Politics » Politics Feature

The Shell-Game Election

Even the keenest of eyes had trouble following the events of Election 2007.



Here's a snapshot — or a blank negative: Two full days after the campaign of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton announced the participation of Harold Ford Sr. in a Tuesday night rally for Herenton and on the very morning that the evening rally — at Mount Vernon Baptist Church — was scheduled, the former congressman was still keeping a mysterious silence.

As of early Tuesday morning, attempts to reach Ford had been unavailing, nor could intimates of the once legendary political broker, even some who had spoken to him by telephone on Monday, shed much light on the matter. It even remained uncertain as to whether Ford — who was in town last week to cast an early vote — had lingered in Memphis or had returned to his current residence in Florida.

One thing was certain: Widespread public curiosity about the joint appearance of the two often-warring political titans, plans for which were first reported in the Flyer's online edition on Sunday, virtually guaranteed a massive turnout for the affair, set to begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Commerecial Appeal weighed in on the matter in its Tuesday editions — a sure indication that things had reached a boiling point.

Along with anticipation of the Herenton-Ford team-up, however, came abundant skepticism — not only in statements from the rival campaigns of Herman Morris and Carol Chumney but in conversations among members of the city's political cognoscenti. After all, the rivalry between Ford and Herenton — and between their extended political families — had been a root fact of life in Memphis for almost 15 years.

By now, of course, readers of this commentary may know what happened on that score. Depending on when this piece is read, they may even know how the Memphis municipal election of 2007 came out. Two mysteries resolved out of the several that were raised this year ain't bad.

Never before, however, have so many unresolved — even unresolvable — issues lingered at the end of a campaign season.

Are we now to learn the truth of the still baffling sexual-blackmail plot against him announced by Herenton back in June? The identity of all the "snakes" involved in this putatively felonious process? The out-of-county special prosecutor named to pursue that matter has so far — either out of service to the Memphis election process or out of disservice to it — kept his silence right on up to Election Day.

What about the alleged irregularities of the Diebold machines used in early voting? Were they really skewing election results in such a way that these results were unreliable and could be challenged? Since Herenton was again the whistle-blower, any follow-up to this will likely depend on how the election came out, pure and simple.

Those election results themselves will have clarified certain matters, of course — whether former MLGW head Morris, who spent a long, agonizing period competing with rival Chumney for white voters and trying to gain traction with his fellow blacks, had any luck.

If he did, this preternaturally introverted man would still have a hard act to follow in the swaggering Type A monolith that has been Mayor Willie Herenton.

We will also have learned if a white woman — Councilwoman Chumney — was able to make enough of an impression in Memphis' black communities to garner a significant vote there. If she did, she may well have been elected, in which case the next question would be this: Could a Mayor Chumney, who was perpetually estranged from her council mates and from the mayor and his administration during her council term, succeed in organizing a coherent, functioning, and loyal administration staff?

Back to this matter of a rapprochement between Ford and Herenton: A little background is in order to explain what has been Memphis' version of a Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Relations between the two political behemoths, already tense, became volatile in 1994, when they exchanged epithets and almost came to blows over what the first-term mayor regarded as a show of disrespect from Ford. The issue was then congressman Ford's insistence, in a manner that the mayor regarded as impertinent, that Herenton establish a summer jobs program for indigent youth.

The real problem, however, had been simmering almost from the moment that Herenton was elected as the city's first black mayor in 1991 — thanks largely to last-minute help from Ford. Suspicion and distrust between the two already had existed, and, once the historic victory had been achieved through their momentary solidarity, Herenton and Ford lapsed into the position of permanent rivals for power — almost in the Western-gunslinger sense that the town wasn't big enough for both of them.

Clashes were frequent between the two camps over the years. (One of Harold Ford Jr.'s first acts upon succeeding his father in Congress in 1997 was to renew the quarrel over summer jobs.) In 1999, the former congressman's brother Joe Ford, then a city councilman, unsuccessfully challenged Herenton at the polls.

And last year saw a renewed outbreak of hostility when the mayor endorsed 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, the ultimately successful Democratic nominee for Congress, and disparaged not only independent congressional candidate Jake Ford, the former congressman's son, but the Ford clan itself as a "power-mad" family. That galvanized Ford Sr., who was already active in the senatorial campaign of son Harold Ford Jr., into steadfast efforts on behalf of his other son.

Is it indeed possible that, only a year after that latest outbreak, all those wounds have healed and Ford Sr. and Herenton will have come full cycle in common cause? It is no understatement to say that — win, lose, or draw — the shape of Memphis history and of political reality in the city's black and white communities will alter substantially if that turns out to be the case.

NAACP Backs Cohen on Hate Crimes

In stark contrast to his reception at an angry ministerial meeting hosted by the Rev. LaSimba Gray in August, Steve Cohen heard himself lauded and endorsed Sunday by members and leaders of the local NAACP for his support of federal hate-crimes legislation.

Gray, who had opposed Cohen's election in 2006 and had tried unsuccessfully to organize support for a consensus black candidate in last year's large congressional field, has insisted that the bill inhibits black preachers from inveighing against homosexuality and has spurred opposition to it among black clerics. Denying the allegations, Cohen has responded by calling Gray's use of the hate-crimes issue merely a device to support Nikki Tinker, a declared opponent of Cohen's reelection in 2008.

Sunday's meeting was as supportive for the congressman as Gray's ambush meeting in August had been negative. Cohen and the NAACP members enjoyed something of a love-fest, in fact, with longtime NAACP eminence Maxine Smith, who directed the local organization for years, making a point of praising "my congressman" and current NAACP executive director Johnnie Turner and chapter president Warner Dickerson adding their kudos.

Of the hate-crimes bill and Cohen's sponsorship, Dickerson offered this: "I want to say up front that the national NAACP not only endorses this bill but supports it as a source of strength. ... We thank him for his support of the bill and all that he has supported there and prior to going there, when he was in the state legislature and also locally. He supports the issues and the things we believe in as the NAACP."

In his own remarks, Cohen recalled past relationships: "When I was on the County Commission, I had a lot more in common with Vasco Smith and Jesse Turner and Minerva Johnican and Walter Bailey and worked with them and voted with them. ... Those were the people I worked with. They were my allies and my friends.

"Y'all are the reason I got in trouble, wanting to join that club," he joked, recalling a mini-controversy over his professed desire, after being elected, to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

Cohen noted recent coverage of the local hate-crimes controversy on National Public Radio and said Gray, who was heard from on the broadcast opposing the bill and expressing reservations about white representation of the 9th District, "sounded pretty bad" and "hurt Memphis and hurt race relations."

At the close of Cohen's remarks, he got more kudos from Jesse Turner Jr., who recalled lobbying the then congressional candidate in early 2006 for some 30 issues favored by the national NAACP. "He was for 28 of them, and by the time we finished talking, he was for 29," Turner said. "I want this audience to know that he was on board even before he got elected."

Last week, Cohen earned a similar fillip from an evaluation by the Congressional Black Caucus Monitor, a national group that gives performance grades to congressional members in predominantly black districts. After giving Cohen's 9th District predecessor, former representative Harold Ford Jr., a "dishonorable mention," the Monitor's report said, "It's worth noting that his white successor, Rep. Steve Cohen, represents Ford's former constituents more ethically, ably, and accurately than Ford ever did, and consequently scores higher on the CBC Report Card."

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