Mayor Willie Herenton’s congressional campaign (or whatever else that most recent gambit of his really is) took a serious hit this week with the revelation that incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen is receiving tangible support from the district’s former longtime congressman, Harold Ford Sr., now a Florida resident and an influential lobbyist on Capitol Hill in Washington.
It is easy to imagine the satisfaction with which Cohen’s office released the news that the senior Ford, who had bitterly opposed Cohen’s 2006 election bid for the congressional seat, is co-sponsoring two big-ticket fundraisers for Cohen — one to be held June 24 in Washington and another six days later in Memphis.
The official spin given by Cohen to that astounding development is that, halfway through his second term, he and Ford Sr. have evolved a good and mutually cooperative working relationship. Plus: “He thinks I’ve done a good job as the district’s congressman.” Cohen said Thursday that the idea for the Ford-backed fundraisers had arisen somewhat naturally and spontaneously from a series of recent conversations he and the former congressman had in Washington.
No doubt all of this is true. Or substantially so. But it’s hard to resist resorting to an old Arab proverb that lives on these days mainly as an American political cliché: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
It is no secret that Herenton has historically been at loggerheads with the entire Ford political clan. The issues are less philosophical than situational; Former schools superintendent Herenton’s ascendancy as the African-American community’s “consensus” mayoral candidate in 1991 had not originally been to the liking of Ford, who had long been the major political force for Memphis blacks. He perceived Herenton, no doubt correctly, as a serious rival in the inner city.
Though the then congressman bridged the divide late in that campaign year to help make Herenton the city’s first-ever elected black mayor, even that fact would become a point of discontent, as Herenton later made a point of disparaging Ford’s role in the 1991 campaign. The two political behemoths would settle into a long-simmering feud that extended into the tenure of Harold Ford Jr., who succeeded his father as 9th District congressman in 1996.
Even the involvement of Ford Sr. in his son Jake’s independent candidacy against Democratic nominee Cohen in 2006 had less to do with Cohen than with the fact that Herenton had publicly endorsed Cohen and in the process had verbally trashed the Fords of Memphis, terming them greedy and domineering.
In that sense it’s no surprise that Herenton’s astonishing announcement in April of his intent to challenge Cohen in 2010 should have led to a public détente between Ford Sr. and Cohen.
But the announcement of the former congressman’s involvement in two fundraisers for Cohen surely came as something as a shock to the mayor, clearly disenchanted with his mayoral duties and reeling from administrative problems in city government, intractable budget issues, and the persistent threat of possible federal indictment for alleged irregularities in his private business dealings.
Magnifying the impact on the mayor of this week’s news was the incidental information that several of the other sponsors of Cohen’s forthcoming Memphis fundraiser — including longtime civil rights luminary Maxine Smith and her husband Vasco Smith, a former county commissioner, as well as former Judge Russell Sugarmon and his wife Gina Sugarmon — had been known either as influential Herenton supporters or as pillars of the inner-city political establishment or both.
Some observers of the pending Herenton-Cohen showdown find it hard to believe that Herenton is serious about the challenge to Cohen — especially in the face of the incumbent white congressman’s 4-1 routing last year of a well-financed black primary opponent, corporate attorney Nikki Tinker. Underscoring the fact of that victory, Tinker’s own employer and chief supporter, Pinnacle Airlines entrepreneur Phil Trenary has himself signed on as a sponsor of Cohen’s forthcoming fundraisers.
Those who doubt Herenton’s seriousness about the race imagine that he floated his trial balloon as a means of diverting attention from his legal issues or his budgetary problems or even as a device whereby he might apply leverage in the selection of a new U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
But sources close to the mayor are now reporting that not only is Herenton determined to run, he will attempt to do so in the same guise as in his first mayoral run in 1991 — as a surrogate for the entire black community of Memphis. And so tired of the mayoralty and of his city’s problems is he that he has given some friends the impression that he yearns for the opportunity to make Washington his primary residence.
The news of Harold Ford Sr.’s decision to host two Cohen fundraisers makes it less likely that Herenton will be able to do so, at least in an official capacity.
In any case, the mayor's campaign announced Thursday that he has filed his FEC Form 2 statement with the Federal Election Commission, completing the initial formalities for a race against Cohen.