Politics » Politics Feature

Choosing Sides

On the eve of Super Tuesday, local political figures had some difficult decisions to make.

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Regardless of how this week's closely watched presidential-primary results turned out, there were clear and obvious implications to the choosing-up-sides that went on amongst local political figures.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the choice confronting 9th District Democratic congressman Steve Cohen, who was attracted to the candidacy of Illinois senator Barack Obama but owed a personal debt to former president Bill Clinton, husband of New York senator Hillary Clinton. And Senator Clinton, entering this week's Super Tuesday showdown, was running neck-and-neck with Obama in most polls.

What Bill Clinton had done for Cohen was make a point of recognizing him in the audience and citing him in a complimentary manner before the large crowd attending the former president's local appearance in 2006 on behalf of then-Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr.

Inasmuch as candidate Ford's brother Jake Ford was just then running as an independent congressional candidate against Democratic nominee Cohen and no advance provision had been made for Cohen's participation in the Clinton visit, the former president's action had in effect canceled out a de facto embargo against Cohen.

Fade to the present: Cohen, who has maintained his friendly relationship with Bill Clinton, had long respected Hillary Clinton as a political figure, as well, but not only was he inclined toward Obama already, he was aware of some obvious ethnic realities. Having been elected two years ago in an overwhelmingly African-American district, he has paid special attention to the needs of his black constituents — both in his hiring practices and in his legislative priorities.

Cohen's voting record as a state senator had always been positive on issues relating to civil rights and to bread-and-butter issues affecting blacks, but as a congressman he redoubled his efforts in that regard, sponsoring a congressional resolution to apologize for slavery, for example, and working hard to get federal funding for historically black LeMoyne-Owen College.

None of that, even coupled with some high-profile endorsements from the black community, had daunted the intentions of his 2006 runner-up, Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer and an African American, from running against Cohen, however, and the realities of his imminent reelection race likely bore on his endorsement decision.

In any event, Cohen bothered to consult with former president Clinton, who in effect chose not to pressure the congressman. Finally, on Monday of this week, on the very eve of Super Tuesday, Cohen made his decision.

At a press conference at Obama's local Eastgate headquarters, Cohen called the 2008 presidential election "the most important" in his lifetime and said Obama would be a departure from politicians who were "too cozy with lobbyists and special interests." He compared Obama's inspirational qualities to those of John F. Kennedy and also likened the Illinois senator to both Robert F. Kennedy and former president Clinton.

Obama and the ex-president were the two "most charismatic" political figures in his memory and the two most able to synthesize and articulate issues, said Cohen, who noted pointedly, "Barack Obama is the only one on the ballot tomorrow."

The congressman was joined at the endorsement ceremony by the Rev. Keith Norman, the chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, who had said earlier that his endorsement of Obama came from "Pastor Keith Norman, not from Chairman Keith Norman."

Before introducing Cohen, Norman had made a brief statement of support for Obama, concluding, "Hope is my choice, and therefore I'm here tonight to make Barack Obama my choice for president."

Senator Clinton, of course, was also the beneficiary of some important local endorsements — e.g., those of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and former City Council member Carol Chumney last week and current councilman Myron Lowery this week.

• Local Republicans were not without quandaries as Super Tuesday approached, either. One such was former GOP national committeeman John Ryder, who had first been attracted to the candidacy of ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney but became one of the legions of Tennessee Republicans who ended up backing favorite son Fred Thompson when the ex-Tennessee senator entered the race last year.

After running what by general consent was one of the weakest presidential races ever by a ballyhooed contender, Thompson, winless in several primary contests, withdrew two weeks ago. Ryder, however, still voted for him on election day this week.

Why? "Because I wanted some of his delegates to go to the convention," said the veteran Republican, himself a Thompson delegate. (Slates of local delegates appear on the ballot for each of the contending candidates.)

The reality was, too, that Republicans like Thompson and Democrats like former candidate John Edwards, who also withdrew before Super Tuesday, had already received a number of votes from early voters — a fact likely to skew the results here as elsewhere.

• Almost overlooked in the attention paid, locally as well as nationally, to the presidential race has been this week's primaries for two countywide offices. Democrats had one contested race, and Republicans had one.

The Democratic primary for General Sessions Court clerk was contested between businessman Otis Jackson, who was the favorite because of name identification from several prior races, and lawyer Jerome C. Payne. Republican incumbent Chris Turner was unopposed in his primary.

In the race for Shelby County assessor, Democrat Cheyenne Johnson, who is currently chief administrative aide to outgoing clerk Rita Clark and has the incumbent's support, was unopposed. There were four Republicans running for their party's nomination: businessman Bill Giannini, the current Shelby County Republican chairman and the favorite; Betty Boyette, a veteran of previous county employment; John C. Bogan; and Randy Lawson.

Inasmuch as these words are being written before the voting results can be tabulated, the form sheet can certainly be upset (right, Patriots fans?), but advance thinking concerning the August general election was that Jackson would be opposing Turner for the clerk's job, and Giannini would be the GOP entry against Johnson.

• The August general election ballot will also feature a race to decide the successor to the late Bob Patterson as Shelby County trustee. Ultimately, the executive committees of the two parties will each presumably provide a nominee for that ballot. In the short term, the Shelby County Commission will appoint an interim successor.

That choice will be made next Monday, and, while no specific candidate had yet emerged on the Republican side of things, Democrat Paul Matilla, who had been a ranking Patterson aide for some years, was picking up support that may actually turn out to overlap party lines.

There is a bit of a backstory here: Former City Council member and ex-mayoral candidate Chumney had put out feelers about getting the appointment and made some initial headway. But a conversation with Democratic commissioners Deidre Malone and Sidney Chism put an end to her interest.

Pointedly, Malone, who is known to be considering a run for county mayor in 2010, wanted assurances that Chumney would not use the appointment as a stepping stone for a county mayor's race of her own. That was something Chumney was unwilling to provide.

In a later statement disavowing interest in the job, Chumney said, "I did make an inquiry about the process at the request of some constituents. For the record, I want no part of any backroom deal making and certainly hope the process for whomever does apply will be above-board."

That, pending the possible surfacing of other candidates at Monday's commission meeting, would seem to be that.

See the Flyer's website, memphisflyer.com, for complete Super Tuesday election coverage and analysis.

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