(An abridged and somewhat different version of this article appeared this week as a background piece in the Nashville-based insiders’ newsletter Tennessee Journal.)
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MEMPHIS, a city which has grown accustomed to political shock-waves, received yet another on Tuesday when, immediately after delivering a rosy prospectus to his city council regarding a proposed budget which he said would entail no tax increases and no new cuts in services or personnel, fifth-term mayor Willie Herenton adjourned to the nearby Hall of Mayors for a brief press availability.
Several reporters went to the press conference armed with questions concerning the enabling role of federal stimulus funds, downplayed by Herenton in his remarks, or the fact that the mayor’s budget had not reckoned with some $56 million of withheld funds which pending litigation may ultimately compel the city to make over to Memphis City Schools.
Herenton glided over a couple of preliminary questions on these matters and then announced that an aide would distribute copies of an announcement concerning the oft-speculated-on issue of what came next for him after the mayoralty. He then strode off, leaving the reporters to peruse the single-page announcement in a state of gathering amazement.
What Herenton announced on that single sheet was that “after receiving considerable encouragement from citizens to become a candidate in 2010 for the U.S. House of Representatives Ninth Congressional District” he would shortly be forming an exploratory committee to pursue that purpose.
No one, literally no one, had foreseen such an eventuality, and amid the general asurprise was a growing minority suspicion that the mayor’s congressional bid was a red herring of some sort – perhaps to offset close scrutiny of his optimistic budget, perhaps to divert attention from a host of other troubles.
It was, after all, a truly dumfounding development, setting up a potential showdown next year between two watershed political figures – Herenton, 69, the city’s first elected black mayor ever and Memphis’ longest-serving chief executive, and second-term 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, 59, who, after a lengthy career as a controversial and influential state senator (the state lottery was his proudest creation) had been elected twice as the white representative of the overwhelmingly black 9th congressional district.
As a stunned Cohen noted in his response to the bombshell announcement, he and Herenton had been de facto allies with what had been presumed to be a “positive” working relationship. The mayor had publicly endorsed Cohen in his 2006 general election race against independent candidate Jake Ford, and, though he was said to be miffed that the cautious congressman had not reciprocated during Herenton’s own reelection race against two opponents in 200, there had been no public hint of discord between the two political titans.
There was, in any case, a significant overlap between Herenton’s support base and Cohen’s, and there was abundant confusion in political ranks as to which way to go should the race actually develop.
AS A SIDESHOW of sorts, one of the first observers to weigh in on Herenton’s behalf was the Rev. George Brooks, the black preacher from Murfreesboro who had dogged both of Cohen’s previous congressional campaigns with anti-Semitic mailings and public statements. Brooks promptly opined that Herenton might be “a good choice to take on Cohen.” Yet to be heard from were the Armenian-American activists who, angered by the congressman’s disinclination to support congressional censure of Turkey for a long-ago genocide, stalked the congressman in 2006, resulting in Cohen’s forcible ejection of documentarian Peter Musurlian from a press conference at his home.
But Herenton is by no means dependent on such eccentric outside sources of support to give Cohen grievous difficulties in his 2010 reelection effort. The mayor has, after all, campaigned five times in the precincts of the 9th District, the core of which is Memphis’ heavily African-American inner city. He has won huge majorities each time in the area, which accounted for his narrow 1991 win over white incumbent Dick Hackett and his relative close-shave victory in 2007 over two serious challengers.
In the meantime Cohen, who out-polled a dozen or so black opponents in the 2006 Democratic primary, has seen his assiduous courtship of his African-American constituents and his close attention to their concerns pay off at the polls. In his 2008 reelection effort, he blew away well-funded primary challenger Nikki Tinker, an African-American corporate lawyer who had finished close behind him two years earlier, beating her four-to-one in the district at large and almost as badly in the black inner city.
An all-out campaign by Herenton would seriously jeopardize Cohen’s new-found support among black Memphians and potentially exacerbate ethnic divisions that had largely gone dormant.
Cohen’s district office provides constituent service comparable to that provided by his congressional predecessors, Harold Ford Sr. and Harold Ford Jr. In Congress, he has faithfully, even vigorously, supported the kind of bread-and-butter issues that would appeal to his working-class and poverty-line constituents. He has pursued funding for projects advantageous to inner-city neighborhoods and for such financially troubled black institutions as LeMoyne-Owen College. And he has received national, even international acclaim for taking the lead in prompting Congress to formally apologize for the institution of slavery.
Along with his Judiciary Committee chairman, the venerable John Conyers of Michigan, who has several times journeyed into the 9th District to support him, Cohen is a sponsor of a bill to provide single-payer national health care. All the while, he has maintained his standing with the relatively posh, civil-liberties-conscious white inhabitants of Memphis’ Poplar Avenue corridor. And, increasingly, he has cut a substantial figure in Washington, having earned plaudits for his close interrogations of Bush administration officials in several committee hearings, and ascending to the chairmanship of the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law in the current Congress.
In a little over two years, Cohen has managed to achieve a degree of national attention that rivals or surpasses that achieved in a longer period of time by predecessor Ford Jr., who went on to become something of a media magnet himself.
All that is seriously threatened now. Even if Herenton should ultimately bow out of a confrontation with Cohen – in the same way that the freshly reelected mayor’s notice of imminent resignation in early 2008 turned out to be illusory – he has already jostled Cohen’s equanimity and roiled the potentially turbulent social sub-currents of the 9th district. Cohen might have to deal with opportunistic challenges from other politicians, awakened by Herenton’s unexpected action.
BUT IF COHEN has problems to confront, so does Herenton.
For at least two years the mayor has been the subject of nonstop rumors concerning possible criminal charges related to his business undertakings. Those rumors achieved a high level of credibility when some months ago it was confirmed that the FBI was actively investigating Herenton’s role in promoting a relocation of the downtown Greyhound Bus Terminal on public policy grounds and then profiting from the resultant land swap through some sleight of hand involving a business partner. That partner, Elvin Moon of Los Angeles, is reportedly now cooperating with the feds in their investigation.
Even before these difficulties surfaced, it was clear from Herenton’s general deportment that he was tired of his mayoral duties. He can boast of several achievements during his 17 ½ years’ service to date, notably including an impressive degree of redevelopment in downtown Memphis and a stabilization of the city’s financial base (though in recent years Memphis’ bond ratings have fluctuated somewhat in relation to economic dips and rises). But key projects close to the mayor’s heart, ranging from his proposal two years back to build a new football stadium to his consistent advocacy of city/county consolidation, have gone nowhere, and, at some cost to his pride, Herenton has conceded that his own provocative personality may have put a damper on prospects for the latter. The mayor had been involved in several running disputes with his council, and, though considered to be without racial bias personally, had not been averse over the years to playing the race card when it suited his political purposes.
Herenton has all but acknowledged that he resolved on running for a fifth term in 2007 for reasons of pride. He was determined to frustrate a coalition of disillusioned business leaders and former associates who had tried to arrange his retirement from office – even, charged Herenton, to the extent of plotting to set him up with a female seductress by way of blackmailing him. The mayor’s determination to run again was further fueled by the identity of his two major opponents – maverick city council member Carol Chumney, with whom he had often feuded, and Herman Morris, whom Herenton had forced out as the head of Memphis Light Gas & Water, the city’s quasi-public utility.
Once successfully reelected, however, Herenton’s attention drifted to a scheme to resume the Memphis city schools superintendency from which he had been forced in 1991 (the year of his first mayoral election) in the aftermath of dual sexual and administrative scandals. Though aided in the plan by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, another consolidation proponent who would almost certainly have acceded to the city major’s job in a special election, Herenton encountered cold shoulders on the city school board, which eventually turned to an out-of-state candidate, Criner Cash of Miami.
The mayor had meanwhile, with great fanfare, announced his intention to resign the mayoralty. Once spurned by the school board, that declaration became inoperative – a circumstance that makes many observers skeptical concerning his congressional-race balloon. Reinforcing the doubters was the fact that Herenton had often derogated the job of congressman, pointing out that a big city mayor enjoyed Numero Uno status while a congressman was but one out of 435. And finally there was the matter of the ongoing federal investigation, which showed no sign of going away.
EVEN SO, there is nothing so far to indicate that the race won’t happen, and, upon recovering from his initial shock, Cohen began to sound a note of jaunty optimism, likening the face-off with former ally Herenton to the “Thrilla in Manila” confrontation in 1975 between boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The same metaphor had occurred to political observers.
It was uncertain as to which of the two politicians linked up to which of the two pugilists, but it is worth recalling that that climactic 1975 encounter, which resulted in a narrow Ali victory, ended with both contenders badly battered and in a state of exhaustion from which neither ever fully recovered.