Jefferson Flap Not About Race

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Mel Watt howled when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's political scalp. Pelosi publicly implored the embattled, scandal- plagued black House member to step down from his post on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Predictably, Watt charged racism and lambasted Pelosi's anti-Jefferson move as a slap at black voters. Jefferson's treatment was even faintly compared to that of Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell; in 1967, Powell was stripped of his spot on the Education and Labor Committee. 

But the racial saber-rattling won't, and shouldn't, work. Though Jefferson denies wrongdoing and has not been indicted, he was allegedly caught on videotape accepting $100,000 in bribe money for a hi-tech business deal in Africa -- and stuffing $90,000 of it into his freezer. He also commandeered government rescue vehicles during Hurricane Katrina to haul personal possessions from his New Orleans home, while those vehicles could have aided people pleading for rescue.

An aide and a former business associate involved in the same shady deals that Jefferson is under scrutiny for have pled guilty to bribery charges. Even if Jefferson dodges the legal bullet and escapes prosecution, the near smoking-gun allegations, surveillance tape, testimony, and his refusal to turn over records to government investigators raised glaring ethical red flags.

Pelosi didn't axe Jefferson because he's black. She axed Jefferson because he's political damaged goods. Earlier, Pelosi demanded that Alan Mollohan, a white West Virginia Democrat, get off the ethics committee when questions arose about his dealings. Jefferson and Mollohan are the latest in the lengthening list of House members that have been indicted, prosecuted, stood trial, been jailed, or face ethics probes and investigations.

The comparison to the plight of Powell is a stretch. He was a devil-may-care, outspoken and fiery civil rights fighter. He ruffled the feathers of the Johnson administration and House Democrats with his tirades against poverty and racism, and thumbed his nose at congressional rules. Jefferson is a centrist, play-by-the-party- rules Democrat stalwart. Like many other House members, he got his plum post on the ways and means committee based in part on seniority, and in greater part because he's a consummate party loyalist.

Then there's the practical matter of Jefferson's effectiveness for his mostly black, and in many cases very needy, constituents. They depend on him to fight for appropriations money and services for his district. If he's forced to spend more time fighting to stay out of a courtroom than he can spend on legislative and constituent services, the district suffers. This happened with Powell. When he got the boot, his Harlem constituents lost their voice, as well as an advocate for district programs. It took years, and the election of Charles Rangel, to scrub the scandal away and jumpstart constituent services.

The willingness of House Republicans -- with the silence of many Democrats -- to wink and nod, defend the shenanigans of disgraced Republican bigwig Tom DeLay, and routinely refuse to impose sanctions on its members for ethics violations (as well as pass a toothless ethics reform law) has made Congress a laughingstock with much of the public. Congress is widely regarded as a moribund, self-protective bunch of good ole' boys in an eternal hunt for the next deal, payoff, lobbyist handout, and campaign contribution. In opinion polls Congress rates only a slight tick above Bush.

Pelosi's push to strip Jefferson of his seat won't do much to change that. But it does give Democrats a political and moral hammer to pound Republicans for the culture of corruption and rot in Congress. A too spirited defense of Jefferson by the Black Caucus will soften that blow and reinforce the deep public belief that the corrupt culture that Democrats rail against is alive and well. And worse, that they're willing to play the race card to insure it stays alive.

Watt, however, did make a valid point. The Democrats have shamefully taken the black vote for granted. Whether they ultimately dump Jefferson or not, that neglect has cost them mightily. It gave Bush enough ammunition to convince some blacks in the last presidential election that incredibly the GOP was more race-friendly to blacks than the Democrats. The mild bump up he got in black support in Ohio and Florida tipped the White House to him. It also made the gubernatorial and Senate candidacies of high profile blacks such as Michael Steele in Maryland, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, Ken Blackwell in Ohio, and Keith Butler in Michigan in the fall mid-term elections credible. A win by one or more of them in these key battleground states could pose even greater peril to the Democrats in the presidential race in 2008.

Pelosi is sensitive to that peril. She held a conference call media press conference with black reporters, of which this writer was invited to participate to talk about Jefferson. She reassured that he was not being targeted because of his race, and that House Democrats are sensitive to black voters. Time will tell how true that is, but one thing is for sure, the spat over Jefferson is not about race. It's about Jefferson.

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