Politics » Politics Feature

Cutting to the Chase

Surprise endorsements and somedebate fireworks come down the stretch.

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Mayor Willie Herenton for Harold Ford Jr. Governor Phil Bredesen and Commissioner Sidney Chism for Steve Cohen? Say it ain't so!

Fact is, it is so. Really.

None of the endorsers mentioned above were exactly jumping through hoops or shouting "Hallelujah!" but they made firm commitments of support, all the same.

Most forthright was Herenton's endorsement of Ford, made after the mayor's attendance at last week's prayer breakfast for Senate candidate Ford at The Peabody.

"At the urging of a group of clergy and business leaders, I agreed to endorse Congressman Harold Ford in his bid for the United States Senate," said the mayor in an interview with the Flyer. "I can look at the big picture," maintained the frequent Ford-family foe. Herenton said his decision had been made "in the interests of Democratic Party solidarity," and "in the context that I have previously endorsed Governor Phil Bredesen for reelection and state senator Steve Cohen for Congress."

The mayor said he had "deliberated for the last two weeks" on the matter of an endorsement and noted that, while Ford had requested an endorsement "in passing," there had been "no Memphis conversation" at which the congressman had sought his support.

Herenton contrasted that with the fact that former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, the Republican candidate, had "appropriately and respectfully" requested his support and discussed with the mayor his plans regarding Memphis, if elected. "In that sense, I might have had a greater respect for Mr. Corker had an endorsement of him been possible."

But, said Herenton, he had made it clear to Corker that no such endorsement would be forthcoming and that for reasons of local unity and party solidarity the choice for him came down to either non-endorsement or endorsing Ford. He said that his endorsement was not a "left-handed" one and that he was at Ford's disposal for campaign appearances.

Meanwhile, Cohen, the Democratic nominee for the 9th Congressional District, got a stamp of approval from two major politicians with whom his relations have been, to understate the case, something other than sunny.

During a visit to Memphis last week, Governor Phil Bredesen confirmed that he intended to support every statewide Democratic nominee, "and that certainly includes Senator Cohen."

Also acknowledging his support for Cohen was former interim state senator and current Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, who expressed himself similarly, saying, "I am going to vote for every Democratic nominee, including Senator Cohen."

Memphis became the center of the state's political consciousness -- and, in the case of one race, the nation's -- last weekend as debates were held here for the contenders in three major races: the United States Senate, the governorship, and the 9th District.

First was a Saturday-night showdown on WREG-TV between Ford and Corker.

In an affair that was widely commented on thereafter in the national media, both contestants in a potentially pivotal race for control of the Senate continued to hew to the same generally centrist (or mildly rightist) themes.

Considering that Corker, by virtue of a clearly overdue staff shakeup, had just stabilized what had been a disastrous decline in the polls (and was lucky to come into this event more or less even), it was surprising that he started out playing the political equivalent of a prevent defense.

Perhaps, as one observer suggested, Corker just wanted to get safely through this first encounter on Memphian Ford's home turf and save his real game for a later debate elsewhere, where a good performance might put him over the top.

Maybe. But that assumes Corker can keep it close until then, and on the strength of Ford's energetic performance Saturday night, that can't be assumed.

Ford was having a fine time exhibiting his performance skills -- a little too fine in that once in a while his adrenaline seemed to be getting the best of him. His penchant for flip asides, delivered via casual moves on and off his stool, reminded some viewers of Bill Clinton and others, longer of tooth, of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, back in the summer of 1960 -- although Kennedy was a much more controlled, less hyper presence, and Corker was on point and poised enough not to be Nixon.

If Ford seemed somewhat over-active and glib, that may have been merely the boil-over of a very self-assured presence -- the same one the state's viewers have seen over and over in Ford's TV ads, most of them stressing themes of national security and patriotism -- de facto rebuttals of Corker's disastrous early "Ford's a liberal" attack ads that have now been shelved in favor of a more personal approach by the GOP candidate's new campaign manager, political vet Tom Ingram.

Corker warmed up to a little direct action himself midway into Saturday night's debate, taking a shot at the "Ford political dynasty," one which Ford rebutted by the kind of "I love my family" response that, artfully and simultaneously, establishes distance between the congressman and his kindred.

Failing receipt of a "recipe" for picking one's family, the Memphis congressman advised his opponent to "be quiet, and let's run for the Senate." But the Corker team afterward left no doubt that further attacks on the Fords as a political clan would be heard from in the last month of campaigning.

The next encounter, televised via WKNO-TV on Sunday afternoon, was a League of Women Voters forum featuring Bredesen and Republican opponent Jim Bryson.

The most remarkable aspect of that one may have been Bryson's success in getting to the governor's left on the issue of health care.

Bryson said that the programs Bredesen put in place as partial substitutes for TennCare, notably the "Cover Tennessee" plan of insurance supplementation, were "bare bones" solutions that would not resolve the issue of uninsured and uninsurable patients the governor had cut from the program, many of them, Bryson said, with "terminal" illnesses.

Bredesen countered by suggesting that his disenrollment effort had been aimed primarily at aspects of TennCare most subject to fraud and other abuses and said the program, instituted by former Governor Ned Ray McWherter and continued under former Governor Don Sundquist, had been "over-blown and over-bloated."

Other points of divergence were: Bredesen's defense of the jury-trial system of deciding medical-malpractice issues vs. Bryson's call for caps on punitive damages; and the GOP challenger's call for using the state surpluses accumulated under Bredesen to pay for elimination of the sales tax on groceries.

Finally, there was a sometimes stormy three-way debate Sunday night on WREG-TV featuring 9th District candidates Cohen, Republican Mark White, and "independent" Democrat Jake Ford.

Ford, first up, characterized himself as a champion of "working-wage Americans." Next, primary winner Cohen expressed solidarity with his fellow Democrats for conferring the party's nomination on him and promised he would "never turn ... my back" on them, meanwhile chastising Ford for avoiding the party primary. Finally, White argued for a "coming together" of "new people, new blood" to create a different political reality in the traditionally Democratic district.

Thereafter, the genial White became something of a bystander as favored veteran Cohen and newcomer Ford scrapped for bragging rights.

The exchanges between Ford and Cohen became ever brisker, with Ford characterizing Cohen as "too liberal" on the issues of "gambling" (Cohen is the acknowledged father of the state lottery), marijuana (the senator has proposed legalizing medical marijuana), and, most controversially, same-sex marriage (Cohen opposes what he calls "constitutional tampering" to deal with the matter).

At one point, Ford went so far as to say that Cohen's position on gay marriage was "certainly, I hope, not for personal reasons."

Meanwhile Cohen made a point of stating for the record that he had never been arrested, "nor has Mr. White," leaving it to Ford to acknowledge, without specifiying, that he might have had such trouble between 1990 and 1993, when his father, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., faced federal indictments.

These and other heated exchanges between Cohen and Ford suggest that, as this race continues, there will be further trouble between the two, right here in River City.

Note: complete accounts of the three weekend debates may be found in the "Political Beat" section at MemphisFlyer.com.

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