Scandal plagued Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson has one more card to play in his fight to keep his House seat. He'll argue that voters in his home district in New Orleans voted nine times to put and keep him in Washington. They kept faith in him even after FBI agents raided his office last year and announced that they had a videotape of him allegedly stuffing bribe money into a freezer. His supporters say that he's a hands on guy who has been responsive to and fought for the interests of his mostly black constituents.
There's probably some truth to that. Jefferson by some accounts has worked hard to bring jobs and improve services in the district, while generously ladling political favors around the district. But that's no reason for him to keep his seat. In fact that's all the more reason why he should voluntarily stand down, and if he doesn't he should get the boot.
His New Orleans district is a near textbook example of a district that is still reeling from the monumental damage wreaked by Katrina. The residents there are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
They want and need a representative who will vigorously battle in Congress as well as to be a thorn in the side of the Bush administration to accelerate the much promised but still badly stalled reconstruction efforts in the city. 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 clearly 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 last November even though it was a foregone conclusion then that he would be indicted on bribery charges. Now that the legal hammer has fallen, that leaves 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. If Jefferson is hard-headed enough to try and cling to his seat this diminishes their political power and influence and creates distrust and dissension among black voters.
To his credit Jefferson did not scream that the feds and his House colleagues are persecuting him because he is black. That would be a tough one to sell anyway. The House vote on the resolution directing the ethics committee to probe whether Jefferson should be expelled passed by a whopping margin. It got substantial backing from the Congressional Black Caucus. It should have.
The last thing that Caucus members need is to be seen as blindly circling the wagons to protect Jefferson. The charges against Jefferson are simply too serious. The past year 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 leave the Caucus wide open to the charge that they are playing a racial double-standard when it comes to slamming white Republicans for wrongdoing while ignoring wrongdoing by a black.
Still in far too many cases, blacks accused of wrongdoing reflexively deflect, dodge, and muddy the charges, and accusations against them, and even their guilt, by screaming racism. They strongly imply that racist prosecutors unfairly target them. They then promptly wrap themselves in the martyr's cloak of persecuted civil rights fighters.
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.
Black officials, such as Jefferson, are and will continue to be keenly watched by state and federal prosecutors for any hint of impropriety. If they engage in any forbidden activities with money, they will swiftly be called on the legal carpet. As well they should.
So far Jefferson has shown no sign that he will stand down from his House seat. But he should, and he should do it quickly to spare the House the embarrassment of having to debate whether to expel one of their own. More importantly, he should stand down to spare the voters in his district whose trust he badly betrayed the pain of having to be constantly reminded that he did betray them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October