Cohen vs. Hart 

The 9th District congressman may have his toughest challenger yet.


"I haven't filed yet, but I plan to." With those words, texted to the Flyer on Tuesday, Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart confirmed persistent recent rumors that she intended to challenge 9th District congressman Steve Cohen in the 2012 Democratic primary.

Cohen himself had taken note of the likelihood during an interview last month in Washington. At the time, he had not identified his prospective opponent by name, except to say that he expected organized opposition and that his challenger would be a well-known African-American woman.

That definition certainly fits Hart, the executive director of the Memphis Urban League and, with fellow MCS board member Martavius Jones, the leader in last year's vote to surrender the MCS charter, thereby setting in motion the pending merger of MCS with Shelby County Schools.

"It's all set," Cohen said, indicating that his then unnamed opponent would be drawing on sources of support similar to those which had opposed him in his previous congressional races in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

"They're going to try to revive the idea of a 'consensus black candidate,'" predicted Cohen, who said that was the tack taken in such campaigns as those of independent Jake Ford in 2006 and Democratic candidates Nikki Tinker and Willie Herenton in 2008 and 2010, respectively. All these challenges fell significantly short, the last two being on the short end of 4 to 1 outcomes.

"It didn't work then, and it won't work now," the congressman said confidently. "My track record is clear, that I have faithfully represented the African-American community, and the results show that the voters know that."

Hart, a lawyer, was elected to the MCS board in 2004, defeating longtime incumbent Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge. She served as the board president from January 2008 to June 2009. • The impasse in city budget negotiations is keeping another matter, that of redistricting of city council districts, on the back burner.

Municipal elections are scheduled for October 6th. The filing deadline for them is July 21st, with a withdrawal deadline of a week later. And potential candidates, like local blogger Steve Ross of, who is contemplating a run for a council seat, are complaining that the council has been unreasonably tardy in redrawing district lines.

The 2010 census information for Shelby County, which would provide the basis for redistricting, has been available since March 16th, Ross notes on his blog. He points out that his residence, as of now, is at a point close to several existing district lines and that, with less than two months to go before showtime, his preparations for organizing a campaign are hampered by not knowing where that campaign is to be run.

Ross, who addressed the council on the subject some weeks ago, says he was given no guidelines by council attorney Allan Wade, who, however, promised more information next week, at the council's June 6th meeting.

From Ross' blog: "Certainly, there are difficult decisions to be made and stringent rules that must be followed. The consent decree that governs the drawing of districts in Memphis has very particular guidelines. From my perspective, these rules are one of the most important reasons there must be public scrutiny of the process, never-mind the whole notion of 'open government' itself.

"For me, the issue is less about 'why hasn't this been done' than 'why isn't more information available about this.' Because, aside from an ordinance on third reading, there is nothing. No maps, no information, nothing. And my attempts to find out more about this process have yielded very little concrete information, calling the process into question, which is concerning to a person, like myself, who believes that the public's trust in government comes not from the officials, but from the easy availability of information."

Ross got some moral support this week from council member Jim Strickland. "I think Steve is justifiably concerned that the districts have not been set, and we're only seven weeks prior to filing deadline," said Strickland, who added, "I've spoken to Allan Wade, and he has a problem matching the census figures with the precinct."

The councilman (a candidate for reelection in District 5, after all) said he, too, hoped the matter could be expedited.

• Almost unnoticed in the recent press of events (budgetary dilemmas not the least of them), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security made an announcement last week that, in response to the recently concluded congressional deal that pared $780 from the federal budget, Homeland Security would be cutting $170 million from its Urban Areas Security Initiative program.

In practical terms, that means that both Memphis and Nashville are slated to lose millions in grant money that had been used to upgrade technology and training over the last seven years, during which the two Tennessee cities had received some $40 million between them. Last year, Memphis' share was $4.1 million; Nashville's, $2.8 million.

The money had been used for such purposes as enhancing communication capabilities among police, fire, and other emergency officials; providing bomb squads with new equipment and training; and even funding the training of bomb-sniffing dogs.

• As the metaphor has it, the fat lady has sung — which is to say, the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly came to an end Saturday before last — but she may have a few unexpected extra verses to warble.

In addition to several bills that were shelved or left hanging — the "innovative school districts" bill that had troubled the Shelby County Commission, the "Don't Say Gay" bill of state senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), among others — some bills that did get through are already being revisited.

There is, for example, the very real probability that a bill intended to cut Planned Parenthood out of the loop for federal Title X family-planning funds was nullified by add-on language that is just now coming to light. A provision was added (or retained, against the wishes of sponsor Campfield) stating that the defunding provision "shall not be construed to supersede applicable provisions of federal and state law." Meaning: The status quo on Title X funding shall be observed.

And another controversial measure, HB 600, banning antidiscrimination ordinances by local jurisdictions, is sure to be challenged early in the next legislative session. State senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Senate's Democratic leader, has already filed legislation designed to repeal that measure, which drew intense last-minute opposition from several major Tennessee industries, including FedEx of Memphis.

In signing HB 600 into law, Governor Bill Haslam said the business opposition had come too late to affect his judgment. Acknowledging that "the business community was late to the party," Kyle said the new law was still "worth a second look."

Gay and lesbian activists had lobbied extensively against HB 600, and much of the business opposition was in the context of author Richard Florida's thesis that economic innovation is largely dependent on the input of a "creative class," which includes gays, high-tech specialists, and other heterodox types.

Kyle said that reaction from constituents in Memphis and Shelby County, where antidiscrimination ordinances were still being actively considered, had also prompted his filing the bill.

• Give state representative Curry Todd his due. Todd (R-Collierville) — he of the Mexicans-as-teeming-rats metaphor at a notorious committee hearing last fall, he of the Norris-Todd school-merger bill — was the reason one special-interest bill got stopped cold.

This was SB 1033, introduced by state senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and designed, according to its caption, to prohibit and provide criminal penalties for "certain union and employee organization activities," spelled out by Ketron as "bribery, extortion, intimidation, and disorderly conduct."

When the bill came through the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 26th, it was stoutly resisted by state senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), who pointed out the one-sidedness of the measure, which targeted labor only and mentioned potential management transgressions not at all, but the bill was passed through on a 6-3 party-line vote.

On the last legislative day, however, when the bill came through the House for final passage, Todd returned to another issue that Marrero had mentioned — namely, that none of the iniquities which it mentioned had turned up in Tennessee itself; that, in fact, the bill was a hobby-horse mounted by the National Chamber of Commerce in each of the 50 states. Indeed, the chief spokesman for it had been a Nashville attorney representing the chamber.

None too gently, Todd pointed out that the bill had nothing to do with Tennessee and promptly moved it off the calendar and back to the House's state and local government committee, out of harm's way, at least for the current calendar year.

Moral of the story? For all of the one-party domination of the 2011 session, there were a few such independent gestures. But not many.

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