Jefferson Challengers Emerge

Posted June 13, 2008 at 6:11pm

Rep. William Jefferson (La.), who is not only in the midst of fighting his own legal troubles but has also been newly stained by a recent federal indictment of three of his family members, is starting to see challengers lining up to run against him in the Democratic primary.

And in a testament to just how far the Congressman’s political fortunes have fallen, even one of his old supporters now appears to be smelling blood in the water.

Last week, both state Rep. Cedric Richmond and Jefferson Parish Councilmember Byron Lee announced that they would take on Jefferson in the September Democratic primary. If Jefferson’s corruption case turns decidedly against him and he is forced to resign, both men could soon find themselves competing in a wide-open special election.

Both are considered serious challengers. Richmond is a well-known figure in New Orleans and was first elected to the state House in 2000. Because of term limits, he is serving his final term as a state Representative. Lee, who hails from smaller Jefferson Parish, was unopposed for a second term to his council seat last year.

In 2006, Lee backed the state legislator whom Jefferson beat in a runoff race, but Richmond, the former chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, was a Jefferson supporter then.

When Jefferson’s political troubles first came to light during the 2006 cycle, Richmond was mentioned for the seat and he told local newspapers that he would run only if Jefferson declined to seek another term.

Now, a year after the government filed a 16-count indictment against Jefferson on charges of bribery and wire fraud, Richmond said that it’s become clear that both the country and district need change, and that the people of the 2nd district are getting impatient for it.

Richmond said on Friday that he didn’t want to discuss Jefferson’s legal troubles or how effective he has been as a Congressman amid his ongoing federal trial.

“I think people are worried about the issues. I think the personal attacks are a distraction,” Richmond said. “People don’t want to hear it anymore.”

“I wish the best for the Congressman, but I can’t sit back and allow the district to continue to suffer,” Richmond added.

In the summer of 2006, Richmond wrote a letter to then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), strongly disagreeing with her effort to remove Jefferson from his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Pelosi was pushing for Jefferson to be removed after it was revealed that he had been under federal investigation and that federal agents had found $90,000 in the Congressman’s freezer after raiding his home.

That case has been mired in an extended series of pretrial motions. But in the meantime, a separate federal indictment was filed earlier this month against Jefferson’s brother, sister and niece accusing them of skimming federal and state grant money from nonprofits that they controlled.

Louisiana political insiders said on Friday that with four weeks to go before the state’s July 11 filing deadline, and with Jefferson’s political influence appearing to be dwindling at home, more candidates are expected to come out of the woodwork.

On Friday, those insiders pointed out that Kenya Smith, a top adviser to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) who announced last week that he would soon be stepping down from the mayor’s staff, is expected to throw his hat into the ring for Jefferson’s seat.

But even with his legal troubles, Jefferson proved to be resilient on Election Day.

In 2006, after the Congressman’s home and Congressional office had been raided by FBI agents, 12 opponents lined up to challenge him in the open primary. State Rep. Karen Carter, who had the endorsement of the state Democratic Party, was able to force Jefferson to a runoff.

But Jefferson, despite spending much less money on his campaign than he had in previous elections, was able to win the runoff with surprising ease, mostly because he was able to convince voters that he had been unfairly targeted by the federal probe.

“The last time he ran, the landscape was different,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster with the nonpartisan Southern Media & Opinion Research. Jefferson “came up with a plausible campaign theme of, ‘Hey, I deserve to be heard. Don’t throw me out of office. I’m still innocent.’ And [voters] bought into it. … But it’s different this time,” Pinsonat said, because of Jefferson’s indictment, the fact that a former Jefferson aide has since been sentenced to prison and the indictments against Jefferson’s close family members.

Lee echoed those sentiments on Friday.

“The public has had two years to digest” the case against Jefferson, Lee said. “Before, the Congressman hadn’t been indicted, so people were skeptical about voting him out of office because they didn’t have enough information. The average voter today is much more educated and aware of the things that have gone on.”

The 2nd district is safely Democratic, and the winner of the Democratic primary should cruise to victory in November.

Although Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of the district and caused mass relocations, the district is still 64 percent black. However, some Bayou State political insiders speculated last week that if enough black candidates get into the race and dilute the black vote, a lone white candidate might have a chance of getting enough votes to make it to a runoff.

And if that white candidate were popular and was able to bring over some of the black vote against a controversial candidate such as Jefferson, he or she might have a chance of actually winning the district.

The man those political insiders mentioned who might be able to do that is New Orleans City Councilmember Arnie Fielkow. Fielkow is the popular former executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints who earned the love of city residents when he championed the cause of keeping the Saints in New Orleans when there was talk of relocating the team.

But any talk of Fielkow running for Congress may be speculation, as he has been rumored to be interested in running for mayor.