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Tennessee Primaries Highlight Racial Tensions

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Tennessee Primaries Highlight Racial Tensions

Tennessee Primaries Highlight Racial Tensions

Tennessee Primaries Highlight Racial Tensions

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tennessee put on quite a show this primary season with heavy spending and racially charged campaign platforms. Jackson Baker, senior editor and political reporter with the Memphis Flyer, discusses the tense competition and the results of Thursday’s primary elections.


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It is Friday, definitely time to exhale. Later in the program, we'll hear the Barbershop guys give their take on the news of the week. And we'll also hear from two young leaders from Africa. The White House hosted a conference for a group of more than 100 up and comers from the continent. We'll hear what it was all about. That's a little later.

But first, politics close to home. Congressional races in Tennessee and Michigan offered a healthy dose of drama this week. We'll start in Tennessee because the voting was yesterday. The state featured the country's most expensive U.S. House race so far. That was the GOP primary in the 8th district.

And in the Democratic primary in the 9th district, that includes Memphis, it featured a longtime a former longtime mayor, Willie Herenton, who challenged incumbent Steve Cohen. Now, that's not so exciting, except that Herenton is African-American and Cohen in white, but represents a majority black city. And Herenton made the argument that it is time to diversify Tennessee's all-white 11-member congressional district.

So how did that argument work out? Jackson Baker joins us to discuss all this. Mr. Baker is the senior editor and political reporter at the Memphis Flyer, that's the weekly newspaper. And he's reported on state politics for more than 20 years. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JACKSON BAKER (Senior Editor and Political Reporter, Memphis Flyer): Nice to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, tell us, how did that argument work out? Was Herenton's main argument and, as I mentioned, he's a longtime former mayor, was his main argument representation that Memphis is a majority black city. It should have an African-American representing it and that it's time to diversify the delegation.

Mr. BAKER: More precisely, was it the population of Tennessee justified at least one congressional representative being black. And since the 9th district was the only majority black district in the state that, clearly, that should be the district that (unintelligible) black.

MARTIN: How did it work out?

Mr. BAKER: Well, he lost 4 to 1. And that is his first loss ever. He was elected five times as mayor. And it was the margin was a bit of a shock. But as you will notice, the rest of the results in Tennessee were heavily geared towards Republicans. And even this one was in the sense that Cohen was going to beat Herenton anyhow. But there was such a massive Republican turnout in Shelby County in the 9th district. And most of that - a lot of that crossed over and voted in the Democratic primary and that expanded the margin of victory.

MARTIN: It's an open primary.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So Republicans can (unintelligible). What was Cohen's answer? Did Cohen answer the racial argument directly? Or did he just stand on his record? How did he respond to that?

Mr. BAKER: Well, he did both. He stood on his record and he also pointed out that Barack Obama was elected president in a majority white country. We have a city mayor now who was first elected county mayor who is an African-American elected by a white constituency at that time. And Cohen pointed out that we may have crossed a new threshold that if we want racial democracy, then perhaps a certain colorblindness is the way that will look.

MARTIN: Now, of the 27 black majority districts around the country, two are represented by members who are not African-American. And I'm just am interested I know we've had Steve Cohen on the program before. He's taken the leadership on some issues that are considered racially sensitive, like, for example, demanding that Congress apologize for failing to criticize lynching, for example, offering an apology for that. But what is his appeal? What is the source of his appeal overall?

Mr. BAKER: Well, he cannot be faulted for the duties he owes his constituency. He has not only brought about the first ever apology, congressional policy for slavery is what that was. He has been very faithful, very much a steward of the black community in Memphis. He has brought money to a black college that was about to go out of business. He has taken care of every kind of situation that's come up.

That was one of the problems that Herenton had. He could not make the case that Cohen, who is not black, had not served the black constituency. So he was left with saying, vote for me because I'm black. And I think what happened is people looked at both candidates and they saw Cohen and thought, this man has performed. We can't vote against him.

They looked at Herenton and they said, this man is a legend, we can't vote against him. So there was actually a reduced African-American turnout. And that affected the local electorate results because a lot of Republicans won an election that were not expected.

MARTIN: Interesting. And, finally, before we let you go, in the 8th district in northwestern Tennessee, Republican candidates spent $5.2 million on the race. It was the most expensive congressional race in the country to this point. Why? What happened there? And who won?

Mr. BAKER: Well, first of all, the first man in the race, Stephen Fincher, who eventually won it, was recruited by the national republican establishment and they endowed him with sufficient funding to make a race against John Tanner, who was then the Democratic long-term incumbent. Tanner got out of the race, though, just around Christmastime. And that gave two other Republicans, both of them well-endowed financially, the idea of getting in this race. There was an open seat now.

One of them spent $3 million. He finished third. And the second place man spent prodigiously as well. It was one of the nastiest races around, too, Michel. They vied with each other, trying to call the other, their opponents Democrats, servants of Nancy Pelosi and so forth. It was not a very edifying spectacle.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, it's over now for now. Jackson Baker is a senior editor and political reporter for the Memphis Flyer newspaper. He joined us from member station WKNO. Thank you so much for talking to us. I enjoyed it.

Mr. BAKER: I enjoyed it.

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