A Post-Racial Election? 

The 9th District primary may test that thesis.

To the dissatisfaction of both major candidates in the 9th District congressional race, incumbent Steve Cohen and challenger Nikki Tinker, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton has made a public profession of neutrality in their race. "My friends are divided on the issue," Wharton said. "I don't want to get in the middle of that."

Cohen, who had nursed the greater hope for an endorsement, could take some solace, however, from other remarks by Wharton, who had just returned from Germany, where enthusiasm had been brimming over for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A clearly impressed Wharton had this to say: "With Barack Obama, we have entered upon a post-racial world and a post-racial politics." Going on, he expressly concurred with a conclusion of that kind offered by Cohen during the first-term congressman's recent televised debate with Democratic primary opponents Tinker and Joe Towns.

"He's entitled to say that," ventured the mayor about Cohen's debate remarks, which had likened Wharton's own two mayoral victories, Obama's success in this year's Democratic presidential-primary race, and the congressional win in 2006 by Cohen himself.

Should Cohen prevail, he faces a renewed challenge from Jake Ford, running again as an independent, though apparently without the support, tacit or otherwise, of two illustrious kinsmen — father Harold Ford Sr. and brother Harold Ford Jr. Both served as congressmen from the district and both made a point of repudiating some racially charged rhetoric by Jake Ford on filing day. They went further, making statements seemingly distancing themselves from his candidacy.

Harold Ford Jr. represented the district for 10 years before becoming a national cynosure in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, which he narrowly lost to Republican Bob Corker. Though some Democrats, locally as well as nationally, thought the charismatic congressman had moved overmuch into the political center and perhaps even beyond, the mainstream media as a whole tended to regard Ford as symptomatic of a new, edge-free breed of black politician.

It was no huge surprise that a still politically ambitious Ford, now head of the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Leadership Council, should have characterized his brother's racial invective as an "insult." Equally meaningful was Harold Ford Sr.'s categorical statement that Jake Ford "does not speak for me."

The senior former congressman is now a wealthy lobbyist living in semi-retirement in Florida but, in his political prime, was a bona fide living legend.

Not only had he become, in 1974, the first elected black congressman from Tennessee, but he went on to reign as the ultimate inner-city power broker, putting out a sample ballot at election time that influenced the fate of statewide elections as well as local ones. A likely bid for power at the congressional leadership level was stymied by a long-running federal indictment for bank fraud from which Ford emerged triumphant and vindicated in 1993, acquitted by a virtually all-white jury.

The senior congressman Ford could himself lapse into inflammatory rhetoric. Even after his deliverance at the hands of the rustic West Tennessee whites who had made up his jury, Ford could lash out at the "East Memphis devils" who unsuccessfully opposed his next reelection — the final one before passing the congressional baton to his namesake first son.

But Ford Sr.'s power had always been based as much on keeping governmental channels open for influential whites in the larger community as on keeping the faith with his black constituents. His very legal predicament had stemmed from a long-term association with C.J. and Jake Butcher, the white East Tennessee bankers whose financial collapse and prosecution by the government had muddied Ford's own waters.

Tinker, who was the largely nominal campaign manager for Harold Ford Jr. in at least one of his uncontested election victories, no doubt hopes for some substantial intervention by the Fords on her behalf. And, in fact, one of the intriguing revelations of the second quarter's financial disclosures was that Harold Ford Jr.'s wife had maxed out her contributions on Tinker's behalf.

But the fact of the matter is that 9th District politics, like the Fords themselves, may have moved on to that post-racial world Wharton spoke of. Early voting totals in inner-city precincts have not thus far suggested anything like the saturation-style, directed voting of the past — perhaps because, in that part of the 9th District, as elsewhere, race may no longer be the single determinant factor it once was.

See also ”A Sleeper Election?” and ”The Fine Print”.

Senior editor Jackson Baker is the Flyer's political columnist.

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