Weak Sister?

An unexpectedly competitive District 29 Senate race may signal new times.



The District 29 special state Senate race (with apologies for those who are reading this on Friday morning or later, when Thursday's election results will be known):

For the second time in less than a year, the Shelby County Republican Party has put a major move on in a special election race taking place in a predominantly African-American, heavily Democratic district. For the second time in a year in such a race, the GOP has managed to out-poll its Democratic rivals in early-voting turnout.

Only this time, with election day coming up on Thursday, the cavalry may not arrive for the Democrats. Or so confided a ranking Democrat early this week -- either out of legitimate concern for the outcome or in an effort to drive some additional election-day votes by sounding an alarm.

In any case, Republican businessman Terry Roland suddenly seemed a real threat to steal the District 29 state Senate seat away from Ophelia Ford, sister of John Ford, the Democrat who had held the seat for 30 years before being forced to resign this year in the wake of his indictment in the Tennessee Waltz scandal.

With early voting now concluded, Roland was generally thought to own as much as a 600-vote margin over Ford. "And that's a lot to make up on election day," said the Democrat, in a convincing show of concern.

Roland has campaigned hard in his own bailiwick of Millington, one of the district's few Republican enclaves, but he has also made a point of showing up at traditional Democratic stops, even taking Sunday-morning turns in various black churches, where his down-home self-professed "country-boy" manner has found some unexpected resonance.

Roland has been assisted by the virtually invisible campaigning mode of Ophelia Ford, whom many Democrats privately see, both literally and figuratively, as a weak sister. At what should have been a climactic rally on Saturday at her Southgate headquarters, Ford attracted a small crowd of supporters that contained no office-holding members of her well-known political clan.

Former state senator Roscoe Dixon was on hand, though -- maintaining, when asked, that he would not join the parade of fellow Tennessee Waltz indictees changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty. "I'm going to stand trial," insisted Dixon, who left the Senate early this year and was succeeded by former state representative Kathryn Bowers, who was later indicted, along with Dixon, John Ford, and four others, for extortion in the scandal.

In her own special election race, back in May, Bowers faced a full-court press from GOP contender Mary Ann McNeil, who finished with considerably more than a third of the vote on election day after leading during early voting.

Ophelia Ford's final vote total might still be dramatically boosted via intervention on the part of another brother, former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., whose last-minute robocalls on behalf of his sister are credited with having given her a narrow win in the August Democratic primary.

Even if Roland should stage an upset, the aforementioned ranking Democrat found two silver linings: 1) that "he [Roland] would have to run again next year, and he'd lose"; and 2) that Senate Republicans, even with a strengthened majority, would not have an opportunity to replace Democratic speaker and Lieutenant Governor John Wilder of Somerville until January 2007.

Two more special elections could be coming up in Shelby County, depending on A) whether state senator Bowers is able to finish her term; and B) whether state representative Tre Hargett of Bartlett, who has resigned as House Republican leader, chooses to finish his.

Hargett recently ignited a storm by first accepting then declining the position of head lobbyist in Nashville for the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm. When his current employer, Rural/Metro Ambulance Services, offered Hargett a substantial promotion, he decided to stay with the company but reaffirmed his resignation from his leadership post. Hargett has apparently also stayed with his original decision not to seek reelection next year but hasn't decided on whether to resign his seat before then.

Several Republicans have lined up as would-be successors to Hargett: teacher Jim Coley, Bartlett alderman Mike Morris, broadcaster Austin Farley, and, most recently, Shelby County school board member Anne Edmiston, who is thought to have the inside track on an interim appointment by the Shelby County Commission if one is called for.

Cohen vs. Bredesen (cont'd.): State senator Steve Cohen upped the ante in his ongoing verbal combat with Governor Phil Bredesen Sunday, accusing Bredesen of waging "a Katrina -- a war for political expediency on poor people" by paring the TennCare rolls, a process which, said Cohen, would "deprive 200,000 people of health care and cost many of them their lives."

Speaking at a seminar on "Rethinking the War on Drugs" sponsored by the Public Issues Forum of Memphis, the Midtown Democrat also took an indirect swipe at U.S. Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr., the Memphis congressman whom Cohen unsuccessfully opposed in the 1996 Democratic primary for the 9th Congressional District seat.

Cohen noted that no Tennessee congressman had voted for a bill in Congress that would have prevented federal law enforcement authorities from arresting medical-marijuana users in states where they were entitled to use marijuana by law. "And I submit to you that it'd be a popular thing for one of our congressmen to do, because it would say to the state of Tennessee that we had a congressman who had a brain and who had a vision and who had a heart and was trying to make a difference and not just to promote themselves to another office."

Said Cohen: "There's a purpose to being in office and that's to try to do things to make your society better and not just to advance yourself. Basically what I've seen in my life, most politicians are just there for the next office. They're there for the next fund-raiser, for the next round. And I see it when I look to Nashville, and I see it when I look to the 9th District. And it's very disheartening."

Cohen continued: "The people are so far ahead of the politicians on so many issues, it's a shame. And you don't see a whole lot of politicians put their neck out on issues to make society better. I have a lot of despair right now when I look at our president, and to be honest, when I look at our governor, who is bringing about a Katrina in Tennessee. It's just that the 200,000 people he's depriving of health care aren't put in front of The Pyramid for the public to see. They're spread out throughout this state. That is a Katrina -- a war, for political expediency on poor people who can't afford health care themselves and for the political agenda of a multimillionaire who wants to be something else in life rather than the provider and giver of health care and a better, more progressive society, but wants to advance himself."

Cohen, who is sponsoring pending legislation that would legalize medical marijuana use for specified classes of patients, appeared at the forum meeting along with Dr. Ethan Nadleman, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the federal "War on Drugs" as both a wrong-headed policy and a failure.

Saying, "Why am I the only council member asking questions?" City Council member Carol Chumney issued a statement late last week demanding that the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton "stop playing games" and respond to a detailed inquiry (see in full at MemphisFlyer.com) which she submitted concerning budgetary shortfalls.

Chumney also defended her attendance record, lamenting that "If I show up and speak, I'm grandstanding. If I don't show up one time for a good reason, I'm singled out for criticism."

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