Indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson suffered what may be the final blow of his storied political career in the most improbable way Saturday, when an untested Republican opponent took advantage of Louisiana’s new federal voting rules — and an election delay caused by Hurricane Gustav — to unseat the nine-term Democrat.
His defeat came on a day of abysmally low turnout, which political pundits had predicted could be Jefferson’s undoing despite his demographic and political advantages.
Ironically, had Gustav not postponed the voting schedule one month, the general election would have been held the same ballot as last month’s presidential election, when high turnout among African-American voters likely would have carried Jefferson to a 10th term.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District, Republican John Fleming, a physician from Minden, won the seat being vacated by retiring Congressman Jim McCrery, a Republican from Shreveport.
The two races, both delayed because of Gustav, were this season’s last contests for the U.S. House of Representatives. Saturday’s results mean Louisiana bucked the national trend and wound up with a congressional delegation of six Republicans and a single Democrat. Three Democrats represent Louisiana in the current Congress.
Speaking to supporters Saturday night at Palace Cafe on Canal Street, Cao, 41, made reference to Jefferson’s earlier victories this season — and to the legal problems that undoubtedly contributed to his downfall.
“I know he went through two previous primaries, and that must have been hard,” Cao said. “But tonight, the people of the 2nd District have spoken. We want a new direction. We want accountability, and have it.”
Cao made direct reference to his improbable political ascent, seeming as astonished as anyone else.
“Never in my life did I think I could be a future congressman,” he said. “The American dream is well and alive.”
Though he was a relative unknown before this race, Cao was flanked Saturday night by a number of local political power brokers.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican from Metairie, introduced him to screaming supporters. City Councilwomen Jackie Clarkson and Stacy Head, both Democrats, were in attendance, along with former TV news anchor Helena Moreno, who was defeated by Jefferson in the Democratic Party runoff. Several GOP party leaders, including former City Councilmen Jay Batt and Bryan Wagner, also joined the crowd.
At Cao’s side was his wheelchair-bound father, who spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp during that country’s civil war. In his closing, Cao offered thanks to the local immigrant community, and he made a special plea for peace in the country of his birth.
“I’d like to thank my Vietnamese community,” he said, “and I’d like to encourage young Vietnamese in this country to work peacefully for a free and democratic Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, at an Uptown art gallery, Jefferson, 61, a Harvard-educated attorney and former state Senator who was raised amid dire poverty in Lake Providence, La., said he thought voter fatigue contributed to his loss.
“Over three elections, I think people kind of ran out a little bit at the end of, I guess, the juice it takes to keep on going,” he said. “There were three very difficult elections and on Nov. 4, a lot of folks thought we already won.
“I’m sure that if we poll, somewhere out there in the 2nd District is a vast majority of people who support our campaign and who, had they voted today, would have expressed it,” he said.
Speaking to about 50 supporters who gave Jefferson a standing ovation when he entered the room, Jefferson thanked his family, labor leaders, local ministers and African-American voters, whom he praised as the “bedrock” of his political base.
“I’m so very grateful to each and every one of you, folks who are here and folks who are out there, for the warm embrace that you have given me over the years,” he said.
Jefferson’s demise resulted in part from Louisiana’s return after 30 years to a closed primary system. As the only Republican to qualify for the general election, Cao spent September and October meeting voters, honing his message and raising money.
Meanwhile, Jefferson had to fight off six well-known challengers who together raised almost $2 million in an effort to unseat him in the Democratic Party primary and runoff, which were open only to registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
With his name appearing for the first time on Saturday’s ballot, Cao was able to reach out to voters who supported the Democratic also-rans, as well as about 50,000 voters, most of them registered Republicans, who were forced to stay on the sidelines during the Democratic Party races.
As predicted, there was a dramatic drop-off in turnout Saturday compared with the Nov. 4 election that featured Barack Obama, now president-elect.
Last month, nearly 164,000 Democrats and independents in the 2nd District cast ballots. Even with the universe of voters expanded Saturday to include all registered voters, only 66,846 showed up to the polls.
In a rare radio interview in advance of the general election, Jefferson had expressed concerns that his base of African-American supporters might assume that he had won re-election last month and stay home Saturday.
Cao, who came to the United States when he was 8, holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Baylor University and a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University. After a stint as a Catholic seminarian, he earned a law degree from Loyola University in 2000.
Married with two daughters, he now runs a law practice in Venetian Isles specializing in immigration.
Cao took an interest in local politics after his home and office were swamped during Hurricane Katrina.
His first bid for public office last year, when he sought the open 103rd House District, was inauspicious. Running then as an independent, he finished fifth in a six-candidate field.
Cao said he began eyeing a run for the 2nd District seat shortly after a Virginia grand jury indicted Jefferson last year on charges of bribery and public corruption following revelations in 2005 that FBI agents found $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer and linked him and several relatives to a wide-ranging bribery scheme.
Counting among his backers Gov. Bobby Jindal and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, Cao attracted solid support from local, state and national Republican organizations. He raised almost $90,000 from a slate of party operatives, local executives and members of the Vietnamese community. He also pumped $70,000 of his money into the campaign.
Hoping to pad his war chest further, Cao joined the Republican National Committee and the state GOP last month in filing a lawsuit challenging a decades-old cap on the amount of money the groups can spend on coordinated advertising efforts. As of late last week, the suit had gone nowhere.
Cao maintained a generally cordial tone during the campaign, limiting his criticism of Jefferson to questions about the congressman’s effectiveness and ethics and rarely mentioning the criminal charges.
However, as election day neared, the National Republican Congressional Committee stepped in with a series of harsh mail pieces and an automated telephone call to voters that highlighted the allegations of money laundering, racketeering and bribery and labeled Jefferson as “crooked.”
Organizers of Cao’s campaign denied having a hand in the attack.
On election day, the Cao campaign launched a surprise, last-minute offensive with a pair of automated phone calls urging voters to pull the lever for Cao. The messages were recorded by Moreno and former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick. It was both supporters’ first foray into the general election campaign.
Though Jefferson will pack up his Capitol Hill office, he will remain in the news: Originally scheduled to begin last week, his trial is likely to start in early 2009.
Also in the cross-hairs of federal prosecutors are Jefferson siblings Betty Jefferson, the Orleans Parish 4th District Assessor, and political consultant Mose Jefferson, who were indicted last year on charges that they conspired to loot more than $600,000 in taxpayer money from three charities.
In a separate case, Mose Jefferson was indicted on charges that he bribed the former president of the Orleans Parish School Board.
Those trials are set for early next year.
Jefferson’s defeat also marks the latest and most severe blow to the Progressive Democrats, the Central City-based political organization that he founded.
Among Jefferson allies who have been forced from public office since news of the FBI probe into Jefferson’s dealings broke are: Renee Gill Pratt, the congressman’s former legislative aide who lost her seat on the City Council; close ally Eddie Jordan, who was forced to resign as Orleans Parish district attorney; and Jefferson’s daughter, then-state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, who lost a bid last year for the state Senate.