in much the same way Gov. Rod Blagojevich's indictment has turned an unfavorable spotlight on Illinois.

  In granting Jefferson his latest trial delay, Judge T. S. Ellis III noted he did not think Jefferson had a good legal argument. Rather, the judge simply looked at his docket and realized that May 26 was the first open date for an expected four-week trial.

  We should know by May 1 if the U.S. Supreme Court will throw Jefferson yet another lifeline. By then, we'll also know a lot more about the man who ended Dollar Bill's run of lucky political breaks.

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