Ex-Mayor Makes Memphis Primary About Race

Adrian Sainz, MSNBC, July 24, 2010

In the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a once-unbeatable former mayor wants the Democratic congressional primary to be a referendum on race.

Willie Herenton is accusing white two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of “trying to act black.” He tells voters in this majority-black city that they “need to come off that Cohen plantation and get on the Herenton freedom train.”

But President Barack Obama has endorsed Cohen, who has an “A” rating from the NAACP and has built support in the black community by supporting civil rights legislation and bringing much-needed federal funding to Memphis schools and hospitals.

{snip} [Cohen said,] “President Obama’s election proves that voters don’t look at race when making a decision in an election.”

Herenton is betting they will. Though in interviews he’s happy to address issues like improving public schools, creating jobs and bolstering small minority businesses, on the campaign trail he focuses mostly on race and his contention that Tennessee needs “just one” black representative in its all-white congressional delegation.

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More than 200 people recently attended a barbecue at Herenton campaign headquarters, and his strategy is resonating with some black voters.

Antonio Parkinson, president of the community group Voices of Raleigh/Frayser, hasn’t decided whom to vote for in the Aug. 5 primary, though he said Herenton’s argument about diversifying the delegation is valid.

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Politically powerful black ministers in Memphis have stayed mum, showing a reluctance to publicly support Herenton.

Campaigns take off

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In Congress, he has sponsored or supported legislation addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system and apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

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Until Cohen took office, the district belonged to the Ford political machine. Harold Ford Sr., who has endorsed Cohen, was elected the state’s first black congressman in 1974. Harold Ford Jr. replaced his dad in 1996, then gave up the seat to make an unsuccessful bid for Senate a decade later.

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But Herenton, who is respected for improving the city’s economy, luring corporate investment and helping revitalize downtown, has never lost an election. He spent 18 years as mayor and 12 years before that as superintendent of schools.

He resigned last year amid a federal corruption investigation into whether he used his city office to help his private real estate deals, but the probe has gone dormant and likely is over after last month’s Supreme Court ruling on corruption laws.

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