Nearly three decades ago (following the 1980 Census), the lines of the 9th Congressional District were drawn in such a way that Shelby County's majority African American population could be reasonably assured of having one of their own represent them in Congress. That change took place during Harold Ford Sr.'s third term and for the next 26 years that assurance held.
Why, then, is the 9th in danger of not being represented by an African American? The simplest answer is that the African American vote was split between twelve candidates.
With only one exception- namely, long-time Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton- there was little in the background of the African American candidates to lend legitimacy to their quest for such an important office.
Selfish, ego-driven individuals took opportunistic license by running for a seat they clearly could not win.
Tinker, a 33-year old corporate attorney, has only lived in Shelby County for a short time and has evidenced minimal involvement with the community. She claims to have been Harold Ford Jr.'s campaign manager in previous elections. The congressman's father, Harold Ford Sr., downplayed that claim, however, by stating, “Harold Jr. hasn't had any opposition, so what was there to really manage?” Ford campaigned solely on his family name and as of the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) filing report deadline had not even bothered to file a report.
Tinker brought one thing and one thing only to this campaign — hundreds of thousands of dollars — more than $750,000 in fact. That total included $527,916 in direct contributions according to the latest FEC filing and an estimated $250,000 spent by EMILY's List by way of direct contributions, in-kind services and mailouts supporting her candidacy. EMILY's List is the nation's largest financial resource for women running for elective office. That organization's primary criteria for support is that the candidate be female and pro-choice.
Tinker campaigned divisively on the basis of her being female when, in fact, Memphis and Shelby County African American voters have elected many African American women to public office. Former City Councilman, County Commisioner and Court Clerk Minerva Johnican, Tennessee State House Speaker Pro Tempora Lois Deberry, and current City Council Chairman Tijuan Stout-Mitchell are just a few of a long list that come to mind. The African American community in Memphis and Shelby County enjoys an excellent record of embracing African American women in all aspects of its political culture.
This faulty tactic revealed Tinker limited knowledge of the district she sought to represent. But then, what else did she really have to offer?
Ford, also an attorney, only came back to Memphis earlier this year, apparently for the sole purpose of running for Congress. His experience as an entertainment lawyer in no way prepared him for this highly responsible legislative position. In addition, it appeared that Ford had no passionate interest in winning the election. His campaign efforts were minimal and he seemed to be relying solely on name recognition to attract votes.
Towards the end of the campaign, Ford's uncle, Harold Sr., who contributed $2,100 to Julian Bolton's campaign, said, “Joe hasn't done anything to get votes but with all the confusion people are going to simply go with 'the brand name.”' As it turned out, more than 9,000 voters punched the “Ford name brand” on the ballot - 9,000 votes that insured no other African American candidate could win.
That the voters were both confused and frustrated can be seen in the election return totals by precinct. For example, all the voters who cast their ballots in the Tennessee Senate, District 33 race live in the 9th Congressional District. This race pitted indicted incumbent Kathryn Bowers (who won) against three opponents. In that race, an average of 454 voters per precinct cast their ballot. By comparison, in the ninth district race, only an average of 360 voters per precinct cast ballots. This prompted one observer who spoke in anonymity to comment, “People would rather vote for someone who might be going to jail than for one of those turkeys who sold us out.”
At the other extreme of competition in terms of the average number of ballots cast by precinct in the 9th District, Sidney Chism was without opposition for the Shelby County Commission. Although Chism had no opponent, an average of 405 votes per precinct were cast in this race - 50 more on average than in the District 9 debacle.
Finally, in the hotly contested court clerk races (Circuit Court, Probate Court, Juvenile Court, and Criminal Court), in which each race had only one African American candidate, the ballot average cast in each precinct exceeded 500. These figures and suggest that as many as 30,000 votes were left on the table out of frustration and/or disgust. In the 9th, this estimated 30,000 votes (7,000 more than Tinker's money “bought”) votes could have easily made the difference in preserving African American representation in the 9th.
What could have been done to avoid the tragic loss of African American representation? It is difficult to think that the 12 African Americans in the race were not aware that such a crowded field would only result in loss.
From the outset there was rampant doubt among African American voters that any African American candidate could win in such a crowded field. Only the most egotistical of candidates could have assumed otherwise.
Why, then, if it was important to the candidates themselves that this cherished representation be preserved, did they not come together to agree upon a consensus candidate to carry the banner? Could it be that they, especially the two biggest culprits, Tinker and Ford, did not care?
What were Tinker and Ford's (or their promoters') motives given the fact that neither of them had a remote chance of winning. Who encouraged Tinker to get into this race or placed her in it? And how did they raise more than half million dollars for the candidacy of one who brought no legitimate credentials for this office to the table?
Could it be that whomever or whatever entity orchestrated Tinker's entry into the race and subsequent campaign had too much invested to allow her to compromise her position? It is difficult to believe someone who has been in Memphis for only a short time or so, has limited local “connections” and until last year was a political unknown would of her own volition seek such high office in her first political outing.
Another view might be that Tinker simply used this campaign as a means to establish identity for a future run at elected office. Then, perhaps her motive was to position herself for a career promotion. One observer at her headquarters on election night reported her to have indicated that going to Washington as a lobbyist might be part of her plans for the future.
In any event, neither of those motives were in the best interests of residents of the 9th Congressional District.
Now, back to Ford — why was he in the race? Could his presence in the race have been (as some have suggested) for the purpose of helping insure a Steve Cohen victory thus rendering him (Cohen) subject to being a “one-term congressman.” That is, a white congressman vulnerable to defeat by an African American in 2008.
If this was the plan, it (although shameful) makes good political sense. It would have been much more difficult for a Ford to defeat a sitting African American congressman representing the 9th in 2008. Or perhaps Ford was trying to help the independent candidate (his cousin, Jake Ford)? Who knows.
As long as the boundaries remain as they are, only two situations can occur to prevent an African American from being elected to Congress from the 9th district One would arise if African Americans collectively decided they preferred someone who is not African American to represent them. The other is one in which several relatively high profile and/or well-financed African American candidates run for the office and dilute African American voting strength. This is what occurred during this election.
Some claim that all of this is “much ado about nothing.” Not true. African Americans have been historically unrepresented and underrepresented in local, state and national government. Significant change only came about when congressional district lines were redrawn to insure the reasonable expectations of African Americans having the opportunity of being elected. The district was designed to facilitate African American representation — Tinker and Ford, more than anything or anyone else, destroyed that hope.
Shamefully, what we just witnessed in the 9th Congressional District election was either an intentional or an oblivious disregard of the purpose of American representative government.
Ideally, and at some point in time, differences of race will not be of socio-economic or political consequence in America. Realistically, however, that time is not yet upon us.
In conclusion, Steve Cohen's previous record as a state senator suggests he will make a good Congressman, if elected in the November general election. As has been previously noted, this analysis has never been about Senator Cohen's suitability for the position. Rather, it is about the blatant disregard of a group of African Americans who concerned more with personal aggrandizement than the well-being of the residents of the 9th Congressional District.
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