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Can Jefferson use dynamics, like Nagin, to win reelection?

Voters in Louisiana’s Second District will hit the polls Saturday as one of the two last U.S. House races to be decided this election cycle. It may also be the next House race contested in the country as well, for incumbent Rep. William Jefferson stands a good chance of winning it.

Even as Jefferson led the field in the primary, his underwhelming total of about three-tenths of the electorate reflected poorly on an incumbent, but understandably given his being in the crosshairs of a corruption investigation. While some of his supporters make ridiculous excuses for him, and while he promises to explain all after the election, the fact remains about $90,000 in marked bills related to a sting operation was found in Jefferson’s residence, after a government witness testified Jefferson accepted that marked money as a bribe.

In these political corruption cases, authorities walk a fine line in deciding whether to return an indictment prior to an election involving a targeted official knowing an indictment almost certainly would mean that politician’s defeat. In this case, if it’s coming, they decided the will of the people in determining his fitness for office given the information already released would suffice. Also complicating the fact is the government may be waiting on the resolution of certain constitutional questions before it indicts, so it know what it can do. Lack of indictment to this point does not mean suspicion against Jefferson is spurious and was manufactured.

But it does mean that Jefferson, who almost certainly would have resigned had he been indicted, may continue in office by winning this election. Reviewing the dynamics, it’s not hard to draw parallels between this contest and the New Orleans mayor’s election earlier this year. There, you had a contest between two Democrats, one black, one white, where black voter suspicions about the Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu allowed Mayor Ray Nagin on mostly monoracial voting in a majority black city to win reelection.

Now equate Jefferson with Nagin and Landrieu with Jefferson’s general election runoff opponent (of course, bleaching her and changing some of her parts) state Rep. Karen Carter. Nagin was embattled by his underwhelming performance during the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, with many in the black community feeling that Landrieu (backed in large part by whites and reformists) was trying to take advantage of the chaotic aftermath of the storm to win election to make New Orleans, in terms of policy, more a vanilla than chocolate city.

As Jefferson’s opponent (and keeping in mind the district’s dynamics are somewhat different than the city’s), Carter, like Landrieu from a prominent political family, also is drawing support more from whites who are less likely to believe Jefferson is fit to serve than blacks and government reformers also have lined up behind her (even though she, like Landrieu, has never backed a reform agenda at all). Embattled for different reasons, racial solidarity for many still is a driving factor in supporting Jefferson as Carter’s basis of support among whites makes her seem more “suspicious.”

Yet what well could put Jefferson over the top is the lack of indictment, and the almost sure resignation that would follow if he still occupies the office, that in essence would reopen the seat to challengers if Jefferson wins this time around. Most prominently, the Jefferson Parish West Bank political organization of state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who finished third in the primary, could provide enough muscle to send Jefferson to victory especially since this election standing alone on the ballot will magnify the mobilization fortitude of political groups (including Jefferson’s Progressive Democrats and Carter’s BOLD). Jefferson Parish could be vital to a Jefferson win, given the bad publicity Carter has received there.

In the end, the contest will hinge on how prevalent perceptions within the black community are that Jefferson is being persecuted for his race, and on the willingness of political opportunists to put that opportunism aside and advise followers to vote their consciences.

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