Politics » Politics Feature

Cohen, Hart, and the Schools

One way or another, the hot-button issue could wind up front and center in 2012.

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In 2006, when then state senator Steve Cohen, who represented a predominantly white and liberal Midtown district in Memphis, ran for the 9th District congressional seat vacated that year by Harold Ford Jr. (a U.S. Senate candidate that year), he benefited from the fact of a large field in the Democratic primary, including 13 African Americans, many of them known quantities. The district was predominantly black and had been represented for 10 years by Rep. Ford and, prior to that, for 22 years by his father, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr.

Cohen won the primary, having fended off a late charge by corporate attorney Nikki Tinker, an Alabama transplant and former Ford campaign operative who intimated that she had the tacit support of the departing congressman. The brash state senator — a glutton during his 24 years in the legislature for outspokenness and controversy, famous for his sponsorship of hot-button issues, including the state lottery — then had to withstand one more challenge, from independent candidate Jake Ford, another son of Ford Sr., who, angered by unflattering remarks made against the Ford political clan by then Mayor Willie Herenton, a Cohen supporter, backed his son to the hilt.

Cohen won the general election easily against Jake Ford and Republican candidate Mark White, and, by virtue of his industry and attentiveness to the needs of his district's black majority, subsequently won 4-to-1 primary victories over both Tinker in 2008 and Herenton, now a tarnished ex-mayor, in 2010. Touting his success as proof of a post-racial consciousness in the 9th District, Cohen seemed set for a long tenure in Congress.

But, instead of some hapless perennial candidate, a new and clearly credible opponent has emerged as a likely challenger to Cohen in 2012. This is attorney Tomeka Hart, head of the Urban League in Memphis and a member of the Memphis City Schools board who spearheaded the board's vote last year to liquidate itself, thereby forcing the forthcoming merger of MCS with Shelby County Schools.

Though she has not yet filed, Hart indicates she is serious about running and has begun trying to drum up support. Aside from a general attractiveness that accrues to her as a relatively new face, it is Hart's involvement with the ongoing school issue that gives her a potential springboard. Though she won't be able to match Cohen's war chest, already approaching $1 million, Hart hopes to have enough access to key donors to mount an active race — one that could pose once again essential questions regarding the identity and future direction of the greater Memphis area.

The District Demographics — and Redistricting

According to preliminary 2010 census figures, the 9th District has lost population and will have to expand slightly in redistricting, extending it to the point that it almost, but not quite, will reach the formal boundaries of the city of Memphis. Memphis lawyer John Ryder, the Republican national committeeman who is guiding the state's redistricting efforts, says it is unlikely that the district's essential demographics will change.

As of the 2000 census, whites comprised 29.3 percent of the district's population and blacks 62 percent, while 8 percent were listed as "other." The district's political propensities are best gauged by the 3-to-1 majorities won there by the Democratic nominees in recent presidential races (78 percent Obama, 22 percent McCain in 2008). For practical purposes, candidates in the 9th District reckon on there being a 70 percent black/30 percent white split in Democratic primaries.

It is uncertain how Hart's prominence in the school-merger dispute — the subject of multiple litigations, shortly to be ruled upon by U.S. district judge Samuel Hardy Mays — will affect the congressional race should it come to pass. (Citing experiences in his own political past, Cohen has made public statements gently reminding Hart of the folly of premature challenges.)

When the school-merger issue first arose in December, after the MCS board voted to dissolve itself, Cohen took no position on what he called a "local" issue — perhaps mindful that a countywide November referendum on political city/county consolidation had just failed, with city voters splitting down the middle. But subsequent developments suggested that the MCS-SCS merger was regarded differently. As before, the suburbs seemed united in opposition, but in key votes on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, Memphis whites lined up with blacks and crossed party lines to support school-merger initiatives.

Partly this was a reaction to the Norris-Todd bill passed by the General Assembly in January, a measure which, in tandem with other state action to slow down the merger process, was widely regarded inside Memphis as a usurpation of local prerogatives. And the broad support for school merger of Memphis officials, regardless of race or party, owes a great deal to the tax and budget simplifications that a unitary school district would make possible. As for popular support, a new citywide referendum on school merger alone, held on March 8th, prevailed by the margin of 2 to 1. 

It is questionable whether the school issue, in and of itself, could impact the 2012 congressional vote significantly enough to be decisive. But it certainly gives Hart — by reminding voters of her place in the vanguard, if nothing else — a chance to pry loose some of the African-American vote that had shifted to Cohen in the course of the feckless races run by Tinker and Herenton. Both of their campaigns had been largely based on considerations of race — overtly so, in the case of Herenton's "Just One" appeal, which suggested that blacks were entitled on the basis of proportional representation to represent one of Tennessee's nine congressional districts.

Hart has said she will not make race an issue — a wise course in view of the failures of Tinker and Herenton and a recognition, perhaps, that to do so is unnecessary, given that her ethnic background speaks for itself.

Merger Judgment Coming

Judge Mays had indicated he will rule on the various school-merger issues before him in the next few weeks. Given that merger of the city and county school systems is now an inevitability, what remains to be resolved boils down to the question of state vs. local authority and the matter of a timetable — Norris-Todd, with its two-and-a-half-year timetable and end-game enabling of special school districts for the suburbs, versus the Shelby County Commission's intent to create an immediate all-county school board.

Still to be gauged on the political Richter scale is the state's imminent takeover of several academically substandard Memphis schools as "co-manager" within the rubric of the new Achievement School District. Especially if this process proceeds apace, the very nature of the MCS school base stands to be altered, pre-merger, with consequences in local consciousness — and politics — that are hard to foresee. There is the example of Wisconsin, where state actions to disempower unions and assert centralized control over education generated an intense political backlash, including serious efforts to recall elected officials.

Given that the positions of Cohen and Hart are likely to be virtually identical on traditional Democratic issues favored by the 9th District's urban black-and-white constituency and that Cohen's experience and successes in office will continue to be selling points, the matter of the schools could become a potential wedge issue, the nearest thing imaginable to a dividing line between the two contenders. (This article appeared in somewhat different form in the Tennessee Journal.)

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