As Jackson Baker's cover story this week (p. 19) makes clear, we appear to be in for a real donnybrook in the upcoming race for the 9th Congressional District seat now held by Steve Cohen.
In his kickoff event, Cohen's only announced Democratic primary opponent, former mayor Willie Herenton, wasted little time in putting forth his campaign's major raison d'être: Tennessee's only majority African-American district needs "someone who looks like" Willie Herenton to represent it.
The person who looks the most like Willie Herenton, of course, is Willie Herenton. And as such, he is suggesting that he would be the logical candidate to fill that capacity. It's a pretty blatant race-based appeal, and by making it, Herenton has no doubt ensured that he will get very few white votes. But he's betting — as his campaign manager Sidney Chism asserts in Jackson's story — that he can win by getting 60 percent of black voters, which make up a 63 percent majority in the district.
You can't accuse the always plainspoken Herenton of masking his intentions. But will such a throwback campaign strategy work in 2010? After all, two years ago, Cohen won 79 percent of the vote, including a majority of black voters, in his race against Nikki Tinker and two others. Tinker, Cohen's most significant opponent in the 2008 primary, tried a variation of Herenton's racial tack, attempting to link Cohen to the KKK and disparaging the Jewish congressman's appearances in "our churches." She got 18 percent of the vote.
Herenton, of course, is a much more formidable candidate than Tinker, who never put forth much of a platform or deigned to speak to reporters. Herenton has a decades-long track record and is a known quantity, for better or worse. But Shelby County voters have shown that competency and a comfort level with a candidate can trump race. Witness the countywide support for white Republican sheriff Mark Luttrell and the significant across-racial-lines vote for A C Wharton for county mayor and, in October, for city mayor.
At his victory celebration in 2008, Cohen and his supporters, many of them lions of the 1960s civil rights movement, cited the occasion as the beginning of "post-racial politics" in Memphis. I don't know if that's true. I like to quote my colleague Chris Davis, who said recently, "Screw post-racial. I say, vive la difference. What we need to become is post-racist."
Amen to that.