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Tennessee: Another black-white congressional contest

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

May 18, 2009 Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton (D) announced on April 21 that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for Congress against two-term US Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) next year. “The mayor’s challenge was a first greeted by the media and the public at large as a bombshell,” says Memphis Flyer columnist Jackson Baker, “then as an absurdity -- long time Numero Uno going to Congress as a one-in-435 grunt. Then as a gambit of some kind” -- by running for Congress, Herenton might increase his ability to influence the choice of a US Attorney, important to hizzoner because of a federal investigation into his personal business affairs while in office. Indeed, the investigation has the potential of hurting his congressional campaign.

Now the word is that Herenton, 69, is indeed serious and will make a major bid for Cohen’s job. “Initially, I though [Herenton’s announcement] might be a whim. Now, I’m virtually certain he’s going to run,” says Rhodes College political scientist Marcus Pohlmann.

Herenton has had a strong organization and solid following in the past. He was elected this city’s first black mayor in 1991 and has since been elected four more times.  As a result, he is well-known in the core of the district, the African-American inner-city of Memphis, which he has always carried by large majorities. The question is whether this base will stick with him against incumbent Cohen. “He must think so,” says Pohlmann, adding that Herenton “proved in the last mayor’s election (in 2007) that he came rouse that base.” He says, “It’s hard to believe that Herenton is going to put himself out there and not go all the way.” 

While race may not get a lot of public play in the campaign, it is the major factor under the surface. In comments to the Memphis media, Herenton said “Memphis is a race-conscious city, I didn’t create it.” In an op-ed in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, he also noted that the 9th district “provides the only real opportunity to elect a qualified African-American to the all-white eleven-member delegation representing Tennessee in Washington.” Both comments zero in on the main reason for opposition to Cohen, that he is white in a district drawn to facilitate the election of a black candidate.

Balancing that concern is an awareness that Cohen has worked overtime to serve the needs of his black constituents. He has made a point of looking after the institutions and issues of importance to his mostly African-American constituency, with grants for historically black colleges and successfully sponsoring a US House resolution apologizing for slavery.

Cohen, 59, was elected initially in the 60% African-American 9th District (Memphis) in 2006. He won the Democratic primary mainly because black voters divided their loyalties among a field of 15 contenders, most of them black, giving Cohen, white and Jewish, a plurality of 31%. In 2008, Nikki Tinker (D), a labor lawyer and former Harold Ford Jr. campaign operative, sought to take him on in something closer to a one-on-one, but ran an inept campaign and garnered only 19% of the vote to Cohen’s 79%.

While Pohlmann believes the race will be competitive, he gives the edge to Cohen. “If Cohen doesn’t make a major gaffe, it’s hard to imagine that Herenton would beat him by a substantial margin.” But Cohen has already been testy in his published comments about Herenton. Rather than taking the high road, that the office belongs to the voters and anyone is free to run for it, he said he expected no significant opposition and implied that Herenton’s announcement was something like a betrayal from a former friend. Cohen was also quoted in the Commercial-Appeal saying, “I’m the first congressman, to the best of my knowledge, he’s ever gotten along with and this relationship is starting to go south.” Says a lobbyist who follows Memphis politics, Herenton’s announcement “will make Steve mad. He doesn’t like having an opponent.” Cohen also said that Herenton might not like Congress because “it’s a lot of work,” implying that Herenton is lazy. Whether such an approach is helpful or not remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, Cohen, despite being the only white member of Congress elected from a black-majority district, could beat Herenton by a substantial margin. A recent poll, taken by Yacoubian & Associates for WMC-TV on April 23-27, shortly after Herenton’s announcement, showed Cohen winning by an overwhelming 65% to 14%, similar to the Cohen-Tinker results in 2008.

In addition to his black support, there is also a minority of white voters in the district, most of whom have supported Cohen. They will presumably stick with him again this year, although one observer asks, since Cohen “has spent his time on African Americans, will he still have a base among white voters?”

Another factor is whether the once-powerful Ford dynasty will influence the race. The Fords, including former US Reps. Harold Ford, Sr. and Harold Ford, Jr., as well as a number of former state legislators and other local officeholders, “have less and less influence with each passing election,” says Pohlmann. Harold, Sr. now lives in Florida, Harold, Jr. has been focused on statewide politics, and former state Sen. John Ford -- brother of Harold, Sr. -- is in prison. Since Herenton “has made a career out of running against the Fords,” it would be highly unlikely that the Fords would get behind the mayor. However, “If Harold Jr. was to come out strongly for Cohen and campaign for him, it would help him, but it would also help the mayor rouse his base… My guess is that he sits it out,” says Pohlmann.

Republicans are not a significant factor in the district. Herenton, however, has at times shown a willingness to play politics across party lines, endorsing US Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R) re-election in a radio spot in 2008. The business community, says a lobbyist, is not likely to see an ally in either Herenton or Cohen.

On the money front, there is evidence of Cohen’s confidence in having no significant opposition. In the 1st Quarter, Cohen raised only $23,000, although as of March 30, he did have $499,000 cash on hand.

In sum, Cohen starts out with substantial advantages, but Herenton has significant strengths that cannot be discounted. “Polls or no polls… It has to be reckoned as a horse race,” says Baker. That may be a stretch, but it is certainly a contest that bears watching.



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