The Road Not Taken 

Congratulations are in order today for two of Memphis' most highly regarded political figures. After two-plus decades of service in the Tennessee Senate, Congressman-Elect Steve Cohen will be moving from Nashville to Washington, D.C., where his considerable legislative experience, we are certain, will make him an effective representative of our city's interests in the House.

Meanwhile, despite his narrow defeat in the Senate race, outgoing Congressman Harold Ford Jr. ran a remarkably successful campaign as the first significant African-American candidate for statewide office in well over a century. The target of scurrilous political attacks from the national Republican Party, Ford took a licking and kept on ticking, winning widespread support in every corner of the state. His charisma and his undeniable brilliance as a campaigner catapulted Ford to national prominence. For our outgoing Congressman, still only 36, this three-point defeat will no doubt prove but a temporary setback.

The tragedy for Memphis is that there are indications that this setback was unnecessary. Preliminary election returns show Ford capturing 63 percent of the Shelby County vote. If one assumes the congressman garnered nearly unanimous black support, that figure suggests that he won perhaps only a third of the white vote cast in the county. For a candidate who routinely garnered majority white support in his congressional races, such a low figure for a "favorite son" Senate candidate seems at first puzzling.

Puzzling, until one considers the special circumstances of the race in Ford's own 9th District, where Cohen won the Democratic primary last August. Jake Ford, the congressman's brother, entered the campaign as an "independent," with the full support of his father, Harold Ford Sr., and the tacit support of Harold Ford Jr., who declined to endorse the Democratic nominee. The fact that Jake Ford was singularly unqualified for that position was not lost upon the people of the 9th District. He got only 22 percent of the vote. Also not overlooked was the fact that his sordid congressional campaign -- reeking of racist and anti-Semitic overtones -- was coordinated by his father, a man who once characterized his own non-black constituents as "East Memphis devils."

Perhaps we will never know why Harold Ford Jr. chose not to dissociate himself from his brother's campaign and chose not to endorse Cohen, despite the fact that the latter endorsed the Senate candidate early and often. What we do know is this: His decision to go it alone in Memphis -- alongside the farcical campaign efforts of his brother -- cost Harold Ford Jr. thousands of votes, both here and across Tennessee, perhaps enough votes to cost him the Senate election itself.

How different this could and should have been. Ford and Cohen might have formed a near-perfect, "ebony and ivory" coalition, a black Senate candidate in a white state alongside a white Congressional candidate in a black city. Perhaps the staunchest civil rights advocate in the state Senate, Cohen might have brought even more national attention to a Ford candidacy already awash in pundit adulation. Instead of becoming an unwitting and unnecessary thorn in Ford's side, Cohen might have helped him protect his political base in Memphis, a base that surely wavered on this Election Day. Our city and state could and should have been better served.


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