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 in Jeff’s house.
Barthelemy had been giving what I thought were bizarre speeches about bringing a Disneyland park to New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, but the only more inappropriate place to bring kids on vacation was probably Vegas. I wanted to know what was going on. Anyhow, I had a mole in Sidney’s campaign and it turned out that Barthelemy was doing EST, the 70s cult/scam run by a guy named Werner Erhardt, that had people paying money to be re-programmed (the initial deal was being yelled at for hours in a large group, with no permission for bathroom breaks). Part of the deal was that if you talked enough about something happening then it would happen. They’d done that with the issue of world hunger. Think about it, give the EST organization even more of your money and world hunger will end.
I figured we had Barthelemy. Leak this information and he’d get laughed out of the race. I called a meeting of Jeff’s white inner circle, the ones with ties to the city’s newspaper, the Times-Picayune. We met at Jeff’s uptown house and I seem to remember going to that fridge for a soda or a beer (didn’t open the freezer). So I tell them what I learned, how this is the magic bullet for our campaign, but no one’s reacting at all. Finally someone looks at me and says, well, all of them were doing EST too.
And those bounced checks? A couple of nights before the election, when the last check had bounced and it looked like me and my polling partner would have to eat all of our phone bank expenses, I drove over to Jeff’s house, woke him up, and asked him to write me a check to least cover those expenses. And I asked that the check come from the bank where I knew he had some money.
Anyhow, we lost the election. Barthelemy served two terms and the guys around him got rich. Jeff got himself elected congressman when Lindy Boggs retired, beating Marc Morial, where the big issue seemed to be a child Marc had fathered in Africa. But then Marc got elected mayor. And I gave up political consulting and moved north to work on documentary films full-time.
I can laugh at all of this, two decades after the fact. I always thought that Jefferson was more tragic than anything, a waste of real talent. The money and damage that he did—while kind of pathetic—was and is also minor league chump change compared to the millions involved that the Duke Cunninghams and the friends of the Jack Abramoffs in the DC world dealt with. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition alone made $5 million off of southern Indian tribes—and he’d claim, in the time-honored cliché, that it was honest graft (i.e. not technically illegal).
All that said, just thinking about Bill Jefferson and New Orleans’ insane, surreal, corrupt politics back then reminds me that that New Orleans no longer exists. It got washed away in the flood. Nothing you’ve seen on TV, nothing, shows what a complete disaster it was and still is. All of the neighborhoods that tourists never saw, not just the Lower Ninth Ward, but Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park, Treme, Mid-City, the 8th Ward, much of it is deserted, the houses unlivable. For those of us who actually lived there, New Orleans was wonderful and awful. The city that didn’t work. Where so many people lived in poverty and misery. Crime was horrible. And where if you couldn’t laugh at the colorful screwed up politics, then you either drank a lot or moved.
I guess now isn’t the right time for me to ask Jeff for that money he owes me.
Paul Stekler is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.