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Embattled Jefferson basks in La.'s affection

They line up to kiss him, hug him, slap hands, give him their blessing. William Jefferson, an eight-term House Democrat enmeshed in an FBI bribery investigation, is feeling good about his re-election prospects.
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Rep. Bill Jefferson, D-La., though involved in an FBI bribery investigation is feelng good about his chances against 12 challengers in the Nov. 7th election.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They line up to kiss him, hug him, slap hands, give him their blessing. William Jefferson, an eight-term House Democrat enmeshed in an FBI bribery investigation, is feeling good about his re-election prospects.

"All right!" a relaxed Jefferson warbles into the ear of a female supporter who offers her cheek to his puckered lips. "How are you?" she asks, one of several fans at the entrance of a nursing home he's picked as a campaign stop.

"Doing fine, doing fine," Jefferson repeats like a line he's picked up from a self-help manual on being upbeat. He moves onto the next body, the next warm exchange. More hugs, more kisses, more brotherly love.

Down here, allegations of wrongdoing aren't necessarily the kiss of death for politicians.

"All of them are doing basically the same thing - but he just got caught," Herman Hill, 53, said about Jefferson. Wearing a "Don't Mess With Jeff" campaign pin, Hill grinned when asked to explain his views on politicians: "They're stealing. They say they want to help people, but they're helping themselves."

For the record, Jefferson, 59, has denied bribery allegations stemming from $90,000 in marked $100 bills found in his freezer. He's known as a Bible-quoting Baptist who abstains from alcohol and tobacco.

But for all his optimism about being re-elected, Jefferson was denied the endorsement of his own party and is hoping the Nov. 7 open primary sends him into a Dec. 9 runoff. State Rep. Karen Carter secured the endorsement, and Democratic officials have quietly given her some fundraising help.

New Orleans' voter turnout big factor
Jefferson could win outright by getting more than half the vote, but with 12 challengers, several of them rising stars in city politics, that's unlikely.

If Jefferson makes it to a runoff, his opponent is likely to garner the vast majority of white voters, a largely unforgiving 30 percent of the electorate when it comes to Jefferson's alleged misdeeds. Also, his challenger will likely be a fellow black candidate capable of slicing into his bread and butter - middle-age and retired Protestant black voters.

No white candidate - including the leading Republican - has fared well in pre-election polls in this predominantly black and historically Democratic district.

"He has enough voters who are loyal that will get him into a runoff ... But every time we talk about New Orleans it depends on who votes," said pollster Bernie Pinsonat.

That's hard to pin down because Hurricane Katrina changed the city's demographics and displaced tens of thousands of voters.

Politics of Hurricane Katrina
Jefferson, like his opponents, has campaigned at FEMA trailer parks and plans radio ads in Houston and Atlanta, which took in many Katrina evacuees. He believes displaced voters could make up a third of the final vote tally.

The registrar of voters is uncertain how many voters remain displaced from Jefferson's district. They may vote early - by returning to the city - or by mail absentee ballot. As they did in the mayoral race earlier this year, many displaced voters living in the region but outside the city are likely to choose to drive in on Election Day.

Jefferson arrived on the New Orleans scene in the 1970s as a Harvard-educated lawyer from the backwaters of north Louisiana, the sixth of 10 children brought up in a three-room country home. By 1980, he represented New Orleans in the state Senate. At 42, he became the first black from Louisiana in the House since Reconstruction.

'Dollar Bill' Jefferson
The law firm Jefferson founded became the largest black-owned practice in the South. He created a political organization, the Progressive Democrats, which fielded candidates for the school board, assessors' races, state House seats and mayoral contests.

But he was criticized because his law firm took lucrative contracts from Southern University and the attorney general's office while he served in the state Senate. But no punitive action was taken.

Questions lingered. Records show Jefferson defaulted on loans and was sued for poor maintenance of his extensive real estate holdings. He also overdrew the bank account of his congressional office, which Jefferson attributed to sloppy bookkeeping.

"That's why he's called 'Dollar Bill,'" said Susan Howell, a political analyst with the University of New Orleans. "He's been hobnobbing with the highest and lowest."

It was Dutch Morial, the city's first black mayor, who dubbed him "Dollar Bill Jefferson" because of his purported fondness for money.

FBI Investigation
Jefferson's latest money trouble stems from allegations in an FBI affidavit that he accepted $100,000 in cash in 2005 from an FBI informant in a scheme to bribe Nigerian telecommunications officials. All but $10,000 of the cash was found four days later in the freezer of his Washington home, the FBI said.

Two of Jefferson's associates pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges; one, a Kentucky businessman, admitted paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a phony company headed by Jefferson's wife and family to obtain favors from the congressman.

"Who knows what goes on in your house? Nobody tells me where to put my dollars. If I to want to carry them in my pocket, if I want to carry in my sock, that's my business," said Helen Lang, the president of the Section 8 Resident Council, a community group that has endorsed Jefferson.

Jefferson responds to the criticism with his own fire. After a recent debate, Jefferson said he was "not going to tolerate" his rivals presenting themselves as "being on the ethical high horse."

He's won endorsements from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and several prominent politicians.

Still, Jefferson's opponents aren't letting him off the hook.

"Our national image is at stake in his election," Carter said. "I think it's time to restore credibility and honesty to this office."