The following article is taken from the July 2009 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
On the River: Cohen & Herenton: Part I
By: Jonathan Lindberg
Make no mistake; the last thing Congressman Steve Cohen wanted was for Willie Herenton to enter the race for the Ninth Congressional District. Cohen has spent the past four years working to clear the field of any substantial African-American opposition within his district. His 2007 victory over a well-funded and quite-determined Nikki Tinker was seen by many as a mandate. Consequently, Cohen should have sailed this year as a strong incumbent for the Ninth Congressional seat.
Why then does Steve Cohen seem, in many senses, the underdog in a head-on race with Willie Herenton?
He doesn’t really want this job. That was the initial reaction from Steve Cohen upon learning that Herenton intended to run. Either Cohen was trying to discourage Herenton from following through or he was expressing exasperation that once again he must face a well-funded African-American opponent. But beyond being well-funded, Herenton possesses the one thing that Cohen has not had to face in the previous two elections – a smart fighter. Cohen has had the luxury of taking the high-road in his previous races, almost playing the victim against Nikki Tinker. However, this time around, expect things to be much different. Cohen vs. Herenton could prove to be one of the nastiest elections Memphis has seen in a long time. In his longest explanation for seeking the Ninth Congressional Seat, Herenton wrote in the Tri-State Defender, “Let’s keep it real. Many citizens will be concerned with race and representation. There is strength in diversity, but currently the Tennessee Congressional Delegation is not inclusive.” The message was clear – according to Herenton, only an African-American should represent the Ninth Congressional District.
In typical Herenton fashion, the Mayor took the tone of a father speaking to a child in the Defender piece when referring to Cohen. Three times Herenton wrote, “I am not impressed” when it came to any achievement Cohen had made in regards to race. It is a tone that served Herenton well in 2007 while dealing with Herman Morris, who was marginalized as inexperienced before the race for Mayor took shape.
That Herenton is (we think) resigning as Mayor can been seen two ways. First, Herenton has limited his bully pulpit. But second, he now has the time to devote fully to the campaign. Either way, no other Memphis politician has been able to capitalize on free press and use it to his advantage like Herenton has done over the past 18 years.
Will the attention continue?
Already, Steve Cohen has held two successful high-profile fundraisers post-Herenton announcing. Many of the behind-the-scenes players have aligned behind Cohen, or rather, aligned against Herenton. This is not the first time the business community has shunned Herenton. In 2007, many business leaders who had supported Herenton in the past shifted allegiances to Herman Morris. Herenton used this to his advantage, casting the race as a battle of us vs. them. It proved successful.
Both candidates will be well-funded and well-prepared for a long fight. As in most races, endorsements and early dashes mean little. Candidates must have money the last three months, they must know how to spend it and they must know their base. In all three, Herenton excels. This should have Steve Cohen worried.