For sake of constituents, congressman must go

The Baltimore Sun

Scandal-plagued Louisiana Rep. William J. 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 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 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. By some accounts, Mr. Jefferson has worked hard to bring jobs to and improve services for his constituents, 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 still crippled from the monumental damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. The residents there are still struggling to rebuild their lives. They want and need a representative who will vigorously battle in Congress - and be a thorn in the side of the Bush administration - to accelerate the much-promised but badly stalled reconstruction efforts in the city. If Mr. Jefferson has to spend most of his time and energy fighting a multi-count indictment that could dump him in prison for many years, he clearly isn't the man for that job.

Mr. 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 in November, even though it was a foregone conclusion that he would be indicted on bribery charges. Now that the legal hammer has fallen, that leaves many in his district scratching their heads over whether they made the right decision to stay with him.

His constituents backed him not solely because he is an able politician but also 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 black voters to retain confidence in him. If Mr. 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 them.

To his credit, Mr. Jefferson did not scream that the feds and his House colleagues are persecuting him because he is black. That would be a tough sell anyway. The House vote on the resolution directing the Ethics Committee to probe whether Mr. Jefferson should be expelled passed by a whopping margin. It got substantial backing from the Congressional Black Caucus, as it should have.

The last thing that caucus members need is to be seen as blindly circling the wagons to protect Mr. Jefferson. The charges against him, to which he pleaded not guilty last week, are simply too serious. Over the past year, the caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats have skewered Republicans for their corruption, cronyism and deal-making. A too-vigorous defense of Mr. Jefferson would expose the caucus to the charge of a racial double standard.

Still, in far too many cases, blacks accused of wrongdoing reflexively deflect, dodge and muddy the accusations against them by screaming racism. They strongly imply that racist prosecutors unfairly target them, and wrap themselves in the martyr's cloak of persecuted civil rights fighters.

So far, Mr. Jefferson has shown no sign that he will stand down from his House seat. But he should, and quickly, to spare the House the embarrassment of having to debate whether to expel one of its own. More important, he should stand down to spare the voters in his district, whose trust he allegedly betrayed, the pain of having to be constantly reminded of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His e-mail is

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