Color and Politics 

Memphis' black mayor looks at the U.S. Senate race through tinted glasses.

"He can go places and do things I can't," mused Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in an offhand moment last Friday. And it was hard to read his expression -- a purely pensive one suspended somewhere between regret and acceptance.

The "he" referred to by Herenton was Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic nominee currently running neck-and-neck against Republican Bob Corker in what everyone -- locally, statewide, and nationally -- now recognizes as a pivotal U.S. Senate race.

Herenton has to be one of the most conflicted observers of the spirited race being run by Ford, a member of a local political clan that the mayor has always regarded with varying degrees of hostility -- especially considering Chattanoogan Corker was so recently a member, and a friendly one, of the statewide mayoral fraternity.

Herenton is a Democrat, though he has strayed from the reservation on occasion -- publicly endorsing the GOP's Lamar Alexander for the Senate in 2002, as one example. And he had dropped a veiled hint or two earlier in the year that he would sit out the current Senate race -- or maybe even endorse Corker, with whom he had conferred in camera during a visit by the Republican to Memphis last month.

That was the same day, September 6th, that Herenton and his county-government counterpart, Mayor A C Wharton -- the two of them being the most prominent African-American officeholders here or elsewhere in Tennessee -- made a point of endorsing the congressional candidacy of 9th District Democratic nominee Steve Cohen. Cohen's opponents are Republican Mark White and, notably, independent candidate Jake Ford, brother to the Democrats' senatorial nominee.

On that occasion, not only had Herenton publicly scoffed at first-time candidate Jake Ford's credentials, he had rubbed in his disdain for the Ford clan at large. "You know, I've resented for decades the politics of the Ford family," the mayor said. "The family seems to think they should have a monopoly on all elected positions in this state and this county."

Having said that, it may have cost Herenton something to have swallowed his pride earlier this month and endorse Ford -- "at the urging of a group of clergy and business leaders," stipulated the mayor, who added, "I can look at the big picture." Herenton made it clear that only local-unity and party loyalty considerations kept him from throwing in his lot with Corker. He added, "I might have had a greater respect for Mr. Corker had an endorsement of him been possible."

Under those circumstances, it is probably little wonder that Representative Ford has not yet followed up on Herenton's offer to make joint campaign appearances. "I haven't heard a thing from him," the mayor said last Friday. He went on to make the statement quoted in the first paragraph above concerning Ford's accessibility to a wider electorate.

"It's a matter of color," the mayor stated flatly, addressing an issue that is rarely raised these days on the surface of politics and punditry but one that has fueled abundant private speculation concerning Representative Ford's chances in rural sections of Tennessee. Note, however, that Herenton said "color" and not "race."

"Ford's light enough that he can go in there and be accepted by those folks. I'm realistic enough to know that I wouldn't have a chance. I'm just too dark."

The mayor reflected a moment. "That kind of thing is even an issue among our people," he said, clearly meaning African Americans. "When I was down in New Orleans recently, I was told by a guy down there that I wouldn't have the same chance of being elected in that environment as someone like [Mayor Ray] Nagin, who's black but had just the right skin tone."

From there, Herenton went on to lament in another direction -- that "if some of these campaign charges made against Corker's mayoral tenure in this race were made against me, I'd be indicted." That remark, too, he made it clear, was color-related.

Another question Herenton reflected on briefly last Friday was his forthcoming race for reelection in 2007. He knows that he will be opposed by City Council member Carol Chumney, who is white, and he, like everybody else, wonders if a "name" black candidate will enter to complicate the issue.

In any case, he says he's not worried. Color him confident but wary.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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