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When Race Loyalty Asks Too Much

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 Jefferson. I appreciate their sense of loyalty to a friend, but Jefferson hasn't given them much to work with.

Jefferson's friends say he deserves the presumption of innocence. Indeed, under our constitutional system of justice, as I once heard an embattled Chicago politician quoted, "Every man is innocent until his case has been through appeal."

But, the Court of Public Opinion in which all politics operate is quite another matter.

There is, for example, the embarrassing little question of the $90,000 in alleged bribery money that the FBI found in the Louisiana Democrat's freezer.

Jefferson 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 on May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.

Worse, the FBI is reported to have caught Jefferson accepting a leather 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 says it found $90,000 worth of the marked bills in Jefferson's freezer. No word yet on what happened to the other $10,000.

While corruption probes are nothing new in politics, this one leaves Jefferson's fellow Democrats in what Washington insiders sometimes call "an awkward." 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 Ways and Means Committee seat.

But, as Democratic leaders took the initial steps toward stripping Jefferson of his committee post last week, his fellow Congressional Black Caucus members issued a statement defending the right of the Louisiana 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, Watt and others want 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 and would resign Congress on June 9.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, also hung on to his powerful chairmanship until his indictment in 1994. He narrowly won re-nomination while under investigation, but, after his indictment, he lost re-election to a relatively unknown Republican, even in unshakably Democratic Chicago. He eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

But, even before that November election, Republicans led by rising star Newt Gingrich of Georgia, called Rostenkowski's troubles emblematic of Democratic corruption and used it to help win control of the House that year. The donkeys hope to turn that theme back against the elephants this year. The scandals surrounding DeLay and other congressional friends of Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff have helped. The scandal surrounding Jefferson does not help.

If Jefferson had any sense of personal honor or true loyalty to his friends, I think he would voluntarily step aside pending the completion of the investigation against him. At a time when voters are looking for alternatives to the corruption that we see boiling through Congress, it sends a weak message for Jefferson's Democratic defenders to say that they're no worse than their rival party. Voters aren't looking for "no worse." We want better.

When House Republicans rewrote their ethics rules last November so DeLay would not have to resign if indicted, I chastised Republicans with President John F. Kennedy's 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.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: cptime@aol.com

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