WASHINGTON - House Democratic leaders are determined to sanction Rep. William Jefferson, scandal-scarred but unindicted, despite a blunt reminder from the Congressional Black Caucus that he is entitled to a "presumption of innocence."The first thing to remember here is that the Democrats are not looking to "convict" Jefferson of anything on their own, nor are they looking to remove him from office. What they are trying to do is get him to step down from some of his more high visibility leadership roles and committee positions while the investigation and (we can probably assume) eventual trial before a jury of his peers takes place.
"It's about to blow up in their face," predicted Rep. Melvin Watt, chairman of the CBC.
The North Carolina Democrat added Thursday night that black voters might wonder why a "black member of Congress" would be stripped of his committee post with neither rule nor precedent to justify it.
This is not only the right thing to do, but also a politically wise course of action. May I remind everyone that I didn't see any Democrats complaining when the Republicans were pushing Tom DeLay to step down from his leadership position as soon as news leaked that he was going to be indicted in Texas? Again... they weren't asking him to resign, but rather to simply take a lower profile stance while the process played out. This has the effect of deflecting some of the damage caused by having high profile leaders paraded around with this sort of albatross tied around their necks and gives voters the impression that the party at large is serious about cleaning their own house as well as attacking the house of their enemy.
But Jefferson is black. This means that the usual list of suspects will be playing the race card as soon as the issue hits the public eye, and those same supporters will be rushing to his defense using that as a reason.
Listen... it's very true that the process needs to play out according to the law and Jefferson is entitled to the same presumption of innocence as any other citizen until he's had his day in court. But it's also true that they have the guy ON VIDEO accepting the bribe money and that most of said money was found HIDDEN IN HIS FREEZER. This isn't the poster boy you want carrying water for your party during a potentially Earth-shaking mid-term election season. If he were a Republican, you'd be calling for his head on a platter whether he was black, white, indigo or teal.
If - and we're forced to say "if" until the matter is settled in court - Jefferson truly is guilty and knows in his heart that he's going to be brought down, the best thing he could do for himself, his family and his political party would be to bow out now to "focus on his legal defense and spend more time with his family" or whatever press release he cares to craft. But failing that, it's only appropriate for the party to move him to a lower, less visible shelf. If you want to base part of your 2006 election strategy on painting the current crop of Republicans as the "culture of corruption" you have to clean your own house up as much as possible first or the message turns into a comedy of high hypocrisy.