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Grudge Match

The Herenton-Cohen race for Congress is a throwdown, but what's it all about, really?

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Willie Herenton's congressional campaign kickoff, scarcely more than a week after it occurred, is already a signal event in Memphis history. Herenton, the battle-scarred former mayor, faced a crowd of mainly African-American supporters in the ballroom of the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn and reminded those present that he had broken down barriers by becoming the city's first elected black mayor in 1991.

Evoking his own modest upbringing and the shames of slavery and historical forms of discrimination against blacks in America, Herenton cast his effort to capture the 9th District congressional seat from incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen in the same light, as a crusade on behalf of "people who look like me."

Noting that the seat had been held for more than 30 years by African Americans, Herenton insisted that out of 11 congressional seats in Tennessee — two in the Senate, nine in the House — African Americans were entitled to one. "We just want one," he thundered, turning the call into a mantra.

There was more in that vein, both from Herenton and from his campaign manager, Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, who had warmed up the crowd in the rousing manner of Jimmy Hart, the "Mouth of the South," a rabble-rousing wrestling manager with incendiary ring manners.

"We need to send a man up there [to Washington]," Chism shouted. "We don't need a boy!" And he chastised any fellow blacks who saw things otherwise. This was a case of "proportional representation," as he and the ex-mayor put it.

"We've even got some of our preachers saying, 'Well, he could be polka-dot, he could be anything.' Look at your church and see what they look like! ... What is disheartening to me is people who look like me who tell me it don't make no difference."

Admirers of the event — billed as the formal start of Herenton's congressional race — could call it animated. Others regarded the overt appeal to race as an issue as disturbing. One of those was A C Wharton, Herenton's successor as Memphis mayor and his campaign manager during two of the former mayor's reelection races.

"I've always made it clear that that is the antithesis of everything I stand for," Wharton said. "We have a history of racial voting; we've got to deal with that. ... But everybody knows that it is not what I stand for."

The intensity of Herenton's opening salvo met its match days later, on the occasion of an "issues meeting" held by Congressman Cohen in his office in the Federal Building. Cohen exchanged vows of mutual support with his district director, Randy Wade, a former lawman who is now a candidate for sheriff and who has served for the last four years as an invaluable liaison with Cohen's African-American constituents.

Reciprocating the passion of the Herenton event, Cohen and Wade embraced and pronounced themselves to be a team.

"Steve Cohen is a man of integrity and a man of honesty. ... I know that I'm supporting a friend and a man who brings so much to this office," Wade proclaimed. For his part, Cohen said, "Randy's going to make Shelby County better, and it's going to be Team Memphis, where we'll all work together."

And then the two of them chanted in unison, "Steve Cohen for Congress, and Randy Wade for sheriff!"

This bit of theatrics, too, had elements of a W.W.E.-style throwdown to it.

But here are two circumstances. Make of them what you will:

1) The relationship between Herenton and Reginald French, himself a major contender in the sheriff's race, has been as close, historically, as that between Cohen and Wade. Yet French, whose relationship with Herenton is probably of longer duration than Cohen's with Wade, is making a point that his race is strictly unrelated to Herenton's current electoral campaign.

"He's a long-standing friend," says French of Herenton, who was his employer in several important capacities over the years, "but we've had no conversations about the sheriff's race." Nor, French says, does he intend to get involved in the congressional contest. "I'm running my own race."

French goes on: "I think the voters are looking for someone with vision, integrity, savvy, and — independence," he says, giving the last word in the series special emphasis. French volunteers another point: "I don't believe in race-based politics. I don't divide people by color lines."

In any event, there will be no Herenton-French tag team in election year 2010.

2) John Bakke, the well-known pollster and political consultant whose work in local and statewide races is considered by many to be the gold standard, included several questions about the Herenton-Cohen race in the sampling he recently took for Sheriff Mark Luttrell prior to Luttrell's decision to run for county mayor. (See Politics, p. 14, for information on the results of that poll.)

What Bakke discovered from a racially and geographically diverse sample of 350 Shelby County voters was that Cohen was polling better than Herenton to a lopsided degree — and in proportions similar to those that pertained in the congressman's 2008 Democratic primary race against Nikki Tinker, an African-American candidate whom Cohen beat by a 4-to-1 margin overall and, he estimates, by 3-to-1 among black voters.

The upshot of that part of the poll was that local voters — as in 2008 and, for that matter, as in 2009, when Wharton dominated all categories of the electorate in the special election for Memphis mayor — seemed far more attuned to matters of character, experience, and performance than to hot-button factors like race.

In a word, there seemed little likelihood of a groundswell developing favoring any candidate in any race — certainly not the two polled — based solely or primarily on matters of racial or ethnic identity.

Even before his kickoff event, Herenton had made his campaign priorities — or rather, priority — clear. Going from TV interview to TV interview in the week or two prior to the Holiday Inn event, the former mayor brandished a broadsheet showing thumbnail photographs of Tennessee's congressional delegation — the state's two senators and its nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Manifestly, all the faces were white, and Herenton's gloss on the fact was equally unmistakable: "What's wrong with this picture?" he would ask, before proceeding to answer his own question with an extended commentary on what he described as American citizens' constitutional right to pro rata inclusion.

Whatever a viewer's initial predisposition (or attitude toward what appeared to be developing into a single-issue campaign on the ex-mayor's part), Herenton's logic and demeanor were generally persuasive enough to give his point of view a fair hearing.

But there were scoffers on the point — many of them convinced that Memphis, along with the rest of America, had entered into the much ballyhooed age of post-racial politics.

In 2006, after all, Herenton had proudly stood on a platform in downtown Memphis, alongside Cohen, whom he endorsed as his preferred candidate for Congress over independent Jake Ford, the son of Harold Ford Sr., for decades the reigning political broker of inner-city Memphis.

So, if not race all by itself, what else might this sudden hothouse rivalry between himself and Cohen be about?

Thesis Number One: The city of Memphis has arguably become ungovernable, and Herenton's electoral plans can be seen in that light.

On the afternoon of April 21, 2009, the then mayor had addressed his City Council and a packed auditorium of spectators at City Hall. The subject was the forthcoming city budget, expected to be the out-of-kilter, deficit-ridden nightmare it has subsequently become, in the wake of declining recession-era revenues and the brouhaha, even then headed for litigation, over whether the city should continue its maximum contribution to Memphis City Schools.

Herenton had astounded his audience on that occasion by presenting an unexpectedly rosy budget forecast, claiming to maintain all city services at their current level and to have a surplus left over. And then he walked majestically down the center aisle and out into the lobby, where he paused to allow a queue of skeptical reporters to surround him, most armed with questions concerning the budget.

With an air of distraction, the mayor answered a few questions on the subject perfunctorily, then after informing the press pack that his aide, Toni Holmon Turner, had a handout for them, strode away, taking no further questions. The reporters took the single sheet from Holmon Turner, expecting it to be some number-laden affair justifying the mayor's proposed budget.

Instead it said this:

"...[A]fter receiving considerable encouragement from citizens to become a candidate in 2010 for the U.S. House of Representatives Ninth Congressional District, I am seriously evaluating the opportunity to represent the Memphis community at the federal level. ... I am forming an exploratory committee and anticipate making a decision in the near future."

Even as reporters outside the City Hall auditorium were digesting the contents of the fateful sheet, critics on the council inside were pointing out that the Herenton budget had omitted any reference to the disputed school funding (estimated cost, $50 million). And there were other discrepancies.

Within minutes, an impression was formed that would become a certitude within days. The rosy budget was a sham. The numbers didn't add up. Horrendous belt-tightening would have to be contemplated and all of that on the watch of Herenton's successor.

So why shouldn't Herenton bail out and seek another office?

Thesis Number Two: Herenton actually believes, as he told me during a lengthy sit-down interview in late June of last year, scarcely two months after throwing down the congressional gauntlet, that Steve Cohen is "an asshole."

Herenton has subsequently told a tale of being on an airplane with Cohen last spring, not long before he issued his challenge. The mayor was bound for an education conference in Washington; Cohen was headed back to work.

And supposedly, as Herenton relates it, with every semblance of real bitterness, Cohen made a slighting remark as he boarded the plane and passed the mayor, who was hoisting his suitcase into an overhead storage bin, meanwhile, with both hands occupied, gripping his flight ticket with his clenched teeth.

"You can take the man out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the man," the congressman allegedly cracked, on his way to his own seat. Herenton took that as an insult regarding his background.

Cohen's memory differs both as to what he said and what he meant. He may have said what was reported, or he may have used the words "mayor" and "city" rather than "man" and "country." Whatever the case, Cohen says "it was just my way of saying hello," a good-natured tease, "just a riff on the mayor taking a trip, nothing untoward meant."

In fact, said Cohen this past weekend, "I made a point of asking him to call on me for whatever he might need in Washington, and I suggested taking him out to dinner." At this point, he and the mayor were still regarded as political allies.

To be sure, the Cohen-Herenton alliance may have been dampened a bit by Cohen's decision to stay out of the city election of 2007, when Herenton, seeking a record fifth term as mayor, was seriously challenged by opponents Herman Morris and Carol Chumney.

The congressman conceded that the mayor had been acting "strangely" toward him, even before Herenton's bombshell suggestion of a congressional candidacy in April. A few days after the plane ride, the two of them, plus Wharton, had spoken at the funeral of legendary Memphis singer James Hyter. "He was a little distant on that day, and I thought, something's not jibing," Cohen recalls.

So maybe personal estrangement was indeed at the heart of the matter.

Thesis Number Three: Running for Congress, especially in a racially framed environment, was a way for Herenton to manage his legal predicament.

For well over a year, from about the time he sought his fifth term, the FBI had conspicuously been looking into Herenton's business arrangements, and it became known the bureau had a particular interest in a complicated transaction whereby the mayor had prevailed on Greyhound Lines to move its terminal from downtown to a new location near Memphis International Airport.

The move, urged by Herenton for policy reasons, would result in his making a profit on the sale and transfer of the real estate involved, and a federal grand jury was asked to look into the matter on conflict-of-interest grounds.

After calling numerous witnesses, the grand jury, at the end of 2009, made no indictment. Sources close to Herenton say the former mayor is now free and clear. Others suggest that the prospect of an indictment could be revived once the U.S. Supreme Court finally rules on challenges to the doctrine of "honest services" under which Herenton's suspected misprision, in the absence of direct fraud, could be prosecuted.

As the theory goes, Herenton's congressional candidacy may have been launched as a means of playing the persecuted victim to a jury pool, which would become aroused and indignant concerning his plight and move to protect him. Playing the racial card and evoking the aura of civil rights, as Herenton so clearly has done, would be consistent with that interpretation.

For the record, Cohen is skeptical concerning such a motive, though many others — including de facto running mate Wade — are not. Herenton himself hasn't pronounced on the matter, though he could hardly be expected to expressly underwrite the notion.

Thesis Number Four: The raison d'être for this ongoing throwdown is what Herenton says it is, pure and simple — an honest effort to "retrieve what we lost in representation," as he put it at his Holiday Inn event, and to strike a blow for "proportionate representation" in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution.

For all the salvific rhetoric of that occasion, however, there are numerous disbelievers in its relevance to reality. Cohen maintains that the contours of the 9th District congressional seat were not drawn (after the census of 1970, at a time when the district was the 8th) to guarantee the election of a black congressman per se. They were drawn by Democrats to guarantee the election of a Democrat, he has said, or to ensure that the African Americans of the district could control the issue.

"People elect their representatives — whether they turn out to be black, white, red, yellow, green, or purple," Cohen says. "This district was drawn to allow the minority population to elect their preferred candidate." And, citing his two primary victories and two general election triumphs to date, Cohen maintains, "I have four times been that preferred candidate, and I expect to be the preferred candidate again."

The congressman further notes that he has won three consecutive "A" ratings from the NAACP, that he is confident of being backed by the entirety of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, that he can claim the endorsement of a local ministers' list "as long as your arm," and that he expects local black officeholders to follow through in like quantity.

Cohen is confident, too, that his record of service to his black constituents, both as individuals and as an ethnic entity, is exemplary. His action in securing a formal apology from his House colleagues for the institution of slavery won him international renown, and, though Herenton, like Nikki Tinker before him, has attempted to disparage Cohen's consistent efforts to memorialize prominent local African Americans in monuments and public buildings, those efforts appear to have been appreciated by many, including those who came to last week's issues session in Cohen's office.

Whatever it means, there was a conspicuous absence from Herenton's dais at the Holiday Inn of African-American officeholders. Commissioner Chism was, in fact, the only one — though a goodly number of candidates for this or that office were there to work the crowd.

Chism is unfazed by such facts. Doing the math last week, he estimated that all Herenton required to win the Democratic primary, given that fair quantities of the district's whites will be voting in the Republican primary, was 60 percent of the 63 percent of the electorate that is African American.

Cohen has a different arithmetic and cites his 3-to-1 margin over Tinker in the 2006 primary, which he won by 4-to-1 overall. "I expect to do every bit as well this time," the congressman says flatly.

That, of course, is what remains to be seen. We shall see what we shall see when the match is completed on primary day, August 5th. And even Chism concedes that a white candidate with claims to have done well for black constituents might have an edge over a black unknown quantity.

"Under those circumstances you would have to say the white candidate is a better candidate," he says, "but we don't have those circumstances in this race. You can't say that the things Steve has done in the district are better than what the mayor has done for the city. That doesn't work in this race. It might work in some other race. That's not the case here."

It'll be months yet before we find out. Meanwhile, interest in this grudge match is sure to build. To Be Continued.

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