U.S. Rep. William Jefferson easily defeated his fellow Democratic opponent in a runoff election Saturday, despite an ongoing federal bribery investigation.
In complete but unofficial returns, Jefferson, Louisiana’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, received 57 percent of the vote over state Rep. Karen Carter, who had 43 percent.
Carter was unable to capitalize on a scandal that included allegations the FBI found $90,000 in bribe money in Jefferson’s freezer.
In a concession speech, Carter embraced family members and pledged to work with Jefferson, especially on the area’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
“I guess the people are happy with the status-quo,” she said.
The eight-term incumbent was forced into the runoff against Carter when he failed to win 50 percent of the vote in a crowded open multiparty primary. Carter had sought to become the first black woman from Louisiana elected to Congress.
Jefferson described his win as “a great moment and I thank almighty God for making it possible.” He called for regional unity to focus on the hurricane recovery and in bringing back evacuees who are still scattered across the country.
Embarrassing for Democrats?
His presence in Washington could be embarrassing for Democrats, who won control of Congress on a platform of cleaning up corruption. In June, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., led a successful effort to remove Jefferson from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee as the probe unfolded.
He was accused of taking bribes from a company seeking lucrative contracts in the Nigerian telecommunications market. He has not been charged with any crime and denies any wrongdoing.
The scandal turned the race into a debate largely divided along racial lines, an age-old dynamic in this city that has intensified since Hurricane Katrina displaced large numbers of blacks and upended their demographic and political dominance.
Whites, who overwhelmingly voted for Carter in the primary and have been her most enthusiastic financial backers, believed a Jefferson win would confirm this city’s image as corrupt and untrustworthy as it asks the nation to fund its recovery from Katrina.
City Councilman Oliver Thomas said Jefferson’s victory would make the recovery more difficult.
“People are watching this election all around the country and I can only imagine what they are thinking,” Thomas said. “It will be very difficult to go back to them and ask them to trust us with the money we need here.”
Carter’s campaign spokesman and father, Ken Carter, said he felt they had done all they could to compete against Jefferson, but regretted the tone of the campaign in the final stages.
“Race is all too often a factor in campaigns in New Orleans,” Ken Carter said. “Here we had a candidate that tried to paint this young African-American woman as a pawn of the white establishment.”
One white voter, George Christen, a registered independent, cast his ballot in a predominantly white precinct in the Algiers neighborhood, just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter.
“I just didn’t want Jefferson in. Period,” said Christen, 42. “Jefferson is an embarrassment. He needs to be out.”
Jefferson did get a vote from Jene Allen, who is black.
“He started the job. Let him finish it,” said Allen, who wouldn’t give her age. “I know Karen Carter would be the first black woman, but I think she played it dirty, too dirty.”
Jefferson, 59, drew widespread support among blacks who are skeptical of the federal government’s motives in its investigation of him. He repeatedly suggested the probe is groundless because he has yet to be indicted more than a year after the FBI raided his home in New Orleans.
Carter, 37, raised nearly five times as much money as Jefferson, but she was largely outflanked in the endorsement game. Jefferson picked up the backing of Mayor Ray Nagin and other prominent black politicians.
The endorsements spoke to Jefferson’s solid footing in New Orleans politics. He arrived here in the 1970s as a Harvard-educated lawyer from rural 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.
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.
Before the bribery scandal erupted, Jefferson had climbed to the pinnacle of the Democratic Party. He was a confidant of former President Bill Clinton.