News » Cover Feature

The August Election: Part One

How Herenton vs. Cohen and the GOP gubernatorial primary impact everything else.



There are numerous puzzles to be resolved on the August 5th election ballot — not least among them the question of whether anyone cares. At press time, early-voting totals were inconclusive, though the two candidates in one of the marquee races on the ballot had certainly started moving their cadres to the polls — literally in busloads after Saturday morning rallies.

This would be 9th District incumbent congressman Steve Cohen and his challenger in the Democratic primary, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. The turnout in this race will be crucial in deciding not only who gets to go to Washington in January to represent the population of the 9th District (which is most of Memphis), but also who gets to preside over the working of county government and even who gets to run the affairs of the state of Tennessee for the next four years — though the governor's race itself has potential to influence voting in the rest of the ballot.

Democrats, even some of those who were staunch supporters of Cohen for reelection, had little starts of joy back in the late spring of 2009, when Herenton, then still serving as mayor, made his bombshell announcement that he intended to challenge Cohen, a man he had thrown his influence behind in the general election of 2006.

It was never clear then — and isn't today — why Herenton wanted to make the race, but it was widely assumed that the mere fact of such a heavyweight matchup would drive Democratic voters to the polls in sufficient quantity to overpower the rival Republicans' turnout. The early optimism was shared by statewide Democrats, concerned about increasing evidence that Tennessee, long a bellwether state that periodically shifted from one major party to the other, was on the verge of dyeing itself a permanent bright red, the color assigned to Republicanism in the semiotics of current political punditry.

A huge Democratic turnout in Big Shelby could alter that color code, big time.

That may have been one reason, along with the message of hope in the newly installed presidency of Barack Obama, why no fewer than five Democrats presumed to declare for governor in 2009.

By mid-summer 2010, that field had shrunk to one — Jackson businessman Mike McWherter — while three Republicans — Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey — competed with a zeal arising from the apparent conviction that one of them was sure to be governor.

The continuing recession was one big reason. The stubborn persistence of the anti-government Tea Party discontent, which increasingly targeted the Democrats for blame, was another. And the fact that, well into the summer, the Cohen-Herenton race was looking like a non-starter was yet another.

If there was consolation for local Democrats, it was in the knowledge of demographic change, which saw African Americans, always preponderantly Democratic, finally become, in the decade of the 2000s, a majority in Shelby County at large as well as in Memphis itself. That shift had been coming gradually for a full 20 years, but superior Republican organization had managed to head it off until the county election of 2008, when three offices which had been held by Republicans — general sessions clerk, assessor, and trustee — all went Democratic.

The local Republican Party was so unconfident of its chances in the 2010 general election, when many more offices were up for election, that its chairman, Lang Wiseman, had begun calling for the abolition of partisan primaries. (Ironically, it had been the GOP itself which, taking advantage of what was still a numerical majority, had initiated the countywide primary process in 1992.)

The Republicans' hopes were vested in persuading one of the two local party luminaries who had traditionally garnered good crossover votes among Democrats and African Americans to run for Shelby County mayor. One prospect was District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who, however, remained committed to a race for governor until it was well established that he was too far behind the others in fund-raising to catch up. The other, Sheriff Mark Luttrell, professed to prefer a third term as sheriff, an office for which he was still counted a sure winner.

In February, after seeing a freshly commissioned poll (from consultant Jon Bakke with Ethridge and Associates) that suggested he had promising numbers against either of the two main Democrats then vying for county mayor — interim mayor Joe Ford and outgoing county commissioner Deidre Malone — Luttrell changed his mind and declared for mayor.

That gave the Shelby County Republican Party a ticket-leader of proven popularity who not only might win but could pull other party nominees into office on his coattails.

Like the race for county mayor (to be considered in-depth next week), the governor's race affects matters of party status and, in a time of social ferment, differing philosophies of government. The 9th District contest both impacts and reflects a different and perhaps more basic concern — that of how the local population perceives itself.

The two contenders have made the central issue unmistakably clear. In simplest terms: Does race still matter?

Herenton says that it does, that a proportional system of government requires that at least one of the state's congressional positions — "Just One" is his slogan — was meant to be filled by an African American, namely himself.

Cohen takes the contrary tack, that the population of the 9th District — more than 60 percent black — has, like the country itself, moved beyond race in making political judgments.

The 9th District Race:

WMC-TV practiced a little artful indirection in its on-air teases of a fresh 9th District poll for Monday night — suggesting that viewers who tuned in to find out just what the survey, conducted by the veteran pollster Berge Yacoubian, had to say were in for a "surprise."

Inasmuch as every sampling, so far — scientific, straw-poll, anecdotal, what-have-you — has shown Cohen untouchably out in front (with the exception of Willie Herenton's wholly unscientific survey, announced last week at a press conference, giving himself 80 percent of the black vote and 5 percent of the white vote, "minimum"), the only genuine surprise could have been an upsurge in Herenton's totals.

Given that the most widely disseminated poll results to date were those contained as a control item in the February Bakke poll in the county mayor's race (62 percent for Cohen, 9 percent for Herenton) and that the long-somnolent Herenton had, as of the last month, actually begun surfacing in something resembling a campaign, the only logical assumption would have been a substantial increase in Herenton's share of the vote. (One caveat: The Bakke poll sample had been countywide rather than district-based, though the overlap is substantial.)

Two weekends ago, I traveled along with a Herenton motorcade, which drove slowly through target neighborhoods in the 9th District — South Memphis, Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, Orange Mound, and North Memphis — stopping at key intersections to allow the ex-mayor and supporters to get out, stand on the roadside, and wave at passing motorists. As retail politics goes, this is pure Dollar Store variety, even street-peddler — cheap but presumably effective.

As Herenton and his supporters waved their "Herenton/Congress" and "Just One" signs, there was genuine payback in the form of cars honking and waves and shouts of encouragement from drivers. Maybe this was the equivalent of pats on the back for a hard-luck loser who was at least trying (cynical interpretation) or evidence of a genuine groundswell on the former mayor's behalf (credulous interpretation). Maybe it was just people saying hello to a once-familiar figure who had grown remote in the space of the year since his leavetaking of the mayor's office.

Whatever it was, it should have shown up in the poll. People who drive automobiles are surely more likely than not to have telephones on which to answer pollsters' calls.

And this past weekend the mini-throngs that Herenton addressed on the parking lot outside his South Third Street headquarters and who later boarded one of several buses with him to go downtown and early-vote were both attentive and responsive. As Herenton greeted voters lined up inside the Election Commission or arriving on the pavement outside, romancing the women, jiving with the men, fist-bumping his chest in tandem with them, it seemed that the old charisma and self-confidence were alive and well.

But the Channel 5/Yacoubian poll was a dash of cold water on all this perhaps illusory bonhomie: Cohen was favored by 65 percent of likely voters, Herenton by 15 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

"It is not even a contest," Yacoubian said on the air Monday night, noting that Cohen led with every demographic group. If the undecided bloc should resolve their minds by Election Day on the basis of the same percentages, Cohen would end up with the same 80-20 margin, district-wide, that he amassed over his primary foe Nikki Tinker in 2008.

There are other parallels between the Cohen-Tinker race and the Cohen-Herenton matchup to date. As retribution for Tinker's late-campaign desperation tactics, including a TV ad absurdly linking Cohen, a Jewish liberal, to the Ku Klux Klan, and another one, ironically enough alluding archly to the congressman's religion, MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann, a gate-keeper for the verities of liberals and Democrats, awarded Tinker one of his nightly "Worst Person in the World" citations — an honor seldom if ever bestowed on a bona fide Democrat.

Herenton hasn't made the Olbermann finals yet — though Cohen supporters, white and black alike, are vocal in their dispraise of Herenton's almost exclusive reliance on the factor of race in his congressional campaign, typified by his "Just One" slogan, coupled with the "What's Wrong With This Picture" flyers showing 11 members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, all white.

It is no secret that the epochal mayoral election of 1991, which ushered in Herenton as a 142-vote winner over incumbent Dick Hackett, was resolved along strict racial lines. But, as they say, that was then.

Now is when Herenton's African-American successor as mayor, A C Wharton, has won majorities among whites in two victorious races for county mayor and one so far for city mayor. Now is when Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father, has won election as president of the United States, a country whose black population is less than 20 percent.

Now is when the same Barack Obama chose to intervene in the 2010 congressional race by publicly endorsing Steve Cohen — a day after Cohen received endorsements from a racially mixed group of Shelby County lawmakers and a day before former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr., a longtime inner-city political broker turned Washington lobbyist and a onetime foe to both Herenton and Cohen, cast his lot with Cohen.

In the course of receiving a tumultuous ovation at Thomas Chapel in northeast Memphis on Sunday, the last of several such receptions during visits that day to all-black churches, Cohen declared, "Memphis and the 9th District is going to be the district on the hill that shows the rest of the country that we vote on past deeds, on present deeds, on future deeds, on character, on qualifications, on issues, and not on race."

Deeds: Those of Cohen, who as chairman of a judiciary subcommittee, conducted a hearing on the home-foreclosure problem in Memphis on Monday, who persuaded the U.S. House of Representatives to issue a formal apology for slavery, whose legislative record and constituent service have both won plaudits, are fresh.

Those of Herenton as mayor — downtown redevelopment, a revolution in the city's public housing, and success in stabilizing the city's financial reserves — seem relatively distant and tarnished by the allegations of cronyism, the charges of conflicts of interest, and the federal investigations of the former mayor's last several years.

For all of Herenton's attempts to disparage the incumbent's conduct in office, he is hard put to name specifics, other than race, to make his point. Meanwhile, Cohen churns out daily press releases on his accomplishments.

Herenton has attempted to disparage Cohen's financial advantage — the incumbent's $1 million or so in cash on hand as compared to his own small sums, well less than $50,000. The differential owes partly to the distinction between being in office and not being in office — as mayor, Herenton himself used to hold frequent fund-raisers to amass impressive war chests — but it also owes something to T.C.B. on the congressman's part and a curious lack of campaign efforts on the part of the challenger.

Herenton hasn't really tried to raise money this time around, leaving unanswered the fundamental question: Just why did he make this race?

Meanwhile, the other unanswered question of the 9th District contest still hung fire: How much will it affect turnout elsewhere?

It is still too early to learn much from the Election Commission's stats concerning early-voting turnout downtown and at the 20 satellite locations. But conversation Monday night at a show-and-tell held by Germantown's Pickering Center for judicial candidates, based on activity seen at the polls so far, suggested an enhanced interest in the 9th District outcome.

The Governor's Race:

Time was, when the presence in the Tennessee gubernatorial race of two Memphians — state senator Jim Kyle, a Democrat, and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a Republican — was thought to guarantee a brisk local turnout for the August 5th primary. For whatever reason, though, neither local candidate was able to find enough of an audience or a funding base to continue, and so both dropped out, leaving Shelby County with no favorite sons in the race.

On the Democratic side, the candidates have fallen off one by one. Ward Cammack, a long-shot Nashville businessman, departed the fray in December. He was closely followed by Roy Herron, a Dresden state senator who had long hankered to be a congressman and switched races after the surprise retirement announcement by the 8th District's incumbent Democrat, John Tanner.

Then, in February, came the departure of Kyle, the Democrats' state Senate leader, who was frank to say he had not found much resonance for a Democratic message. And, finally, in March, Kim McMillan, the former state House majority leader and the only woman running, took advantage of an unexpected opportunity to run for mayor of hometown Clarksville and dropped out.

That left only McWherter, son of Ned Ray McWherter, the former governor, and the only gubernatorial candidate of any kind from somewhere other than East Tennessee. During the year or so when there were five Democrats in the race, the Jackson businessman had been seldom seen on the campaign trail, though he was evidently working the statewide Democratic donor base. To date, he has raised some $2.5 million ($1 million of that being self-donated), but he has become no more of a presence in the statewide consciousness than he was in the beginning, and it remains to be seen what impact his presence will have in the fall campaign.

The power vacuum in West Tennessee, and in Memphis and Shelby County in particular, has not gone unfilled, however. After the withdrawal from the race of the underfunded Gibbons in late March, the three remaining Republicans — Haslam, Wamp, and Ramsey — each went after the huge and unclaimed Shelby County voting base, reckoned as being as much as a sixth of the entire statewide vote.

Ramsey's attentions have been largely confined to the outer suburban rim of the county, where his vision of a stripped-down state government seems to be best appreciated. Haslam and Wamp have both been more frequent visitors to the county as a whole, and each has made a definite pitch to Memphis voters.

Haslam offers something he calls his "Memphis Plan," and while it suggests an activist approach to the perceived needs of the Bluff City — focusing on the five areas of economic development, K-12 education, higher education, health care, and public safety — it is short on specifics. The Knoxville mayor is a self-proclaimed conservative, like his rivals, but a perceived moderate in the mold of U.S. senator Bob Corker, the onetime Chattanooga mayor who, Haslam says, encouraged him to run.

What he offers in essence is quality government, touching all the accustomed bases, but a streamlined version based on current straitened economic circumstances, and he cites his mayoral terms and his business experience as evidence of his wherewithal.

Haslam's father, Jimmy Haslam, created the Pilot Oil empire, and Mayor Haslam himself, for many years a ranking officer of the corporation, has a large, and to some extent uncharted, personal wealth. All of his rivals have at one time or another challenged him to make public his income tax returns, something Haslam has declined to do, pleading that to do so would trespass on the confidentiality of family members and others.

"People know where my money comes from," Haslam maintains, but that has not stopped Wamp in particular from accusing him of trying to buy the election. Aside from his own holdings, which, Haslam acknowledged last week, have now been committed to the duration of the race, the mayor, a perceived front-runner in polls taken to date, succeeded in raising a truly formidable, even unprecedented, amount of money — some $9 million. Much of that enormous total has been expended on a seemingly nonstop series of campaign commercials that have familiarized Haslam to TV audiences everywhere in the state.

Wamp's attentions to Memphis, under the rubric of a "Memphis Matters" initiative, have been unusually specific. During the last several months, when a funding crisis at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis threatened that institution's existence, Wamp was the only gubernatorial candidate to respond in the affirmative to a request from the Shelby County Commission that candidates pledge themselves to allocate to the Med the totality of the annual federal funds received by the state in return for uncompensated care administered by the hospital.

Wamp has stood his ground on the pledge and promises further to endow the University of Memphis with its own governing board and to appoint a commissioner of economic development from Shelby County. He boasts his intent to apply to Shelby County and West Tennessee the lessons of his involvement in the Tennessee Technology Corridor of his home area and to bring about a "Memphis renaissance" equivalent to what he says has been the "Chattanooga renaissance" of recent years.

On style points, Wamp inclines to faith-based issues and state-sovereignty views that are less appealing to the political mainstream than Haslam's more establishmentarian outlook.

Ramsey is an even more obvious case of breaking with past traditions of government. There is little talk of governmental activism or pledges of largesse from his quarter. In his public speeches, the lieutenant governor is fond of calling himself a successful small businessman, having founded both a surveying company and a real estate and auction company.

His basic credo derives from his business career, and he expresses it this way: "What does small business expect from government? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. All business people want is for government to stay out of the way." Ramsey's laissez-faire attitude has given him an edge over Wamp in endorsements from the Tea Party movement, and, unlike his GOP rivals, Ramsey's public rhetoric features less about what he can do as governor and more about what he can stop from happening.

Ramsey's TV ads present him in business attire but wearing a pair of ornate Western-style boots — the better, as he says in the ads, to give "the boot" to big government, especially the kind that emanates from Washington.

As speaker of the state Senate, Ramsey has played a leading role in passage of the gun legislation that has dominated recent sessions of the General Assembly, and, while he claims friendships across the political aisle and has cooperated with Democrats in coming to terms on a state budget, he has discouraged spending initiatives across the board, even disclaiming any value to expenditures on pre-K education, an area still largely regarded as politically sacrosanct.

Ramsey was constrained by state law from raising campaign funds while the legislature was in session but managed to raise almost $3 million. Wamp's totals were in the neighborhood of $4 million. And, though both candidates' fund-raising lagged far behind that of Haslam, their amounts of cash on hand — $1.3 million for Wamp, $1.4 million for Ramsey — make them potentially competitive in the stretch run with Haslam, who has spent himself down to a mere $2 million.

In the balance, as voters go to the polls, are competing philosophies of state government — the more traditional, if scaled-down, version promised by Haslam; the right-wing populism and economic activism of Wamp; and the bare-bones model of Ramsey.

In the short run, the GOP governors' race competes for voters' attention with the 9th District Democratic congressional primary. Many a middle-of-the-roader in Memphis and Shelby County will have to decide which choice looms most important and which primary to vote in.

Such voters would remain free to vote their convictions on the race for county mayor and for sheriff, a contest hotly contested between Democrat Randy Wade and Republican Bill Oldham.

The rest of the down-ballot slate includes judicial races teeming with contenders and a number of other county positions, including the contest between Democratic incumbent Steve Mulroy and Republican challenger Rolando Toyos for the county commission's swing seat in District 5.

And there are contested county school board races, including one between perennial board president David Pickler and challenger Ken Hoover, as well as an update on the free-for-all among candidates in the Republican primary in the 8th Congressional District.

In part two of the Flyer's pre-election coverage next week, we take a look at all these races, as well as at late-breaking developments in the Cohen-Herenton race and the GOP gubernatorial primary.

We'll also be writing online at Stay tuned.

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