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For Jefferson, anger and applause

The congressman's link to a bribery probe splits voters.

He campaigns against 12 candidates in Louisiana.

October 24, 2006|ANN M. SIMMONS | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — After a recent candidates' forum in the French Quarter, a woman rushed up to Rep. William J. Jefferson and embraced him for several moments.

"I'm praying for you," the stranger said quietly, her arms encircling the Democratic congressman's neck. "You need to keep it going."

Over the weekend, as Jefferson finished a handshaking tour of a store in the Gentilly neighborhood, onlooker Mary Scott called out: "Take care sweetie. You're going to be all right."

The eight-term congressman's campaign outings are punctuated with expressions like these, which he calls "uplift" after a year that found him surrounded by scandal and ousted from the Ways and Means Committee. The FBI raided his home and office, and said it had a videotape of him taking a $100,000 bribe and that it had found $90,000 wrapped in foil in the freezer of his Washington home.

Jefferson has been implicated in a developing federal probe -- the FBI has accused him of offering to bribe a Nigerian official and of accepting kickbacks to help a U.S. telecommunications company land deals in Africa.

Jefferson, who has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, is adamant that he will survive.

"A lot of people think they have the opportunity" to win, Jefferson said as he wrapped up his Saturday walkabout. "I think they will find out they won't."

Publicly, Jefferson has remained stoic and composed, saying that he has lawyers to handle his legal matters while he concentrates on his job. But during the French Quarter forum, the congressman repelled his opponents' barbs, insisting that none of them was squeaky clean.

"I'm not going to sit here and pretend we have all these shining knights here," Jefferson said. Later he told reporters, "I can't stand the hypocrisy."

Jefferson's seat was once considered one of the safest in the House, but there are now 12 candidates vying to replace him as representative from the state's 2nd Congressional District.

"This will be the greatest test of his political career, whether he survives or not," said Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, an independent think tank in Baton Rouge, La.

Jefferson's competitors in the Nov. 7 race include Republicans, Democrats and a Libertarian. Four have prior name recognition and significant campaign donations: state Rep. Karen Carter, former City Councilman Troy Carter, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd and lawyer Joe Lavigne.

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will participate in a runoff on Dec. 9. Political pundits believe a runoff is inevitable, and that Jefferson will probably be one of the candidates.

"If he gets a white Republican," he could win, Ed Renwick, associate professor of political science at New Orleans' Loyola University, said of Jefferson's chances in a runoff. "But if he gets a black Democrat, which he likely would, he would be the underdog."

Observers predict that Jefferson will probably be pitted against Karen Carter, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party. Carter, 36, is from a political family -- her father, Ken Carter, was one of New Orleans' first black property assessors -- and argues that she "will restore credibility and respect to political service."

"When the arrogance of power diminishes the right of people like you and me and citizens across this great region, it is time for change," she said at the French Quarter forum. If she succeeds in unseating Jefferson, she would be Louisiana's first African American congresswoman.

In a 60-second TV ad, Jefferson, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, says the U.S. was "built on some fundamental rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the presumption of innocence afforded to every person, unless proven guilty in a court of law." The government, he says, has "yet to bring a single charge against me."

He then lists the work he has done to help New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and adds that "now is not the time for an unproven person to go to Washington and to try to fight for our recovery."

His supporters have circled the wagons around the man they say has always been there for them.

"He did a lot to help people get back into the city after Katrina," said Murray Carroll, 71, as he waited for Jefferson to speak at the William J. Guste Senior Homes near downtown. "I'm not into all that negative stuff. I give him my support. He has a good record."

"I know it isn't true what they're saying." said Mary Williams, 67. "He's innocent until proven guilty. I find they're picking on him."

In Jefferson strongholds it is rare to hear a bad word about him. Jefferson has said his support would primarily come, as it typically has, from African Americans, who made up at least 65% of his district before Katrina, and from working class whites and organized labor.

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