Jefferson, William J. 1947–
William J. Jefferson 1947–
Climbing from a childhood during which he would rise hours before the sun to pick cotton, William Jefferson became Louisiana’s first African American representative in the U.S. Congress since the days of Reconstruction in the nineteenth century. A staunch supporter of President Bill Clinton, he was among the most influential of the southern African American Democrats who entered Congress in the 1990s. Jefferson, a survivor of Louisiana’s rough-and-tumble politics, ran for governor of the state in 1999. Although he was not elected, his prospects for higher office seemed bright as the new millennium dawned.
William Jennings Jefferson was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana, on March 14, 1947. Lake Providence is in East Carroll Parish, one of the poorest counties in the United States, and Jefferson, the sixth of ten children, grew up in dire poverty. “When I got there, it was already crowded,” he told Emerge magazine. He was put to work picking cotton at the age of seven, getting up at 3:15 a.m. and often working until midafternoon for a daily wage of three dollars. His father was a handyman who only had a second grade education.
Jefferson’s mother, though, placed a high value on education, serving for 12 years as president of the local Parent-Teachers’ Association. Through her efforts, all 10 Jefferson children attended college. William (familiarly known as Bill) went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, majoring in English and political science and graduating in 1969. He was accepted immediately at Harvard Law School and made short work of that challenging program, receiving his degree in 1972.
After graduating from law school, Jefferson landed a position in eastern Louisiana as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Alvin J. Rubin. He got his feet wet in politics as a legislative assistant to Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston. However, Jefferson returned to practicing law in 1976, and founded a new firm with several partners. The law firm of Jefferson, Bryan and Gray would become, in time, the largest African American law firm in the southern United States. In the 1970s, Jefferson also served in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s
At a Glance…
Bom March 14, 1947, in Lake Providence, LA; son of a handyman; married to Andrea, Education: Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, B.A., 1969; Harvard University, J.D., 1972; Georgetown University, LL.M., 1996. Military service: U.S. Army Reserves, 1969–78. Army Judge Advocate Corps, 1975. Religion: Baptist.
Career: United States Congressional Representative from Louisiana’s Second District. Law clerk, U.S. District Judge Alvin Rubin, 1972–73; legislative aide, U.S. Senator Bennett Johnson, 1973–75; founding partner, law firm of Jefferson, Bryan and Cray, 1975–90; elected to Louisiana State Senate, 1979–90; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, 1990-; served on Ways and Means Committee.
Addresses: Office— 240 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC20515.
As African American lawmakers began to make modest inroads into southern state legislatures in the 1970s, Jefferson gravitated back to the political arena. Elected to the Louisiana state senate in 1979, he twice won re-election to four-year terms, and rose to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee. A resident of New Orleans, he twice ran for mayor in that city, losing both times but gaining wider name recognition. His chance for higher office came in 1990, when New Orleans’s longtime U.S. House Representative, Lindy Boggs, decided to retire. Louisiana’s Second District has boundaries close to those of the predominantly African American city of New Orleans.
Several of the most prominent names in African American Louisiana politics jumped into the race to succeed Boggs. Jefferson was endorsed by New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy, but he faced staunch competition from Marc Morial, the son of New Orleans’s first African American mayor, and later elected mayor of New Orleans himself. Jefferson led narrowly going into a November runoff election, and got his first taste of Louisiana-style campaigning when he was bruised by charges of having defaulted on mortgage loans; his campaign retaliated by publicizing the fact that Morial was the father of an eight-year-old girl living in Africa’s Ivory Coast. Jefferson narrowly won the runoff election, becoming Louisiana’s first African American U.S. Representative since Reconstruction.
In Congress, Jefferson has had a notable career in several respects. He was named to a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing body that is probably the most powerful among the various House committees, and has used his position there to benefit African American-owned small businesses. He has taken the lead on the issue of so-called “environmental racism” (a hotly contested issue in Louisiana especially), successfully heading off the construction of a potentially hazardous plastics plant near an African American community. In recent years, Jefferson has raised his voice to protest the “digital divide,” the inequity between higher- and lower-income communities in availability of computers and access to the Internet. He has introduced legislation providing for tax breaks that would enable low-income families to purchase computer equipment.
As significant as any of Jefferson’s legislative activities, though, was the success he had in breaking into Washington’s corridors of power in the 1990s, an era of Democratic control in the White House. Jefferson emerged in 1991 as a strong supporter of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in his run for the presidency, and continued to work closely with Clinton on various initiatives throughout the latter’s tenure as President. A member of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, he has avoided some of the government-activist stands taken by other African American Democrats in Congress, tending instead to favor partnerships between the public and private sectors in addressing social problems.
As a result of his work with the national Democratic party (he served as Louisiana co-chair for the 1988 and 1992 Democratic presidential campaigns), and of his election to represent the state’s largest city, Jefferson’s name recognition across Louisiana began to rise. His ambitions toward higher office became clear early on, as he twice considered running for governor (in 1991 and 1995), withdrawing both times, and contemplated a U.S. Senate run in 1996. In 1999, Jefferson jumped into the gubernatorial race once again, challenging incumbent Republican governor Mike Foster. Unlike the African American Democratic candidate who ran in 1995, Jefferson had the support of Louisiana’s largely white-dominated Democratic organization.
Although Foster was tainted by the revelation that he had purchased voter mailing lists from Louisiana politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Jefferson largely avoided this negative issue in his own campaign, instead framing the choice in economic terms. “He’s on the side of big business,” Jefferson was quoted as saying in Emerge. “I’m on the side of working families and small entrepreneurs.” Jefferson raised an impressive war chest of 2.2 million for the campaign, but his challenge to Foster was blunted by the presence of fringe candidates in the race, including one who went by the name of Messiah and spoke in tongues.
In the October 1999 election, Jefferson came out on the losing end of a 62 to 30 percent margin, with Louisiana’s still heavily polarized electorate splitting largely along racial lines. However, the off-year election allowed Jefferson to keep his Congressional seat, and national observers were hardly discounting his future chances. The Almanac of American Politics noted that “one statewide campaign might lead to another, with better prospects for success.” The father of five daughters, three of whom had already followed him to Harvard, Jefferson at the turn of the century seemed one of the brightest stars in African American politics.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics: 2000. National Journal, 1999.
Henderson, Ashyia N., and Shirelle Phelps, eds., Who’s Who among African Americans. 12th ed. Gale, 1999.
Black Enterprise, May 1997, p. 20.
Emerge, October 1999, p. 26.
Jet, October 18, 1999, p. 35.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.house.gov\Jefferson\ and http://www.nationaljournal.com (book purchase required)
—James M. Manheim
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