White Guys/Black Guys

The art and history of getting crossover votes.

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Most jobs aren't big enough for people.

Author and journalist Studs Terkel said that in his book about work called, aptly, Working. Happy is the person who finds a job big enough for them.

Steve Cohen is such a person. Being a congressman suits his political skills, ambitions, energies, and ego.

Like a lot of Midtowners, I knew Cohen back when he was a white guy. We're the same age, and our views were shaped by growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, Vietnam, Selma, LBJ, Goldwater, civil rights, baseball cards and football games, Watergate, and Nixon.

Willie Herenton used to have a job that was big enough for him, but he got tired of being mayor of Memphis and stayed a term and a half too long. He may not get to find out whether or not being a congressman suits him, because, under the right circumstances, a white guy can beat a black guy (or black woman) in an election in Memphis and vice versa.

It has happened before, to the benefit of both Cohen and Herenton.

In 1978, Herenton was a deputy school superintendent who had been in the Memphis system since 1963. He was ripe for the job of superintendent, but the white-dominated school board chose a white man from Michigan, William Coats, instead. There was a big uproar, Coats declined the offer, and Herenton got the job.

His key ally on the board was NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith. He was her protégé. Large chunks of his doctoral dissertation quote from a paper she wrote about school desegregation. She is now a Cohen supporter. It would be interesting to hear why she is not supporting Herenton, but she ducked the question when I asked her a couple years ago, and I have not heard her answer it since.

In 1991, ex-superintendent Herenton decided that the mayor's job was big enough for him, and he went for it, and he beat a white guy, Dick Hackett, by 142 votes. Hackett said it all came down to numbers and colors. In other words, there were a few more black voters than white voters that year.

In mayoral elections in 1995, 1999, and 2003, Herenton beat some low-firepower white guys and a black guy, Joe Ford, and got thousands of white votes and millions in campaign contributions. It helped that he was not a Ford, just as it helps Mayor A C Wharton that he is not Herenton. In politics, it is not only who you are but who you aren't. Herenton's falling out with Harold Ford and Harold Ford Jr. is described in the younger Ford's new book, More Davids Than Goliaths.

After 2003, being mayor wasn't big enough for Herenton's ego. He only got 42 percent of the vote in 2007 against Carol Chumney and Herman Morris. But that was a lot better than Morris, whose over-rating in the polls is one of the main reasons for Herenton's distrust of that inexact science.

Cohen, a state senator at the time, ran for Congress in 1996 and lost to Harold Ford Jr. in the Democratic primary. Ford's ample margin of victory suggested that he got some white votes in the majority-black district. Cohen complained that a white guy didn't have a chance against an established black candidate.

That Cohen is no more. In 2006, Cohen was older and wiser and luckier. He was the white guy in a crowded field of black candidates in a no-runoff primary. He won with less than a third of the vote. In 2008, he beat a black woman, Nikki Tinker, in the primary and got 79 percent of the vote.

This week, he has the advantages of incumbency, endorsements, and lots of money. And he runs like a well-tuned Ford. When I voted last month at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, no fewer than three Cohen vans pulled up, delivering elderly black and white voters to the polls.

The next step for Cohen would be leadership of the local Democratic Party — a remarkable thing for a white guy.

The next step for Herenton would be to become the "Just One" black member of the Tennessee congressional delegation — a remarkable omission in his view. He's right about polls being untrustworthy. He's right about Cohen having more friends in the media. He's right about the glaring oddity of there not being "Just One." But I don't think he will be it.

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