No sooner had former Mayor Willie Herenton hit the streets and the airwaves with what he hoped would be a grass-roots campaign boosting his chances in the forthcoming 9th District congressional primary than he got hit with what could be a knockout punch: a formal endorsement of incumbent Congressman Steve Cohen by President Barack Obama.
Cohen had already received a generous share of endorsements and commendatory statements from African-American officeholders, both local and national. An announcement ceremony in the congressman's Union Avenue campaign headquarters on Monday added several more, including members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission.
But nothing could measure up to the impact of an endorsement statement from the president himself, released by the Cohen campaign in conjunction with the White House Tuesday morning. It read as follows:
"Congressman Cohen is a proven leader in the United States Congress and a strong voice for Tennessee.
"Together, we passed historic health care reform and together we're continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people.
"I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress."
Cohen issued the following statement in response:
"I am grateful to have the support for my re-election from President Barack Obama. I look forward to continue working closely with the President and his administration during the 112th session of the United States Congress.
"I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to enter into politics to make a difference in my community and my country. Like President Kennedy, President Barack Obama inspires a new generation to do the same. It is my hope to continue to build on my 31 years of public service to make the promise of America, the practice of America."
Given the underlying basis of the Herenton campaign — that election of a black congressman in the 9th District was necessary to ensure "proportional representation" — and the ex-mayor's emphasis on black pride, articulated at length in a Monday afternoon radio broadcast hosted by supporter Thaddeus Matthews, Obama's support could only be seen as the ultimate counterweight.
In campaign statements, Cohen has consistently yoked his own previous election and reelection in the predominantly African-American 9th District to the triumph of Obama in the presidential election of 2008 as two proofs that voters — in Memphis as in America at large — had moved beyond race in deciding how to cast their ballots.
To say that Tuesday's presidential intervention came at an inopportune moment for challenger Herenton would be a serious understatement. After months of relative inactivity, Herenton had only just launched an energetic street campaign, traveling on Saturday in a motorcade through 9th District neighborhoods and stopping at major intersections, where he and supporters waved signs and yelled greetings and slogans to passing motorists.
Herenton had been visibly encouraged by the amount of honks from drivers passing by, some of whom slowed down to engage the former mayor in conversation.
At several stops, including the Orange Mound Community Center and a flea market at New Hope Baptist Church in South Memphis, Herenton made brief, well-received speeches.
By itself, the motor tour, partly structured and party improvised and making minimal demands on the ex-mayor's limited financial resources, could not be considered threatening to the huge lead that incumbent Cohen was already presumed by most observers to hold in the Democratic primary contest.
But there were moments Saturday suggesting 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) were still live and well.
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 potentially 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, as so many people had done all day (including one paraplegic who had rolled himself 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. It was something, however, that stoked the optimism of Herenton's motorcade group on Saturday.
But such encouragement as Herenton and his supporters might have gotten from the motorcade tour may turn out to be short-lived, indeed.
The task facing Herenton already was formidable. Reckoned by a number of polls, both public and private, as being well behind Cohen — and in one of them, conducted by consultant John Bakke with Ethridge & Associates, by a margin of 62 percent to 9 percent — the former mayor plainly had some serious catching up to do. That was even if one took with a grain of salt some of these early samplings conducted when Herenton had been relatively quiescent.
It is true enough that at an equivalent 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. We know how that one, with the aid of some highly concentrated late blitzing, turned out.
But in that case, the nation's ranking black personage, Jesse Jackson, was on Willie Herenton's side. In this case, an African-American icon of far greater significance has weighed in for Herenton's opponent.