Now that it's actually 2006, the list of candidates for major offices is getting longer -- and more interesting. Take the field for Congress in the 9th District.
This district -- majority-black and traditionally Democratic but containing also several new pockets of upscale development -- includes most of historic Memphis and would merit special attention on that score alone. Just now, it is notable also as the launching pad for the widely watched U.S. Senate candidacy of current incumbent Harold Ford Jr., who basically inherited the office from his namesake father but has since become something of a national media cynosure on his own. Up to the end of the year, the soon-to-be-vacant seat had attracted a mixed bag of promising newcomers and seasoned activists from the local political and governmental pools. But no big names -- at least partly due to lingering suspicion that Ford might change his mind and run for reelection. That's about to change -- especially as it becomes more and more obvious that Ford is in the Senate race to stay.
Enter state senator Steve Cohen, who first ran for the congressional office in 1996 as the younger Ford's first, last, and only serious opponent. For years the articulate and oft feisty Cohen, father of the state lottery and a tireless advocate for civil liberties and the arts, has been among the state's best-known and most respected legislators.
Cohen last week confirmed that he will probably run for the 9th District seat.
Though he launched a characteristically long-shot campaign on behalf of legalizing medical marijuana only last year and is more or less constantly at odds with his party's titular head, Governor Phil Bredesen, concerning a variety of Tennessee-specific issues, Cohen's vistas have always been as much national as statewide.
And, after a quarter-century in Nashville, he seems ready for another challenge. Given the facts that Cohen isn't up for reelection until 2008 and that he's accumulated a decent war chest over the years, he can afford to take a shot at something else this year.
Going into the holidays Cohen had four options: a late entry into the U.S. Senate race; a damn-the-torpedoes challenge to Bredesen; a run against district attorney general Bill Gibbons; and the congressional race. Only the last two prospects looked serious, and Cohen told friends at the end of the year that he'd made up his mind to make another run for Congress.
Though the civil-rights credentials of Cohen, a liberal's liberal, are in order, he'll still have demographics against him, as he did in 1996. But the potentially diverse field he confronts this year gives him better chances than his essentially one-on-one contest 10 years ago against Ford, who was after all a dynastic successor. (Rufus Jones, a state representative back then, also ran but became marginalized as the third man out.)
Still in the field for 2006, and uno yield, is corporate lawyer Nikki Tinker, a bright young African-American who has garnered serious support from the city's business and social elite and has attracted some national attention as well. Though Alabama transplant Tinker's somewhat top-heavy, trickle-down campaign has not yet sprouted real grass roots, she is personable enough to make an impact in the long run. And in the meantime, it surely doesn't hurt to have king-sized billboards and help from the likes of actor Morgan Freeman, who graced a major fund-raising event for Tinker last week at Isaac Hayes' club.
More problematic is whether Tinker, the titular head of one of Ford's unopposed campaigns, can convince Ford loyalists that she's the heir apparent -- given that the congressman, his eyes on the Senate prize, must be both officially and actually neutral. Some Ford intimates regard Tinker's efforts in that regard as a stretch.
Others very much in the game and expected to be heard from include, among Democrats: Tyson Pratcher, Ralph White, Ron Redwing, Ed Stanton, Lee Harris, William Whitman, and Joseph Kyles. Among Republicans: Mark White, Derek Bennett, and John Farmer.
All these have either picked up petitions for the office, have filed, or have otherwise expressed interest in running.
Meanwhile, at least two other well-established names have been talked about as likely entries: state representatives Joe Towns and Henri Brooks. Brooks finished a close second to Ophelia Ford last year in the special Democratic primary for state Senate District 29. And another perhaps momentous name has received a good deal of recent speculation: that of Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey.
A debate last week between Mike Rude and Mike Ritz, opponents in the Republican primary for the District 1, Position 1, County Commission seat, produced some fireworks, notably when Rude, answering a question about his position on consolidation, went on to denounce Memphis mayor Willie Herenton as a proponent and then said this: "I'm a Republican, and I'm going to fight for Republicans, and my opponent is a financial contributor to the man that's wanting to consolidate, and he's supporting Ophelia Ford to beat Terry Roland, and I just -- to me, it just boggles my mind why we can't stand up and unite."
Ritz, who acknowledged having supported Herenton financially in the past, denied any involvement on Democrat Ford's behalf against the GOP's Roland in the recent special election for District 29 -- a fact confirmed by members of Ford's organization.
Rude later said he had meant only to say that Herenton had supported Ophelia Ford, not Ritz. For the record, even this is uncertain, since, while the mayor's press secretary, Gale Jones Carson, who is state Democratic Party secretary, supported Ford, Herenton, often a political foe of the Ford family, took no active part in the special election.
In other races: A possible contest is shaping up between former clerk Shep Wilbun and Memphis school board member Wanda Halbert in the Democratic primary for Juvenile Court clerk.
Shelby County commissioner Cleo Kirk, one of three litigants in a term-limits case currently under appeal, has pulled a petition for reelection, joining his protégé Bob Hatton, former interim state senator Sidney Chism, and Jeffrey Shields as Democratic primary candidates so far.
County commissioner Tom Moss, who successfully triangulated his reelection four years ago when Republican primary opponent Jim Bomprezzi ran afoul of his personal Lakeland nemesis, Mark Hartz, a spoiler entry, looks to have good odds again this year. Bomprezzi is back to challenge Moss, now commission chairman, but so are Wyatt Bunker and John Bogan.
Still being rumored as a candidate for Juvenile Court judge is state senator Curtis Person. And finally, lawyer and former City Council candidate Jim Strickland will apparently square off against longtime party activist David Upton in a contest for a Democratic state committee seat.
Thanks mainly to the support given to the Diebold Corporation by former Election Commission chairman and current member O.C. Pleasant, a Democrat, Diebold machines won out over models proposed by the rival ES & S Company in a 3 to 1 vote by the commission last week to determine the election machinery that will be used in this year's local elections.
Voting with Pleasant for Diebold were Republican members Nancye Hines and Rich Holden; voting against Hines' motion for Diebold was Democratic member Maura Black Sullivan, who was returning to action after a recent serious illness. Commission chairman Greg Duckett abstained.
The backstory was that Holden, who harbored serious doubts about Diebold as a company, had intended to vote for ES & S and that Duckett was regarded as a tiebreaker in that case for ES & S. But Holden said he found his hands tied when representatives of the county purchasing department and the commission staff announced endorsements of Diebold. At the rank-and-file level, local Democrats tended to favor ES & S, while Republicans on the whole supported Diebold.
Perhaps more meaningful in the long run was the commission's endorsement by a 3-2 party-line vote -- the Democrats prevailing -- for add-on "Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail" technology, which would provide a reliable paper trail to authenticate the results of local elections. VPAT must still be approved by the state for use in local elections.