Jefferson Indictment, GOP Presidential Debates
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And our last headline brings us to Washington, D.C. Democratic Congressman William Jefferson serves a district, including New Orleans. Yesterday, he temporarily stepped down from the House Small Business Committee. The reason: A 16-count corruption indictment.
His mere presence in the House poses a real PR challenge for Democrats. Remember, they swept into power last year on an anti-corruption platform. So should Jefferson step down? Should Speaker Nancy Pelosi force him to step down? Or is this much ado about nothing? Also, Republicans went to the mat in a debate in New Hampshire last night.
To help us make sense of all this, we've got Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, plus, Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. She now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington.
Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, D.C. Navigators): Hi, Farai.
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Al Gore's Former Campaign Manager): Hello, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So we want to start out with Jefferson. We saw corruption take down several members of Congress during the last session: Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney. They were white. They were Republican. Jefferson is black. He's a Democrat. Do you think he has been or should be treated any differently? Donna?
Ms. BRAZILE: Absolutely not. Look, the fact is that Congressman Jefferson has stepped down from the Small Business Committee. The House Ethics Committee announced yesterday that they will begin their investigation. As you know, Stephanie Tubbs Jones - an African-American woman - chairs that committee, and the Justice Department had told the committee to hold off until they issued their indictment or completed their investigation.
So I think the pressure on Bill Jefferson right now to step down will come from two sources, not just his colleagues on the Democratic side, but also perhaps from people back home in New Orleans. I've known Bill Jefferson since I was an intern in the Louisiana State Legislature. He's a hard worker. He's been a dedicated public servant.
But this is - this probe, these allegations, they're a distraction. If there's one congressional district in America that needs a full-time lawmaker focused and committed to the recovery of the Gulf Coast, it's the second congressional district of Louisiana. And on that note, I personally would hope that he would do what's best for his family and his constituents and put this legal case before everything else and allows someone else to step up and represent that district.
CHIDEYA: So you are saying that he should resign?
Ms. BRAZILE: Personally, I - let me tell you why. I think he has every right to go to court and I personally, like many other people, will help Bill Jefferson raise money to clear his name if that's possible. But this is about integrity. And he's a member of Congress. He's been indicted now on 16 counts - I have not read the full 94-page report. But I'm also pleading because of the resonance of that great, wonderful city that needs his leadership, needs his attention. And, right now, he cannot give them his full attention. And that's the reason why I think Bill Jefferson - I'm not playing this as a political game, I'm playing this personally because my own family, and many other families in the Gulf Coast deserve good, you know, good leadership at this moment.
CHIDEYA: Well, Ron, listening to Donna who has roots in Louisiana, do you think that there is going to be a groundswell from the Republican side to say, oh, look, they're doing it, too, meaning, Democrats are using corruption. Will that be a factor in him exiting possibly?
Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think so, and I would hope that my Republican friends and colleagues play this case very carefully. I think, as Donna articulated, the people of the second district of New Orleans need, and they deserve, someone whose sole attention is focused upon rebuilding New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Mr. Jefferson has stepped down. He was actually removed from the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year by his fellow Democrats. And then he stepped from his lone committee assignment yesterday, the Small Business Committee. For goodness' sakes, if you're a member of Congress, you're there to represent your constituents and you're there to represent your fellow Americans, and being stripped of your committee assignments and not having anything really to do other than to fight your legal challenges, I think, poses a disservice to those constituents who put their trust and their faith in you.
And I just worry that the Republicans are in a precarious position. The Democrats campaigned on the prospect of we are going to clean this town up and we're going to have a very ethical Congress and a very ethical manner in which we do business. And if Republicans decide to play the, well, look, they're corrupt, and, you know, gee, we told you that we weren't as bad as they said that we were. I think, well, some of the other members of Congress Republicans who are also under investigation, Republicans would be wise to let the Department of Justice and to let the House Ethics Committee do their work rather than they pile on to this. It's a sad day, however, for the people in New Orleans.
CHIDEYA: Ron, I'm going to transition you to the Republican debate that happened last night. I was sitting around watching it, and I just have to bring this up. It's apropos nothing, I know, but there was something very strange about watching these guys debate during a lightning storm that would cut out their microphones when they were talking about God. I was like, what's going on with that? And you know, and there'd be a lightning strike and someone would be in the middle of a - something on abortion and oh, like, (unintelligible). So that's just me. But I want to go to Mitt Romney.
Ms. BRAZILE: Caught me as well.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. Wasn't that strange?
Ms. BRAZILE: Oh, it was.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, so…
Mr. CHRISTIE: It makes me wonder if there was a higher calling saying something.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, definitely. Mitt Romney, Massachusetts' governor, talking about Iraq - that was the big news of the night. Here he is explaining his position.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Former Massachusetts Governor): I supported the president's decision based on what we knew at that time. I think we were under-prepared and under-planned for what came after we knocked down Saddam Hussein. By the way, Harry Reid was wrong. We did not lose the war in Iraq. And that's - that's the sort of thing you say when you have men and women in harm's way.
CHIDEYA: So, Ron, is this going to be a good tactic for Romney and other Republicans jumping on Harry Reid?
Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I don't think jumping on Harry Reid. I think the important thing is that we're keeping our eye on what the mission is. And the mission, of course, is for our American men and women who are wearing the uniform and protecting this country have the means and the resources necessary to do what they are doing, which is to fight and win and wage the war on terrorism on our behalf.
By way of full disclosure, I have been advising Governor Romney informally on his debate preparations. And I think that the tone that he struck was the right one, and I think that you'll find most of the Republicans, at least in the top tier - we're talking about former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as well as Senator McCain - being very much in favor of the war, and very much in favor of our men and women in uniform. But this is one area, I think, that - it's dangerous for people on either side of the political spectrum to play politics with.
Now that we have our men and women over there who are fighting a very real enemy, we need to do everything that we can to support them and try to leave the political - well, Senator Reid said this or, you know, congressman someone said that out of this equation and just do everything that we can to support the troops.
CHIDEYA: Donna, Ron mentioned Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York, he reminded viewers of two recently foiled terrorist plots.
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Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Republican, Presidential Candidate): An attempt by Islamic terrorists to attack JFK airport; three weeks ago, an attempt to attack Fort Dix. These are real problems. This war is not a bumper sticker. This war is a real war.
CHIDEYA: So you have here Rudolph Giuliani, the man who did appear in drag with Donald Trump in a sketch talking about the real war. And I only bring that up, not to say that he didn't look good in a dress, which he did, but…
Mr. BRAZILE: He looked very well. He's got some wonderful legs, too, if I might add.
CHIDEYA: Oh, there you go.
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CHIDEYA: But a lot of Republicans are just - Rudolph Giuliani seems to give them the creeps because he is more playful about issues like gender, and that he won't take a hard-line stance on abortion, although, he has this credibility of having led New York during the 9/11 period. Do you think that Republicans, Donna, will go for Rudolph Giuliani?
Ms. BRAZILE: Senator Sam Brownback stated last night, it's going to be very tough for the Republican Party to embrace a pro-choice moderate for their nomination. So I think he still has a very difficult time in securing the nomination, but currently he's the frontrunner. Last night, you saw him pivot to, again, his strong suit - talking about terrorism, talking about being tough. That's Rudy Giuliani's strategy for victory.
CHIDEYA: All right. We only have about a minute left. There was Fred Thompson. There was a whole running joke about the last name Thompson and where was the other Thompson. Fred Thompson, (unintelligible) actor and potential candidate. Do you think, Ron first then Donna, is he going to throw his hat into the ring?
Mr. CHRISTIE: Absolutely. I mean, he has been raising money. He's been, I should say, he's been trying to raise fundraisers to raise him money. And he's been very active in trying to recruit a lot of people on K Street and at the lobbying community to support him. I think it's going to be within the next several weeks that we'll hear about Mr. "Law and Order," Mr. Fred Thompson entering the race.
Ms. BRAZILE: He is auditioning to become president of the United States. There's no question about it. I'm hearing more and more from my Republican friends that they're leaning toward Fred Thompson. They believe he's the real deal, meaning, the next reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.
Now, as a Democrat, I'm not looking for Ronald Reagan to make a comeback any day soon. But if that's what the Republicans are looking for, they are clearly putting him, their money where their convictions are.
CHIDEYA: All right. Donna and Ron, thank you.
Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you.
Mr. CHRISTIE: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Ron Christie is vice president of the lobbying firm, D.C. Navigators, former special assistant to President George W. Bush. And Donna Brazile is former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. She runs her own political consulting firm, and both joined me from NPR's D.C. headquarters.
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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, our hip-hop series continues with the battle of the sexes. And what do long time African peace broker Betty Bigombe and Oscar nominated actor Ryan Gosling have in common? We'll find out.
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CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.
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