Politics » Politics Feature

THE POST-ELECTION: Everything's Steve!

What's it all mean? And what happens next?

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Two big winners in Thursday's voting in Shelby County were 9th District congressional candidate Steve Cohen, victorious in the Democratic primary, and Steve Mulroy, winner of the pivotal District 5 position on the Shelby County Commission. Cohen will be heavily favored in the coming November general election against Republican MarkWhite and independent Jake Ford.

Mulroy has won his position outright, and his relatively easy victory over Republican nominee Jane Pierotti reverses the current 7-6 partisan breakdown in the Democrats' favor.  An activist whose energy and scope was displayed over the last year in such causes as saving Libertyland and voting-machine reform, Mulroy had become a fixture of the local scene even before his involvement in the commission race.

When an impressed observer commented to Mulroy Thursday night about his win, "You know, Steve, a year ago I had never heard of you," the clearly ebullient lawyer said modestly, "A year ago I hadn't even heard of me!"
           

To no one's great surprise, incumbent Democratic county mayor A C Wharton easily won reelection, as did Sheriff Mark Luttrell and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, both Republicans.
           

Several countywide positions were won narrowly by Republican incumbents on the basis of the final precincts counted, dashing the hopes of several Democrats who led for much of the night. Judicial elections saw most incumbents and other pre-election favorites triumphant - though incumbent judges Michelle Alexander-Best and Donn Southern were defeated by Karen Massey and Karen Webster, respectively.  

Prosecutor Lee Coffee won a hotly contested multi-candidate race in Criminal Court, Division 7, another prosecutor, Jim Lammey, won an open seat in Division 5, and Deborah Henderson eked out a narrow win over Regina Morrison Newman for a General Sessions Division 4 judgeship.

As expected, retiring state senator Curtis Person was elected Juvenile Court judge over four opponents - three of whom were black female Democrats with overlapping constituencies.

Winners in legislative races, besides the favored incumbents, were Steve McManus in the Republican primary for District 96 (vacated by Paul Stanley, winner of the GOP state Senate primary in District 31); Ron Lollar in the GOP primary for House District 99; and a rematched Ophelia Ford and Terry Roland, Democrat and Republican, respectively, for the state Senate District 29 seat that was declared void after last year's suspect special election.

Educator Bill Morrison won the Democratic primary in the 7th congressional District, earning the right to face GOP incumbent Marsha Blackburn in November.


STATEWIDE, Governor Phil Bredesen and state Senator Jim Bryson of Franklin handily won the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries, respectively. Easy wins were also had in the U.S. Senate primaries for Democrat Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker.

The Senate race is almost certain to loom large on the barometer of national politics this fall. But in the short run nothing competed for dramatic impact of Cohen's victory in the 9th District Democratic primary - over a long list of contenders, including newcomers Nikki Tinker and Ed Stanton, lawyer Joe Ford Jr., and outgoing Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton.

During the campaign Cohen came under strenuous attack -- especially from Tinker surrogates and from Bolton, the latter of whom made explicit a simmering concern in some quarters that Cohen was too white and too Jewish to represent the predominantly black 9th District.

Cohen, who was backed by several prominent blacks, overcame such sentiments - capturing almost a third of the total vote in the 15-strong primary field (in the process garnering, one report suggested, as much as 15 percent of the district's black vote). And, ten years after his first try for Congress, he was poised to assume a long-coveted place on the national stage.


THE CONTRAST TO 1996 couldn't have been more obvious. The Steve Cohen who mounted a platform at Palm Court in Overton Square Thursday night was smiling. He was surrounded by celebrants, not commiserants. And, instead of the bitterness that had quickly settled over him when the racial dimensions of his defeat became obvious ten years ago, this Cohen was suffused with the inner calm of knowing that he had picked up significant support in all quarters of the 9th District constituency.

The one he will represent in Congress for the next two years unless some major upset should come about in the next three months.

Democratic primary winner Cohen, a public official for almost three of his five-odd decades, won't formally ascend to the pinnacle of his ambitions until and unless he nails down a victory over Republican nominee Mark White and independent candidate Jake Ford in November. Technically, the fat lady hasn't sung yet.

But you could tell she was tuning up from the hum of jubilation that surrounded Cohen as he began to speak to his throng of supporters Thursday night.

That disappointment from the past still lingered in the form of a wistful recollection. Cohen began on a sedate note. "I've had victories, and I've had defeats," he said, even tearing up a little as he recalled that other August in 1996, when he had been on the wrong end of a 2-to-1 shellacking by Harold Ford Jr., the congressman's son who would become a congressman in his own right and then a national figure.

Cohen found the silver lining. That defeat, he said, had made it possible for Ford, a "great, charismatic congressman" to serve "with pride and distinction" in the House and to be on the brink of his own glorious opportunity. Together, he and Ford, who was the overwhelming winner in Thursday's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, could now do significant things for the people of Memphis and Tennessee.

And, Cohen said, serving another decade in the state Senate had allowed him to bring to fruition his dream of a state lottery - the crowning achievement of his 26 years spent there so far.

A truly lusty cheer rang out from the crowd at this artful - and evidently sincere -- squaring of a personal cycle.

Other Democrats had failed on this night to win, Cohen said in acknowledgement that most of his party's nominees for countywide offices were in difficult straits (all but mayor A C Wharton would eventually lose, some of them by a relative handful of votes). But they, too, he promised, would have a chance at some future redemption.


ONE OF THOSE DEFEATED DEMOCRATS, lawyer Gail Mathes, who had waged a spirited campaign against victorious Republican incumbent Bill Gibbons for the office of District Attorney General, would shortly arrive to congratulate and embrace the victorious Cohen. Despite flooding Democratic households with robo-calls from 2004 Democratic presidential contender John Kerry and, on the last day of the campaign, former president Bill Clinton, Mathes' campaign had come up well short, and Mathes seemed calmly resigned to the outcome.  And philosophical.

"This race may have encouraged him [Gibbons] to be more active on the job," Mathes had told the Flyer's Bianca Phillips at a post-election gathering for Democratic candidates at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn. That fact, she said, may have made her losing effort worthwhile.  "We would not be in the [crime] situation we're in if he had worked as hard for his entire term as he has in the last seven months."

Understandably, perhaps, Gibbons didn't see things that way. On the basis of early-voting returns alone - which showed him leading Mathes by 20 percentage points, the incumbent D.A had made an early victory speech to cheering supporters at the Fox and Hound Restaurant on Sanderlin, telling them, "I regard this as an endorsement by the people for our decision to confront violent crime."

He acknowledged privately that crime statistics had gone up in the last two years but said the election outcome indicated his good-faith efforts were properly understood and appreciated. Calling himself  "a uniter, not a divider," Gibbons, who was supported by several key Democrats during his campaign, said he had enjoyed across-the-board support despite Mathes' robo-calls and a late mailer accusing him of negligence in dealing with sexual-harassment cases, among other matters.

Other disappointed Democrats, notably Juvenile Court clerk candidate Shep Wilbun, were not quite so sanguine about their defeats as Mathes had been. Late returns made Wilbun the apparent loser - by the narrow margin a few hundred votes - to incumbent Republican Steve Stamson, who had taken the clerkship from Wilbun four years ago.
 

An aggrieved Wilbun, who has blamed his 2002 loss on what he regards as trumped-up (and later dismissed) charges of misconduct that were brought against him during that campaign, now suspected dirty pool again and reportedly stormed down to the Election Commission office in an effort at protest.


THREE OTHER DEMOCRATS - Otis Jackson, running for Shelby County clerk against Republican Debbie Stamson; Sondra Becton, making her second consecutive race against former boss Chris Thomas in the Probate Court clerk's race; and Vernon Johnson, challenging incumbent Republican Criminal Court clerk Bill Key - had similar hairbreadth losses after being on the cusp of apparent victories. (The two Stamsons are a husband-and-wife team.)

Fairly comfortable victories were won by Republican incumbents Gibbons and Sheriff Mark Luttrell (over Democrat Reginald French).  Other GOP winners were incumbent Trustee Bob Patterson over Democrat Rebecca Clark, incumbent Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore over Roderic Ford, and incumbent Register Tom Leatherwood over Democrat Coleman Thompson.

The most convincing win was that of county mayor Wharton over Republican challenger John Willingham, an outgoing Shelby County commissioner who has levied a number of complaints - some plausible and enduring - against the Shelby County government establishment in recent years.

But Willingham, who was among the first to decry the terms of the now suspect city/county contract to build the FedEx Forum as an arena for the NBA's Grizzlies, could not convert any of his crusades into electoral success. The popular Wharton obliterated him by a margin of almost 3-to-1.

Informed early Thursday night of the first totals showing such a gulf, Willingham shrugged and said merely, "This is bad." It remains to be seen whether he will go on to challenge voting procedures as he did when he lost another lopsided race against Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in 2003.

Some clue may be had from the fact that late Thursday night Willingham supporter Warren Cole made an appearance at the Election Commission and told the Flyer's Greg Akers that he had "suspicions" about the accuracy of the early-voting results and about the election-day totals as well.


AFTER THE DISCOVERY ON THURSDAY that an election-eve scare concerning a purportedly stolen ballot box had been based on a misunderstanding, concern in most political quarters had settled on the remarkable fact that election-day totals had lagged well behind those of a two-week early-voting period, by a ratio that some estimated to be as much as 2-to-1.

The long lines and lengthy delays of early voting had been well publicized, perhaps to the point that many voters who had waited until August 3, when a massive turnout had been predicted, had been discouraged and did not bother to vote. Whatever its cause, Thursday's lighter-than-expected turnout may have resulted in totals skewed to elderly and suburban voters, who presumably had enjoyed a larger window of opportunity during early voting than had the city's working-class population.

In any event, the long-predicted swing of voter dominance to the county's Democrats - predicted in every election since 1990 - has yet to occur, despite what would seem to be an ever-increasing demographic advantage based on the growing preponderance of African Americans in Shelby County's population.

The black voting base of Shelby County is expected, however, to emerge as a major factor in voting this November - particularly on behalf of Rep. Ford's Senate bid against Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who won a convincing victory over two primary foes, former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, coming close to achieving an absolute majority.

Though Corker's campaign rhetoric reflected obeisance to the same fiscal and social conservatism that animated Bryant and Hilleary, he is widely perceived as having a more moderate profile, and this fact, coupled with Ford's own propensity these days for moderate-to-conservative rhetoric, could mean that demographic factors will count for more than usual in a statewide election.

They will increasingly account for more than usual in countywide elections, too, as the victorious Gibbons, in a swing by county Republican headquarters late in the evening, made clear.

The Flyer's Shea O'Rourke was on hand when the D.A. had this to say to the GOP faithful gathered there.  "I want to talk to you as my fellow Republicans, and I think the message is clear from this - [GOP chairman] Bill Giannini and I have talked about this a lot -- we are a Democratic county now. I think all of us realize that. And in order to survive as a political party in this county, we have got to be willing to reach out and reach other right-thinking Democrats and bring them along with us."

Moments later, a victorious Sheriff Mark Luttrell said something similar: "I
think one of the things as Republicans that we have to do is we have to really reach out. We've really got to reach out because if we don't reach out, I think we're going to be marginalized even more. And when I say 'reach out,' I'm not talking about compromising anything. I'm talking about getting out there and convincing people that the message that we have is the right message."

At that, a woman in the audience yelled out "Amen!" And the hearty applause that came next indicated that -- to the Republicans on hand, at least -- the sentiments expressed by Gibbons and Luttrell would be a key part of that message.


(Greg Akers, Shea O'Rourke, and Bianca Phillips also contributed to this report.)

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