Ford Sr. Support of Cohen is One More Problem for Herenton



1991: Herenton and Ford Sr. in happier times
  • 1991: Herenton and Ford Sr. in happier times
One has to give credit to former mayor Willie Herenton for even trying to spin President Obama’s endorsement of his congressional opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, as a plus for himself. It’s as if the captain of the Titanic had thrown a deck party on that famously slippery slope (as, in a way, having the band set up and play, he did)..

By its nature, the Obama announcement has drawn more attention to itself than other endorsements garnered by the incumbent congressman, fore and aft. But that of Harold Ford Sr., subject of a news release by Cohen on Wednesday, a day after the Obama bombshell, is worthy of some special attention.

In a sense, the Ford announcement was a restatement of what pol-watchers had already known. After all, Ford Sr., a former 9th District congressman himself and a high-stakes lobbyist on Capitol Hill these days, has been a tacit supporter of Cohen for well over a year and assisted in his Washington fundraising.

The two have a professional relationship, and that’s part of it. But there’s more — and it bodes ill for Herenton, whose call for “Just One’ African American — himself — to serve in Congress from Tennessee surely depends on being the kind of consensus black candidate that Herenton was in 1991 when he first ran for mayor.

As it happens, that 1991 election season was the one and only time Herenton and Ford had functioned as political cohorts, and their alliance, an ad hoc affair motivated by constituent pressure and by a joint service to history, was a tenuous and short-lived affair.

They were always rivals for power in the inner city — and in the city at large, for that matter —and the two had a public falling-out in 1994 after an angry disagreement over the telephone over how best to administer a summer jobs program. “If he’d said those things to my face, I’d have whipped his butt,” Herenton later commented to the Flyer.

The issue itself had been a pretext. The real problem was that, in the Western movie that was Memphis in the ‘90s, the town wasn’t big enough for two such noted gunslingers. The feud would continue through the accession to the congressional seat of Harold ford Jr. in 1996, and at times it set Herenton off against the entire Ford political clan.

Herenton won a major battle over the Fords in 1999 when he dispatched mayoral challenger Joe Ford, Harold Sr.’s brother and the current interim county mayor. He won another when — ironically enough from the current vantage point — he publicly endorsed Cohen’s first congressional bid over independent challenger Jake Ford, Harold Sr.’s son and Harold Jr.’s brother.

Herenton’s sense of having obtained mastery over the extended Ford family led him to boast in the current campaign that he had “dismantled the Ford machine.” That he had done no such thing is evident from the fact that members of the Ford family still hold elected positions in the legislature and in city and county government.

Harold Ford Sr. was the closest thing to a godfather figure that Memphis' African-American community has seen, and he was the nearest thing to a political boss in these parts since Boss Ed Crump.

Though he is no longer an active day-to-day force in Memphis, Ford Sr. keeps his hand in, and for Herenton to think that he can achieve anything like domination of the African-American electorate in the face of the Obama and Ford endorsements of Cohen — not to mention the several black city and county personages who have thrown in with the congressman — is arguably delusional.

Herenton is now at a pass where he is desperately short of avowed allies, and the five-times unbeaten mayoral candidate of yore is now potentially up against every adversary, of whatever kind, he has ever had.

It is not an enviable predicament, with early voting about to be under way and with less than a month before election day.

For the record, here is the text of the radio commercial Harold Ford Sr. has recorded for the Cohen campaign:

I’m Harold Ford Sr. and on August 5th I am supporting Congressman Steve Cohen for re-election to the United States Congress to represent the 9th Congressional District.

Steve Cohen brings 31 years of experience working in local and State politics where he casted the deciding vote for The MED. And fought to establish the TN Education lottery.

Steve Cohen has worked hard for you and me.

And I’m asking the voters of the 9th district to send Steve Cohen back to the Congress of the Unites States.
He’s a very close strong ally of President Barack Obama and he’s already been selected as a subcommittee chairman by the Democratic leadership and made a regional whip as well in the Democratic Caucus.

I’m asking the voters to go and send Steve Cohen back for another term.

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