Larry Pivnick: An Underdog With Bite? 

The 8th District Congressional candidate represents a breed that dreams of political success and doesn’t see it as impossible.

Larry Pivnick at Democratic meet-and-greet with Vickie Lyon and Jeannette Warren

Jackson Baker

Larry Pivnick at Democratic meet-and-greet with Vickie Lyon and Jeannette Warren

Larry Pivnick is a retired University of Memphis law professor, and he looks like a retired law professor — academician's trimmed beard, thin-rimmed glasses, neat, muted suits, and all. He is one of four candidates for the Democratic nomination in Tennessee's 8th congressional district, and the only Memphian.

He was aggrieved at what he saw as my summary dismissal last week of his chances of ultimately triumphing over the 8th District two-term incumbent, Republican Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in Crockett County, and I can understand that. It's flattering, in a way, that Pivnick thinks I have any great ability to advance or retard a political person or cause on the basis of what I have to say. I am, as they say, a messenger.

The reality is that the same partisan sea change has occurred in the nooks and corners of the sprawling and very rural West Tennessee terrain that makes up the 8th District as has occurred in the rest of Tennessee. It's a red state, all right, and the 8th District is red, too — as was made clear by Fincher's convincing 2010 margin over respected Democrat Roy Herron, now the state Democratic chairman.

And a further reality is that folks in the 8th aren't inclined to change much once they've settled on somebody. They had Ed Jones for a long time until he retired, and after him they had John Tanner for a long time until he retired.

So is Pivnick, well regarded as a former assistant dean at U of M, wasting his time by running for Congress? He doesn't think so, and I don't think so, either. I've looked over his political raw material — including a set of policy positions and a nice-looking website, complex but accessible — and it is clear that Pivnick isn't a mere eccentric who collected enough signatures to get himself on the ballot and is hoping for a miracle on the scale of the one that happened in the Red Sea in biblical times.

He has articulated positions on a range of issues, from education, health care, and jobs, which together constitute what he considers his "primary focus," to defense and foreign policy, matters which today's headlines tell us are rising in importance to the voters. Pivnick also tells me that he's made several forays up and down the district, both listening and talking.

Does that mean he can beat Fincher? Now, I'm responsible for perspective as well as newsbreaks, and I don't think I can say anything like that if I want to keep my columnist's license active. I know too much about the political trends of District 8, the congressman's funding, and the strength of his organization.

And there are other Democrats making valiant efforts to get the Democratic nomination in the 8th District, for that matter — Wes Bradley, Rickey Hobson, and Tom Reasons. The latter two — from Somerville and Dyersburg, respectively — have made conspicuous Memphis appearances, and whoever emerges from the pack will have the opportunity to turn the Democratic Party nomination into a bully pulpit — to articulate the party cause, as well as his own, to make such inroads as he can right now and more later on.            

The political process thrives on — nay, requires — candidacies such as those of Pivnick et al.

• Speaking of bully pulpits, Terry Adams and Gordon Ball, the two Knoxville lawyers who are vying for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, continue to run hard — against each other and against the legacy of incumbent Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. Alexander has his own party opponents in Joe Carr of Lascassas and George Flinn of Memphis but is expected to prevail in the GOP primary.

Ball, who is largely self-funded and who has begun a fresh round of television advertising, and Adams, who has embarked on what he bills as a 100-stop statewide tour and has a TV spot up himself, are in agreement on most issues, including Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, expanded veterans' benefits, and increasing the minimum wage.

Last week, the two shared a forum stage in Bolivar. They disagreed on matters such as the Keystone pipeline and the concept of a flat tax (Ball for and Adams against, in both cases), but they walked off the stage together, arm in arm. Either will make a solid general election candidate.

• What had started out on Monday evening looking like a potential embarrassment to the reelection campaign of 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen may have turned out on Tuesday morning to be a boomerang impacting the campaign of Cohen's Democratic primary opponent, Ricky Wilkins.

A press release circulated Monday night by the Wilkins campaign had said that Local 1733 of AFSCME intended to hold a press conference on Tuesday morning to announce its endorsement of Wilkins.  

To most observers, including Cohen himself, that news came as something of a surprise. After all, as the press release noted, the congressman has been including the union local on his fairly lengthy endorsement list and did so as recently as last week.

Cohen could not be reached for a reaction late Monday night but was contacted early Tuesday morning as he was heading out for several votes on the floor of the House."We don't know what's going to happen," he observed about the then-pending press conference at local AFSCME headquarters.

The congressman said that, in any case, he had the endorsement of the national AFSCME union and had been reassured of support by leading figures in the union, both locally and nationally, with whom he has worked over the years.

Cohen said the union, which "used to be a strong voice," had declined somewhat from its peak of local strength and influence, but that he had consistently bent his efforts toward keeping it strong. "I've always supported their aims," the congressman said. "One reason I didn't support the move to school consolidation back in 2010 was because of AFSCME's opposition to it."   

He termed the prospect of a Wilkins endorsement by Local 1733 "disappointing," but he noted the widespread endorsements he had received from labor organizations at large and said, "It's not going to make any difference in the long run. We're going to win."

As it happened, reporters who turned up at AFSCME headquarters on Beale for the advertised press conference on Tuesday were greeted instead by Wilkins and a team of campaign supporters, who'd set up outside the union building. Candidate Wilkins angrily lashed out at Cohen for "bullying" and for efforts he had allegedly applied to the leadership of the AFSCME local and others of the challenger's supporters.

The upshot was that officers of Local 1733 had advised Wilkins that they were unable at this point to make any announcement. Wilkins insisted that he had been assured of the local's support but would not forecast when or whether it might now be coming under AFSCME auspices.

Meanwhile, Cohen was publicizing endorsements of his own in new mailouts conveying his support of Assessor Cheyenne Johnson's reelection campaign, the campaign of former school board member Freda Garner-Williams for Position 1 on the Shelby County Schools board, and that of David Upton for state executive committeeman in District 31.  

• The name of Herman Sawyer was inadvertently omitted last week from the list of Democratic candidates in the state Senate District 29; and Scott McCormick should have been listed as a school board candidate in District 5.

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