Willie Herenton’s first significant venture into all-day campaigning in the 9th District wasn’t a mammoth effort, but it was a significant one.
A small but sturdy group of supporters of Herenton’s congressional campaign — enough to make up a caravan of nine or ten vehicles — accompanied the former mayor on a motor tour of the district, stopping periodically at major intersections to wave signs and yell greetings and slogans to passing motorists.
Herenton — who was front and center himself at these stops — got what surely was an encouraging amount of honks from drivers passing by, some of whom slowed down to engage Herenton in conversation.
This is Willie Herenton, winner of five mayoral elections, campaigning:
Leaving Herenton’s campaign headquarters on South 3rd at roughly 10:30. Herenton’s motorcade—blaring out R&B numbers from one of the vans — wove its way through several South Memphis stops before heading down Winchester to a stop in Hickory Hill, thence to the Orange Mound Community Center and to points in north Memphis. At several stops, including Orange Mound and a flea market at New Hope Baptist Church, Herenton got to do a little speechmaking. At New Hope and at Hickory Hill, he was met by TV news crews.
The tour was partly structured and party improvised, and it surely didn’t call on much in the way of financial resources. By itself, it could not be considered threatening to the huge lead that incumbent 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen is alleged to hold in the Democratic primary contest (a lead that Herenton and his supporters insist doesn’t really exist). But what it suggests for the immediate future should be of concern to Cohen.
Any fair-minded observer watching Herenton wielding a sign and waving and getting honks would have to conclude that the former mayor’s cachet\, his charisma, and his legendary place in the history of Memphis politics (and of African-American involvement in politics, particularly) are all live and well and could be fanned into a fairly significant piece of electoral combustion if Herenton continues the kind of show-the-flag campaigning — cheap but effective — that he undertook on Saturday.
Whether this means that Herenton — whose level of committed support was pegged at 9 percent in one recent poll (to Cohen’s 62 percent) — could rise into the 30-percent bracket by the August 5th primary date, or (more ominously for Cohen) into higher and seriously challenging percentage brackets remains to be seen.
But here is a case in point. Rather mischievously the caravan was routed past several Cohen checkpoints — the congressman’s Whitehaven Plaza headquarters, for example, and the residence of Cohen supporter Anthony “Amp” Elmore on Semmes. Nobody came outside to respond to the mayor’s amplified (and good-natured) taunts at either of those places, but there was a telling event at the residence of a woman half a block up the street from Elmore.
She happened to be outside as the caravan crawled by, and she waved at it, as so many people had done all day (including one paraplegic who had rolled himself dangerously into a South Memphis street to do so.) What made this interesting was the fact that she had a Cohen sign in her yard. (Such signs were not infrequent wherever the motorcade went.) What made the situation even more interesting was the fact that she was talked into uprooting the sign.
Maybe the Cohen sign went back as soon as the caravan had passed, and maybe such loyalty switching as it might indicate would be miniscule at best. But maybe, too — well, maybe the Cohen campaign better take all of this seriously,
The fact is that at an eqivalent stage of the 1991 Memphis mayor’s race incumbent Dick Hackett was considered to have a lead in the 60-percent range, with challenger Herenton trailing well behind. And we know how, with the aid of some highly concentrated late blitzing, that all got transformed.
Just sayin’. This congressional race may end up with a smashing Cohen victory, as almost every prognosticator (including myself) has suggested up until now. But it ain’t over. Maybe it hasn’t even hit its stride.