In 2007, when Steve Cohen was making his daring run for Congress in the predominantly African-American 9th District, he profited greatly from having the official and unstinted endorsement of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton who, along with Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, gave the freshly minted Democratic nominee his unqualified endorsement against independent Jake Ford.
Cohen did not reciprocate when Herenton was involved in a tight three-way reelection battle against two challengers in 2007, and there were reports at the time that the mayor was miffed. There had been no outward sign of a falling-out between the two men, although in retrospect, a remark made by Herenton intimate Sidney Chism when Herenton made his apparent retirement announcement in early 2008 was telling.
Chism opined at the time that the mayor had two possible goals in mind — to seek the city school superintendecy again and to run for Congress in the 9th District. When Herenton quickly indicated that the school option was close to his heart, the rest of Chism’s statement was largely forgotten — or regarded as merely a wrong guess by Chism.
But the statement Herenton had administrative assistant Toni Holmon Turner pass out on Tuesday was explicit:
“The transition from public service to the private sector has been contemplated by me for a considerable time after retirement from my current office.
“However, after 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. My thirty years of public service has uniquely prepared me to represent Memphis at the federal level as our national leadership faces some very difficult challenges.
“I am forming an exploratory committee and anticipate making a decision in the near future.”
Cohen’s immediate reaction was candid. Herenton’s statement had come “out of the blue,” he said in a telephone interview. He was stunned (as surely everyone else was stunned) because, he said, he thought he enjoyed an excellent relationship with Herenton and had his full support. There had never been a negative note, he said, to disturb what had been the mayor’s consistently “positive” thoughts and deeds concerning Cohen’s conduct of his congressional office.
Gamely, Cohen reviewed his accomplishments as congressman and expressed his dedication to the district and predicted that he would have the support of the 9th District’s Democrats against whatever comer.
Somewhat later, he released his own formal statement, in which he expressed his surprise, “as I have been contacted by neither the Mayor nor any of his associates.”
Cohen continued: “I have an excellent working relationship with the City of Memphis as evidenced by the number of projects that received federal funding under the last budget. I believe that the overwhelming margin of victory during my reelection campaign last year showed that the people of the 9th District of Tennessee enthusiastically approve of the job I’ve been doing in Washington, D.C. In my nearly thirty years of public service as a legislator, I have always fought for the people of Memphis, and I plan to continue to do so in the U.S. House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.”
That was game, and Cohen’s determined support of district objectives has certainly made considerable believers among the voters of the 9th. Else he could have hardly have defeated a well-funded black primary opponent, Nikki Tinker, by a decisive 4-to-1 margin last year.
But the predominantly African-American voters of the 9th District have seen Herenton on their ballot now for a total of five times, and each time they have given him their support, usually overwhelmingly. He is an obvious threat to Cohen’s continued tenure, and the current prospect of serious legal problems as the result of an FBI investigation into Herenton's business dealings won’t necessarily dent his support.
It should be remembered that in 1991 a Herenton who had just been deposed as school superintendent because of overlapping sexual and administrative scandals became the grass-roots idol of the black community as a first-time mayoral candidate, at least partly because he was perceived as having been targeted by the city’s establishment.
Once political observers picked themselves up and began to get their bearings after Tuesday’s shocking announcement, some of them began to wonder if Herenton’s floating of a congressional race (for effect, his statement was printed on paper which had the U.S. Capitol building in the background) might be a means of deflecting attention from his predicament and of arousing a constituency (read: jury pool) in his defense.
Others wondered if the mayor meant to deflect attention from what some saw as an overly rosy budget scenario, one from which a previous forecast of laid-off employees and dropped services had vanished. How much of that scenario depended on federal stimulus grants? some wondered, and several media people had skeptical questions stored up for the mayor’s availability, made in the Hall of Mayors after his budget presentation to the council on Tuesday.
Herenton brushed off a couple of questions and then, saying he wanted to deal with the oft-speculated-on subject of what came next for him, asked administrative assistant Turner to pass out his one-page statement. Then he walked off, determined to say no more for the time being.