Does Steve Cohen have the Shelby County Republican chairman's vote?
Addressing the conservative Dutch Treat luncheon group on Saturday, Lang Wiseman, who was elected as the new GOP chair earlier this year, talked with unusual candor about next year’s political races, his party, its objectives and prospects, and assorted city-county issues.
At one point, Wiseman dealt frankly with the concept of crossover voting. The catalyst was a question about the looming confrontation between Mayor Willie Herenton and incumbent congressman Cohen in the 2010 9th District Democratic primary.
Acknowledging that the race would create a turnout “bad for the Republicans” and that it would be a “very difficult idea to try and win for a Republican in that race, “ Wiseman began, “I’ll tell you who I would vote for. You’d have to hold your nose….” And then, amid knowing chuckles from his score or so of listeners, let the rest of that thought go unexpressed.
Wiseman resumed, pondering the question of how best to turn away Herenton’s ambitions. “You’d have to vote in the Democrat primary. But who does that hurt? Bill Gibbons,” he said, referring to the District Attorney General’s candidacy for governor in next year’s Republican primary, simultaneous with the Herenton-Cohen showdown in the Democratic primary.
The other side of the coin, Wiseman said, was that “there [should] be a serious Republican in every race” — the idea being that, should Herenton win the congressional primary, a voter might conclude, “I’m going to vote for a Republican just to keep Herenton from winning,” and Republican turnout overall might rise.
Not a 'Lost Cause'
“We have to fight the mentality that it’s a lost cause,” Wiseman said concerning demographic shifts that have begun to favor Democrats in countywide elections. He noted, without specifying, that four Republican incumbents in countywide office are reportedly not intending to run for reelection.
“I have my own opinions about things,” acknowledged Wiseman. “I have my own opinions about lots of issues that don’t necessarily jibe with the Republican way….Sometimes I have to back up and say, ‘My job is not to give my opinion all the time’ That’s tough. That’s tough sometimes to have to get out and talk about an issue that I personally may not feel 100 percent about. That’s a difficult part of the job. But, by and large, we’re all pulling for the same sorts of things.”
Wiseman considered remedies for county Republicans’ dilemma. “We have to convince our own people that all is not lost…. People who have moved from one part of the county to another, we’ve got to get those people re-registered. We also have to take our message to places that traditionally we’ve not gone…traditional African-American areas. I think there’s a lot of potential there. We need to get out and do service projects …It might take a year, five years, ten years. [We should] go ahead and start planting seeds.”
Such a strategy might not yield “immediate tangible results” for Republicans, Wiseman conceded. “We have to build trust. They don’t want to hear what you have to say until they trust you first.” As examples of Republicans who have built such trust in traditionally Democratic areas, he named Sheriff Mark Luttrell and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander., both of whom polled “from 20 percent to 30 percent” in areas where Republicans are normally held to the 7-percent range.
“The reason is,those guys get out in the community. They go to areas where Republicans are not traditionally received.”
In the course of arguing that there were many African Americans and other traditional Democrats “who are Republicans and just don’t know it,” Wiseman said, “Take Jim Strickland, the councilman. He’s out there pushing budget cuts so we don’t have to raise taxes. Jim’s a good friend of mine. I help him all the time he needs help. He needs to come over to the good side.”
'Tide Will Turn'
Wiseman attempted to counter some of his conservative questioners’ negative attitudes toward the city of Memphis. “The fact is, the city cannot live without the county, and the county cannot live without the city. We’re an economic unit, and if Memphis goes down the toilet, the county can’t make it. It just can’t, from a civic, educational, safety [point of view]…And vice versa.
“When businesses come to down, they don’t start at just the city limits and look at just the county. Memphis is geographically positioned in such a way we should e a Top Ten city.” As for outward migration from Memphis and Shelby County, “That tide will turn. There’s a tipping point.” As population builds up in adjoining areas, those areas are faced with upgrading their infrastructures. “They start to look at raising taxes. That’s what Tipton County is doing now.”