In post-Katrina Louisiana, the politics of the storm can overshadow even a bribery investigation.
Hurricane Katrina is again buffeting an election, this time a congressional race previously dominated by the federal investigation of eight-term incumbent U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
A popular but pugnacious sheriff unleashed an attack this week on Jefferson’s opponent, state Rep. Karen Carter, because she had called officials "inhumane" for stopping thousands of people from walking across a Mississippi River bridge to escape New Orleans after the storm.
Jefferson faces Carter, a fellow Democrat, in a runoff Saturday that will decide one of the nation’s last unresolved elections for a U.S. House seat, its lateness tied to Louisiana’s open multiparty primary system.
Carter, 37, is well-financed and politically connected. She’s seeking to become the first black woman from Louisiana elected to Congress.
On Tuesday, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee railed against Carter at a news conference, charging she had "run her fat mouth" about racism to draw attention to herself.
Carter’s comments were aired during Spike Lee’s documentary on Katrina, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." In one segment Carter says: "There’s no question that the officials there were wrong, absolutely wrong, and they need to be reprimanded accordingly. It was unjust, it was inhumane and it was unacceptable."
The sheriff said he was "incensed" by her comments and that he could not stomach the idea of having Carter represent his parish.
"She makes us look like a bunch of yahoos down here, a bunch of racists, that we kept black people out of Jefferson Parish," said Lee, who is Chinese.
After Katrina, police had to keep people from crossing the Crescent City Connection bridge to protect homes and businesses that had been left empty when Jefferson evacuated, Lee said.
Carter responded that the sheriff was "entitled to his opinions."
Until now, the congressional race has focused on the incumbent’s ethics.
Jefferson’s legal troubles surfaced shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005. FBI raids on his homes and offices, including allegations in an FBI affidavit that he hid $90,000 in bribe money in a freezer, have left Jefferson vulnerable for the first time since he won the seat in 1990.
Though he has not been charged with a crime, the allegations led to his loss of a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee. He has denied wrongdoing. Two of his associates have pleaded guilty in the investigation.
The sheriff’s outburst provided Jefferson a breather from attacks against his moral standing.
Analysts are uncertain what effect Lee’s attack will have on the election’s outcome. The 2nd Congressional District covers most of New Orleans and the suburbs on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
The sheriff, who has been in office more than two decades, has had strained relations with local black leaders.
He has been criticized for wanting to block a street linking New Orleans to mostly white Jefferson Parish because he said the city’s blacks were using it as a crime corridor. More recently, as the murder rate rose in Jefferson, he announced plans to send armored vehicles into predominantly black neighborhoods to break up street gatherings.
Lee denied that his attack and an accompanying anti-Carter mass flier to "chronic voters" in his parish were coordinated with Jefferson’s campaign.
The attack offers further evidence of Katrina’s stamina as a political issue.
Last spring, Mayor Ray Nagin managed to wade through the fallout from the storm to win re-election. Next year, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is up for re-election and faces questions about her performance after the catastrophe.
Katrina will continue to haunt the lives and historical record of Louisiana’s elected officials, said Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane University history professor and author of a book about the storm.
"When their obituary is written one day, the main point will be that during Katrina they did this or they did that in the city’s darkest hours," he said.