Post Racial America? Not In Tennessee's 9th CD

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From 1995 thru 2006, Tennessee's 9th CD was represented by Harold Ford, pere & fils. hide caption

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It is a fact of life — and a fact of politics — that when talking about campaigns and candidates, the subject of race often comes up. As it should. The election of Barack Obama, believe it or not, has not erased problems of discrimination in this country. Such problems, and their potential solutions, have to be a continuing part of the dialogue.

Sadly, also part of the dialogue are the efforts, by some, to use race as a political tool. Some whites — such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, among others — established careers as race-baiters. Some blacks have followed suit.

That's when the conversation about race is less instructive and more destructive. And that seems to the way things are in the Ninth Congressional District of Tennessee.

Centered around the black-majority city of Memphis, the 9th CD was long represented by Harold Ford Sr., an African-American Democrat who first won the seat during the Watergate year of 1974, fought efforts to reduce benefits to welfare recipients, found himself under indictment for bank and tax fraud (but never convicted), and retired in 1996. The jury vote to acquit, like the vote to re-elect him, was often on racial lines.

Ford was succeeded by his son, Harold Jr., who went out of his way to eschew the racial approach of his father. The younger Ford was a "new" Democrat, with a "new" vision, and it showed at the ballot box; he was popular with both black and white voters and consistently won re-election overwhelmingly.

Harold Jr. gave up his House seat in 2006 to run for the Senate, a contest he narrowly lost.

Fifteen Democrats sought to succeed Ford in the 2006 primary; fourteen blacks and Steve Cohen, a longtime state senator who is white (and who tried once before to win the seat, getting clobbered by Ford Jr. in the 1996 primary). The black political establishment feverishly tried to get some of the candidates out of the race, lest Cohen take advantage of the split in the black vote and wind up winning. But that's exactly what ended up happening.

The election results didn't put the issue to rest. Several Memphis preachers frankly said that a white congressman shouldn't be representing a majority black district, and they urged the black community to unite around one African-American candidate in 2008. One of Cohen's opponents in the primary, Nikki Tinker, who is black, tried to tie the liberal Cohen to the Ku Klux Klan and had her allies distribute blatantly anti-Semitic fliers around the district.

For his part, Cohen was incredulous. "People should be judged on the content of their character and their work ethic and their voting record and the issues, and not on the color of their skin," Cohen said in an NPR piece by reporter Audie Cornish last August. "That's what Dr. King talked about, and that is what Obama has shown that the American public has done."

Cohen won the primary with nearly 80 percent of the vote. There was no Republican candidate on the November ballot.

Clearly Tinker's approach was not the way to go. But it was not going to be the last effort to defeat Cohen.

Now 2010 is approaching, and his chances for a third term are not so clear. Willie Herenton, who was mayor of Memphis for nearly 18 years until he resigned earlier this month, says he will challenge Cohen in next summer's primary, and much of the black community may rally around him.

But there are some speed bumps for Herenton as well. He and the elder Ford have never gotten along either, at least not since Herenton's initial 1991 victory for mayor (the first black elected to that post). Ford's brother, County Commissioner Joe Ford, challenged Herenton for mayor in 1999. Herenton, who won easily, taunted Ford Sr. during the race for not having the courage to run for mayor himself. Part of the battle is turf, part of it patronage. But it's also about two strong personalities.

(Trivia: Before Herenton resigned on July 10 to focus on the congressional race, the last Memphis mayor to quit midterm was Wyeth Chandler, who took a judgeship in 1982. That elevated councilmember J.O. Patterson Jr. as mayor — the first black to hold the post.)

Regarding the 2010 primary, Herenton says he wants to be "focused on issues, not on personalities or race or all of that," he was quoted as saying in a recent Memphis Commercial Appeal piece on the election. But he then went on to say that it was Cohen who "'played the race card' in playing black candidates against one another" to win the 2006 Dem primary. And he added:

It remains a fact that the 9th Congressional District provides the only real opportunity to elect a qualified African-American to the all-white 11-member delegation representing Tennessee in Washington.

As Woody Baird of the Associated Press recently pointed out, Cohen is "one of just two white members of Congress representing predominantly black districts and the only one to follow an African-American into office." So it's inevitable, and understandable, that race would be a factor in Tenn.'s 9th.

It just depends on the rhetoric. And that's up to the candidates and their followers.

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