Politics » Politics Feature

Now for Round Two

A new council election looms; Cohen wins big; and Democrats prevail countywide.



Round One, the August part of this year's election cycle, is over, and Round Two, the November portion, just got a little lengthier — what with City Council chairman Scott McCormick's surprise announcement that he's giving up his seat to head the Plough Foundation.

The council will have to appoint an interim member as a temporary fill-in for McCormick in Super-District 9, Position 1, but the voters will weigh in on November 4th with the final word on a permanent successor.

So what is the field they are likely to be choosing from? Known quantities:

Brian Stephens: The Cordova Leadership Council organizer and runner-up in last year's District 2 council election has already started gearing up. He'll have at his disposal the same mix of suburban conservatives and Midtown liberals who kept him close to ultimate winner Bill Boyd last fall.

Mary Wilder: The longtime activist and former interim state representative, who ran well in the Super-District 9, Position 3, race in 2007, is another who says she'll try again. (The only hitch is if former District 5 councilwoman Carol Chumney, a 2007 mayoral candidate and a close associate of Wilder's, should get in.)

Kemp Conrad: Last year's runner-up to current Super-District 9, Position 2, councilman Shea Flinn is another candidate said to be getting a still extant campaign structure revved for another go-around.

Other possibilities: Chumney is a definite candidate for mayor again the next time there's a race, and some think a return to the council would give her the right kind of bully pulpit. ("I haven't made any decisions and certainly will think it over," she says.) Not heard from so far are 2007 council candidates Joe Saino, proprietor of memphiswatchdog.org, and Frank Langston, regarded as a promising newcomer. Word is that lawyer Desi Franklin, who ran strong in Super-District 9, Position 3, isn't interested — yet.

More 2007 council candidates rumored ready for another go are Antonio "2-Shay" Parkinson and Lester Lit, while Ed Stanton, a congressional candidate in 2006, has also been talked up. Two other possible hopefuls are Florence Johnson and Susan Thorp.

The election results on August 7th were exactly what Steve Cohen wanted to happen the first time he ran for Congress in the 9th District, in 1996 — a 4-1 victory over his nearest opponent, a win so overwhelming and so uniform in his favor throughout the demographic corners of his district that he could truthfully claim to represent the entirety of his constituents.

It was, as he said amid the delirium of his victory celebration last Thursday night in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, a triumph for the idea that "we can all work together" and a refutation of the "negative politics" that his challenger had attempted in the last few days of the campaign.

The 79 percent to 19 percent spread between Cohen and Democratic primary foe Nikki Tinker was higher than even the most optimistic pre-election forecasts of Cohen supporters. Unofficial totals from all 208 precincts were: Cohen, 50,284; Tinker, 11,814; Joe Towns Jr., 914; James C. Gregory, 180; and Isaac Richmond, 172. The incumbent appeared to have a comfortable margin across all demographic and geographic lines.

It was a personal triumph for Cohen, who can take the overwhelming approval of his constituents into what is likely to be a pro forma general-election contest with independent Jake Ford. When he first ran for Congress 12 years ago, Cohen was defeated in the Democratic primary by Harold Ford Jr. and was openly disappointed that his long and commendable — if often controversial — record in the state Senate had not, as he saw it, been properly appraised.

Even his victory by a 31 percent plurality in a crowded primary field two years ago was regarded by some as a fluke of mathematics — certainly by Tinker, a corporate attorney and Alabama transplant who thought her 26 percent showing in that race could be improved upon the second time around. Tinker never quite put a platform before the voters, however, and, on the evidence of two late ads, seemed to believe that victory would be hers if, in the most stark and divisive way, she could remind the voters of a 60 percent majority-black district that she was an African American and a Christian, while Cohen was white and Jewish.

The incumbent congressman ran on the record of his first two years in office, during which he had become a national figure and was credited with paying serious attention to the special needs and aspirations of his African-American constituents. A late accomplishment, the passage by acclamation in the House of Representatives of his resolution apologizing for slavery, encompassed both aspects of his tenure so far.

On the day before Election Day, a Cohen press conference held at the congressman's Midtown residence was crashed by Peter Musurlian, one of the Armenian-American activists who had plagued Cohen throughout the primary campaign. The congressman had been targeted for his role in defeating a congressional resolution condemning Turkey, an American ally in the Middle East, for its century-old genocide of ethnic Armenians. The interloper, a self-styled video "documentarian," was unceremoniously thrown out by Cohen himself, and the incident seemed actually to have redounded to the incumbent's benefit.

In any case, as Cohen noted after his victory speech, he had come out ahead "with man and woman, with black and white, with Christian and Jew, with young and old, with the follically challenged [here he all but tapped his own balding pate] and with the hirsute."

The other side of that coin was opponent Tinker's seeming repudiation across the board of the district's constituencies. (See Viewpoint, p. 17.)

On the last two days of her campaign, Tinker was repudiated by the Emily's List PAC which had earlier endorsed her; by former congressman Harold Ford Jr., whom she had once worked for; and, most crucially, by Barack Obama himself, who will become the party's presidential nominee at its national convention later this month.

As for Cohen, his triumph turned out to be a victory also for the dream of equality and political harmony, or so at least was the belief proclaimed Thursday night, spontaneously and separately, by such icons of Memphis civil rights history as Maxine Smith, Russell Sugarmon and Minerva Johnican.

In another contested congressional race, this one involving Republicans, incumbent 7th District representative Marsha Blackburn had a two-to-one margin over challenger Tom Leatherwood, the Shelby County register. And Nashville lawyer Bob Tuke, as expected, won the Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate over opponents Mike Padgett, Kenneth Eaton, and Gary Davis.

Though most observers regard Blackburn and incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander as prohibitive favorites in their general-election races — over Randy Morris of Waynesboro and Tuke, respectively — both incumbents made a point of turning up in Shelby County on the morning after the election, Alexander for a joint appearance at MIFA with Cohen and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and Blackburn for a meeting with the media and supporters.

Other results: In a closely watched non-partisan race, Criminal Court judge John Fowlkes won election in his own right over three opponents.

And there were two other major developments on display in the election results. Cohen had noted one in his Thursday night remarks — the final establishment of a long-building demographics in favor of Democratic candidates countywide.

In every Shelby County election since partisan elections were established in 1992, Republicans had dominated. This time around was different. It was all Democrats: Paul Mattila defeated Republican Ray Butler and independent M. LaTroy Williams for trustee. Cheyenne Johnson beat Republican Bill Giannini convincingly in the assessor's race. Otis Jackson won out over Republican incumbent Chris Turner for General Sessions clerk.

County charter amendment 361 won easily, but amendment 360, meant to redefine five county offices formerly regarded as constitutional, narrowly lost — a circumstance that put the Shelby County Commission, which had authorized it, smack dab in the middle of a quandary. (See Editorial, p. 16.)

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