U.S. Rep. William Jefferson overcame the stigma of a federal bribery indictment in Louisiana's Democratic primary on Saturday, garnering enough votes in his New Orleans-based congressional district to secure a spot in a Nov. 4 runoff.
Jefferson, seeking his 10th term in Congress, faces a December trial on charges that he took bribes, laundered money and misused his congressional office for business dealings in Africa.
With about 72 percent of the vote counted, Jefferson was leading with 25 percent of the vote and appeared headed toward a runoff, most likely with former broadcaster Helena Moreno.
Jefferson sounded confident as he addressed a few dozen family members and supporters at a restaurant in eastern New Orleans. "We look forward to a rigorous campaign but a successful outcome," Jefferson said.
As he had throughout the campaign, Jefferson insisted he remains an effective member of Congress, and he called questions on whether the indictment has damaged that effectiveness "pointless."
"The work that I do is based on relationships with the members of Congress and it's based on having been there for 18 years. I have walked in the shoes of other members when they have needed things for their areas and they have walked in my shoes as we need things here. That's the way that Congress works, Jefferson said."
His supporters gathered at a restaurant in an area still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Campaign manager Eugene Green expected only about 50 to 75 people to attend. Lit by bare fluorescent tubes, bare-walled except for Jefferson posters, it was a far cry from the usual downtown hotel ballrooms often favored by candidates on election night.
"We came out to the east because we wanted to support an entrepreneur," Green said, adding, "As part of this rebuilding effort we felt there should be some outreach to those who are really rebuilding and recovering."
Jefferson advances to a Nov. 4 runoff. A victory then would put him in a Dec. 6 general election in the heavily Democratic district against a little-known Republican.
Longtime New Orleans pollster Silas Lee said Jefferson, the first black elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, remains popular among a strong core of supporters in the district.
"He comes across as someone who the ordinary citizen can relate to," Lee said.
Moreno, the only white candidate on the ballot, and Jefferson have been at the top of various polls. Moreno said Saturday's election showed voters were ready for a change.
Also in the primary were New Orleans City Council member James Carter, former council member and ex-legislator Troy Carter (no relation to James), Jefferson Parish Council member Byron Lee, state Rep. Cedric Richmond and Kenya Smith, a former aide to New Orleans' mayor.
Jefferson, 61, a Harvard law graduate with a professorial manner and a reputation for shrewd political maneuvering, insisted that he remains an effective congressman. And there were signs of support for him at the polls Saturday. Voter Pat Love said she cast her ballot for Jefferson. "I don't know anything about what he's been going through, but he's been a good congressman for New Orleans," she said.
But there was no denying the erosion of his support in Congress and in his home state. It was reflected in slowed fund raising and a dearth of the usual endorsements from political allies he gathered during 10 years in the state Senate and another 18 in Washington. At least one of his challengers, Richmond, had endorsed him two years ago.
Jefferson's low-key campaign stressed his influence in Washington and prominently featured pictures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders joining him in touring New Orleans, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Stripped of his seat
But his clout was already on the wane even before his last election two years ago. By then, news had broken that he was under investigation for alleged bribery and that federal agents claimed to have found $90,000 hidden in his freezer. He survived, winning re-election in 2006 easily, but he subsequently was stripped of a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Last year, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Virginia on allegations that he took bribes, laundered money and misused his congressional office for business dealings in Africa. Other family members also have been caught up in an unrelated scandal. Two siblings face federal corruption charges in New Orleans and a third has pleaded guilty.
"Congressman Jefferson's issues have hurt us. They've slowed our recovery. They've been very bad for the congressional district," Troy Carter said in an interview late last week.
Jefferson has denied wrongdoing, while refusing to discuss details of the accusations against him.