JEFFERSON, William Jennings

JEFFERSON, William Jennings
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1947–

Biography

When William Jefferson won election to the U.S. House in 1990 from a New Orleans–centered district, he became the first African American to represent the state of Louisiana since Reconstruction. Jefferson, who had more than a decade of experience in the Louisiana state senate, specialized in economic matters and eventually earned a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

William Jennings Jefferson was born on March 14, 1947, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. Jefferson grew up in poverty in a family of 10 children in the far northeastern part of the state. In 1969, he graduated from Southern University Agricultural and Mechanical College with a B.A. degree. Three years later, on scholarship, he earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. In 1996, Jefferson earned a Master of Laws in taxation from Georgetown University. After law school, he served for a year as a law clerk for veteran U.S. District Court Judge Alvin B. Rubin in New Orleans. From 1973 to 1975, Jefferson then served as a legislative assistant to Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. Jefferson married Dr. Andrea Green–Jefferson, and they raised five daughters: Jamila, Jalila, Jelani, Nailah, and Akilah.1

Jefferson entered elective politics in the late 1970s, when he defeated a white incumbent for a Louisiana senate seat that covered the affluent Uptown section of New Orleans. He served in Baton Rouge for 12 years, working on the finance committee and chairing the special budget stabilization committee, which was created to rein in state spending and develop more accurate revenue projections. He also chaired the influential governmental affairs committee, which had oversight of reapportionment.2 In 1982 and 1986, Jefferson was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New Orleans.

In 1990, when 17–year House veteran Corinne C. (Lindy) Boggs announced her retirement, Jefferson entered a crowded field to succeed her. The district covered much of New Orleans proper, the wealthy Uptown section, Algiers on the west bank of the Mississippi River, and the sprawling Kenner suburbs on the city’s west side. In 1983, court–ordered redistricting made it the state’s first majority–black district and, by 1990, Representative Boggs was the last white Representative in the country to represent a majority black–district. Jefferson was one of four principal contenders in the October open primary, which included Marc H. Morial, son of former mayor Dutch Morial (who served from 1978 to 1986 and the city’s first African–American mayor), a state senator who had been endorsed by the governor, and a prominent city school board member. Jefferson finished first with 25 percent of the vote, with Morial trailing at 22 percent.3 In the spirited two–man November runoff, Jefferson prevailed with 53 percent of the vote. In his subsequent seven re–election campaigns, Jefferson won handily with 73 percent of the vote or more.4

When Jefferson was sworn into the House in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), he earned seats on the Education and Labor and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries committees. In the following Congress, he relinquished those assignments for a coveted spot on the Ways and Means Committee. When the Republicans took control of the chamber for the 104th Congress (1995–1997) Jefferson lost his Ways and Means post and was transferred to the National Security Committee (later renamed Armed Services), the House Oversight Committee (later renamed House Administration), and the Joint Committee on Printing. In the next Congress, Jefferson again won an assignment to the exclusive Ways and Means Committee, relinquishing his prior assignments. He remained on Ways and Means until June 2006, adding an assignment to the Budget Committee in the 109th Congress (2005–2007). In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Jefferson was assigned to the Small Business Committee.

In Congress, Jefferson specialized in trade and tax issues important to the port of New Orleans where trade is a primary economic engine. Jefferson advocated trade opportunities in neglected markets such as Brazil and Africa. He served as co–chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus and also chaired the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation board of directors. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded much of New Orleans and its surrounding environs in August 2005, Jefferson pushed for reforms to the Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan program, which was criticized in the aftermath of the storm. The House also passed Jefferson’s amendment to extend the deadline for minority–owned businesses in his district to rebuild under the SBA’s redevelopment program.5

In 2006, Jefferson was re–elected to a ninth term against Democrat Karen Carter, with 57 percent of the vote.6 In 2008, a political newcomer, Republican Ahn “Joseph” Quang Cao, became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress when he defeated Jefferson by a margin of 50 to 47 percent of the vote. Jefferson’s term expired at the conclusion of the 110th Congress on January 3, 2009.

Footnotes

1“Official Biography of William J. Jefferson,” http://www.house.gov/jefferson/biography.shtml (accessed 2 November 2007).

2Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 644.

3Almanac of American Politics, 1992 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1991): 513.

4“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” available at http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

5Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 435; “Official Biography of William J. Jefferson.”

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” available at http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

The HistoryMakers

Chicago, IL
Oral History: 2003, 4 Betacam SP videocassettes, 1 box containing accompanying materials. An oral history interview of William Jefferson conducted on June 10, 2003.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Jefferson, William J. Dying Is the Easy Part. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark Publishing, Inc., 2007.

"William J. Jefferson" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - District of Columbia
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - House Oversight
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
  • House Committee - National Security
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Ways and Means
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Printing
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