by Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Sunday October 05, 2008, 9:18 PM
Michael DeMocker / The Times-Picayune
Congressman William Jefferson and his granddaughter Phaelin Jones enjoy
election night at the eastern New Orleans restaurant Flavorz by Mattie.
He made the runoff, despite his recent indictment and pending corruption
For more than three years, critics presaging Rep. William Jefferson's
political demise have derived their assumptions from the nine-term
congressman's mounting legal problems, which have cost him stroke on
Capitol Hill and handcuffed his ability to raise campaign money.
But even his staunchest enemies marvel that Jefferson, whose trial on 16
federal charges of public corruption is set to begin in early December,
has maintained his hold on a loyal bloc of voters who appear unfazed by
the allegations of wrongdoing.
It was the backing of those faithful, concentrated in African-American
neighborhoods, that was key to Jefferson's success Saturday, when he
surged ahead of a pack of well-financed, politically seasoned opponents
who lined up to unseat him.
Jefferson led the Democratic Party primary's seven-candidate field with
25.3 percent of the votes, followed by former TV news anchor and
political newcomer Helena Moreno, who earned 19.9 percent. The two will
square off in a Nov. 4 party runoff that will appear on the same ballot
as the highly anticipated presidential race.
With two-thirds of the district's voters registered as Democrats, the
winner will be considered the prohibitive favorite in the Dec. 6 general
election, which also will feature candidates from the Republican, Green
and Libertarian parties and an independent. The 2nd District covers most
of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south
Both runoff contenders capitalized on their near-universal name
recognition -- Jefferson's built during a 30-year political career that
began in the state Senate and Moreno's the result of her daily
appearances on WDSU-TV, where she worked for nearly eight years before
quitting in March to run for Congress.
Moreno was able to differentiate herself as the only female candidate,
the only white candidate and the only candidate with no experience
working in government. She was helped by the fact that the other five
challengers closely resembled each other: All were black men with
limited experience in politics and a limited base of supporters.
"The reason she got in had much more to do with the inability of the
next generation of black political leaders to agree on who should run
against Bill Jefferson," said Bill Rouselle, a veteran political
consultant. "I remember a time when the city's black political
organizations would meet and use their collective powers to get that one
person selected. We don't have that type of cohesiveness at this point."
For his part, Jefferson benefited from the personal ties he has forged
with constituents across the district for nearly two decades, said Silas
Lee, a pollster and Xavier University political scientist.
"Voters don't just think in terms of issues, they also think with
emotions," Lee said. "How they feel about a particular candidate often
has much to do with the relationships that are built over time. He was
the statesman in this race in terms of tenure, and with tenure comes the
ability to create political capital."
Along racial lines
But Jefferson's popularity, which spurred voters to return him to
Washington seven times by overwhelming margins between 1992 and 2004,
appears to have become increasingly racially polarized. Two years ago,
after news of the FBI probe into his business dealings broke, he was
forced into the first runoff of his incumbency with scant support from
A precinct analysis of Saturday's election results by University of New
Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, who broke down the vote by
race, reveals that Moreno cashed in on support from white voters.
Moreno, who is Hispanic, was the only non-African-American on the
ballot. In majority white precincts, she earned 45 percent of the vote,
more than three times the portion of votes received by her nearest
competitor, Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee.
Meanwhile, Jefferson picked up 35 percent of the votes in heavily black
precincts, reflecting a 14-point advantage over his closest challenger,
state Rep. Cedric Richmond of eastern New Orleans.
Though solid, Jefferson's showing in heavily black precincts marked a
steep decline compared with the 50 percent support he racked up in the
open primary for the 2nd District seat in 2006, when he faced three
serious African-American opponents.
For her part, Moreno fared poorly in heavily black precincts, earning
just 6.8 percent. Only former mayoral aide Kenya Smith did worse.
Despite Jefferson's downward trend in heavily black precincts, the
advantage that he may have lies in the fact that 62 percent of all
voters in the district are African-American.
Further complicating matters for Moreno is the expectation that turnout
among black voters on Nov. 4 may reach record-breaking levels as
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama makes his bid to become the nation's first
Moreno has said she is undaunted by the prospect, arguing that Obama's
message of change dovetails more strongly with her promise to bring
fresh leadership to the 2nd District seat than voters' notions about her
"It's clear (that) the people in this area really do want change," she
told supporters at a victory party Saturday night. "People talk about
race, but I'm here to fight for all of us -- black, white, it doesn't
Moreno also could get a bounce from any endorsements she nails down from
the primary also-rans. Her biggest potential boon, however, may be
impossible to snag. Third-place finisher Richmond, who raked in 17.5
percent of Saturday's vote, and Moreno sparred viciously during the
primary campaign, swiping at each other on matters of "honesty and
integrity" that came to characterize the contest.
The state lawmaker, who as recently as two years ago counted Jefferson
among his political mentors, also took deep digs at the congressman in
the run-up to the primary. It remains unknown whether Richmond -- or any
of the felled candidates -- will pledge their loyalty in the runoff
It is clear, meanwhile, that Jefferson intends to push the notion that
the indictment against him is nothing more than the government's
unproven accusation and does not reflect on his ability to serve.
"People have a good understanding that the Constitution says that unless
you are found guilty, you are innocent," he said late Saturday. "I hope
that more folks out there .¤.¤. will get a firm grip on that, because
that is how it is in America."
In his analysis, Chervenak said he found support for the idea that a
portion of voters in African-American neighborhoods buy into Jefferson's
implication that the government may be out to get him.
Voters in heavily black precincts, where Jefferson cemented the lion's
share of his support, showed the weakest support for a citywide
proposition on Saturday's ballot to enshrine the job of the inspector
general in New Orleans' city charter and dedicate a percentage of the
city's annual budget to the office, the analysis shows.
Critics of the inspector general initiative have complained that no such
position existed when the city's highest officeholders, such as the
mayor, were white. They have alleged that the job was created to target
In heavily black precincts, voters leaned 2-to-1 in favor of the
proposition, while in heavily white precincts, the margin was 10-to-1,
according to the analysis. The proposition passed with 77 percent
"For them, (Jefferson's) legal situation is nothing more than a vendetta
by the federal government to bring Jefferson down and remove a black
elected official from office," Chervenak said. "They are viewing the
(proposition) as just another effort by white politicians to target
Michelle Krupa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
504.826.3312. Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or