Jefferson is Nowhere Man on Dems' Katrina response

Early in the summer, New Orleans Rep. William Jefferson was best known as a pro-business black Democrat who had worked his way halfway up the ladder of the Ways and Means Committee. Now that low-key persona is gone.

Jefferson has been thrust into the spotlight by two events, the devastation in his district from Hurricane Katrina and his own troubles as the reported target of an FBI sting. He now faces the delicate task of balancing the two issues.

For Democrats, the situation poses a dilemma. Jefferson’s district includes almost all of flooded New Orleans, which could make him an effective attack dog to lambaste the administration’s bungled response, yet his ethical woes provide an enticing target for Republicans hoping to shift focus from their own.

Back in his district after the storm, Jefferson attracted criticism for diverting the Coast Guard from rescue missions to help him take several large bags out of his house. An earlier FBI raid had revealed thousands of dollars of cash stashed in a freezer.

With those headlines still fresh, Democratic leaders appear to have taken the more cautious tack of leaving Jefferson on the sidelines in their effort to respond to the storm.

When Democrats decided who would give the Democratic radio address on the first Saturday after the storm, it was not Jefferson but Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), whose neighboring district suffered far less flooding, who delivered the party’s message.

When Melancon and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the other two House Democrats affected by the storm, wrote to President Bush asking for an independent commission to investigate the response, Jefferson did not sign on, although he does support an independent commission.

Jefferson was also absent from last week’s first hearing of the select committee on Katrina. Melancon and Taylor attended, although other Democrats stayed away, calling the committee a Republican-controlled sham that will let the administration off easy.

Taylor, Melancon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would fast-track tax refunds for Katrina victims. Jefferson was an original co-sponsor of the measure but was not listed on the press release. A spokeswoman for Emanuel said Jefferson had signed on to the bill after the release went out.

Jefferson said he does not feel there is any concerted effort to keep him out of the limelight.

“Have you seen me take a back seat on any issue?” he asked. “That’s not the way I work. Nothing is going to prevent me from representing the people I represent, so you can forget about asking that question. It doesn’t affect me,” he said, referring to the ongoing FBI probe.

Taylor did appear at a press conference with Pelosi and other House leaders Thursday.

“I’ve been very busy with other stuff. But I wanted to take this opportunity to express myself on this issue and show the leader that I was there,” Jefferson said.

Several Democratic aides suggest that his low profile might have more to do with his frosty relationship with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) than with political strategy.

Jefferson was once a staunch supported of Pelosi’s leadership, but Pelosi rebuffed him in 2003 when she did not tap him to be DCCC chairman, opting instead to appoint a fellow Californian, the late Rep. Robert Matsui. Since then, Jefferson has not worked closely with leadership, sources said.

His conservative stance on business issues has also put him on the outs with leaders. He was one of only 15 Democrats to support the Central America Free Trade Agreement, even as Democratic leaders lobbied strongly against it.

Pelosi’s office has also had unusually strong contacts with Melancon and Taylor. Pelosi aide Burns Strider is himself from Mississippi, while Melancon, a freshman, has been a part of the leader’s orientation program for new members, which often brings them close to leadership offices.

One explanation for Jefferson’s exclusion from the party’s high-profile responses to Katrina is that he is in a safe Democratic seat, whereas Melancon and Taylor are in competitive districts and need the exposure more.