Elder Statesmen 

The 9th District candidate list (continued): Bolton and Cohen, having paid some dues, are looking to step up.

The marvel of our political system is that we get the quality of public servant that we do, given that anyone who wishes to rise in the system has to wait for the right year, the right opponent (which, in practice, means an open seat or one held by the rare embattled incumbent), and an opportunity that coincides with one's own professional or personal timetable.

An illness, a new baby, a change of employment -- all these things have kept people from advancing in politics. It isn't like law or business, say, whereby one can start small and progress by orderly, planned stages to a lucrative partnership or a chain dealership or whatever. All careers involve the element of luck, but politics uniquely depends on all the planets being aligned properly at just the right moment.

It is, in fact, a riverboat gamble. And that's our way of continuing a series of mini-profiles of candidates for the open 9th District congressional seat. This week we look at the two candidates, both Democrats, with the lengthiest political resumes.

Julian Bolton is that rare case of a political talent whose pathway to advancement may finally have come unblocked by adversity -- in his case by the 1994 term-limits referendum that, affirmed by the state Supreme Court only this year, effectively closed out his reelection prospects on the Shelby County Commission.

Bolton came up in the Ford organization when, as a young professor of drama at LeMoyne-Owen College, he was drafted in 1982 to run against Shelby County commissioner Minerva Johnican. A once-influential politician and an African-American woman capable of crossing partisan lines, Johnican had run afoul of 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr., then the closest thing to a boss that Shelby County had seen since the days of E.H. Crump. In a photo finish, Bolton won, and he began a lengthy commission tenure that had its erratic moments but showcased his considerable forensic skills.

Along the way, Bolton picked up a law degree and, briefly, was the local representative of the Johnny Cochran law firm. Once regarded as something of a showboat on the commission, he served an effective year as chairman in 1995-96, during which several black-white issues per se predominated. In the last year or two, Bolton has managed to combine the roles of fiscal watchdog and champion of social services and took the lead in challenging both urban sprawl and the county's PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) programs.

Though he was one of the litigants in the effort to overthrow term limits, Bolton announced long before its resolution that he wouldn't run for reelection even if the suit succeeded. He was a relatively late entry in the congressional race -- a fact which has hampered both his fund-raising and his development of a campaign structure.

As Aubrey Howard, his current finance chairman, notes, Bolton is both an established presence and a veteran campaigner. But he has his work cut out for him in this year's crowded field.

Steve Cohen is, simply put, the elephant in the room. The farthest thing from a racist one could imagine, Cohen, who has sponsored civil rights legislation and won humanitarian awards, will nevertheless gain from his being the only well-known white in an overwhelmingly African-American field. A political realist, he is aware that, in the 9th District as elsewhere in Shelby County, demographic voting is the rule rather than the exception, and, for starters, he can probably count on a 20 to 30 percent share of the Democratic primary vote.

That fact is hardly his only advantage, however. In the course of a lengthy political career that began with his election, while still in his 20s, to the 1977 state Constitutional Convention (which elected him its vice president), Cohen has proved a steadfast champion of a variety of causes. He served on the County Commission and (briefly) as a General Sessions judge. Elected to the state Senate in 1982, Cohen in fairly short order claimed a prominent place in the statewide political firmament, despite an almost irrepressible penchant for controversy. His feuds with other public figures are legendary, but as former Senator Robert Rochelle of Lebanon (perhaps Cohen's foremost adversary over the years) once acknowledged, "You may not agree with him, but at least he does espouse the same principles from point to point."

Cohen's best-known accomplishment is the creation of the state lottery, the result of 16 years of unstinting effort, and, as the senator never fails to remind his audiences in this campaign season, a boon to the college-scholarship hopes of many a 9th District student. Cohen has also worked to enact key animal-rights and arts legislation and facilitated the development of The Med and the city's downtown tourist district. He is a poster boy for women's-rights issues, and, contrary to his image in some circles as a flaming liberal, the former police legal adviser has taken consistently conservative positions on death-penalty and gun issues.

In 1996, Cohen failed in his first bid for the 9th District seat. (The winner, Harold Ford Jr., was no slouch, in addition to his institutional and demographic advantages.) If he should succeed this time, it is scarcely imaginable that Cohen (a ready man with a quip, sometimes to his own detriment) will be your usual diffident back-bencher. Many of his supporters (and some of his adversaries) view him as a good bet to become an instant national figure.

Next week: The rundown of candidates vying for the open 9th District congressional seat continues. Yes, Ron Redwing, Joseph Kyles, Marvell Mitchell et al., your spotlight moment is coming. You, too, GOP candidates.

Elsewhere on the Political Front:

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One of the extravagant claims made by Tennessee Waltz figure Barry Myers on the surveillance recordings played last week during the trial of former state Senator Roscoe Dixon was Myers' assertion that he had been the major force in electing A C Wharton as Shelby County mayor in 2002.

The boast was made to FBI undercover agent "L.C. McNeil," who was masquerading as an executive of the bogus electronics firm E-Cycle Management and whom Myers, later indicted as a go-between in the extortion sting, clearly saw as someone worth impressing.

Among those somewhat stupefied by Myers' contention was Wharton himself, who was A) widely regarded as unbeatable once he'd thrown his hat into the ring; and B) assisted in his campaign by the likes of Bobby Lanier, David Cocke, and Harold Ford Sr., all somewhat better known than Myers in political circles.

Said former Shelby County public defender Wharton at last week's campaign appearance here at the Rendezvous by Governor Phil Bredesen: "That reminds me of some of the clients I used to have, who would take credit for everything from Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny if you listened to them."

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The trial of Dixon, which resulted last week in his conviction on five counts of conspiracy, bribery, and extortion, was avoided by many local political figures, including several mentioned in testimony, but presiding judge Jon McCalla's courtroom was something of a cynosure for others, who dropped in periodically. Among the last to do so was City Council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, who sat with Dixon's wife Gloria Dobbins, holding her hand as they awaited the verdict.

Upon receiving his guilty verdict, and just before he left the courtroom, an impassive Dixon gave a brief hug to both his wife and Mitchell, telling each, "It'll be all right."

Sentencing is scheduled for September 8th.

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Don't look now, but a storm may be brewing in statewide GOP ranks come next month. U.S. senator Bill Frist, a home-state presidential aspirant, is reported to be furious that the Williamson County Republican Party is dickering with a Frist rival, Massachusetts senator Mitt Romney, to appear at a fund-raising dinner in the county, a bedroom suburb of Nashville.

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