Tuesday, January 24, 2006

POLITICS: First Showing

Posted By on Tue, Jan 24, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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On Tuesday night, the first 9th District cattle call (don’t blame us, folks: That’s the term of art among pols -- the Beltway sort, especially) went on as scheduled, featuring seven would-be Democratic successors to current Congressman Harold Ford Jr., now a U.S. Senate candidate.


The event (a “forum,” as it was actually called) was held at the IBEW headquarters building on Madison, under the sponsorship of Democracy for Memphis, one of the new activist groups that surfaced last year and became a force in the  party’s biennial reorganization.


Here’s a brief take on the candidates, including a capsule intro prepared for this week’s Flyer print edition, coupled with follow-up notes on how each was perceived to have done Tuesday night:


Print edition: The prospects of one candidate, NIKKI TINKER, were dealt with at some length in this space two weeks ago. Suffice it to say here that Tinker has impressed many with her high-level support and early-bird activity. Growing some bona fide grass roots remains a challenge for this Alabama/D.C. import.


Tuesday night: Tinker was a no-show at the forum. A friend read a statement on her behalf and said later she was “working;” her mother said she had a “prior commitment.” Whatever the case, it was hard to imagine what other circumstance could have been so all-important as to keep Tinker away. “She doesn’t know the issues,” theorized one acquaintance. “She wants to set herself off from the pack,” guessed another.  To judge from the reaction of many attendees Tuesday night, the still little-known Tinker would have been well advised to have been there. She remains an Unknown Quantity, and her best way of “setting herself off” would have been to show well in the give-and-take


Print edition: Also discussed in detail was the likelihood of a go-for-broke candidacy on the part of state Senator STEVE COHEN, a major figure on the local and statewide scenes.


Tuesday night: Cohen stayed away from Tuesday night’s proceedings, too, but nobody begrudged him that. He’s well-established enough to get away with being absent. Besides, he hasn’t formally declared yet.


Print edition: Lawyer ED STANTON, JR.,  son of a well-known local governmental figure, has been making something of an impression himself, running a low-key, under-the-radar campaign that is reportedly fueled by a hefty – and growing – war chest. Stanton is likely to be in for the long haul.


Tuesday night: In almost everybody’s estimation, Stanton did well, sounding crisp and even somewhat original in his call for such staples as education and economic development. “Live well, then learn well,” is how he accounted for the primacy of the latter issue.


RON REDWING, now a free-lance consultant and formerly an aide to Mayor Willie Herenton, has been running hard and for even longer than Tinker. He has built an organization, it would seem, and, to judge by the turnout at some of his fundraisers, something of a following. He, too, will go to the End Game.


Tuesday night: Though Redwing got some early response from the crowd by addressing it directly with a hearty greeting, he seemed to lose ground by repeatedly declining to offer either any specifics or any particularly inspiring rhetoric.


RALPH WHITE, a minister, musician, and former star athlete, is a bona fide renaissance man – superbly talented in most of what he does but so far unlucky in politics, a field whose pros and junkies and facilitators have largely made a point of looking the other way from nice guy Ralph over the years. Too bad. White is deserving, though he has contributed to his own loneliness in Democratic ranks by backing some wrong horses in the past (Republican Rod DeBerry vs. then congressman Harold Ford Sr. in 1994!) Money may be a long-term problem, but White intends to stick around.


Tuesday night: In the judgment of almost everybody who offered an opinion, White didn’t measure up, offering preacherly platitudes and avoiding anything concrete in his answers. He seemed surprised at being asked about Iraq and had no prepared answer. More astonishingly, considering that the venue was a union hall, he began an answer about his attitude toward organized labor by grousing at length about corrupt unions. (Helpful hint: Ralph, Ralph!, any voter who would respond to that kind of answer is going to be voting Republican on primary day.)



JOSEPH KYLES, who in recent years has been a mainstay of the Rainbow/Push coalition locally, belongs to a famous local family and has connections to spare at the grassroots level. A former football player at UT/Martin, Kyles has the requisite young-man-on-the-way-up look and an appropriately serious demeanor to go with it.


Tuesday night: Though not everybody agreed,  Kyles impressed many by speaking in his slow, stately way of specific abuses in the existing social power structure, firing salvoes at “corporate welfare,” for example,  and taking particular exception to what he perceived as chicanery on the part of MLGW. On a personal level, his story of suffering temporary paralysis after a violent football hit on Fourth-and-One resonated with the audience.



LEE HARRIS, an assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis,  is a fairly new face in local politics, but he’s rapidly acquiring exposure, most recently alongside some of the major players in statewide ethics reform as emcee at a Cooper/Young forum on that issue.


Tuesday night: Harris is another who was well received, making frequent common-sense connections, such as his response to a question about how to deal with illegal immigration:  “We don’t need to police the Mexicans; we need to police the businesses.”


All things considered, though, the most impressive responses Tuesday night came from a candidate whom I had postponed dealing with in this week’s print column, planning to write about him next week, along with such other candidates who in the meantime might come out of the woodwork  (As I put in in print: “This list is only partial. Stay tuned; more candidates – both Democrats and Repubicans -- will be featured in weeks to come, especially as the number of potential filees seems to be proliferating.”)


Anyhow, the best showing Tuesday night might have been that of  TYSON PRATCHER, a Memphis native who has been serving as a state director in New York for Senator Hillary Clinton and who, much in the manner of Nikki Tinker, is faced with the task of establishing grass-root connections from the top down.

At the forum, Pratcher gave a good demonstration of how to do that, making full use of his presumed expertise and connections (“Senator Clinton and I did some work on this issue….”) but persuasively rather than presumptuously so, going on in most cases to spell out exactly what he meant. As in the case of specific labor legislation when faced with the same question about union rights that appeared to buffalo Rev. White. Pratcher, too, would seem to be in for the long haul.


One other unadvertised special: a newly announced candidate named BILL WHITMAN, a young white Memphis native graduate of Notre Dame and veteran of several public-issue causes. In his on-line statement, Whitman had given special attention to  health care, a subject that didn’t get much attention from anybody Tuesday night. Whitman came off as engaging and well-intentioned but not enough so to overcome the probability that, as a white unknown, his chances in the race are extremely limited.



To continue from the print edition: [A]lready  something is obvious from this early-sample hard core. There are good chances for a split favoring Cohen in the Democratic primary. Partly this is based on demographics, with most of the other candidates being African-American and likely to carve up that part of the electorate, a majority in the 9th. But the Midtown state senator, who has represented a sprawling slice of the district for more than a quarter-century in the legislature, has a huge name-recognition factor working in his favor, as well.


Suppose Cohen should win and then defeat his Republican opponent in the general election. The likelihood is that, in a re-election race two years later, he’d face only one or two challengers in a primary. His victory would be anything but certain. But he’d have another option.


Assuming that a Congressman Cohen would attract more than the usual amount of attention for a first-termer – a fairly safe bet for this articulate and highly un-bashful and issue-conscious politician – he might be sorely tempted to leverage his enhanced profile into a statewide race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Lamar Alexander and up for grabs again in 2008. 


But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There’s going to be a crowded race for 9th District congressman meanwhile, and it’s impossible to handicap the outcome at this point. Watch this space.


For those Democrats who want to participate, by the way, there’s a “straw vote” polling opportunity at the downtown Rendezvous restaurant from 5 to 7 p.m. this Thursday.


There has been much speculation in political circles about the possible effect of Ford-family troubles (the state-senate District 29 wrangle; the upcoming Tennessee Waltz trials, etc.) on the U.S. Senate candidacy of Rep. Ford.


Two cautions for those who see all that becoming an obstacle for Ford: (1) While everyone seems to believe there’s a sizeable population of people who might vote against the congressman either on family grounds or because of his race, no one has yet unearthed a real live member of that species; (2) To offset any such backlash, there’s the so-far overlooked factor of the national media.


Fact: There has never been a statewide race in Tennessee commanding the amount of national attention the 2006 Senate race will get, and Ford is the largest single reason for that. Here’s the national-media storyline, which you can expect to see invoked three of four times every week during the heat of the campaign on this or that network or cable show or in this or that major print medium: “Can a bright, charismatic young African-American politician overcome racial bias and his family history to win election to the Senate in the border state of Tennessee?”


Count on it: That storyline – which, from the media’s standpoint, has a directed-verdict ending – will outweigh any of the other potential issues involving Ford, including his hewing to a blandly centrist line that unsettles many traditional Democrats.


Not to be overlooked, by the way, is Ford’s still active Democratic primary opponent, state Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who spent a couple of days in Memphis last week and is making a point of addressing some of the domestic and foreign-policy reforms some of the hard-core Democrats want to see addressed.


Many of those selfsame Democrats were on hand Tuesday of last week for a brief stop at the Hunt-Phelan Home by National Democratic chairman Howard Dean, following through on his pledge to make frequent outreach visits in the so-called “red” states that favored President Bush in the 2004 election.


Dean exhorted the party faithful to help him restore Democratic prestige in Tennessee. The former presidential candeidate also proved a ready man with a quip. When one of the local cadres told him about such-and-such a woman who had “worked the streets for you,” Dean responded, “Well, I appreciate that, but I hope she didn't go that far...."


When the cadre tried to backtrack and amend his phraseology, Dean, no doubt remembering “The Scream” from the 2004 primary season,  laughed and said, “Trust me, I know from experience. Once you’ve done something stupid, you just can’t take it back.”






Deadline for filing, countywide primary races: February 16.

Deadline for filing, state and federal primary races and for independents in countywide races: April 6.
Countywide primaries: May 2.

State and federal primaries and countywide general election: August 3.

Deadline for filing as independent in state and federal races: August 17.

General election, state and federal races: November 7.


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