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Indicted Black Congressman Faces Vietnamese-American Opponent

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Nov 26, 2008

Black voters in Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson’s district face a unique test on December 6. The scandal-plagued Jefferson is trying to win a tenth term even as his political corruption trial is scheduled to start four days before. His opponent is Vietnamese-American immigration attorney Anh “Joseph” Cao. The test is will enough voters in Jefferson’s predominantly African-American 2nd Congressional District punch the ballot for a non-black?

Cao’s hopes soared with Barack Obama’s win. He banks that his pitch for change and a new direction -- as Obama’s did -- will trump race. Black voters in a number of local and state races have voted for white and non-black candidates over black candidates. So it’s not a totally unrealistic hope.

Still, Cao’s candidacy seems like a long shot. Despite the corruption charges against him, Jefferson is a hands-on guy who has been responsive to and fought for the interests of his mostly black constituents.

By some accounts, he has worked hard to bring jobs and improve services in the district while generously ladling out political favors around the district.

By contrast, Cao has three powerful political strikes against him. He is a political newcomer. He’s running in a top-heavy Democratic district. And he’s not black. That seems to be the biggest strike against him.

Yet Cao has touched a mild nerve during the campaign. Some former local black elected officials are working for him. He has campaigned hard in the most impoverished Katrina-ravaged areas of the district. But Cao’s greatest asset is Jefferson, or to be more exact, the hope that voters are so fed up with the scandal and good ole boy cronyism that they are ready to give him the boot.

Cao’s hard-sell point is that voters in the district want and need a representative who will vigorously battle in Congress to accelerate the much promised but still badly stalled reconstruction efforts in the district. If Jefferson has to spend most of his time and energy fighting a multi-count indictment that could dump him in prison for many years if he's convicted then he's not the man for that job.

Jefferson's embarrassing fight to save his skin also could have a deflating effect on his constituents. They had enough confidence in him to back him for a ninth term a couple of years ago even though it was a foregone conclusion then that he would be indicted on bribery charges. When the legal hammer fell that left many in his district scratching their heads in wonder and agony over whether they made the right decision to stay with him, and just exactly what that means for them in the future.

His constituents backed him not solely because he is an able politician, but because they viewed him as a leader and their advocate. They looked to him to represent their interests and to confront institutional power. Any legal smear on him soils their name. This makes it that much harder for blacks to have and retain confidence in tarnished black elected officials. Jefferson made it clear after the indictment that he would cling to his seat. This only served to create distrust and dissension among some black voters.

Then there’s Congress. A House resolution that directed the ethics committee to probe whether Jefferson should be expelled passed by a whopping margin.

It got substantial backing from the Congressional Black Caucus. The last thing that Caucus members needed was to be seen as blindly circling the wagons to protect Jefferson. The charges against Jefferson are simply too serious. The Caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats have saber rattled Republicans for their corruption, cronyism, and deal making. They led the charge to punish the more blatant Republican congressional offenders such as Robert Ney, Tom DeLay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham. A too vigorous defense of Jefferson would have left the Caucus wide open to the charge that they play a racial double-standard when it comes to slamming white Republicans for wrongdoing while ignoring alleged wrongdoing by a black.

This is not a small point. In the past, when black politicians have been accused of criminal or ethics violations, or worse actually caught with their hands in the public till, they have screamed racism to deflect attention from their crimes.

Jefferson didn’t go that route and for a good reason. The charges are just too serious and he has been an intricate a part of New Orleans’ Democratic political establishment for too long for anyone to believe that he is victim of racially-tinged political persecution. This is a good sign of black political maturity.

The test now is whether African-American voters in the 2nd District want to see a return to clean government and whether enough bought Obama’s multi-ethic, big tent pitch for change. And that they will not see Cao as a Vietnamese-American candidate but rather as a candidate who can and will effectively represent their interests. Cao bets they will.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is "How Obama Won" (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

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