Opinion » Viewpoint

A Level Playing Field

Conditions in this year's 9th District race differ from those a decade ago.



It was around this time 10 years ago, in this very space, that I assayed a notion on the congressional race about to be run by state senator Steve Cohen that got his dander up and kept it there during the whole of that campaign season.

Cohen, I said in essence, could not win a race that saw him matched against 26-year-old Harold Ford Jr., the son of the outgoing congressman, who was backed by what was then still a fully functioning monolith, the much-vaunted "Ford machine."

True, there was a third candidate in the race, then-state representative Rufus Jones, who had the nominal support of Mayor Willie Herenton, his former brother-in-law. In theory, the presence of Jones, an African American like Ford, created the possibility of a racial split in the Democratic voter base, one that many assumed would be augmented by the ongoing political rivalry between Herenton and Ford Sr.

Note: Senator Cohen, a longtime supporter of equal rights on the racial front and many others, was the last candidate in the world who would have A) thought in black-and-white terms and B) consciously attempted to foster such a wedge among the majority black population of the 9th District.

Au contraire. As he began his race, Cohen cited the resounding words from Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech that foresaw a time when people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. One thing that, perhaps justifiably, irked Cohen about the Viewpoint I wrote was that in it I noted a minor fluff in his paraphrase of King and used that as a metaphor for his projected difficulties in the primary contest to come.

Although Cohen's heart and mind were in the right place (along with his voting record), he would find it difficult, I argued, to accommodate his civil-libertarian focus to the bread-and-butter preoccupations of the black majority -- especially when that majority, like the white one which had preceded it historically, would instinctively close ranks around a candidate of its own.

Cutting to the chase: As I expected, Jones proved -- for all his worthiness -- to be the odd man out. The black population coalesced around Ford, and Cohen finished well behind. On election night, before a TV camera, the senator, never one to dissemble, expressed his disappointment concerning the racial-bloc nature of the voting.

Fade to the present: Cohen is running again for Congress, he cited the "I Have a Dream" speech once more, the 9th District is still a predominantly black one, and here I am assaying a notion about the race. But, to invert that famous French phrase, the more things stay the same, the more they change.

For one thing, Cohen's preoccupations in the state Senate, manifested most notably in his last-ditch resistance to Governor Phil Bredesen's TennCare cuts, have reflected more and more directly the economic concerns of the 9th District's black population.

For another thing, there is no Ford-machine monolith to contend with. Despite the presence in the race of a family member (Joe Ford Jr., freshly returned from California), there were several prominent Fordites in Cohen's crowd Monday, cheering him on as he filed at the Election Commission. For that matter, there are numerous other candidates who have reason to expect support from present or former members of the Ford organization.

Most importantly, race consciousness as such seems relatively absent from the proceedings this year. Few, if any, of the candidates in this year's 9th District field -- Democratic or Republican, white or black -- seem preoccupied with achieving a designated ethnic outcome, and even word of mouth on the matter is relatively desultory. There is little likelihood that the candidate field, including several promising newcomers, will be pared down, for "consensus" reasons or any other, by next week's withdrawal deadline.

It is an environment, in short, conducive to Dr. King's colorblind thesis. Some years after that first race, Cohen graciously conceded that I'd been right in my forecast about that year's results. I see a more level playing field this year, one that will fairly test the senator's credentials -- and those of his opponents. I hope I'm right again.

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