Twenty years ago, I was William Jefferson’s pollster. Yeah, the same Louisiana congressman who was convicted this week of corruption charges after being caught with $90,000 in bribes in his New Orleans home freezer. When I heard the news, I can’t say I was surprised. I thought Jeff would have been caught for something years ago. In fact, he still owes me at least 20 grand.
Back then, Jeff was a young state senator. Bright, ambitious, a poor kid from north Louisiana who’d gone to Harvard law school and worked on Senator Bennett Johnson’s staff. He seemed like the kind of young guy on his way up. Someone who could stand above the muck of New Orleans politics, maybe smoothe the transition from white to black political power. He had quite a campaign team. Raymond Strother signed on to do his ads. Senator Mary Landrieu, then a state rep, and Marc Morial, the son of the then sitting first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial (and later a mayor himself), both volunteered their time. Harrison Hickman, later Al Gore’s pollster, came in as an advisor.
I’d basically volunteered my services too, inspired by a speech I heard Senator Jefferson give at Tulane University, where I worked at the time. I ran Jeff’s polls, tried to spin the local press, even made a “secret” research trip to San Francisco to see if any of their city’s governance innovations might work in the Crescent City. Jeff and his inner circle, though, really weren’t interested in any of this. They were busy making deals in the Byzantine world that defined the politics of a city split between whites, blacks, and the light-skinned Catholic Creoles who made up most of the first generation of African-American elected officials. In a race where Jeff was pitted against Sidney Barthelemy, the not-so-bright but great-looking Creole councilman at large, who’d feuded with Mayor Morial for years, the African-American community was divided along color and religious lines and the minority white voters were the prize left to fight over. Money, alliances, and organization were being traded and, even inside the campaign, it was hard to figure who were friends and who weren’t.
Jeff was also very interested in money. He and his elder brother had a Remco business that rented appliances, televisions and such to poor folks, often repossessing them after a few months once a payment was missed. In a city and state full of crooks, however charming (think of the now imprisoned former Governor Edwin Edwards), Jeff was also getting a bad reputation from people who did business with him. They called him ‘Dollar Bill’ behind his back. And then there was the matter of the delayed payments and subsequent bounced checks for our polling. But I’ll get to that later.
Did I mention that I was also making a documentary about the election back then? And that I was also the on-air election analyst for the lowest-rated local TV station? Well, conflict of interest didn’t really seem to be an issue in New Orleans.
One night I got a call telling me to get over to the union hall on Clairborne Avenue, that there was an unannounced rally for Jeff that I ought to film. I got there with my cameraman where we found ourselves the only two white guys in a crowd of maybe five hundred excited, mostly street, guys. Many were holding homemade-looking signs that depicted Barthelemy surrounded by skeletons dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, with Barthelemy saying, “I’ll do whatever the white man tells me to.” Mayor Morial was giving an impassioned, kind of crazy speech (it’s in our film) and when he saw me in the crowd, he stopped and winked. Later, a group of Jeff’s supporters and lawyers (who will remain unnamed) dressed for a night out in what could only be called leftover fashions from “Uptown Saturday Night,” pulled me over to say that they were buying up land all over the city under a third party name, to be bought at inflated prices once Jeff was elected mayor. Everyone was excited.
And then there was that refrigerator