Politics » Politics Feature

No Champagne Yet

A big endorsement week gives Steve Cohen a boost, but Jake Ford remains a factor.



It was a good week overall for Steve Cohen, the Democratic nominee in the 9th District congressional race.

There was no doubting the significance of last Wednesday's downtown ceremony in which mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton conferred their enthusiastic imprimaturs on Cohen's candidacy -- as did such lions of the civil rights era as longtime NAACP head Maxine Smith and just-retired General Sessions judge Russell Sugarmon. And a supporting cast of other public officials, black and white, was on hand to swell the chorus and create an impression of unstoppable momentum.

But it ain't over yet.

While the odds still favor Cohen, his two opponents -- Republican Mark White and independent Jake Ford, a self-described Democrat who skipped the crowded party primary -- not only aren't giving up, they're just beginning to fight.

Though it is likely that the jets would have been turned on for young Ford at some point anyhow, that outcome may have been assured by remarks made last week by Herenton, who made a point of blasting the Ford family, whom Herenton said he "resented" for seeking a political "monopoly."

Within minutes after those remarks went out over local TV, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., Jake Ford's father, was on the phone building bridges with the Rev. La Simba Gray.

For several months, ever since the multi-candidate Democratic primary race began in earnest in January, Gray and a few other African-American ministers have been trying to organize a consensus campaign around a single black candidate for the seat.

With Cohen having eliminated some dozen African-American contenders by outpacing them in the Democratic primary, the only remaining prospect is Jake Ford, who maintains that he would caucus with the congressional Democrats if elected.

Though Jake Ford is an unknown quantity to much of the public, a brief appearance on local television last week, on the night of the two mayors' event for Cohen, showcased him as a slim, well-groomed, and reasonably well-spoken -- if less prepossessing -- version of his older brother, Representative Harold Ford Jr.

Jake Ford's posture on the occasion, unprovocative and respectful toward the two mayors (whom he declared himself a "supporter" of) did much to mitigate a profile -- high school dropout and hothead -- that had been widely propagated in quarters as diverse as local establishment circles and the highly un-establishment blog of African-American maverick Thaddeus Matthews (whose name for the candidate is "Joke Ford").

Representative Ford himself, focusing on a U.S. Senate race in which he seemed to be running even with Republican nominee Bob Corker, has famously maintained a neutral posture in relation to his brother and Cohen, both of whom he has said he considers Democrats.

And, though third-place primary finisher Joe Ford Jr., a first cousin of Harold Ford Jr. and Jake Ford, has endorsed Cohen, his father, current Shelby County Commission chairman Joe Ford Sr., is supporting nephew Jake.

Moreover, Harold Ford Sr., once the political broker par excellence in local Democratic circles and now a Florida-based consultant, seems not only to have felt challenged by the critical statements from longtime rival Herenton but determined to re-assert his muscle in Shelby County affairs. Amid reports that he had personally channeled significant sums of money into son Jake's congressional effort, the former longtime congressman was on the scene and on the phone this week, working all his erstwhile networks hard.

For his part, GOP candidate White was conceding nothing. In a lengthy address Monday night to a "Patriot's Day" banquet sponsored by the Coalition of Conservative Republican Clubs (formerly Defenders of Freedom), White cited the fact of the bedrock 30 percent share of 9th District votes traditionally claimed by Republican candidates and focused on religious and moral values which he believes are shared by church-going black Democrats.

Meanwhile, it is an inescapable fact that the ongoing Ford-family races (including Ophelia Ford's in state Senate District 29) will have an impact upon each other. Jake Ford will profit to some degree from what is expected to be a Get-Out-the-Vote effort in Shelby County for the Senate candidacy of his brother Harold, though most active Democrats supporting Representative Ford are lined up with Cohen's congressional bid.

Conspicuously absent from last week's meeting of the local Democratic executive committee was member Bill Larsha, who had launched an effort to support Jake Ford's candidacy, nor was any notice of Larsha's initiative taken by committee members, who were addressed briefly by Cohen.

And there's the parallel question: How will the potentially divisive effect of Jake Ford's race against Cohen affect Democratic solidarity -- not only here but elsewhere in the state? In a weekend editorial, the Nashville Tennessean, a longtime bellwether for Middle Tennessee Democrats, editorialized against what it saw as a racially motivated stop-Cohen movement.

After a typically boisterous meeting of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee last week, rules were put in place for a 37-member selection committee to complete its judgment this week for a successor to District 33 state senator Kathryn Bowers, a Tennessee Waltz indictee who announced her resignation from the Senate two weeks ago. As of press time, the major candidates were:

Realtor Steve Webster, who ran a respectable second in the August primary to Bowers; Lea Ester Redmund, an activist, executive-committee member, and former campaign hand in presidential candidate John Kerry's local 2004 effort; Reginald Tate, an architect and reputedly a favorite of Sidney Chism, a newly sworn-in Shelby County commissioner who heads one of the party's major factions; Ed Stanton Sr., father of recent congressional candidate Ed Stanton Jr. and a well-liked veteran of Shelby County government in his own right; Del Gill, who is either irrepressible or obstreperous depending on one's vantage point and at the very least is (and has) a constituency of one.

Much time at the meeting was spent preparing ground rules for applicants. In the end the requirements were fairly bare-bones. Though a formal application process was called for (ending as of Tuesday) and residency and other requirements were mandated, the root fact was that whoever gets the most votes wins, and the 37 selectors are made up of all committee members whose districts overlap with District 33.

Newly installed Shelby County commissioner Henri Brooks confirmed on Monday that she had no intention of attempting to serve also as state representative from District 92.

With a Monday, September18th, deadline approaching, however, neither local Democratic chairman Matt Kuhn nor state election coordinator Brook Thompson had yet received a withdrawal announcement from Brooks that would allow the local party to substitute a nominee for her on the November ballot. (Brooks said Monday she had somebody in mind to recommend.)

If next Monday comes and goes without a formal announcement from Brooks and she withdraws subsequently, it will be necessary for her new commission mates to appoint an interim successor, and a special election will have to be called -- at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of some $200,000.

One interpretation of former Senator Bowers' surprise decision last week to stand trial -- or at least not to plead guilty at the time -- was that she intended to wait and see what kind of fate awaited her District 33 predecessor, Roscoe Dixon.

Convicted earlier in the summer on five counts of bribery and extortion, Dixon was scheduled for sentencing last Friday. Whence came legal surprise number two of the week: Though Dixon, betraying a tenseness that had not been so evident during his trial, seemed ready for judgment, his attorney, Coleman Garrett, turned out not to be.

And Garrett's reason -- the illness of his brother, newly hospitalized in Jackson, Mississippi -- was convincing enough for presiding federal judge Jon McCalla to grant, in effect, a one-month reprieve. Dixon's new sentencing date is October 13th. Yes, that's a Friday the 13th.

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