Embattled La. Democrat William Jefferson Ousted

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A key congressional race was decided Saturday in Louisiana, and it ended with a surprise winner. Voters ousted the indicted incumbent, Democrat William Jefferson, in favor of Republican newcomer Joseph Cao. Cao will be the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress. Louisiana political reporter John Maginnis talks to Andrea Seabrook about this unexpected upset for Democrats in New Orleans.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's early December, and elections are probably the last thing on your mind. But today, a winner was finally declared in a congressional race in Ohio. Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy edged out Republican Steve Stivers after more than a month of ballot counting.

And yesterday in New Orleans, voters ousted William Jefferson. He's the congressman indicted on corruption charges. The FBI said it found $90,000 in his freezer. The winner in yesterday's race? The man who will be the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, a Republican named Anh Joseph Cao. John Maginnis covers politics in Louisiana, and I asked him why this is happening so late in the year.

Mr. JOHN MAGINNIS (Publisher, La. Politics Weekly): Bill Jefferson may be the last victim of Hurricane Gustav. The hurricane that blew through at Labor Day pushed back the first Democratic primary on September 6, pushed it back until October. That pushed back the runoff to November, and then pushed back the general election for this race to December 6.

SEABROOK: And it's a big surprise, huh?

Mr. MAGINNIS: Well, yes. First it was seen that Jefferson would have no trouble with Joseph Cao, who was an unknown Republican. But what people didn't count on was that there was such a low turnout for this election on this pretty day in December, except for people who wanted to get rid of Bill Jefferson. There was a very spirited turnout, mostly in predmoninatly white precincts. They got out a real good vote.

And lot of black voters who would stick with Jefferson just because they wanted to keep that seat in the hands of an African-American, pending the outcome of his trial, they would have voted for him had they been in the polls, had this election been on November 4th. But they just didn't have that extra motivation to actually go out and vote for Bill Jefferson. And Cao won by about 2,000 votes.

SEABROOK: That's interesting because if the general had actually been on November 4th, Obama would have been at the top of the ticket.

Mr. MAGINNIS: And Bill Jefferson tried in every way he could to associate himself with Obama. But you're right. Had the hurricane not pushed back this election from November 4th, Jefferson surely would have won handily.

SEABROOK: There was another congressional race in the state yesterday. It's still too close to call, but the Republican has a lead of a few hundred votes there. Are the Democrats in trouble in Louisiana?

Mr. MAGINNIS: Well, I think that was a special circumstance. That seat was held by a Republican before. So, I think that Louisiana is just sort of counter-cyclical. We're about five years out of step with the rest of the country. Republicans are still coming up here, and the economy is good. So, I think the fourth district is still very competitive. And I believe two years from now, Mr. Cao in New Orleans will probably face a Democrat who most likely will beat him, but no one expected him to win in the first place.

SEABROOK: So what do we know about Cao?

Mr. MAGINNIS: Well, fascinating story. A young man who immigrated to the United States when he was eight years old. His father had been through a North Vietnamese reeducation camp after the war. He was a Jesuit seminarian.

He became an attorney, and he got motivated to get into politics after Hurricane Katrina. And the first race he ran for, he came in fifth, and he probably would not have, you know, factored much in this race except for special circumstances.

And he became an attractive candidate. People just liked the idea of his life story, and I think that helped him a lot with - maybe Democrats would have voted against him had he been a more traditional, white-bred kind of Republican candidate. But he was so different that I think that helped him.

SEABROOK: John Maginnis is a political reporter in Louisiana. He publishes La Politics Weekly. Thanks very much.

Mr. MAGINNIS: Glad to be here. Thank you, Andrea.

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