“I do have a streak of Teddy Roosevelt in me,” declared Zach Wamp toward the end of a coffee break Friday at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeland, where he’d been doing heavy-duty shmoozing from table to table. He professed himself to be opposed to monopolies and “a consolidation of power in this country that’s threatening.”
That was a milder summary of some things he’d said earlier in the conversation about a specific group of Tennesseans he’d identified as monopolists — the Haslam family, one of whose members, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, is Wamp’s opponent in the Republican primary for governor.
Those remarks smacked somewhat of the big stick so famously recommended by the Republican Progressive-Era president.
“The Haslams are nice people if they get their way. That’s the way it is with the very rich and very powerful in America,” he said, adding that the reality was, “They’re ruthless.”
He went so far as to suggest that the family, which owns the Pilot Oil conglomerate, used its influence to get the august Wall Street Journal to launch an editorial-page attack on him as “an epic spender and earmarker.” The editorial was an echo of a charge made against Wamp by his other GOP opponent, Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville.
But to Wamp, the WSJ editorial, which appeared Thursday morning, was the work of the Haslam family.
“Somehow they’re so rich and powerful that they’ve got people working for them in New York City,” said Wamp, who declared, “ We shouldn’t let New York operatives determine who the governor of Tennessee’s going to be. I didn’t invent Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or the Chickamauaga Lock. I inherited them. I’ve had to do certain things for our state. To claim that I’m a big earmarker just flies in the face of the truth. I’ve been a leader in earmark reform.
“When has the Wall Street Journal ever involved themselves in a primary in one of 50 states? When has that ever happened?” Wamp demanded. “That just speaks to the reach of a family that has a $37 billion empire. They’re connected to all kinds of publications and all kinds of people.”
Just in case his meaning was unclear, Wamp was asked: Was he suggesting that the Haslams directly planted the Wall Street Journal editorial?
“I’m suggesting there’s something fishy about the whole thing, yeah,” he said.
The editorial bore as its title “Zach Wamp’s Rebel Yell” and took as its hook recent remarks by Wamp which many thought amounted to a call for Tennessee to consider secession from the Union. (The Journal archly suggested it would rather Wamp seceded from the House Appropriations Committee.)
What Wamp had said, in an interview with the National Journal's “Hotline,” was this: "I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government.”.
At the Cracker Barrel, Wamp hazarded a clarification: “Nothing that I said could be interpreted that I suggested Tennessee should secede from the Union. When I’m governor, of course we won’t secede from the Union. But we need a strong governor to stand against this federal intervention in the states.”
The congressman mentioned as signs of encroaching federal power President Obama’s stimulus bill, federal health-care legislation, and the Justice Department’s suit against Arizona’s immigration law.
The “secessionist” interpretation of his statement may also have been the work of the Haslams, Wamp implied. “Again, their reach is so extensive with their $37 billion empire, they’re able to make things look like they’re not.”
As he has several times recently, Wamp contrasted the $4.4 million he originally budgeted and will spend during the primary campaign with the $15 million he says Haslam has lavished on the gubernatorial race so far. “A million and half a week, that’s his burn rate.”
Wamp vowed: I’ll be the governor for the middle class. Frankly, extreme wealth shouldn’t translate into political power in America.”
Given the strength of his feelings, would he be able to support Haslam in the general election? “I expect to be able to support the Republican nominee," Wamp responded after a moment of thought. “We’ll see what happens in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, Bill Haslam, the object of Wamp’s scorn, had also been campaigning in Shelby County, making morning stops in Cordova and Bartlett. Asked about Wamp’s statements concerning “separation from the government,” Haslam said only: “I think it does matter what words a governor uses. You represent the state to the world. Most Tennesseans I know want to improve the United States. They don’t want to pull out.”
Since the complete quotation from Theodore Roosevelt was “Speak softly but carry a big stick,” it can be said that both Republican candidates — who have been dueling relentlessly for support in population-rich Shelby County — were honoring a different portion of the onetime president’s legacy.
He wasn’t there to receive the endorsements or to comment on them, but interim county mayor Joe Ford got the official blessings Thursday of the Tennessee Equality Project and the Sierra Club.
The joint endorsements were conveyed in a press conference at the Golf Clubhouse at Overton Park. In addition to Jonathan Cole, who spoke for the TEP, and Sue Williams, who read a statement on behalf of both Ford and the Sierra Club’s other endorsee of the day, county commissioner Steve Mulroy, attendees were state Senator Beverly Marrero, environmental activist Scott Banbury, and Mulroy.
The Sierra Club statement, written by club chair Nancy Brannon, praised Democrat Ford for his “regular meeting with nearly 60 members of the environmental community, who are addressing environmental and community issues on several fronts, and coordinating with administrative staff.”
Ford was commended for pushing forward with the Sustainable Shelby plan of former county mayor (now Memphis mayor) A C Wharton and for numerous other services.
Mulroy, a Democratic incumbent who is in a reelection race with Republican opponent Rolando Toyos, was cited for his “proven record of supporting the environment, “ including work on behalf of “higher air quality standards and to get funding for tire recycling and cleanup of illegal dumps.”
Cole said the TEA “proudly” endorsed Ford. “We do this because we believe he is going to make a commitment to being an equality advocate as mayor and proceed to protect the rights of gay, Lesbian, and transgendered citizens of Tennessee….We believe Joe Ford is the right person to do that as mayor.”
In a televised debate with Republican opponent Mark Luttrell earlier this month, both Ford and Luttrell had answered “no” when asked if they favored passage of an ordinance banning discrimination against gays, Lesbians and transgendered persons. An ordinance to that end has been introduced on the city council by Janis Fullilove and Mulroy, who secured passage of a non-discrimination resolution on the commission last year, has indicated he will try again to pass a binding ordinance.
Both Cole and Mulroy said they had been assured Ford was now fully in support of such an ordinance. Mulroy said that Ford had suggested in a private conversation that he had meant to say “no comment” at the debate rather than “no” outright.
All five attendees at the press conference expressed support for Councilwoman Fullilove for persistence in the presence of threats and harassment.
In expressing thanks at receiving the endorsement of both organizations, Mulroy said, “What is really important about today is what it says about the county mayor’s race….Joe Ford is a true progressive. If reelected, he will take Shelby County forward in a progressive manner.”
In what seemed an oblique contrast between the incumbent and his opponent, Mulroy said Ford would bring into county government “intelligent, progressive professionals, not Tea Party hacks.”
And that was indeed Upton’s message Wednesday in a telephone call from Nashville, where news reports indicate that the same phenomenon is occurring as in Memphis — crossover voting.
Only there it’s apparently a case of Democrats voting in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Here it’s just the opposite: Republicans are voting in the Democratic primary, presumably to influence the outcome of the Cohen-Herenton 9th District congressional race, then finishing up, most likely, with party-line votes for the countywide races on the ballot.
Upton, who’s in the state Capitol to try to arrange some antidotes to the situation in Memphis — mayhap a drop-in by presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter to fire up the troops? — is tumbling out figures as we talk.
“It looks like early voting in Shelby County right now is 54 percent Democratic primary and 46 percent Republican,” Upton says. He then calculates that at least 2 percent of the Democratic primary vote is the aforesaid Republicans crossing over (others might reckon the number a mite higher).
That would bring the county’s turnout down to 52 percent Democrats and 48 percent Republicans, and Upton, not only a longtime state Democratic committee member, but increasingly one of his party’s major strategists, declares that ratio “too close for comfort.”
He goes on: “If it stays that way, everybody on the ballot” — meaning, every Democrat on the county ballot — “is in danger of losing.” And for Democrats, who own a sizeable demographic edge in Shelby County, that would be truly dismaying. Upton estimates that a comfortable turnout level to end up with would be 60 percent, a proportion he says was achieved by county Democrats in the general elections of 2006 and 2008.
Meanwhile, Lang Wiseman, the Shelby County Republican chairman, is feeling his oats. At this point, he isn’t conceding any party losses at any point on the countywide ballot. He probably wouldn’t, anyhow, but he seems to mean it when he says, “Things are looking very good for us right now.”
Van Turner, the county Democratic chairman, professes to be glad his counterpart is feeling so sanguine.
“There is a finite number of Republicans in Shelby County, and they’re going to run out of them. We’re already beginning to experience an up-tick in our voters, and that’s going to continue. And on Election Day we’ll be getting everybody we can to the polls. We’re going to have a whole bunch of winners, more than ever before.”
Turner’s tone is exhortatory and optimistic, Upton’s is blunt and admonitory, but both Democrats are on the same mission — to motivate the party’s troops to start turning out in larger numbers.
Meanwhile, finite number or not, Republicans in Shelby County seem to be fired up already — either because of the governor’s race between Bill Haslam, Zach Wamp, and Ron Ramsey, which grows ever more heated, or because of the aforementioned wish of a sizeable number to vote in the Cohen-Herenton race, or because GOP cadres are reading and hearing these accounts of a higher-than-usual Republican turnout like everybody else (for the record Upton says the extent of it has been exaggerated). And that may be breeding more of the same.
Cohen, who had already been gifted with overt support from a number of African-American political eminences, including President Obama, got another boost Monday when the Congressional Black Caucus formally conferred its endorsement, along with a $5,000 donation to the congressman’s reelection effort.
“The CBC PAC’s mission is to increase the number of African-Americans in the U.S. Congress (and) to support non-black candidates who champion CBC interests,” PAC Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said in his letter that accompanies the check to Cohen. “You have been selected to receive this contribution because of your commitment to the CBC PAC’s goals.”
That statement may not only aid Cohen now, it could foreshadow an invitation to join the CBC himself when Congress reconvenes.
Former mayor Herenton, meanwhile, was doing his best to achieve the kind of last-minute momentum that marked his upset come-from-behind victory in 1991 over incumbent Dick Hackett in the Memphis mayoral race.
Herenton has three public events scheduled for this week alone — a “social and supper” at the Chowtime Grill on Hacks Cross road for Wednesday night, a “mix and mingle” event Thursday evening at the Elements Restaurant and Lounge on Winchester, and a North Memphis rally at Jackson and Watkins on Saturday.
Now, earlier this month I did an interview with 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, who — arch-Blackburn critic of the right Mickey White notwithstanding — is generally regarded as being about as arch-conservative and un-Democrat-like as you can find in the halls of Congress. And one of the things she talked about was how she and other members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, recently worked in harmony to secure federal aid for victims of flooding in Tennessee.
On Friday afternoon, Fincher happened to be having a get-out-the-vote rally for his supporters on a parking lot adjacent to Baker Community Center in Millington — presumably the requisite number of feet away from what was an official early voting site.
And I asked him, after citing his ad, if he could not work with congressional colleagues “across the aisle” in the same sense that Blackburn had on the occasion of the recent flooding. Now, keep in mind this was Millington, site of some of the worst flood damage.
Fincher appeared to undergo something of an inner struggle while considering the question, but he could not bring himself to say Yes.
“I’m going to work with the people of the Eighth District…because that’s who I represent,” he answered finally. “I think President Obama and Speaker Pelosi are taking this country in the wrong direction. Until that leadership is changed, I’m not going to work across the aisle.”
I persisted: Not even with Tennessee congressional colleagues, in case there’s another catastrophe like the recent floods? I mean, this was Millington, where the flood damage was severe, and where several federal agencies were expected to provide disaster relief, and, at the behest of both Republican and Democratic congressional representatives, are in fact doing so.
“Well again I’m going to work for the people here, taking care of folks here,” was all Fincher would say.
There was one other area where an across-the-board opposition to President Obama hit a little snag. Fincher was discoursing on what he said were regular talks he was having with military personnel in the state, with “generals,” in fact.
I asked him what his reaction was to the recent sacking of General Stanley McCrystal in Afghanistan, who was forced out by Obama, it will be recalled, after making some indiscreet observations about the administration to a Rolling Stone writer.
“Well, that deal was really complicated with statements he made…” Fincher began, pausing while he figured out how to avoid expressing solidarity with the President. He did so with an abrupt segue, “Let the generals on the ground make the calls, and stop playing politics with our guys’ lives.” There was a lot left unspoken to between the two halves of his answer.
The last poll taken in the 8th District still had Fincher up by a tad over rival Kirkland, with Flinn trailing in third, having shown some slippage, it would seem, since he made the decision two weeks back, for whatever reason, to depart from the above-the-battle mode and join the others in the game of pin-the-Democratic-tail on the donkeys.
As wicked as the slings and arrows have become, though, both Fincher and Flinn are willing to support the winner of the GOP primary, regardless of the non-stop persecution, rough and getting rougher, they’re getting from their fellow GOP candidates.
“No question about it,” said Fincher. “Yes, we’ve got to defeat Roy Herron,” said Flinn, who was in Millington Friday afternoon for a rally overseen by Shelby County Commissioner-elect Terry Roland, who’s something of a political broker up that way and has included Flinn on his favored slate.
Doubtless, Kirkland would answer similarly. Fantastical as it seems, the iniquity of being a Democrat — or worse, of having relations with Democrats, any kind of relations — has become the meme to beat all memes, the single dominating issue in the 8th District.
Has Dom Cobb, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprion in Inception, been making the rounds up thataway, planting that obsession in people’s minds while they slept?
Appearing Friday morning at a meet-and-greet affair at the Perkins restaurant on Sycamore View, the Chattanooga congressman contended that Knoxville mayor Haslam, heir to a Pilot Oil fortune, had put two new commercials on the air simultaneously — the “Enough is Enough” ad and a 30-second commercial featuring Haslam and his wife Crissy — and that Haslam now had five commercials running altogether.
[A spokesman for the Haslam campaign responded that this is in error, that "[w]e have a single ad up right now, 'Enough is enough'"]
“What kind of conservative is it that spends like this, throwing all this money against the wall trying to see what’ll stick?” Wamp said. “It’s like the oil spill in the gulf. Pilot Oil money is now free-flowing, and the only thing that can cap it is the people.”
Wamp contrasted Haslam’s largesse with his own ability to conclude the current primary campaign with expenses under $4 million and predicted that Haslam would end up spending $15 million, much of it out of his own pocket.
A recent poll conducted by a Nashville TV station had Haslam leading both Wamp and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville by double digits, but Wamp was dismissive of those poll results, saying that the poll was conducted in advance of last week’s gubernatorial debate at Belmont College, televised statewide. Wamp reckoned his own performance in that debate as good enough to put him in the lead among the GOP candidates.
That debate had been “widely viewed,”Wamp said. “It was Number One in Middle Tennessee among all prime-time shows, and Number Two in East and West Tennessee behind The Bachelor, which my wife says is not any good this time, but people still watch it.”
Wamp noted (a) Democratic presumptive nominee Mike Mcwherter's presence at the Belmont TV debate and (b) McvWherter’s “cautious" way of addressing issues. "He's so afraid of looking like a Democrat that he had to come and crash our party."
The jokesters had a field day: “Joe Ford Gets Endorsed by his Nephew” and suchlike. As if having Harold Ford Jr., the former Memphis congressman and current national celebrity come down to add his oomph to his uncle’s neck-and-neck race against Republican Mark Luttrell for Shelby County Mayor was nothing much.
Granted, Harold Ford Jr. lost his last political race — for a Tennessee seat in the U.S. Senate in 2006 — and granted, too, he ran up against a wall of derision and never even got started on his next try — for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Granted, further, that there are a substantial number of Democrats both up yonder and down here who were put off by Ford’s decade-long flirtation with conservative positions, as well as with his sudden, unconvincing turnabout on some issues — like same-sex marriage — in a proverbial New York minute.
And granted, finally, that the princely salaries and bonuses the former congressman has received from Merrill Lynch/Bank of America as a rainmaker have aggravated many people still angry at the big banks and brokerages for their ripoff schemes and bailout rescues.
None of that changes the fact that Harold Ford Jr. is that rare thing, a combination political/media star, and, at 40, he not only is too young to be written off, he still has charisma in reserve, and his putting it at the disposal of Democratic nominee Joe Ford, the interim mayor, could turn out to be a significant factor — an animating spark, say — in a race that was already reckoned as too close to call.
It was the intangibles that counted on Wednesday, when nephew and uncle met the press together in the Forrest Room of The Peabody.
Not Harold Ford Jr.’s dutiful recitation of Joe Ford’s talking points — that the interim mayor wants to build progress and a grand new edifice to house the Med he has saved, while Luttrell wants to squander public money on a brand new jail, the better to lock more people up. And that Joe Ford stands for “progressive” causes while Luttrell is hand in glove with the Tea Party crowd and played front man in Shelby County for the likes of Sarah Palin.
Giving Joe Ford credit for some very real achievements as interim county mayor — his work on the Med’s behalf certainly being one of them — his campaign’s indictment of Luttrell is an exaggeration, to say the least.
The Sheriff did, in fact, propose building a new jail some years ago but dropped the idea. And Luttrell’s public vouching for this or that Republican cause — the McCain-Palin presidential ticket of 2008 among them — was more pro forma and club colors than anything else, not qualitatively different from the kind of party loyalty that put Joe Ford’s late primary opponent, county commissioner Deidre Malone, on the platform behind him Wednesday, amid a small host of other Democrats.
Of course, Luttrell can’t have it both ways. When he addressed a group of college Republicans at the University of Memphis last spring, he made much of his youthful response to the clarion call of conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater. The fact that these days Luttrell expresses himself most often as a would-be unifier across party lines and privately expresses regret — no doubt sincerely — that county elections are subject to partisan elections at all does not change the fact that he is a Republican — his party’s ticket-leader, in fact — and that fact alone could disadvantage him in a county that is now predominantly Democratic (one of the few places in Tennessee where such a condition exists).
Harold Ford Jr.’s presence in Memphis this week is meant to galvanize the Democratic base around Uncle Joe, and may well do so — the former congressman’s ideological apostasies notwithstanding. Give him his due: He potentially brings some excitement into a campaign that, however commendable in some ways, has not exactly been a house afire.
—He has “not foreclosed” on the prospect of further political efforts in New York State. He “loves” being a New Yorker, and there is no prospect of his returning to Tennessee to resume a political career here.
—He does not apologize for his career in the financial sector nor for the big money he has made there. He declined to specify how much of a bonus he may have received from Merrill Lynch in late 2008 but acknowledges that nice salaries and bonuses come with the job. “I’m proud of the way I make my living," he said, and he emphasized that his Wall Street labor is real work that he takes seriously.
—He threaded a needle on the matter of other local endorsements — notably in the race for the9th Congressional seat that he himself once occupied. He would not follow the lead of his father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., in specifically endorsing incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen over former Mayor Willie Herenton but opined that Cohen’s reelection would be “for the best.”
—He accounted for his leap from Fox News to MSNBC as an on-air political analyst because he enjoyed the additional opportunity to be a semi-regular guest on flagship NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. The ideological difference between the two cable networks —Fox tending right, MSNBC tilting left — seemed not to be a matter of much consequence with him.
And on Monday, by virtue of his being an incumbent, able to schedule congressional activities that were simultaneously photo-ops, the day was altogether Cohen’s.
On Sunday, both candidates had made the rounds of African-American churches, as is customary for all manner of candidates at this stage of an election season but certainly mandatory for these two — contestants for the favor of the predominantly black 9th congressional district.
By the luck of the draw or whatever chance, Herenton — though treated with respect at the churches he visited — got no chance to speak and to build on the momentum he had generated with a pair of barnburners he had delivered to early-voting-bound supporters on Saturday, from a portable stage at his South Third headquarters.
The former mayor was accompanied on Sunday by Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, aide Michael Gray, and City Court Clerk Thomas Long, the group making visitations at Berean Missionary Baptist and Mount Mariah East Baptist Church, at both of which locations they were introduced and given prime seats but not invited to speak. An extended sermon by a guest preacher at the latter church — dedicated largely to the theme of fantasy vs. reality — allowed time for little more than a brief hello to departing churchgoers at the next location, World Overcomers on Winchester.
Cohen also made the church rounds — New Direction Christian Church on Winchester, Mississippi Boulevard Church on North Bellevue; and Thomas Chapel in northeast Memphis. He would reckon his reception at Mississippi Boulevard, where he was introduced by city councilman Harold Collins, as “unbelievable,” he explained to the Thomas Chapel congregation, whom he was invited to address by the church pastor, former Memphis School Board member Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge.
“Memphis and the he 9th ?district is going to be the District on the hill that shows the rest of the country that we vote on past deeds, on present deeds, on future deeds, on character, on qualifications, on issues, and not on race,” Cohen at the close of a well-received speech
Also speaking at Thomas Chapel was the Democratic nominee for sheriff, Randy Wade, who had served as Cohen’s local district director and who now was the congressman’s de facto running mate. Early in his own remarks Wade called Cohen back to the pulpit and stood alongside him, declaiming rhetorically, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
The question, of course, was a send-up of the one so famously appended to rival Herenton’s famous flyer showing the 11 members of the Tennessee congressional delegation — nine House members and two Senators, all white.
But the answer from the congregation at Thomas Chapel, confronted with the sight of the two candidates — one white, one black — standing together was a resounding “Nothing!”
The morning service, which had begun with a total-immersion baptism and continued with an emotional gospel-ized rendering of Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” by a church soprano, would end with Cohen, Sandridge, Wade and others holding hands and swaying as the same young women led several choruses of “We Shall Overcome.”
How could Cohen top this? Perhaps by bringing in congressional colleagues. Scheduled to make appearances Monday at a hearing on foreclosures at the University of Memphis Law School downtown, chaired by Cohen as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law were John Conyers (D-Michigan), Judiciary Committee chairman, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Judiciary colleague.
A scheduling snafu prevented the appearance of Conyers, — who has, however, appeared in Memphis several times with Cohen and endorsed him — but Lee, one of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who back Cohen, arrived in time for the hearing.
Earlier Monday morning Cohen appeared at a Women for Cohen luncheon at the Just for Lunch restaurant where he broadly hinted that poll results would be forthcoming on WMC-TV, Action News 5, Monday evening that would show them well ahead of Herenton — perhaps more so even than previous polls that had showed him comfortably in the lead (one with a 62 to 9 edge over Herenton).
One caveat offered by the congressman about his opponent: “He’s hard to poll.” So he advised his supporters to “forget” the results as soon as they heard them Monday night and “keep working.”
On Saturday, the second day of early voting, the two contestants in what is easily the most watched political race of the season cast their ballots at the Election Commission’s downtown voting site. Both 9th district congressman Steve Cohen and his challenger in the Democratic primary, former mayor Willie Herenton, did so in the presence of ample media, and each also shepherded literal busloads of supporters in to vote with them.
Cohen came first, after a brief rally at his Union Avenue headquarters, and, after he had cast his own vote about 10:30 a.m. and departed to begin a busy round of public activities, he would return to the Election Commission site around noon, in the aftermath of a brunch presided over by himself and Criminal Court clerk candidate Minerva Johnican, as buses provided by both candidates arrived almost si8multaneously.
As Herenton climbed out of his own chartered bus on Poplar Avenue and prepared to lead his 89-year-old mother and other supporters into the Election Commission site, someone apparently informed him that Cohen, along with aide Travis Green, were sitting in a car in an alley on the north side of Poplar observing the process.
That — the closest thing to an encounter between the two all day — prompted Herenton to begin heckling Cohen. “He ought to stop hiding,” said Herenton, who called across the street at his rival, challenging him to come out and “meet his constituents, meet the people who are going to send me to Washington” and proposing, among other things, to have an impromptu debate right then and there.
In a brief interview with the media before entering the building, Herenton repeated a theme which had dominated remarks made earlier that morning to a rally at his campaign headquarters on South Third. At both sites, the former mayor contrasted his own meager campaign funds with the near million dollars Cohen has reported as having on hand and characterized the congressional race as one of “the people” versus “money.”
In his earlier talk with supporters at his headquarters, Herenton had attempted to enlarge his “Just One” campaign theme to encompass class as well as that of race, invoking Martin Luther King and his “mountaintop” theme in the process.
“Mr. Cohen is not a part of the working class,” Herenton asserted. “He never worked for hourly wages. He never chopped cotton for three dollars a day.”
Cohen, meanwhile, maintained a busy weekend schedule that included several meetings with community groups and pointed toward a Monday morning breakfast with a “Women for Cohen” group, to be followed by a public hearing on the issue of home foreclosures.
The congressman’s office e announced that an attendee at both Monday morning events would be U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a committed Cohen backer. In the last few weeks, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have announced their support for the congressman’s reelection, as did President Obama last week.
By its nature, the Obama announcement has drawn more attention to itself than other endorsements garnered by the incumbent congressman, fore and aft. But that of Harold Ford Sr., subject of a news release by Cohen on Wednesday, a day after the Obama bombshell, is worthy of some special attention.
In a sense, the Ford announcement was a restatement of what pol-watchers had already known. After all, Ford Sr., a former 9th District congressman himself and a high-stakes lobbyist on Capitol Hill these days, has been a tacit supporter of Cohen for well over a year and assisted in his Washington fundraising.
The two have a professional relationship, and that’s part of it. But there’s more — and it bodes ill for Herenton, whose call for “Just One’ African American — himself — to serve in Congress from Tennessee surely depends on being the kind of consensus black candidate that Herenton was in 1991 when he first ran for mayor.
As it happens, that 1991 election season was the one and only time Herenton and Ford had functioned as political cohorts, and their alliance, an ad hoc affair motivated by constituent pressure and by a joint service to history, was a tenuous and short-lived affair.
They were always rivals for power in the inner city — and in the city at large, for that matter —and the two had a public falling-out in 1994 after an angry disagreement over the telephone over how best to administer a summer jobs program. “If he’d said those things to my face, I’d have whipped his butt,” Herenton later commented to the Flyer.
The issue itself had been a pretext. The real problem was that, in the Western movie that was Memphis in the ‘90s, the town wasn’t big enough for two such noted gunslingers. The feud would continue through the accession to the congressional seat of Harold ford Jr. in 1996, and at times it set Herenton off against the entire Ford political clan.
Herenton won a major battle over the Fords in 1999 when he dispatched mayoral challenger Joe Ford, Harold Sr.’s brother and the current interim county mayor. He won another when — ironically enough from the current vantage point — he publicly endorsed Cohen’s first congressional bid over independent challenger Jake Ford, Harold Sr.’s son and Harold Jr.’s brother.
Herenton’s sense of having obtained mastery over the extended Ford family led him to boast in the current campaign that he had “dismantled the Ford machine.” That he had done no such thing is evident from the fact that members of the Ford family still hold elected positions in the legislature and in city and county government.
Harold Ford Sr. was the closest thing to a godfather figure that Memphis' African-American community has seen, and he was the nearest thing to a political boss in these parts since Boss Ed Crump.
Though he is no longer an active day-to-day force in Memphis, Ford Sr. keeps his hand in, and for Herenton to think that he can achieve anything like domination of the African-American electorate in the face of the Obama and Ford endorsements of Cohen — not to mention the several black city and county personages who have thrown in with the congressman — is arguably delusional.
Herenton is now at a pass where he is desperately short of avowed allies, and the five-times unbeaten mayoral candidate of yore is now potentially up against every adversary, of whatever kind, he has ever had.
It is not an enviable predicament, with early voting about to be under way and with less than a month before election day.
For the record, here is the text of the radio commercial Harold Ford Sr. has recorded for the Cohen campaign:
I’m Harold Ford Sr. and on August 5th I am supporting Congressman Steve Cohen for re-election to the United States Congress to represent the 9th Congressional District.
Steve Cohen brings 31 years of experience working in local and State politics where he casted the deciding vote for The MED. And fought to establish the TN Education lottery.
Steve Cohen has worked hard for you and me.
And I’m asking the voters of the 9th district to send Steve Cohen back to the Congress of the Unites States.
He’s a very close strong ally of President Barack Obama and he’s already been selected as a subcommittee chairman by the Democratic leadership and made a regional whip as well in the Democratic Caucus.
I’m asking the voters to go and send Steve Cohen back for another term.
On Tuesday, a good month later, the only subject the media wanted to hear about, and the only one Herenton dealt with, was the out-of-the-blue announcement from the camp of incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen of his endorsement for reelection by President Obama.
Given the general perception (disputed by Herenton and his supporters) that Cohen already had a commanding lead in the congressional race, that Herenton’s main campaign pitch has been an appeal to black voters to elect one of their own to Congress, and that Obama is very likely the most important African-American icon in American history, advance speculation in the media had been genuine wonder as to how Herenton could possibly spin Tuesday’s stunning development to his own benefit.
All things considered, Herenton did a reasonably good job of walking that tightrope, though he teetered dangerously from time to time on the brink of intemperate or impolitic remarks.
His basic approach was, first, to note that he disbelieved in the appropriateness or value of candidate endorsements; next, that he respected, even loved, President Obama, but doubted the value of his endorsement of Cohen — especially since the decision on a 9th District congressman would be made locally, by the district’s voters, not by “Washington, D.C.. or Chicago” and, finally, that the very fact that Cohen had sought an endorsement from the president signaled a “desperation” on the congressman’s part, an awareness, Herenton insisted, that “80 percent, minimum” of the black vote was committed to himself, along with a minimum of 5 percent of the white vote.
That no extant poll suggests anything like those figures did not faze the former mayor, who made a point of saying that he distrusted any information that came from the media — even Tuesday’s report of the Obama endorsement.
Herenton maintained that, on hearing news of the endorsement, he had turned to his close friend and campaign manager, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism (who stood nearby throughout the 30-minute press conference) and said,” Sidney, this is a great day…They now know what you and I know,” then repeating the vote estimates suggesting he was far ahead of Cohen.
The former mayor strove mightily to avoid negative comments about Obama but was not entirely successful.
“Most recent polls reveal, 6 out of every 10 Americans feel that our country is moving in the wrong direction,” Herenton said, “As much as I admire the Obama administration, they’ve not moved this nation forward.”
Herenton noted the president’s “declining” popularity and at one point attempted to minimize the significance of the Cohen endorsement by saying, “Mr. Obama has got to look hard and long to really know where Memphis, Tennessee, is.”
The Cohen camp had “rolled the dice” in seeking Obama’s endorsement, Herenton said. “In many cases, where the President has recommended people, they lost. This strategy could cause many Republican voters and people who anti-Obama to join the Herenton coalition.”
As if to further such a prospect, Herenton characterized himself as “more of an independent thinker, not as much to the left as Steve Cohen.” He said, “Cohen has been loyal to the Democratic agenda, I think, almost 100 percent,” while he himself was “more moderate, in the middle.”
He imagined a scenario whereby Cohen had beseeched the president for an endorsement by saying, “‘I’ve been there for you. I’m in trouble in Memphis…I need your help.”
Herenton, who began the press conference by noting it had begun promptly at 3 o’clock, “not CP time but accurate time,” ended with this observation: “Cohen’s a phony. He will use any antic, any tactic to get reelected. He knows we’re the only people on the face of the earth that will allow anybody to lead us.”
Herenton Disdains Concept of Endorsements
Herenton Reacts to Obama’s Endorsement of Cohen
The official release of the endorsement statement will be coordinated with the White House, Young said.
A presidential endorsement of a primary candidate in Tennessee is rare and perhaps unprecedented. Today's action comes after a spate of rumors, beginning with the weekend, that an intervention in the local congressional race by Obama was imminent.
Cohen was one of the early endorsers of the Obama presidential candidacy on the eve of the Tennessee presidential primary in February, 2008.
UPDATE: The text of Obama's endorsement statement, released at 11:01 a.m. Tuesday by the Cohen campaign in conjunction with the White House:
“Congressman Cohen is a proven leader in the United States Congress and a strong voice for Tennessee. Together, we passed historic health care reform and together we’re continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people. I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress. —President Barack Obama.”>
Cohen issued the following statement in response:
“I am grateful to have the support for my re-election from President Barack Obama. I look forward to continue working closely with the President and his administration during the 112th session of the United States Congress.
“I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to enter into politics to make a difference in my community and my country. Like President Kennedy, President Barack Obama inspires a new generation to do the same. It is my hope to continue to build on my 31 years of public service to make the promise of America, the practice of America.”
Joe Birch, the veteran anchor for WMC-TV, Action News 5, was, at former mayor Herenton’s request, also to be excluded from participation in the event of a Channel 5 debate between Democratic primary contender Herenton and incumbent congressman Steve Cohen. The agreement called for Birch's co-anchor, Ursula Madden, to moderate such a debate.
The fact of Birch’s exclusion was first revealed by Cohen in a press conference at WREG Sunday night, scheduled during the hour that the July 11th televised encounter, previously agreed to by both candidates, was to have aired. Herenton bowed out of the arrangement months ago, citing what he said was “bias” on the part of Brewer and Sanford.
Subsequent to his pullout from the Channel 3 affair, Herenton had negotiated signed agreements for possible debates with several other TV stations and organizations.
Although Herenton himself would not comment on the matter Monday, calling the whole debate situation “history,” his aide Michael Gray forwarded to the Flyer copies of the proposed debate contract with WMC-TV. A key provision of that agreement, insisted on by Herenton and to be signed by both himself and Cohen, reads as follows:
“I, _________________________, agree to debate on WMC TV on July 11th, 2010. Representatives of WMC TV have agreed to Dr. Herenton’s requests to hold the debate on July 11th, to make the debate 60 minutes, and not to use Joe Birch, Otis Sanford or Norm Brewer as questioners for this debate. I understand the debate potentially will not occur. I further understand the debate details will not be finalized until WMC TV management is able to negotiate an agreement with Congressman Cohen. “
The proposed agreement allowed for a limited form of participation by Birch. As part of the proposed format, it stipulates, “Action News 5 Anchors Joe Birch and Ursula Madden welcome our viewers and set up the debate. Ursula Madden would moderate the debate. “
Birch, who had conducted a widely noted live interview with Herenton in 2009 probing into the then mayor’s on again/off again attitude toward resigning his office, confirmed that his mandatory exclusion from questioning was apparently a condition of Herenton’s participation in a Channel 5 debate. Birch said he was willing to step aside if necessary to facilitate a televised discussion between the two candidates.
Tammy Phillips, assistant news director for WMC-TV, also confirmed that the exclusion of Birch had been insisted on by Herenton. She further revealed that the station had conducted interviews with both candidates last Friday for use in a forthcoming TV special and, in the course of doing so, had once again attempted, without success, to get mutual agreement on a TV debate.
One detail that Herenton apparently insisted on, in addition to the exclusion of Birch, was that both candidates be required to stand during the debate.
At his Sunday night press conference, Cohen took Herenton to task for “quitting” on the Channel 3 debate, as he had quit, the congressman said, on the mayoralty. Quoting Herenton as having said on his withdrawal from the Channel 3 arrangement that Brewer and Sanford should not have “the privilege” of asking him questions, Cohen said it was not a privilege but a duty for a congressman or a congressional aspirant “to answer questions of every citizen and every constituent.”
The congressman, who had declined to consider other debate formats so long as Herenton refused to honor the original Channel 3 debate agreement, was asked if he would have considered other televised debates if Herenton had relented and appeared with him on WREG.
“We’re never going to find that out because the condition precedent didn’t occur,” was the congressman’s lawyerly response.
The consensus of almost everybody who was on site at the Union Avenue studios of Channel 5 was that interim mayor Ford put on one of his best performances ever, looking mayoral and confident and scoring especially well with several improvised sallies, while Luttrell looked and sounded cautious, sticking close — with one significant exception — to the safety of previously established responses.
To be sure, Ford had a reason to feel cocky going in. Only that afternoon, he had participated with other officials in a well-ballyhooed announcement that the once endangered Memphis Regional Medical Center had been guaranteed an infusion, from state and federal sources, of some $40 million — a fact buttressing Ford’s consistently stated claim that the Med, largely through his efforts, had been “saved.”
If that was the centerpiece of Ford’s evening — one that Ford stated, restated, and alluded to at every opportunity — Luttrell’s most noticed assertion was the revelation, in answer to a routine question about consolidation, that he was now coming out against the recommendations of the Metro Charter Commission.
Previously Luttrell, while stating for the record that he had never been a “proponent” of city/county consolidation, had carefully held on to his options on the matter. While not quite a sea change, the Shelby County sheriff’s new tack was a definite policy shift — potentially as comforting to the GOP suburban base as a recent misstep by Luttrell on the issue of illegal immigration had been disconcerting
But policy issues were only one part of the drama last Thursday night. Just before things got started there was a small, revealing preamble. While waiting for the cameras to roll, co-moderator Joe Birch had made a jesting reference to the fact that he sometimes needed glasses these days but declined to wear them on air.
It was a modest piece of self-deprecation that was intended to set everybody at ease. — the studio audience, the panelists, and the two contestants, both of whom, at the moment of Birch’s remark, had prep sheets spread out before them at their debate stands and were wearing glasses. But with only seconds to go before showtime, Ford gave a little smile and removed the glasses he was wearing, tucking them into his coat pocket. It was a perfect gesture of carefree insouciance.
Among Ford’s supporters, his Achilles heel is known to be — how to put it? — an inexactness with the details of English verb conjugation. On a bad outing, the interim mayor can commit grammatical errors with machine-gun frequency.
Ford was not immune from this frailty in the Channel 5 debate. Not far into the hour-long event he was speaking of himself in the third person and saying, “This mayor has ran an efficient government over the last seven months.” But not only was this kind of fluff the exception and not the rule Thursday night, the spirit of such utterances, not the letter, was the overriding factor.
The fact was, Ford made a compelling case that he had run an efficient government — one symbol of which, besides the Med (whose final salvation Luttrell, perhaps with justice, continued to dispute) was his newly passed budget, a something-for-everybody affair without new taxes or layoffs and with a modest employee raise.
Beyond that, the interim mayor kept resolutely and with some ingeniousness to his major talking points — that he was single-mindedly committed to the task of governing and that he was “mayor of all the people,” mentioning Germantown, Millington, and Collierville as objects of concern frequently.
Asked if he had ever, as a county commissioner, cast votes at variance with his own party — something that he most definitely had done, especially on fiscal matters, an area where he often sided with the Republicans — Ford answered no, asserting at one and the same time that he was a “progressive Democrat” and that, again, he represented everybody.
On a literal level, some of Ford’s claims were downright paradoxical. He continued to maintain an adamant refusal to concede the slightest advantage to city/county consolidation while asserting that, “You’re looking at your Metro mayor” and that de facto consolidation already existed. Listing a number of services — the Health Department and the Med itself among them — that the county had absorbed from city government, Ford declaimed, “What else is there to consolidate? Other than a bunch of debts from the City of Memphis?"
Logically, Ford’s contentions had as many holes in them as did his syntax, but it didn’t seem to matter. His brio and air of command were so apparent and dominating as to make such flaws seem irrelevant. In one of his most inspirational moments, he even succeeded in making the implausible claim that his own daughter did not know whether she was white or black, as testament to the color-blindness and lack of parochialism in his patriarchal world-view.
Luttrell, meanwhile, made some intriguing arguments — on behalf of several smaller-sized school districts in Shelby County, for example — that attested to his thoughtfulness. And he was compelling on the point of his eight-year record as sheriff, having, as he said, converted the department from” one of the nation’s worst” into one of the best and re-accrediting the county jail system in the process.
But he, too, was disingenuous — particularly when he tried to escape the fallout from an impolitic answer at a previous forum that seemed to put him on record as favoring county ID cards for illegal aliens. Ford, who had given the same answer at a forum for the Hispanic community, accused Luttrell of “flip-flopping” in the sheriff’s subsequent elaborations to the effect that he had only meant to approve the cards for legal aliens.
When the two candidates came to their close, Ford had things ready-made for a final haymaker: “There’s something different between me and my opponent. I’m campaigning on hope. He’s campaigning on fear. I want to build a brand new state- of-the- art hospital, and he wants to build a brand new jail.”
In his own conclusion, Luttrell paid Ford a back-handed compliment for his presentation but took note of “inconsistencies in some of the things he has said, things that aren’t quite as he has stated.” He painstakingly made the case for his own record as someone who could establish useful relationships “across racial and party lines” and said he looked forward “to being your mayor.”
The sheriff may or may not get that chance. He has a well-established record of getting crossover votes at election time, but at least on Thursday night of last week he saw opponent Ford succeed in the diverse tasks of affirming his own party loyalty while appealing to the transcendent unity of Shelby County and of being a man of the city while simultaneously representing suburban interests in opposition to the city.
It was a neat trick, and Mark Luttrell will have to match it in this week’s debate if he wants to gain back some of the momentum he started the race with.