Racial loyalty to Rep. Jefferson too much to ask

June 16, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have raised the bloody shirt of racism in defense of their embattled colleague Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. I appreciate their sense of loyalty to a friend, but Mr. Jefferson hasn't given them much to work with.

Mr. Jefferson's friends say he deserves the presumption of innocence. But the court of public opinion, in which all politics operates, is quite another matter.

There is, for example, the embarrassing little question of the alleged bribery money that the FBI found in Mr. Jefferson's freezer.

He denies wrongdoing, but his outlook does not look sunny. Two other men already have been convicted in the bribery probe. One is a former Jefferson aide. The other is a businessman who pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Mr. Jefferson.

Worse, the FBI is reported to have caught Mr. Jefferson accepting a briefcase with $100,000 in alleged bribe money from an undercover informant in front of a northern Virginia hotel. During a search of his Washington home, the FBI said it found $90,000 worth of the marked bills in his freezer. No word yet on what happened to the other $10,000.

It is hard for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders to continue pummeling the Republican "culture of corruption" while Mr. Freezer Bucks remains perched on his prestigious House Ways and Means Committee seat.

But as Democratic leaders took the initial steps toward stripping Mr. Jefferson of his committee post last week, his fellow Congressional Black Caucus members defended the right of the sharecropper's son to be presumed innocent, at least until he is indicted.

Caucus Chairman Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, raised the specter of black voters wondering with great suspicion why "a black member of Congress" is the first to be stripped so swiftly of his committee post.

"It's about to blow up in your face," he warned party leaders.

In other words, Mr. Watt and others want Mr. Jefferson to be treated the same as Republicans recently have treated their leaders.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay temporarily resigned his post only after his indictment late last year on criminal charges of conspiracy. Pressured by fellow Republicans, he later announced that he would not try to return to the job. He resigned from Congress last week.

Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, hung on to his powerful chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee until his indictment in 1994. He won re-election while under investigation, but lost to a Republican while under indictment. He eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud. Republicans exploited Mr. Rostenkowski's downfall as emblematic of Democratic corruption, a theme that helped the GOP win control of the House in 1994.

The donkeys hope to turn that theme against the elephants this year. The scandals surrounding Mr. DeLay and other friends of Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff have helped. The scandal surrounding Mr. Jefferson does not help.

For the good of his party, his colleagues and whatever is left of his own sense of integrity, Mr. Jefferson should step aside voluntarily, pending the completion of the investigation against him.

At a time when voters are looking for alternatives to the corruption that we see coursing through Congress, Mr. Jefferson's defenders seem to be saying that Democrats are no worse than their rival party. Voters aren't looking for "no worse." We want better.

When House Republicans rewrote their ethics rules so Mr. DeLay would not have to resign if indicted, I chastised Republicans with a President John F. Kennedy declaration that sometimes loyalty to party demands too much. As a black voter looking at the small but mighty rally around William Jefferson, I can only conclude that sometimes loyalty to race demands too much, too.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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