On the night that William Jefferson was reelected to Congress, a television anchor asked an analyst head what people in Des Moines, IA, will think about New Orleans sending a man who has been under criminal investigation back to Congress. The analyst gave a vague answer, but what he should have said was “nothing,” because people in Des Moines or elsewhere barely know about – and couldn’t care less about – Jefferson’s troubles. Unlike other congressional scandals, there have been no sexual implications and the election had no impact on the balance of power among Democrats – either way a Democrat was going to be elected.
Only one city has reason to be concerned about Jefferson’s reelection and that is New Orleans, which at the time of its greatest crisis is now represented by a weakened congressman who will likely have to spend much of his remaining time in office defending himself.
While Jefferson’s victory was a mild surprise, the size of his win was shocking. A successful election is the product of many factors, including these:
Looking congressional. Jefferson can give thanks to one miracle: The showdown vote on the crucial offshore revenue package came during the same week as the runoff. That gave him a chance to be seen as a congressman busy in Washington, D.C., working on a windfall for the state. Several times during the week he got to transcend politics before television cameras, talking about the status of the legislation rather than defending his legal problems or campaigning. He had the rare chance to look like a statesman. Because the vote kept him in Washington he also had an excuse to avoid televised debates. Usually debates – when they have any impact at all – work to the advantage of challengers over incumbents. The scope of the offshore bill, and its timing, gave Jefferson a personal windfall.
Strategic politics. Just as some so-called Uptown white businessmen supported Ray Nagin’s reelection by reasoning it was better to back a lame duck than someone who could establish a new dynasty, there was similar reasoning in this campaign. Some politicos felt it wiser to support Jefferson who – because of his legal problems – may not last a full term, than to back someone who might hold on to the job for a couple of decades. Jefferson Parish politicians in particular wanted another chance at the seat. Knowing that some of his key support came from people who were counting on his not being in office much longer cannot be flattering.
Harry Lee. Note to Karen Carter: Next time Spike Lee calls just say “No.” Harry Lee’s tirades against Carter were influential in getting West Bank whites to either hold their nose and vote for Jefferson, or not to vote at all. There’s a good bit of solidarity on the West Bank and Lee convinced voters to stand solidly against Carter.
Jefferson himself. Let’s not overlook that beyond all the political theories, there were some people who voted for Jefferson because they liked him or they were loyalists to his diminished but still potent political organization. The congressman has been a master politician and, more than ever, showed his stuff just when he was threatened the most.
There is a tendency, however, toward over-analysis. On the days following the election, pundits were talking about the outcome in terms of the racial divide in the city and varying attitudes of whites and blacks about law enforcement. For all the instant sociology though, the simple fact is that the West Bank vote was split in the primary. If former Councilman Troy Carter – a West Bank resident – hadn’t run, then state Sen.Derrick Shepherd would’ve likely made the runoff instead of Karen Carter. With Shepherd in the runoff there wouldn’t have been the schism among West Bank politicians. White voters, on both sides of the river, would’ve had a non-controversial alternative to Bill Jefferson. Then the pundits would‘ve been talking instead about voters being angry and wanting to throw incumbents out of office. Interpreting elections can be like reading tea laves – if you want to see something at the bottom of the cup you can find it, even if it’s not there. The outcome is ultimately influenced by who runs and which way the votes split.
This time the voters split in Bill Jefferson’s favor. Curiously, Jefferson is now at his weakest just when his party has regained control. He could’ve been a powerful force in Washington. For now his career is in the freezer.