Jefferson's popularity with voters sparks debate

NEW ORLEANS -- In one breath, people here talk about William Jefferson as an embattled U.S. congressman under indictment on bribery charges. In another, they talk about him as their man in Washington, a shoo-in for re-election.

Jefferson's decisive victory in last week's Democratic runoff leaves him poised to claim a 10th term in the House of Representatives at the same time that he is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

And for a state that has long battled an image as a bastion for unscrupulous politicians, his victory has sparked heated debate between those who feel his victory is a blemish and those who say his get-it-done style is what New Orleans needs.

"There's a mixture of incredibility, a mixture of embarrassment," said Rob Couhig, a New Orleans attorney who ran for mayor as a Republican in 2004. "There's also a resignation that this is the way it is."

Jefferson, the first black Louisiana congressman since Reconstruction, is charged in a 16-count federal indictment with bribery, racketeering and money-laundering charges. Federal prosecutors allege Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes, including $90,000 that investigators found in the freezer of his Washington home. Prosecutors allege that was payment for his political clout to steer business deals to Nigerian companies.

Jefferson, through his chief of staff Eugene Green, denied the charges and has steadfastly maintained he did nothing wrong.

Jefferson's trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 2 in Virginia; meanwhile, his re-election Dec. 6 is virtually assured because his district is heavily Democratic and he faces a Republican challenger.

Green said he believes Jefferson remains popular because many in his district, the only predominantly African-American one in the state, perceive him as being a key figure in helping the region bounce back from the wallop of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

This summer, Jefferson helped lead a delegation of House leaders, including Democratic Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, on a tour of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"I don't think you can be in Congress as long as he's been without having made good relations with your colleagues," Green said. "It's because of those relationships that he's been so effective."

Tracie Washington, managing director of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a New Orleans-based civil rights and legal advocacy group, said Jefferson has been instrumental in introducing her to key congressmen and helping forge housing legislation.

"Without fail, we've been able to count on his advocacy and influence in Washington to assist on key issues," she said.

Jefferson's pending criminal trial could reduce his effectiveness. He's already lost a key seat on the Ways and Means Committee and could be passed over for a spot on the Homeland Security Committee. Knowlegis, a research firm that focuses on Congress, recently ranked Jefferson 434th out of 435 representatives in power rankings.

Jefferson's trial could further complicate matters. If he's found guilty and removed from the House of Representatives, a special election will be needed to fill his seat, said Jacques Berry, a spokesman for the Louisiana secretary of State.

Five days before the Nov. 4 election, conversation at "Politics with a Punch," a monthly, politically themed gathering in New Orleans, quickly turned to Jefferson's upcoming runoff election and his pending criminal trial.

No one rushed to the congressman's defense, said Jeff Crouere, a radio talk show personality who hosts the gathering of newsmakers and comedians.

"There was a lot of dismay that he was in a position to go back to Congress," Crouere said.

The buzz around Jefferson continued after the election, when callers to Crouere's talk show voiced that other prominent African-American candidates, free of the baggage of federal indictments, should be given a shot at Jefferson's historic seat, he said.