9th District: Candidates Cohen, Ford, and White Have At It on TV 

The strategies of the three candidates for Congress in the 9th District were evident right out of the block in their first TV debate Sunday night at WREG-TV, News Channel 3.

“Independent Democrat” Jake Ford, first up, characterized himself as a champion of “working-wage Americans.” Next, primary winner Steve Cohen expressed solidarity to his fellow Democrats for conferring the party’s nomination on him and promised he would “never turn…my back” on them. Finally, Republican Mark White argued for a “coming together” of “new people, new blood” to create a new political reality in the traditionally Democratic inner-city district.

Thereafter, the genial White became something of a bystander as favored veteran Cohen and newcomer Ford scrapped for bragging rights.

Cohen was his usual poised self as he enumerated his long-term affiliations and achievements, and Ford, maintaining that all three contestants were due a “learning curve” in Washington, if elected, displayed a reasonable degree of polish, too — a fact no doubt attributable to his membership, conspicuously vaunted once or twice, in the Ford political clan. White got the best laugh of the night (from Cohen) with his remark that he was “tickled pick” by Ford’s independent candidacy.

That note of levity contrasted decidedly with several harsh exchanges between Ford and Cohen — the former likening the latter’s presence in the race to that of Ralph Nader, who, Cohen said, “cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000.”. Ford asserted that Cohen was too “liberal” for the 9th District, citing what he said was the longtime state senator’s support of “gambling” (Cohen is the acknowledged father of the state lottery), “legalized marijuana” (the senator sponsored legislation on behalf of medical marijuana), and “same-sex marriage” (which Cohen denied favoring, noting that the legislature had passed a version of the federal Defense-of-Marriage act proposed by former president Clinton and that he vigorously opposed any constitutional tampering).

The exchanges between Ford and Cohen became ever brisker, with Ford continuing to harp on the same-sex issue and saying that Cohen’s position was "certainly I hope not for personal reasons,” while Cohen made a point of stating for the record that he had never been arrested, "nor has Mr,. White," leaving it to Ford to acknowledge, without specifying, that he might have had such trouble in the troubled teen years between 1990 and 1993, when his father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr. (later acquitted), faced federal indictments. (Ford has elsewhere acknowledged an arrest during that time frame for “disorderly conduct.”)

Other than the personal points of contention between Ford and Cohen, there were few overt disagreements between the three on issues, though Cohen was firmer than the others on the need to “cut our losses” and extricate ourselves from the “mistake” of the Iraq war. White said that “fighting terrorists on their own home ground keeps them from coming over here,” but said he should begin planning on “how to get them out.” Echoing his congressman brother Harold Ford Jr. (now seeking a U.S. Senate seat and vacating the 9th District seat he has held for a decade), Jake Ford called for “an exit strategy” and “a plan” but for enhanced armaments for American troops meanwhile.

The candidates also sounded similar notes of concern for public education, with Cohen and Ford emphasizing funding issues and White stressing values.

Overall, Jake Ford pledged fealty to traditional Democratic bread-and-butter and health-care issues but seemed determined to hew to a conservative line on social issues and to paint Cohen into a corner as espousing doctrines too liberal for the 9th District.

Just as consistently, Cohen was able to cite a long record of practical support for the same bedrock issues and to portray Ford as someone who had shunned the primary process without good reason and was therefore "no Democrat at all."

White eschewed trumpeting his Republican affiliations and managed to associate himself with most of the same social-service and educational goals as were mentioned by his two opponents.

For all the hard punches that at least two of the candidates kept throwing, no knockout blows were landed. Cohen certainly seemed poised, articulate, and able to cite convincing chapter and verse in his usual manner. Ford, too, came off as self-assured and easily stayed on message, the smoothness of his presentation never faltering as it had from time to time in a previous League of Women Voters debate.

And, whether he gained on the others or not, White probably succeeded in his aim of creating an image of himself as a likable, concerned conservative able to comprehend the special needs of a largely impoverished congressional district.

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