Saturday, October 4, 2008

NEW ORLEANS | Facing the most important election of his life, indicted Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, is trying to keep the focus on his influence in Washington, hoping voters would ignore the corruption scandal that has dogged him.

Instead of campaigning Friday, one day before his Democratic primary in the congressional district that includes parts of New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish, he was in Washington to vote against a $750 billion bailout bill for the financial industry.

“Right now, he’s more focused on doing the people’s business,” campaign spokesman Terry Richards said.

But his six challengers argue they are better suited to do that business than Mr. Jefferson, whose effectiveness in Congress is increasingly at issue after he was stripped of a powerful committee post in December 2006 amid accusations of involvement in an international bribery scheme.

The nine-term congressman was indicted last year in a federal court in Virginia on charges that he took bribes, laundered money and misused his congressional office for business dealings in Africa. His trial is scheduled to begin in December.

Mr. Jefferson, 61, the first black member of Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, has denied wrongdoing. Meanwhile, two of his siblings have been charged in an unrelated federal corruption case in New Orleans and a third has pleaded guilty.

Recent polls show Mr. Jefferson and former television reporter Helena Moreno in the lead, but they also show a tightly packed race with many undecided voters.

“I don’t know that anyone could truly claim front-runner status,” said Kenya Smith, a challenger and former aide to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

No one is expected to get a majority Saturday, meaning Mr. Jefferson can survive by finishing at least second and moving to a Nov. 4 runoff. In the Dec. 6 general election, the Democratic victor will be the overwhelming favorite in the 64 percent black and heavily Democratic district.

Despite the loss of a committee post, Mr. Jefferson’s mostly low-key campaign stresses his influence as New Orleans struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina. His television ads feature pictures of him touring the city with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders.

“Congressman Jefferson keeps congressional leaders focused on our recovery,” says a narrator.

Mr. Jefferson’s challengers disagree. While they have largely refrained from direct attacks in their campaign ads, they don’t shrink from discussing the scandal if asked.

“Congressman Jefferson’s issues have hurt us. They’ve slowed our recovery,” said Troy Carter, a former state lawmaker and ex-City Council member who is among those on Saturday’s ballot.

“I think the distinguishing fact between the incumbent and I is that I’m not in the middle of a trial,” said Cedric Richmond, a three-term state legislator.

Other contenders are New Orleans City Council member James Carter and Jefferson Parish Council member Byron Lee.

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