The 9th District Field: Part One 

There's a passel of candidates and two months of primary campaigning to go, but let's get started.

There have been a series of well-attended local forums featuring contenders for the open 9th District congressional seat being vacated this year by Democratic U.S Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr. Even the first of these, back in January, made it obvious that the field of candidates would be large and accomplished -- so much so that several local observers have actually bemoaned the presence of so much fresh talent in the race.

As both radio talk-show host Leon Gray and restaurateur/former city councilman John Vergos noted, it's a shame that some of these up-and-coming new faces didn't choose instead to offer themselves as County Commission candidates this year or as City Council candidates next year.

(Answer: On that latter score, at least, some of them well may.)

Three of the aforesaid candidate forums, under the general sponsorship of the Black Ministerial Association, were presided over by the Rev. LaSimba Gray, who made no secret of his wish that a consensus black candidate could be found to prevent, as he saw it, the loss, after 32 years, of African-American representation.

That contention necessarily upset several other people, including state senator Steve Cohen, a white whose legislative track record (including staunch support of civil rights) and long-term Democratic credentials have made him an instant favorite in the race. At the last forum, held two weeks ago under the sponsorship of the Shelby County Democratic Party and assorted Democratic clubs, Cohen (and most -- but not all -- of the others) asserted that fidelity to the needs of the predominantly black 9th District did not require possession of a specific skin color.

This week, we consider not quite half the field -- all Democrats and all African Americans -- in no particular order:

Ralph White: The self-styled old dog amid this group of predominantly young pups has shown he can learn new tricks. Back in January, during the first cattle-call forum for candidates, the Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist pastor muffed a couple of obvious questions concerning the war in Iraq and legislation affecting union members.

He seemed buffaloed even to be asked about Iraq and pleaded, in effect, nolo contendere. On the second question, White launched an extended philippic against corruption in unions. All well and good, if that's what he believed, but this was a union hall, and the question had been aimed at the economic betterment and bargaining rights of workers.

White has shored up his debating skills since then and has answered most questions on point and astutely, backing and filling to get on record his own critique of the increasingly unpopular war. And he has declined opportunities to demagogue such issues as drug abuse, gay marriage, and abortion -- despite maintaining his conservative, church-based position on the latter.

Nikki Tinker: The Pinnacle Airlines attorney whose race began last year with a prefabricated claim of "frontrunner" status in the Washington, D.C., political tipsheet The Hill, has, like White, experienced a learning curve. Having realized that she couldn't finesse either the question of local roots or the issue of issues, the young Alabama transplant has learned to emphasize her up-by-the-bootstraps personal saga as the daughter of a hard-working single mother and to fix her portrait as a corporation lawyer within that Horatio Alger frame.

Her impressive war-chest -- currently pushing the $300,000 mark -- is a testament both to her early start and her networking, but, while it certainly constitutes an advantage overall, it is also vulnerable to criticism of the sort blogger Frank Burhart (PolarDonkey.blogspot.com) has levied against it -- as stemming from too many upscale, corporate (read: non-Democratic) sources.

A key point in Tinker's resume, of course, is that she is the only woman in the race -- a fact that allowed her the best line of any candidate during the recent Democratic Party forum. In response to the "race" question, Tinker brought down the house by saying, "This race should not be about race. It should be about gender."

Lee Harris: A professor at the University of Memphis Law School, Harris quipped at the most recent forum that, at 27, his age was "the average for a starting congressman in this city." (Harold Ford Sr. was 28 when he won his first congressional race in 1974, and Harold Ford Jr. was 26 when he won the right to succeed his father in 1996.)

Harris' point is well taken -- though it may be more relevant to building some name recognition for a political future than to his chances for success this year. Certainly the young lawyer, who rarely gives knee-jerk answers, has spoken well and independently at the various forums, and he has been thoughtful and innovative on issues like pre-K education.

But Harris has raised little money and has limited prospects for catching up with his better-heeled rivals. In the meantime, he has played a good game of Small Ball. Though his headquarters opening on South Main was a relatively modest affair, his timing of it -- in the middle of last week's Trolley Night -- maximized his walk-in crowds.

Ed Stanton: Among those candidates given a serious chance of catching Cohen, Stanton probably heads the list. Son of a well-liked, longtime public servant, lawyer Stanton has solid backing from his FedEx employers. Well-spoken and armed with a bagful of well-thought-out issues -- especially on health care and economic redevelopment -- the clean-cut Stanton hits the semiotic middle between the 9th District's African-American majority and the crossover white vote he may have a chance of attracting.

More than any other candidate, Stanton has balanced fund-raising success with high-intensity campaigning. He has done well at all the 9th District forums so far -- figuring as everybody's first or second choice both by word-of-mouth and by informal straw-poll results.

Stanton is firing all barrels available to a campaigner, including an artful and illuminating e-mail newsletter sent out to a wide canvas of media, grass-roots, and political recipients.

Joe Ford Jr.: Ford has to be reckoned as a player, even if the California entertainment lawyer, who relocated here this year for purposes of making the congressional race, has the same problem that Tinker has in having to manufacture some instant grass roots.

Ford's task is made easier, though, by virtue of his being the son of a well-known Shelby County commissioner as well as by being a member of the best-known extended political family in Shelby County. And the engaging, somewhat preppy Ford has not been bashful about playing that trump card, contending at various forums that his family background gives him a leg up in making connections for the people of the 9th District.

To balance that, Ford has indicated a willingness to part company with his most noted relative on various issues (e.g., the war in Iraq, which he opposes) and on the priority voters should give the eventual Democratic nominee over the independent candidacy of his cousin Jake Ford.

Ford is somewhat handicapped in his race by the demands of his business, which caused him to miss the Democratic Party debate and has had him back and forth to California.

Tyson Pratcher: This native Memphian's status as an aide to New York senator Hillary Clinton has provided him with both his major claim to be taken seriously and the chief drawback to getting his campaign off the launching pad.

Pratcher wowed attendees at the first forum in January by citing specific legislation he worked on in tandem with his illustrious then-employer. And his deft touch and encyclopedic knowledge of Capitol Hill protocol easily skirted the perils of name-dropping per se.

But Pratcher's duties up as Clinton's state director kept him occupied -- and out of 9th District campaign mode -- for the next several months. He was further set back by a Memphis car-jacking in which his database was stolen. Though his fund-raising has him among the leaders, Pratcher's chances of winning are largely dependent on the Hail Mary prospect of one or both of the famous Clintons coming down to campaign on his behalf.

Race should not matter, Pratcher said at the Democratic Party forum. But the follicle-challenged candidate went on to quip, "It just so happens that the best candidate happens to be a black man with a bald head!"

Next week: We've just begun to cite. More 9th District candidates, including several household names and some impressive campaigners.

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