Embattled Rep. Jefferson Ready for a House Runoff

Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA), under federal investigation in a bribery case, faces fellow Democrat Karen Carter Saturday in a runoff election for his House seat.

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Tomorrow, voters in New Orleans will settle one of the last unresolved midterm congressional races. They'll determine whether Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson gets to keep his job. Jefferson is running for a ninth term and he is under federal investigation for bribery. FBI agents raided the Democrat's offices and homes last year and allegedly found $90,000 stashed in a freezer.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: The investigation into Bill Jefferson has already resulted in guilty pleas from two people who say they bribed the congressman in order to do business deals in Africa. Jefferson has promised, but hasn't offered, an explanation yet. While he campaigns, the congressman simply says he has not been charged or convicted.

This week, during an appearance on New Orleans's NBC affiliate, WDSU, Jefferson said people should be paying more attention to critical issues surrounding the city's recovery.

Representative BILL JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): My record has been to bring money home for our people, for the levees, for our housing, all of which I have done. So I have done my job.

CORLEY: Jefferson says tomorrow will tell if he's been able to convince the voters of Louisiana's Second Congressional District to stand by him, and many believe he has more than a fighting chance. Angela Chalk says she'll vote for Jefferson despite the allegations he faces.

Ms. ANGELA CHALK: I'm not going to indict the man in court of public opinion. He'll have his day in court. If anything, he probably should've been arrested for aggravated stupidity, because why would you keep $90,000 in your freezer?

CORLEY: Jefferson was first elected to Congress in 1990. He's been reelected by wide margins. Susan Howe, professor of political science at the University of New Orleans, says the investigation has made him vulnerable.

Professor SUSAN HOWE (University of New Orleans): Well, in some ways I think this is another tragedy for New Orleans, because we could've had a 16-year incumbent Congressman during this time when we really desperately need federal help. If he is reelected, he's not going to be very effective because he's going to be greatly distracted by his legal problems.

CORLEY: During the initial election last month, Jefferson finished first among a field of 13, but since nobody got a majority, he goes into tomorrow's runoff election against second place finisher State Representative Karen Carter.

State Representative KAREN CARTER (Democrat, Louisiana): I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you.

CORLEY: This week, Carter was the guest speaker at a luncheon meeting of an organization dedicated to electing women to office. Once a supporter of Jefferson, she now hopes to unseat him.

State Representative CARTER: It would be horrible for this district to send back a person under the cloud of suspicion, and I think it would be horrible for our national image when on November 7, as the rest of the country did, they attempted to rid the Congress of corruption.

CORLEY: If elected, Carter would be the first African American woman from Louisiana to ever hold a seat in Congress. Joan Francis says while she'd like to see more women in office, that's not the only reason why she hopes Carter wins.

Ms. JOAN FRANCIS: I don't know how to say this nicely, but we need someone about whom we're not going to read scandalous information and those kinds of things. We need someone who has high integrity, and I think Karen does.

CORLEY: The nature of the campaign has been nasty, with both candidates filling the airways with attack ads.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman #1: Bill Jefferson was videotaped by the FBI taking a $100,000 bribe. Two associates pleaded guilty to bribery and are going to prison.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman #2: Karen Carter says there's a big difference between her and Congressman Jefferson, especially when it comes to family values. Karen Carter voted for same sex marriage. Congressman Jefferson voted against it.

CORLEY: The big challenge for both candidates is the new political reality of the city. Hurricane Katrina scattered many potential voters, who now live elsewhere. Those who've returned may be less worried about a controversial congressional race and more concerned about getting their own lives back together in a still struggling city.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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