Congressman Bill Jefferson's impending criminal trial can be awkwardly yet accurately described as the elephant in the room of Saturday's Democratic primary in Louisiana's Second Congressional District. Every one of his challengers got into the race because of the federal government's 16-count indictment against Jefferson, yet none refers to the congressman's legal troubles other than obliquely.
Ethics, integrity, scandal and effectiveness are the common buzzwords emanating from the mouths of Jefferson's six Democratic opponents. Their pitches at various public forums almost all of which Jefferson has ducked have comprised a political road show across the district, which includes most of New Orleans, almost all of the West Bank (including Algiers) and a portion of the East Bank of Jefferson Parish.
For his part, Jefferson has concentrated his limited resources on personal appearances in front of church and senior citizen groups his hard-core base. He doesn't need to build name recognition; he needs to reconnect with voters who have grown accustomed to voting for him over the past three decades 18 years of which he spent in Congress and convince them he can still deliver. It's a tough sell to many voters, but not necessarily to African Americans who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement; they adhere to the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" more than most.
All of which makes Jefferson's bid for a 10th term a study in role reversal. Typically, upstart challengers are the ones who wage "grass-roots campaigns" (a political euphemism for seriously under-funded and largely disorganized efforts) against an impenetrable phalanx of political and financial support for a deeply entrenched incumbent. This is especially true in congressional races. In the Second District, however, Jefferson is the one whose campaign resources are so thin that he can barely afford radio time. His campaign debt is roughly a quarter-million dollars, though he owes most of it to himself, and his once-dominant political organization (read: get-out-the-vote machine), the Progressive Democrats, is in shambles.
Meanwhile, his challengers have significant war chests, professional media handlers and multimedia advertising campaigns with carefully scripted messages, Web sites and viral marketing strategies. Those challengers include:
James Carter, a 39-year-old attorney and New Orleans City Council member from Algiers who won his first election in 2006.
Troy Carter, a 44-year-old former city councilman and former Algiers state lawmaker who lost a bid for mayor in 2002 and then ran fifth against Jefferson two years ago. He currently heads a consulting firm.
Byron Lee, a 47-year-old businessman and Jefferson Parish Council member from the West Bank. He is in his second term on the Jefferson Parish Council.
Helena Moreno, a 30-year-old former TV news reporter and anchor who gave up her gig on WDSU-TV to seek public office for the first time.
Cedric Richmond, a 34-year-old attorney and state representative from eastern New Orleans who is now serving his third legislative term.
Kenya Smith, a 34-year-old attorney and former aide to Mayor Ray Nagin who left the city's employ to run against Jefferson.
In one form or another, all of the challengers are taking aim at Jefferson. And yet, despite Jefferson's precipitous fall from grace in Washington (he has been stripped of his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee and has become a pariah among House leaders), despite his Dec. 2 trial date in the Northern District of Virginia, and despite his virtually nonexistent public campaign, many consider him the odds-on favorite to land a runoff berth.
In fact, depending on who else makes the runoff (assuming he makes the cut), the notion of Jefferson pulling off one more miracle is not that far-fetched.
Like many elections, this one could turn on turnout and demographics. Here's how the numbers break down:
Start with the fact that this is a Democratic primary in which only registered Democrats as well as "no party" and "other party" voters can cast ballots. According to state voter registration figures, more than 70 percent of those eligible to vote are African American.
Now look at historic turnout figures, which, since Katrina, reflect diminished levels of black population and voter participation. Even with a substantially lower black turnout (in proportion to white voter turnout), a solid majority of the voters on Sept. 6 are likely to be black.
Also consider the fact that the first Saturday in September is not a traditional election day in Louisiana. That means a lower-than-average voter turnout across the board, maybe even in the teens, percentage-wise. Traditionally, that means "chronic" voters are the mostly likely to show up.
Who are chronic voters?
More often than not, they are older than 50. And in the black community, that's Bill Jefferson's base.
Those factors keep Jefferson going, but others can affect the outcome just as easily. Concerns about Jefferson's legal troubles can change a lot of minds. There's also the matter of geopolitics. The West Bank has three native sons in the race, one of whom is the sole candidate from Jefferson Parish. The West Bank voting population is largely intact in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; not so on the East Bank.
Finally, money remains the mother's milk of politics. For the first time in 20 years, the man known as "Dollar Bill" is woefully short of cash. Two years ago, Jefferson stunned everyone when he beat state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson in the runoff. But that was before he got indicted.
And before his campaign went broke.
Veteran media consultant Jim Carvin always tells his clients, "Every election is a unique event." Jefferson's last campaign drove home that point. This one could do likewise but not necessarily with the same result.
Going into the election season, the tide was clearly running against Jefferson. The task for each of Jefferson's challengers has been to distinguish himself or herself from the pack. We asked each of them to list three bills he or she would introduce as the new member of Congress, and we followed up with questions on specific issues. Here's a closer look at each:
Troy Carter promises to focus on getting a greater share of Outer Continental Shelf revenues for Louisiana, getting full funding for coastal restoration projects, and getting "complete category 5 hurricane protection" for southeast Louisiana. He says an independent third-party "assemblage of engineers and planners" should oversee the Corps of Engineers to provide "professional analysis" of Corps projects. Asked how he would vote on the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment (to put a ban on gay marriage in the federal constitution), Carter says he would vote against it. He adds that he does not support gay marriage, however. Instead, he favors civil unions and reminds voters that, while he was on the City Council, the city recognized domestic partnerships for purposes of employee benefits. Although he served two terms on the council and one in the state Legislature, Carter says his recent experience in the private sector best prepares him for Congress. "I'm a businessman," he says. "I've been an insider, and I've been an outsider looking in."
James Carter says he would push to make the feds pay 100 percent of the cost of flood protection, amend the Stafford Act to remove the requirement of "up front" money by local governments, and expand the federally funded anti-crime COPS program, which focuses on community policing. As a new member of the City Council, Carter gets high marks from reformers for helping create and fund the Inspector General's Office and the Independent Police Monitor. "Character is what you do when no one is looking," he says, adding that Jefferson's legal problems have made him "second-to-the-bottom in his ability to garner resources" for his district. To those who say Carter does not have enough experience in government, he says the "past paradigm" of sending state legislators to Congress has not worked. Carter has endorsements from the Orleans and Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committees, the New Orleans Coalition, and fellow Councilmembers Stacy Head, Shelley Midura, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jackie Clarkson.
Byron Lee says he would concentrate on housing, health care and homeland security while in Congress. Asked to give his "elevator pitch" on the national importance of Louisiana's coast, Lee says: "Louisiana produces 27 percent of the oil production in the United States. We're number two in terms of crude-oil production. We're number two in storage facilities for oil in the United States." He adds that increased oil and gas production in the Gulf would give Louisiana money for wetlands restoration. He has been criticized for his political ties to his third cousin, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who currently is under house arrest and federal indictment. "I make no apologies about being related to Derrick," Lee says, "but the one thing I can tell you is that I've always been my own man." For example, he notes that Shepherd endorsed Jefferson in the 2006 runoff, but Lee endorsed Carter Peterson. In this race, he has endorsements from virtually all Jefferson Parish officials.
Helena Moreno is the only nonblack candidate and the only female in the race. That could be enough to get her into the runoff. Given the district's demographics, there's also no doubt that Jefferson would prefer Moreno as a runoff opponent. "I understand that some say that a vote for me is a vote for Bill Jefferson," Moreno says. "If I get into a runoff with Bill Jefferson, I'm completely convinced we will beat him." Her priorities in Congress would be coastal restoration, a larger share of OCS royalties, improving health-care delivery in greater New Orleans and improving education. She still struggles in some quarters, however, to be taken seriously as a political figure. At a recent Broadmoor Improvement Association forum, she was stumped when asked how she would improve the Stafford Act, which governs the flow of post-disaster federal aid. Now she's promoting the idea of a "Helena Moreno Act" to address large-scale disasters, which the Stafford Act fails to contemplate.
Cedric Richmond says his congressional priorities would be 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. How would he convince his colleagues to restore Louisiana's coast? "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," he says. "When it affects their farmers and their manufacturers then you'll get their attention." Richmond's Achilles heel is a pending bar association complaint against him after the state Supreme Court disqualified him from a 2005 City Council election, ruling that he was not "domiciled" at the residence he claimed. The bar's disciplinary counsel claims he lied on his qualifying papers. He says the bar admits he lived there, "so it's purely a legal question as to my "intent' to live there indefinitely." He says it's a nonissue because congressmen can't practice law anyway.
Kenya Smith says he will push for the $800 million that the Sewerage and Water Board needs to revamp its infrastructure, add a "catastrophe" designation to the Stafford Act to remove red tape, and seek to end the "wind vs. flood" debate with regard to insurance coverage. He says Congress should exercise greater oversight over the Corps of Engineers and consider letting local agencies compete with the Corps to manage flood-protection projects. As a top aide to Mayor Nagin, it was Smith's job to maintain relationships with decision-makers in Congress, Baton Rouge and locally and that meant incurring occasional entertainment expenses. He says news reports about his use of a city credit card to entertain elected officials last year were overblown because they did not reflect how much money the city got from the state and the feds as a result of his efforts. Turning the tables, he landed what may be the best shot of the campaign on Jefferson: Last year, the Senate passed a version of federal recovery aid that was very favorable to New Orleans but the House passed a version that significantly reduced the city's benefits. "The House version ultimately passed," he says, suggesting that if Jefferson had wielded more clout, he could have used it to get New Orleans a better deal.