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Swept Away: The Non-Legacy Of Dollar Bill Jefferson

In 2017, former Congressman William Jennings “Dollar Bill” Jefferson is a living, breathing cautionary tale.

Former Congressman Dollar Bill Jefferson is back in the news. After seven counts of his 2009 conviction were thrown out, Jefferson’s lawyers cut a deal with the Feds to reduce his sentence to time served. I have no problem with that: He’s served five years and he’ll never learn his lesson anyway. So why not let him out at age 70?

Like fellow convicted felon Edwin Edwards, Dollar Bill, the nickname presciently bestowed on him by former New Orleans mayor Dutch Morial, will never put the penitent in penitentiary.

I’ve been pondering Dollar Bill’s political career and the fact that he *used* to be one of the most important politicians in New Orleans as well as the leading African-American elected official in the Gret Stet of Louisiana, after Marc Morial, Dutch’s son, became the Urban League honcho.

This 2006 attack flyer spoofs Dollar Bill’s influence at that time. Like Savoir Faire the cartoon mouse, he was everywhere. In 2017, to quote John Lennon, “he’s a real nowhere man” with no chance of a political comeback.

How and why was Dollar Bill’s political power swept away? It’s important to go into excruciating detail because all some NOLA newbies know about Dollar Bill is that he was caught with cold hard cash in the freezer of his DC area crib.

I hope those folks have at least seen this period piece:

In August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent Federal Flood devastated New Orleans, Jefferson’s influence was at its zenith. He was in his 8th term in Congress and widely respected in Washington. His political organization the Progressive Democrats were experts at filling the streets with canvassers and a veritable forest of signs. The group’s name is, of course, ironic given its focus on patronage and power but they were effective, especially Uptown. I’ll call them by a more accurate name, the Jefferson machine, since they were Democrats but not particularly progressive.

When Katrina struck, Jefferson’s daughter, Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, was my State Representative, his sister Betty Jefferson was an elected tax assessor, Dollar Bill protégé Eddie Jordan was District Attorney, ally Ellenese Brooks-Simms was School Board President, and Rene Gill Pratt was my city council person.

The woman I dubbed Gill Pratfall was a rather dim former school teacher whose primary qualification for office was her relationship with Mose Jefferson, Dollar Bill’s brother was the group’s organizer and bag man. Like Dollar Bill, Mose was one smart cookie but his girlfriend was not.

The Jefferson machine may have been successful politically, but they were greedier than the wolves of Wall Street. Dollar Bill wasn’t the only one to spend time in the slammer. There was an elaborate bribery scam at the School Board that led to jail time for Brooks-Simms, the bribee, and the briber, Mose Jefferson, who died in prison in 2011. Along with Mose, Gill Pratfall and Betty Jefferson were also involved in a scam that bilked charities set up by the Jefferson machine to be bilked. That’s a whole lotta bilking. One scam involved Gill Pratfall’s Bronco. No, not that Bronco….

Only two of Jefferson associates listed above escaped jail time. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock was defeated in a bid for the State Senate in 2007 and is out of politics. Eddie Jordan was an epic disaster as District Attorney. When he took over, he put one of Dollar Bill’s most trusted aides, Stephanie Butler, in charge of patronage, and there were mass firings including many experienced lawyers and investigators. This purge led to endless litigation that distracted attention from what DAs are supposed to do: prosecute crimes. Jordan’s bumbling continued after the storm, and he hung up his signature bowler hat in 2007. He left the DA’s office financially and morally bankrupt.

Thanks, Dollar Bill.

I’ve been writing about New Orleans politics since 2005, but I met all these Jefferson associates (accomplices?) in my capacity as an Uptown neighborhood leader. None of them was remotely as clever as Dollar Bill or Mose, which is another reason for Dollar Bill’s non-legacy in New Orleans politics.

As an early Clinton supporter, Dollar Bill had enough clout with William Jefferson Clinton to get Eddie Jordan and his hat appointed US Attorney. (I couldn’t resist using the Big Dog’s full name because it turned up every time I googled Dollar Bill.)  Jordan appeared to be successful in that job, but the credit belonged to the career prosecutors and staff. Jordan was in over his hat as District Attorney.

In many ways, William Jennings Jefferson is a tragic figure. He’s a brilliant and able man. He was one of the people who ran the State Senate during his time there. He was the first black Congressman from Louisiana since reconstruction and was an influential member until his legal troubles began in 2006.

Politically, his candidates lost their share of races, but Dollar Bill defeated Marc Morial in 1990 in a battle of political heavyweights to take over the Boggs family seat in Congress.

In 2017, Dollar Bill is a living, breathing cautionary tale.

He rose from an impoverished childhood in East Carroll Parish to attend Harvard Law School. His hardscrabble upbringing left him always wanting more even though he did well in life. The African phone scam that led to his incarceration came at the time he had multiple daughters in private schools. He needed the money, and his avarice kicked in and later kicked him in the ass and into the pokey.

Dollar Bill’s political legacy was swept away in a tide of graft, greed, and corruption. He got away with it for so many years that he thought he was bulletproof. He was not. It’s a shame because he could have been a great man instead of what he is: a convicted felon who was so disgraced that he lost his final race in 2008 to a Vietnamese-American Republican who had never before held a political office, Joseph Cao.

In 2017, New Orleans definitively turned the page on the pre-Katrina political era. Dollar Bill’s last close associate in elected office, Councilman James Gray, was defeated for re-election by a Vietnamese-American Independent, Cyndi Nguyen. Do you detect a pattern? The old alphabet groups are diminished in stature and importance with the exception of BOLD.

And the Jefferson machine is dead and buried, swept away along with the non-legacy of Dollar Bill Jefferson.

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