August 2010 Archives

Students question candidates for governor




NASHVILLE - It was almost enough to restore faith in the future: dozens of high school students assembled at the governor's residence this evening to pose questions to gubernatorial candidates Bill Haslam and Mike McWherter.


The students were assembled by First Lady Andrea Conte from Nashville public and private schools, including Tennessee School for the Blind. The students took turns asking separate questions of each candidate. The format kept the candidates from answering the same questions and from talking to each other - making it difficult to gauge differences between them - but it resulted in some new topics they haven't faced before.


Would Democrat McWherter, for example, seek to restore financial aid for local high schools to participate in the International Baccalaureate program - a rigorous program of academic study that gives high school students several hours of college credit? "Yes!" he declared..


Haslam, the Republican, said TennCare will be among the programs that will have to be shrunk to deal with budget shortfalls and that some of the federal health plan mandates concern him.


On other topics:


· McWherter was asked about controversies over an Islamic mosque proposed in Murfreesboro. He said: "There is no question that I am a huge proponent of freedom of religion in this country. This is what this country was founded upon and I always want to promote that. At the same time, I well understand the constraints and problems you have when you locate an institution like that inside of a quiet neighborhood. And so I think as a community, you ought to be able to have some zoning restrictions....


"Now having said that, I think the people who committed the atrocity down there (in Murfreesboro) in burning that equipment should be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That's unacceptable in Tennessee. It's unacceptable anywhere in the United States. We need to find them and we need to prosecute them."


· Haslam was asked whether he supports efforts by some legislators to nullify elements of the federal health reform act in Tennessee that require uninsured people who can afford to buy health insurance to buy plans or potentially face tax penalties. He responded:  "I do wonder about a new plan that forces you to purchase something. I don't think we've ever done that in this country before. So that is a concern to me. Coming back to the big picture, I'm concerned long term about the cost of the health care plan. Whether it's an additional $200 million, the low-end estimate, or $400 million a year, it's going to cost us. The impact to the state is going to be big and its going to be felt somewhere along the way in other programs that you care about. I'm also concerned that employers might find it easier just to not pay insurance, have their employees go on TennCare and Medicaid, pay the penalty and come out ahead." 


·  McWherter was asked about the federal government's program that allows employers to electronically check the immigration status of potential hires and his view on sponsoring legislation creating "real consequences" for employers who are not validating status prior to hiring. Said McWherter: "This is one of those areas where I totally agree with Zach Wamp. He has talked about the fact that we need to do a much better job of making the E-Verification information available to employers. And I do think we need to make that information avail to employers. We need for them to know if there is an undocumented worker in their workforce, and frankly if there is and they're caught, we need to prosecute them and fine them. It creates a totally unfair advantage for small business in this state for those people who are using undocumented workers. You know they are not paying any kind of taxes on them, you know they're not providing health benefits. Those are expenses that small businesses normally incur and it gives those people an unfair advantage. We need to make sure we go after them. As governor, I'm going to do that."


·    Haslam was asked his postion on universal health care and how it would affect Tennessee. He said: "I assume you're talking about the national health care plan that passed this past year. Here's my concerns: the state of  Tennessee is already in a big budget hole - over a billion dollars that's coming out of our revenue that the next governor is not going to have. So we're going to have to address that. Gov. Bredesen called this plan the 'mother of all unfunded mandates.' It's the federal government telling the states what they have to do. Estimates are that it will cost $200 million to $400 million additional. So the question is again, where does that come from? Do you want to take that out of K-12 edcucation, higher education, or infrastructure.


"My thought is, what we have to focus on in health care in America is we have to begin with personal responsibility. You look at where our costs have escalated so much, in the end I think a lot of it is...we're not taking care of ourselves and the government's paying for most of that. Until we introduce more personal responsibility in the system, we're going to have problems with health care costs."



·   McWherter was asked if he's in favor of Arizona's immigration law and would he support similar legislation in Tennessee. He said: "Frankly I think the responsibility for immigration is a federal issue, not a state issue and I am very disappointed that we've got a federal government that has not secured our borders. If we can secure the border between North and South Korea, then I've got to think we can secure our own border. And that has got to be absolutely the first step before we do any kind of immigration reform.


"I don't think there should be a patchwork of immigration laws all across the states. You're going to have a patchwork of immigration laws all across the states. If we're forced into that, then yes, I'm going to support it. But what I want to do right now is work with (U.S. Senators) Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and our congressional delegation and see if we can't get a congressional resolution to that."


Haslam was asked how he would deal with a potential billion dollar budget shortfall when a recent congressionally approved increase in Medicaid funding for the state expires. He said: "We don't have a drawer full of money that we can (say) 'Oh that's a good program; lets keep paying for it.' In Tennessee, we don't have an income tax. That's a good thing. Our sales tax is the highest in the country. We're not going to raise taxes in Tennessee. It's the wrong thing to do.

"Our only choice is either to shrink government or to take that out of some other pot. It would mean taking money away from K-12 or higher education or money away from helping folks with mental disabilities. I can go on and on. We're going to have to shrink the size of state government and TennCare is going to be one of those places that happens."


Is the U.S. Senate broken? Or working just fine?

There is no Senate campaign in Tennessee this year, which is sort of a shame, given the implications in Senate races for President Obama and also because there has been a recent spate of articles on the transformation of the Senate from one of the world's great "deliberative" institutions to one of the world's great "dysfunctional" political chambers.

An op-ed this week in The New York Times calls for various things, including going back to the future with filibuster rules that require the minority party to actually, you know, filibuster by reading from the phone book and bringing out the cots keeping those marginally in favor of obstruction motivated to continue. The column, by Norman Ornstein, does a nice job of explaining the filibuster and calls for modest reforms:

True, the filibuster has its benefits: it gives the minority party the power to block hasty legislation and force a debate on what it considers matters of national significance. So how can the Senate reform the filibuster to preserve its usefulness but prevent its abuse?

For starters, the Senate could replace the majority's responsibility to end debate with the minority's responsibility to keep it going. It would work like this: for the first four weeks of debate, the Senate would operate under the old rules, in which the majority has to find enough senators to vote for cloture. Once that time has elapsed, the debate would automatically end unless the minority could assemble 40 senators to continue it.

The New Yorker published a long narrative piece on the Senate which featured many passages focused on Tennessee's two senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander. Here's one excerpt on Corker and the role he tried to play in fostering bi-partisan teamwork on a financial reform bill:

Finally, on February 10th, Dodd called Corker, who, though he was one of the committee's junior members, agreed to be the chairman's Republican negotiating partner. When Corker informed McConnell and Shelby, they expressed surprise. "It was an odd place to be," Corker recalled. "And yet that night we began meeting." The junior Republican savored the rare experience of creating, rather than opposing, legislation. In response, Shelby's conservative staff tried to undermine Corker, spreading rumors among Republicans and their lobbyists that he was giving too much away.

Alexander was featured as a kind of "institutionalist" who decried the polarization of the Senate but came out against changing rules to make it harder for the minority party to obstruct.

"They'll get over it," Alexander said of the Democrats' enthusiasm for rules reform. "And they'll get over it quicker if they're in the minority next January. Because they'll instantly see the value of slowing the Senate down to consider whatever they have to say." He added that the Senate "may be getting done about as much as the American people want done." The President's ambitious agenda, after all, has upset a lot of voters, across the political spectrum. None of the Republicans I spoke to agreed with the contention that the Senate is "broken." Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate. "The Senate wasn't created to be efficient," he argued. "It was created to be inefficient."

Janes accepts invitation to Oct. 5 8th District debate


WASHINGTON - Donn Janes, the independent candidate for the 8th Congressional District seat now held by John Tanner, D-Tenn., said Tuesday he has accepted the invitation of Union University to debate his Republican and Democratic opponents.

The 90-minute debate at the Grants Event Center will take place on Oct. 5.

Both Democrat Roy Herron and Republican Stephen Fincher will also be on the stage for the event at the campus in Jackson.

Staring at the Sundquist could be harmful

As the partisan gubernatorial campaign gathers momentum, expect to see more of this used as an issue -- Tennessee Democrats screaming "Don Sundquist! Don Sundquist! Don Sundquist!" often and with volume turned up. The Tennessee Democratic Party wasted no time using last weekend's "Thank You" barbecue by Sundquist to remind voters that the Haslam family was closely allied with the two-term Republican -- who lost favor with many in his party for a bold push to implement an income tax that would have eliminated food taxes and greatly reduced sales taxes.

One of the messages Democratic nominee Mike McWherter tested during the primary and is continuing into the general goes like this -- y'all loved my father as the Democratic governor from 1986 to 1994 and you loved Phil Bredesen as the Democratic governor from 2002 to 2010, but you didn't much like that Republican who came in between them.

That's not altogether fair to Sundquist, but McWherter is reminding voters that Sundquist, unlike Bredesen or his father, sometimes used budget stopgaps like tobacco lawsuit money rather than fully balance the budget by matching all reoccurring revenues with all reoccuring expenses. McWherter then tries to link that Sundquist habit to Haslam by saying Haslam is scare-mongering with inflated claims of state budget distress that do not jibe with Bredesen constantly delivering balanced budgets that rely on few if any gimmicks (for instance, he refused to use stimulus money to cover reoccurring expenses).

Even Haslam, in his first general-election commercial, took time to extol Gov. Bredesen and Ned McWherter but failed to mention Sundquist. In the final weeks of the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga was doing his best to remind voters of the Haslam family ties to Sundquist and leadership role Haslam's father, Jim, took in advocating for an income tax. Expect to hear more from the McWherter campaign about those ties.

Some other bloggers around the state have discussed this as well -- see leans-right "Moderately Marvelous" Jenci Spradlin right here and leans-left Southern Beale over here.

If campaign ads were really honest . . .

The Washington City Paper took a cue from The Daily Show and produced its own version of what "honest" ads from that city's mayoral candidates, Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, might look like. We're thinking of maybe trying something similar with some of the contests on the Nov. 2 ballot here in Shelby County and Tennessee.

For example, maybe a Mike McWherter for governor ad where he just fesses right up to voters and says, "Hi, I'm Mike McWherter, and you know my name because a lot of you, especially in rural areas, loved having my Daddy as governor. And you need to know that our current governor, Phil Bredesen, is strongly supporting me and, like my Daddy, Gov. Bredesen was a responsible steward of the budget, didn't give money away to traditional Democratic interest groups and even made a lot of liberals angry. Also, they were Democrats, and we all know what happened to the budget when a Republican got elected. I'm Mike McWherter, and even though I'm spending a lot of my own money on this campaign, it's not as much as my opponent and, believe you me, it takes up a more substantial portion of my personal wealth than his. Also, my campaign is all about jobs, jobs, jobs. And you folks in Shelby County, don't forget I live just up the road in Madison and I've been reading The Commercial Appeal all my life and I don't need a GPS to get around Memphis."

How about this, off the top of my head, from McWherter's Republican opponent, Bill Haslam: "My family has a lot of money, a growing business empire and therefore, ergo, we have the clout to make people bring jobs to this state or else. And even though Phil Bredesen is supporting my opponent, he knows and I know and you know that I'm a lot more like Gov. Bredesen than my opponent. Gov. Bredesen took his wealth and private sector experience and got into politics ... just like ME! (Crissy Haslam head nods in the background) Phil Bredesen was mayor of NASH-ville; I'm the mayor of KNOX-ville (Crissy Haslam nodding). Democratic voters, please turn down your TV set for just a second. OK. Good. My fellow Republicans, I'm steadfast in my commitment to expanding rights of citizens to keep and bear arms, we've got to get control of the illegals  and we've got to stand up to Obama before we lose this country. You back, Democrats? (WINK at them). OK, remember Shelby County that my wife grew up right there in Memphis and her good friend is a schoolteacher who thinks I'm the best. I'm Bill Haslam, and the millions I'm spending to fund this campaign are the equivalent of a week's pay for most of you."

Any other thoughts in other races? It might be worth spending real money to come up with a Stephen Fincher-Roy Herron "honest" advertisement, though somehow you've got to believe The Daily Show cannot resist making a trip to Frog Jump for Indecision 2010, or whatever they will call it.

Fincher and Herron will debate October 5th


WASHINGTON - Unlike their counterparts in the 9th and 7th Congressional District races, Republican Stephen Fincher and Democrat Roy Herron will face off in a public debate for the 8th District seat Oct. 5 at Union University in Jackson.

Both campaigns confirmed they have agreed to the debate.

In the 9th, incumbent Steve Cohen, a Democrat, has said there's no reason to debate his Republican opponent. The day after both he and Charlotte Bergmann won their primaries, Cohen said some of the people backing Bergmann are "birthers" denying President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship and others accuse him of seeking to create a Marxist state. He said those ideas are "not worthy of debate."

In the 7th, Marsha Blackburn, the Republic incumbent, has said she won't debate anyone who might consider voting to retain Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Greg Rabidoux, her Democratic opponent, said any incumbent should be required to defend her record in a debate with a qualified opponent.

Ford Jr., best-selling author, still registered in Shelby County


WASHINGTON - Harold Ford Jr., who considered a run for the U.S. Senate from New York earlier this year, is still registered to vote in Shelby County, elections commission administrator Richard L. Holden confirmed this morning.

Unless and until New York state voting authorities, or the voter himself, inform Shelby County that he is registered elsewhere, the local registration is appropriate, Holden explained.

Ford, a vice chairman at Merrill Lynch and a regular television commentator, added best-selling author to his list of credentials when his More Davids Than Goliaths reached the No. 4 spot on The Washington Post's best-seller list last week.

Holden Ford Jr. last voted in Shelby County in the November 2008 presidential race. His father, Harold Ford Sr., is also a registered voted in Shelby County, although he lives in Florida, and last voted in Tennessee in 2007.

Anger may play big role in midterm turnouts

One of the area's newer political science professors, University of Memphis assistant professor Eric Groenendyk, helped us out with a story earlier this week giving a preview to the Nov. 2 midterm elections. His field of study aligns with some of the themes emerging from this election cycle -- political psychology and specifically the role emotion and especially anger plays in motivating voters.

Groenendyk, who received his PhD at the University of Michigan, says, "Anger seems to be a very consistent predictor of political participation."

Historically, presidents usually see their parties suffer huge casualties in midterm elections, for various reasons. One reason -- a new president often helps the party win close races in districts that are essentially coin tosses that then go the other way in two years time. Winning an election, Groenendyk points out, also means making lots of promises and creating expectations that you'll make changes for the better. And even if a president succeeds in making changes, that often is to the president's detriment -- the opposition now can take aim at a record (think of President Obama on healthcare reform, the stimulus, foreign policy).

"You get anger when you have someone to blame and the president is an easy person to blame," Groenendyk said.

And that is consistent, historically, no matter the party of the sitting president. One exception to the rule was George w. Bush in 2002, when the public was approving of his handling of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tax cuts had raised individual incomes. Of course, Bush is blamed even by Republicans for the losses in 2006 and 2008. Which, again, is tied to anger. Although Obama's approval ratings are now in the low 40s, they are still higher than Bill Clinton's or Ronald Reagan's at the same point in their presidencies.

As Frank Newport, editor in chief for Gallup pointed out recently, "This is not all that unusual for the second year of the presidency."

Gallup polling, by the way, showed that 51 percent of "conservative" Republicans were "very enthusiastic" about voting in the midterm elections, compared to 29 percent for "liberal" Democrats and 24 percent for "moderate" Republicans.

It's official: Tenn. has the highest sales taxes



NASHVILLE - No wonder that both candidates for governor say they won't raise sales taxes.


A new report by the non-partisan Tax Foundation confirms what most Tennesseans already suspected at the checkout counter: the Volunteer State has the highest combined state and average local sales rate in the country - although some cities elsewhere have higher combined rates.


Local sales taxes in Tennessee - those levied by cities and counties - are capped at 2.75 percent, and are 2.25 percent in Memphis and Shelby County. But statewide, local sales taxes in Tennessee average 2.44. Combined with the 7 percent state sales tax, Tennessee's combined state and local average rate is 9.44 percent - the nation's highest, according to the Tax Foundation a Washington nonprofit that monitors federal, state and local fiscal policy.


After Tennessee, the Tax Foundation reports states with the highest combined state and average local sales tax rates are California (9.08 percent), Arizona (9.01), Louisiana (8.69), Washington (8.61) New York (8.52), Oklahoma (8.33), Illinois (8.22), Arkansas (8.1) and Alabama (8.03).


Memphis and Nashville are tied with San Jose, Calif., for the 13th highest combined sales tax rates - 9.25 percent - among the nation's major metropolitan areas, the Tax Foundation also reports. Both the state and metro area reports are available on the website above.


Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., share the dubious distinction of having the highest combined sales tax rate - 10 percent - in the nation.


Unlike Tennessee, Alabama's city and county sales taxes are stacked on each other. So in Birmingham, consumers pay 4 percent state sales tax, 4 percent city and 2 percent county sales tax, for a total 10 percent. In Montgomery, it's 4 percent to the state, 3.5 percent to the city and 2.5 percent to the county.


Ouch! At least in Tennessee, you pay a city or county sales tax depending on where the sale occurs - but not both.


On the other hand, Tennessee is among 17 states that tax food to varying degrees, which progressive tax-policy advocates decry. Tennessee discounts the sales tax on food in grocery stores (not restaurants) by 1.5 percentage points; that is, the state sales tax applied to grocery food is 5.5 percent rather than the full 7 percent. Local sales taxes are added on top of the 5.5 percent.


According to the Federation of Tax Administrators Tennessee is one of 10 states that provide some sales tax discounts - either state or local or both -  for food purchases. Two others - Alabama and Mississippi - apply their full sales tax rates to food. Five state - Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming - tax food but provide rebates and/or tax credits to low-income households.


Tennessee's sales taxes are high, of course, because we rely on them to fund government more than most states do. Seven states don't have individual income taxes at all: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. Two - New Hampshire and Tennessee - have a limited income tax that taxes only unearned income such as some interest and dividends, according to the FTA


Surprisingly, given the current anti-tax political environment, three states have increased their sales or income tax rates this year, according to the Tax Foundation.

• Arizona voters approved - by a 64 to 36 percent margin - increasing their sales tax from 5.6 percent to 6.6 percent.

• The Kansas legislature increased its sales tax rate from 5.3% to 6.3%.

• Oregon voters approved - by a 54 to 46 percent margin - a state income tax increase retroactive to Jan. 1, 2009.


Meanwhile, neighboring Arkansas enacted another decrease in its sales tax on grocery food, now subject to 2 percent in state sales tax rather than 3 percent. Local sales taxes may be added.


Interesting appearance in Shelby County today by Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam today in Shelby County -- he met with all the mayors (except for Joe Ford). First, he met at City Hall with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor-elect (and current sheriff) Mark Luttrell before heading out to Bartlett for a meeting with suburban mayors.

It's hard not to wonder what the Mike McWherter campaign made of Wharton, maybe the most popular and respected Democrat in the area, agreeing to be a part of a tour that at its heart is part of Haslam's political strategy?

The first thing to say -- Haslam is, after all, the mayor of Knoxville and Wharton has known him for many years. It's also true that, win or lose, Wharton knows that keeping a strong relationship with Haslam (and the Haslam family AND key supporters of Haslam like Brad Martin and Allen Morgan) is in the best interest of Memphis. Of course, Haslam's huge lead in the one poll taken since the general election makes them seem even more vital.

The second thing to say -- Wharton endorsed McWherter (after first endorsing Jim Kyle, who subsequently dropped out).  

Still, it was hard not to find significant the image of Memphis's very popular Democratic mayor standing alongside the Republican nominee for governor, inside the mayor's offices on the 7th floor of City Hall, with TV cameras rolling. That would be quite a show of hospitality for a campaigning gubernatorial candidate of Wharton's own party, much less the Republican nominee who came out strong in the primary against illegal immigration, for less restrictive gun laws and against federal health-care reform so popular with Democrats.

"It's not the first time in my career," Wharton said when I asked him, meaning he has done bipartisan appearances before. "I have no idea who is going to win and certainly, Mayor Haslam was by no  means presumptious. The kind of discussions we had, even if he were to say, 'I can't go for this,' these are  the kinds of discussions we ought to have across the state of Tennessee. Without getting into any questions of  endorsement, that issue doesn't come up at all. This is what's good for this state, regardless of who is in the  governor's seat. And that is what we discussed, challenges we face across this state but more importantly the  opportunities we have across the state."

Shelby County Sheriff and county mayor-elect Mark Luttrell also met with Haslam and Wharton at City Hall and appeared with them for the cameras afterward.

Fincher Poll Says He's Ahead of Herron


WASHINGTON -- Republican Stephen Fincher campaign's for the 8th Congressional District, likely to be one of the most expensive in the country against Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron, this morning released a poll showing he's ahead 47 percent to Herron's 37 percent with independent Tea Partier Donn Janes pulling in 5 percent.

The poll was conducted Aug. 10-11 among 400 likely voters and had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

As Herron predicted before he won the Democratic nomination on Aug. 5, Fincher continues to rail against "the Obama-Pelosi agenda," noting that the same poll shows 59 percent of voters view the House Speaker unfavorably and 55 percent disapprove of the president's job performance. Of note to close followers of the Fincher-Herron battle: former GOP candidate George Flinn's campaign manager, Paul Ciaramitaro, has joined the Fincher campaign.

Blackburn won't Debate Democratic Nominee Rabidoux


WASHINGTON - Seventh Congressional District Democratic candidate Greg Rabidoux says voters should be able to hear incumbent Marsha Blackburn defend her record in a debate format, but she has declined the invitation.

"Tennesseans know that to stop out of control spending and the exploding debt, we have to fire Nancy Pelosi," her spokeswoman, Darcy Anderson, said this morning. "They aren't interested in any candidate who would give her one more vote for the speaker's chair, and neither is Marsha. Instead, Marsha is working as a conservative leader across the state and across the nation to make sure Americans reclaim their government for the next generation," she added.

Asked if that meant she would not agree to debate, Anderson e-mailed, "Correct."

Rabidoux, a college professor and lawyer, won the Democratic primary Aug. 5, but has been struggling with little campaign cash to get his message out. A debate would raise his profile substantially but would give no advantage to Blackburn, who packed a brown-bag lunch meeting Tuesday at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center.

When told that Republican Blackburn had declined to debate, Rabidoux said this morning that people in the 7th District "demand" a debate, adding, "Democracy is best served when you have a debate between the two candidates...What does she have to fear?"

Who cares more for Memphis? Haslam or McWherter?

We ran a small preview of what voters around here might expect from the gubernatorial candidates. Republican nominee Bill Haslam, the mayor of Knoxville, is well in front of Democratic nominee Mike McWherter in terms of visits here during the campaign and, of course, exposure on TV and other media outlets via paid and earned media.

In the GOP primary, Haslam also held a big advantage because of prominent local supporters here like Brad Martin and Allen Morgan, and the fact that he married, as he puts it, a "Memphis girl" in former Midtowner and St. Mary's Episcopal School graduate Crissy Garrett Haslam. In the general, however, McWherter will claim even more familiarity with Memphis, Shelby County and certainly West Tennessee, and his father, the former governor Ned McWherter, will certainly work his network in this area very hard in support of his son.

Mike also has a son, Walker, who is a freshman linebacker on the Rhodes College football team. He promises to plan some campaign stops around Rhodes College games.

See below for lengthy quotes from both candidates on Memphis, Shelby County and West Tennessee.

Mike McWherter
The bottom line is I may not be from Shelby County but I'm about as close as you can get without actually living here. I'm a next-door neighbor. I've grown up reading The Commercial Appeal since I was 4-years-old -- admittedly then it was the comics. I have been following Memphis and its progression all of my life. I do not need a GPS to get myself around Memphis, Tennessee. I'm very familiar with the city. I know the issues Memphis faces first hand. I've grown up around watching what's happened with The Med and understanding how important it is to this city and understanding how important the University of Memphis is.

And I've got a son who just started Rhodes here last Thursday. I'm in Memphis a tremendous amount and I believe that exposure I've had all of my life gives me an insight here nobody else can have. And I can tell you when I get through being governor, I'm moving back to West Tennessee. I'm not selling my house any moreso than my fahter sold his. I'll be living right back here next door to Shelby County the rest of my life. And it will be important to me that Shelby County progresses because I understand what an economic engine Memphis and Shelby County are to this state, and unless they are doing well, the rest of the state cannot progress. We can't have one region of the state doing extremely well and another region lagging behind.

Bill Haslam
Memphis and Shelby County and West Tennessee are a big part of what I think the next governor needs to pay a lot of attention to. There is incredible potential here and we talk about everything form the Memphis Research Consortium potential to what's happening with the University of Memphis to what's happening with the distribution-logistics capacity. And I can go on and on. I'm actually very, very excited about jumping into the middle of that and being a part of the answer that I know all of us wants to see happen here. And I can promise you that West Tennessee and Shelby County are going to get my full attention.

I always say part of that is because my wife is from here and she would kill me if I didn't. But it's really, really much bigger than that. But that part's true, by the way. But it really is really much bigger than that. If Tennessee is going to do well, Shelby County has to do well. It's really that simple.

We're back. Next stop: November 2 general election

We're back. Hiatus over. The big Aug. 5 ballot is behind us, but ahead lies the Nov. 2 general elections and a big transition in county government with several offices gaining newly-elected leaders.

As a warmup, here is a link to the CQ House map, which is color coded to show how competitive congressional districts are around the nation. Note that CQ rates 29 of the 433 House seats as "toss ups" and that of those 29, two of them are right in our own backyard -- Tennessee's 8th Congressional District (Democrat Roy Herron vs. Republican Stephen Fincher) and Mississippi's 1st Congressional Districts (Democrat Travis Childers vs. Republican Alan Nunnelee). Both are currently held by Democrats, but Republicans believe they can win them. Both are mostly rural with some urban and suburban areas. And both will be receiving lots of attention from media and political donors from across the country.

Also worth noting -- two of the 31 "leans Democratic" districts are across the river in Arkansas -- AR-1 and AR-2, both currently held by Democrats.

Cohen: Democrats lost for reasons other than race

One thing reporters appreciate about U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen -- he tells you exactly what he thinks and assumes you have thick enough skin to take criticism. So it was that the congressman and I came to have a phone conversation Tuesday morning about the piece Sunday that pondered to what extent race may have played a role in Democrats losing every countywide election last week. I included some of that in today's story where Cohen worries over Democrats getting outhustled by Republicans countywide and a trend nationwide of weak turnout by black voters.

Cohen objected to the Sunday piece, because he says that in Shelby County anyway, white voters actually have a strong history of supporting candidates of the other race against a viable candidate of their own race. Off the top of his head, Cohen can rip off many examples beyond the usual A C Wharton 2002, 2006 and 2009 and Herenton 1995, 1999 and 2003. He cites Kenneth Whalum and Myron Lowery for City Council in 1991, points to judges like Otis Higgs, Russell Sugarmon and D'Army Bailey ("they all ate quiche and drank wine at the same bar as D'Army," Cohen said).

Cohen talked about what he called the "Cody problem," referring to attorney Mike Cody's unsuccessful run for mayor as a liberal white Democrat (Cody, by the way, actively supported Republican county mayoral candidate Mark Luttrell). Cohen says that in political circles, it was assumed a liberal white would not win if squeezed between a black Democrat and a white Republican or Democrat with conservative views on race. "The consensus was blacks would not vote for whites," Cohen said. Hence, he said, his overwhelming victory over former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton was a huge leap forward for Memphis because it showed clearly that voters here are not swayed by racial politics.

Rhodes College political science professor Marcus Pohlmann, who has written books on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways race has affected politics and public education in Memphis, told me on Friday that the "dirty little secret" was white voters don't always vote for black candidates. Reading over the article, I may have portrayed Pohlmann as more absolute than he intended. But his point lined up with what I had been hearing from candidates and strategists during the campaign asking why the burden of "moving past race" was only being placed on the shoulders of black voters. Joe Ford's mayoral campaign, especially, made overt appeals to white Democrats not to cross over and vote for Mark Luttrell. It didn't work, at least not well enough, though of course that does not mean those white Democrats who voted for a man who chaired Bob Corker's campaign in Shelby County are racist. Luttrell can list his nonpartisan bona fides at the drop of a hat, and also point out the support he received from black Democrats, too.

The Sunday piece did bring to the surface a discussion that was very much happening among Democrats. The piece has received its share of criticism, but I've also had lots of calls and emails from black voters and candidates thanking us for raising the issue. That discussion isn't happening among Republicans because they are comfortable with their explanation for the sweep -- they say they had better candidates (including the first elected black Republican in probate court clerk-elect Paul Boyd), a better plan and more motivated voters. Democrats, like Cohen, will go into 2012 believing the millions spent here on TV ads and get-out-the-vote operations by Republican gubernatorial and congressional candidates -- along with Shelby County school board elections -- had a lot more to do with the "slaughter" as Cohen put it. 
We'll have more on Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam's appearance at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn as part of his Monday fly-around "launching" his general election campaign, but am I the only person who found Haslam's use  of the adjective "pragmatic" almost jarring after a Republican when "moderate" was a bad word?

By the way, Haslam had the same answers about whether he would release more detailed financial records, including his tax returns, as he did during the primary. In a word, uh, "No." In a few more words: "Folks are real clear. They understand where my money comes from. They understand that real well. They understand I've disclosed far more than is required and there is no great secret there. What they want to know is have you dealt with situations in the right way? Here's the thing. I have a track record there. I have been mayor of Knoxville for 6 1/2 years. It's not just a speculative situation of I wonder what he would do. Come check my track record and see what's happened for the last 6 1/2 years and I'm glad to stand on that track record."

That question got asked a lot during the primary, though not as often as U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and his campaign wanted it asked. And before Wamp, it was Bill Gibbons, the man who introduced Haslam on Monday, who was frustrated the media did not apply more scrutiny to Haslam, who snubbed the request from newspapers in the Tennessee Newspaper Network to provide tax returns. In part, that was because it was a primary where party loyalists were choosing a nominee, in larger part because it was the Republican primary and financial transparency and the question of whether a rich guy can be trusted just don't have as much traction with Republican primary voters as it does with Independents and Democrats.

There is some circular logic to Haslam's answer. People know where his money comes from (most of it, anyway), he was mayor of Knoxville and handled "situations" appropriately (at least, those "situations" people knew were, in fact, "situations"). Interestingly, Gibbons continued to refer to his questioning of Haslam's financial transparency as a "difference of opinion" but did not back down from having raised the question.

"I agreed with Bill Haslam on the big challenges this state is facing and the approach we needed to take," Gibbons said. "We had some disagreements on issues and that's one of them."

Gibbons added: "Even for those newspapers who initially brought up this issue, they realized there were bigger issues that really determined who they were going to endorse."

Gibbons emphasized that "voters seem quite satisfied with Mayor Haslam's position on that issue."

I pointed out that REPUBLICAN voters seemed satisfied, but Haslam will be appealing to a broader electorate and media do apply more scrutiny to candidates in general elections where the winner takes office.

"He's going to have to articulate his position on this, convince the voters he is correct and I think he can do that," Gibbons said. "Did we have a difference of opinion on that? Sure. That's what primaries are all about."

Have we entered postracial political utopia?

Just in case anyone out there hasn't had a chance to jump into our Comments fray or email me or just tell me straight to my face (as District Attorney Bill Gibbons did this morning) their opinion on my Sunday piece on race and voting, feel free to take advantage of this forum. Basically, we asked whether Thursday's election results really did prove voters have ushered the area into some kind of post-racial colorblind political utopia. Steve Cohen, after his victory in the 9th Congressional District battle over former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, told us "no more elections decided by race" and it sure sounded nice.

Here's the story. One of the things I tried to do was confront the notion that the burden of colorblind voting was falling almost entirely on black voters, because of Herenton's decision to make race an issue in the battle with Cohen. That seemed unfair to me, especially given the history of black voters supporting white candidates, often over black candidates. It is also true that many Democrats and Republicans felt the countywide races would come down to whether white Democrats stayed loyal to Democratic candidates (all but one of whom was black) or crossed over to vote for Republican candidates (all but one of whom was white). This is not to say a voter was somehow "racist" for deciding to cross party lines and vote for what he/she felt was a better candidate for whatever reason, but the point was the focus should not just be on black voting solidarity.

As you might expect, the comments were heated. Several people pointed out to me, as if I didn't know, that white voters supported A C Wharton and, in earlier runs, Willie Herenton. Obviously, President Obama could not have won the largest popular-vote victory ever by a non-incumbent without white support. One more thing to add -- Mark Luttrell receiving support from black voters and Paul Boyd becoming the first black Republican elected in Shelby County can also be seen as evidence of progress.

Bottom line, Thursday's vote in the 9th Congressional race does seem to be another indication that race is diminishing as an issue in elections, but it's also fair to point out that the burden of moving past race should not fall only on the shoulders of black voters.

Votes ahead on policies that impact quality of life

There may be no more important public policy decisions made by the County Commission and the City Council than the votes this week expected to approve a new zoning code that aims to create denser mixed-use neighborhoods that emphasize walkability, biking and neighborly interactions. Daniel Connolly writes about it previewing today's Commission meetings, pointing out it will change the face of the city. Proponents say it will greatly improve the quality of life and provides a longterm blueprint for creating neighborhoods that can make Memphis a more attractive place to live and work.

Daniel also previews the vote on a possible 1.5 percent raise for county firefighters -- with the money not accounted for in the budget the Commission passed using increased property-tax revenue. Interestingly, the proposal to merge the Memphis and Shelby County fire departments would included moving county firefighters to full pay parity with those in Memphis -- but interim mayor Joe Ford killed the idea and moved forward with plans to spend more county money on county-only fire department infrastructure.

Finally, Amos Maki pens a lede as if he's spent some quality time maneuvering a skateboard around Memphis. The city announces it will build a new $440,000 skatepark at Tobey Park near the Board of Education and caddycorner from the Liberty Bowl.

Luttrell concerned about Med, school funding

We've got several important public policy stories in today's newspaper, including my story talking to county mayor-elect Mark Luttrell about his transition from Shelby County sheriff's office at the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar to his new office on Main Street at the Vasco Smith Administration Building. When I asked Luttrell about how he's going about getting a grasp of his top priorities, the very first thing he mentioned was a visit with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who of course occupied that office across the street for seven years.

Check out the story to see Luttrell's thoughts on transition task forces. Some items we did not include in the story that Luttrell also emphasized were The Regional Medical Center at Memphis and single-source school funding for Memphis City Schools.

"I don't think The Med is saved," Lutrell said, repeating his assertion on the campaign trail that his Democratic opponent, Joe Ford, was overstating the extent to which The Med's future had been secured. "I still think The Med has some real problems facing it. ... We still have some real problems with the revenue stream of The Med."

Lutrell said he believes one key is convincing state and federal legislators and administrators that Memphis and Shelby County can be relied upon to manage The Med with efficiency, fiscal discipline and innovation. He would not commit to pushing to build a new Med, although the Republican nominee for governor, Bill Haslam, has given strong indications that he would support of finding longterm cost savings by replacing the public hospital's patchwork of disintegrating infastructure with a more modern, more efficient facility replacement. Said Luttrell: "Before talking about a new Med, we need to talk about getting our business act together here and show we can efficiently use the funds we have. Let's make what we have work before we go out and start building something else."

On city schools funding, Luttrell said the county could well face an immediate funding crisis depending on how the state Supreme Court rules on the lawsuits seeking to determine where city taxpayers should be obligated to provide some portion of MCS funding. If a ruling comes down saying the county must absorb the city funding of approximately $57 million, that would create a challenge; however, if a ruling came down saying the county not only must absorb that $57 million but must then fund county schools at the same per-pupil rate, county taxpayers would be looking at huge tax increases.

Luttrell said he and Wharton breifly discussed school funding "as the big elephant in the room." Luttrell wants to immediately create contingency plans for funding. "We have to start planning for that eventuality right now," Luttrell said. "From the campaign I picked up the current administration has not put a great deal of thought into it."

Why didn't Wharton stump for Democrats?

Speaking of A C Wharton, can any area Democrats explain why Memphis's mayor was not active in helping his fellow Democrats during this county election? Why didn't we see him out campaigning at the very least for fellow Democrats Joe Ford and Randy Wade?

Obviously, Mayor Wharton is busy enough handling city business, and it's no secret he very strongly believes in city-county consolidation as the best way to prevent taxes from skyrocketing and services from eroding over the next decade. But Ford and Wade surely know that Wharton could have helped them. Imagine a commercial for Wade with Wharton, the former public defender, using his remarkable communications skills to make a closing argument in the sheriff's race. Think that might have been worth 7,000 votes? It is true that Joe Ford's abandonment of some of Wharton's top priorities, like functional and comprehensive consolidation and single-source school funding, made it difficult for Wharton to get behind his fellow Democrat.

Wharton said when he was elected he would not shy away from using his political capital to help elect people who would help push his agenda for the city and region -- or using it to help defeat those who might stand in its way. He obviously kept that considerable cache of political powder dry in this cycle, however. What Democrats need most from Wharton, it seems, is for him to get out and recruit fresh, talented candidates who could prevent Republicans from taking crossover Democratic votes.

Path to county mayoral seat starts at 201 Poplar

Only a few people have asked about the lede in my story on Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell's county mayoral victory, pointing out that he becomes the fourth elected county mayor to have served a stint as sheriff. We knew Roy Nixon (1st county mayor, elected 1975) and Bill Morris (2nd county mayor) but a trusted friend's email sent us to the newspaper morgue (what we call our library of clip files) to confirm that Jim Rout (3rd county mayor) did indeed serve as interim sheriff for the first month of 1976, after Nixon became mayor.

So we have had five elected county mayors, all of them winning by at least 12 percentage points and at least 12,000 votes ... and four of those five had a stint as Shelby County Sheriff. When you consider that now-Memphis mayor A C Wharton, the one exception, was chief of the public defender's office for so many years, it creates an interesting picture of what voters want (or do not want) out of their county mayor. Law-and-order/legal expertise seems to be valued, though to be fair Rout -- who had also served as county coroner when there was such a thing -- was much more known as a county commissioner with business experience.

And one more thought -- if in November county commissioners Wyatt Bunker and/or Mike Ritz had voted against Joe Ford in the final round of voting to fill out Wharton's term, it's very likely Otis Higgs would have been the interim mayor. And Higgs, you may recall, served ably as interim county sheriff after the Jack Owens suicide.

Hoover-Pickler race could help Luttrell, Oldham

The CA's prolific and thorough county government reporter, Daniel Connolly, passes along some election analysis from county commissioner Mike Ritz. Essentially, Ritz is saying the intense battle for District 5 of the Shelby County school board between incumbent David Pickler and software executive Ken Hoover is generating massive turnout participation that could aid Republicans countywide like Mark Luttrell in the county mayoral race and Bill Oldham in the sheriff's race.

From Daniel:

He said that five of the six precincts where there was the highest penetration of voter turnout were in areas where Hoover and Pickler were battling for the school board seat. "They've waged a very kind of vicious and kind of hand-to-hand combat out here," Ritz said.

He says most of the people who voted in the county school board race are likely Luttrell voters. "That one race could make Luttrell if it's a close race," he said. He also said it would also potentially affect Bill Oldham.

Computer glitch will fuel debate

Whether the computer foulup by the Shelby County Election Commission makes a difference -- and how much -- will certainly be debated in the aftermath of today's elections. The election commission has explained that it loaded electronic polling books with the database of people who had voted early in the May county primaries rather than those who had voted early in this election. Therefore, some voters who had voted early in April but not in July were being told they had already voted in this election.

County administrator of elections Richard Holden said the problem was identified and most poll workers notified by 8 a.m., one hour after the polls opened. Both parties and the election commission were urging voters not to leave and to make sure they cast a ballot, even if only a provisional one.

Holden said the maximum number of people that could have been affected was about 5,300. However, we did hear reports that the glitch created some slowdowns at some locations. I also received a call from a gentleman who said it happened to two voters at his precinct, and said he was concerned that maybe someone had impersonated them in early voting.

Expect Democrats to holler long and loud, since this is only the second countywide election held since Republicans took over control of the election commission after the 2008 elections.

Correcting Johnican, clarifying Oldham

We need to clarify a few things from this morning's story looking at countywide races, and correct a mistake. Here is what I wrote in the Comments section.

1) Minerva Johnican, Democratic candidate for criminal court clerk, is 71. We had the wrong age listed originally, and I also added ages of other mentioned candidates. I apologize for the error and the oversight. Also, her supporters believe voters will recognize what they say were her accomplishments increasing collections when she was clerk, and believe she can bring needed innovations.

2) Bill Oldham's letter from the Office of Special Counsel for the Hatch Act reads that the office "believes" he was in violation of the federal civil-service guidelines concerning whether certain government employees overseeing programs receiving federal money can participate in partisan elections. Oldham, by the way, was free to continue running without resigning; the ultimate penalty, according to the Hatch Act website, would have been for the agency (in this case the sheriff's office) to pay a fine of two-months pay. But Oldham resigned as soon as he got the letter, rather than appeal the decision.

Lastly, can someone tell Mario that the Comments section is not the place for facts and figures? Where are the extreme opinions based on hearsay and rumor, Mario? Instead you give us relevant historical data? Sacrilege!

Yacoubian poll: County mayoral race remains tight

Memphis pollster Berje Yacoubian has released results of a poll his firm conducted last Tuesday and Wednesday that found the county mayoral race will be, as expected, very close. The topline results show Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell with a slim lead over interim mayor Joe Ford, 45 percent to 42 percent, down slightly from an earlier Yacoubian poll that showed Luttrell up 46 to 41. Undecideds remained the same -- 13 percent. The poll had 457 respondents, 147 of whom had already voted and 310 who were "definitely" or "probably" going to vote. It had a margin of error of plus-minus 5 percent at the 95 percent level.

Supporters of either candidate could find things to emphasize in the poll, but the Joe Ford camp is cheering the apparent uptick in support from white voters for Ford. Yacoubian said that white support for Ford rose 18 percent and Luttrell's white support dropped 21 percent. That's somewhat misleading because Ford's numbers among white voters were so low in the first place, but it is giving Ford's supporters reason to believe.

Citing various ingredients, Yacoubian concludes: "If Democratic voter turnout reaches 60 percent of the total August 5th (compared to 56% in the early vote), Ford would win by 51% to 49%."

Given the motivation Republican voters have shown, that is one very big "IF."

Want a new public hospital? Elect this man.

I've been rereading some of my favorite passages from "All The King's Men," the great book about power and politics based in part on Huey Long, the larger-than-life Louisiana politician. And I happened across this passage, where The Boss, aka Gov. Willie Stark, is laying out his ambitions to Jack Burden, the narrator whose job it is to reveal how his boss will go to any length to get what he wants.

I would kneel down kiss a Memphis sidewalk in midday heat if either of our current county mayoral candidates gave me a quote with this much flavor. That it's about a subject, building a public hospital, that is a key issue in the county mayoral race makes it even more resonant.

"You know what I'm going to do now? Soon as I bust the tar out of that gang?" 
"No," I said, "I don't know."
"I'm going to build me the (gosh)-damnedest, biggest, chromium-platedest, formaldehyde-stinkingest free hospital and health center the All-Father ever let live. Boy, I tell you, I'm going to have a cage of canaries in every room that can sing Italian Grand Opera and there ain't going to be a nurse hasn't won a beauty contest in Atlantic City and every bedpan will be eighteen-carat gold and by God, every bedpan will have a Swiss music box attachment to play 'Turkey in the Straw' or 'The Sextet from Lucia', take your choice."
"That will be swell," I said.
"I'll do it," he said. "You don't believe me, but I'm going to do it."

Herenton vote warning recalls Wilbun's 2007 rebuke

At his press conference on Monday, 9th Congressional District candidate and former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton said he wanted to remind voters that in the 2006 countywide elections, four Democrats who lost narrow races for clerk positions filed a lawsuit claiming voting irregularities had an impact on the final result. A judge heard the case and dismissed it.

The main driver behind the suit was Shep Wilbun, who was running to regain the position he held until an investigation into his handling of the office contributed to him losing it. Running again this year for juvenile court clerk, Wilbun joined the Shelby County Election Commission after the 2006 loss in part, he said, to gain a better understanding of the entire elections process. And so it was that in 2007, one year after his suit was dismissed, that Wilbun joined other election commissioners in hearing Memphis city attorney Elbert Jefferson and Herenton campaign manager Sidney Chism claim irregularities during the city mayoral election favoring then City Councilwoman Carol Chumney.

Wilbun joined the other commissioners in rejecting the arguments, despite Jefferson at one point holding forth for a solid 17 minutes about the injustice being done to a mayor who had won four previous elections. Jefferson even appealed directly to Wilbun at one point, but Wilbun was not, shall we say, very impressed. This is what he said: 

"At that time, that information was made public and, Mr. Jefferson, I certainly would have appreciated and would have wanted those who were aware that upcoming elections were happening could join me in trying to move that effort forward to get more data and research on that circumstance. 

"However, at the time it appeared to be a singular issue and those of us raising that issue were not able to get the support of those others that might have benefited in the future." 

This is worth remembering as Herenton argues that his victory over incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen is inevitable based upon the predominant presence of registered black voters in the 9th Congressional District Democratic primary. More than a few black voters and black public officials have grown weary of Herenton over the years, and believe he's an opportunistic politician who appeals to solidarity only when it suits him. And Cohen has cultivated a reputation for constituent service so strong that Republicans have been known to tell their constituents to contact Cohen to help them.

Speaking of Charles Carpenter and Elbert Jefferson, they have not exactly been conspicuous in this campaign. When Carpenter mounted a very serious and genuine bid for city mayor last year, Herenton did not do much to help - which to be fair may have been by design since Carpenter needed to prove his independence from the former mayor. And, there again, the fact that former Herenton campaign managers Carpenter and A C Wharton went out of their way in last year's special election to distance themselves from Herenton speaks volumes about their view of voters' feelings about the man who ran the city for nearly 18 years.

The lt. gov. munches pancakes, shoots machine guns



NASHVILLE - Whatever you say about Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's campaign for the Republican nomination for governor, you can no longer say that he won't break out of his single-minded quest for the votes of handgun-carry permit holders and tea partiers.

No matter how late.

Tuesday, only two days before the primary election, Ramsey will venture into one of the state's more liberal bastions before heading east for a "machine gun shooting" in Knoxville and a "meet and greet" at a gun shop in Kingston.

Yes, our carry-permitted lieutenant governor - the only candidate running for governor so licensed, he frequently tells us - is stopping by Nashville's Hillsboro Village for a meet and greet at Pancake Pantry and then up the street to Noshville Authentic New York Deli for another meet and greet with brunchers.

Both restaurants are in the shadow of Vanderbilt University. Hillsboro Village is home both to aging hippie wannabes and young hipsters, and people willing to stand in line for an hour for a stack of pancakes.

Lest you think our lieutenant governor has gone granola on us, you can catch up with him Tuesday afternoon at Coal Creek Armory outside Knoxville for what the campaign calls a "meet and greet and machine gun shooting," or later in Kingston for a meet and greet at Frontier Firearms.

Meanwhile, rival Bill Haslam resumes his 12-city tour Tuesday with UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl and rival Zach Wamp heads out for a statewide tour of Republican hot spots with country stars Ricky Skaggs and John Rich.


At a press conference this afternoon, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton singled out my coverage of early-voting turnout as misleading at best, calling it either an "act of omission or commission" that we have not provided more specific turnout data on the 9th Congressional District primary battle between him and incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

Fair enough. We've focused on county-wide numbers and the improved performance by white registered voters and Republicans in Shelby County, although the Shelby County Election Commission did send along some breakdowns by Congressional District on Sunday night we planned to incorporate into coverage this week. Herenton's campaign took it a step farther by distributing even more detailed information to the media assembled for the press conference.

In all, according to that data, the 9th District had 43,031 voters ask for Democratic ballots  --  26,798 were registered black voters (62.2 percent), 7,395 were registered white voters (17.2 percent) and 8,838 (20.5 percent) were registered as "other," a category heavily populated by more-recently registered voters who do not disclose race. Herenton said most of those "others" were black voters, although only 323 of the 27,293 participating registered black voters got Republican ballots vs. 3,368 of the 12,288 registered "other" voters casting GOP ballots.

Herenton's camp interprets those numbers optimistically. He said: "On a percentage basis we know what it would take for Cohen to win and it's highly improbable he could reach those numbers." We'll have a story tomorrow with the sitting congressman pointing out that Herenton and campaign manager Sidney Chism are, in his view, indulging in a myth that Cohen's support with black voters is shaky.

But just taking Herenton at his word, he still faces a challenging task. Using rough numbers, let's just go by the basic breakdown of black and white Democratic voters in the district and assume that "other" category is about 75 percent black (6,600) and 20 percent white (2,200), and then let's be generous and start calculations by giving Herenton 5 percent of white voters (he got that or less in the 2007 mayoral election). That would start Herenton at 480 votes and Cohen at 9,115. To beat Cohen in early voting, then, Herenton would need to win what percentage of the 33,400 black voters? Again, using rough numbers, he'd need something like 21,500 to take a real lead, so that means assuming he gets no more than 5 percent of the white vote, Herenton will need to gain support from right at 65 percent of black voters to defeat Cohen.

That means Herenton is counting on a lot of black voters to abandon Cohen to give the congressional seat to a 70-year-old former mayor they already gave 17-plus years in the mayor's office. That means he's counting on a 65 percent of black voters to disregard the support Cohen got from icons in the black community like President Obama and Maxine Smith -- and institutions like the Tri-State Defender and Memphis Democratic Club which have also endorsed Cohen over Herenton. It's also worth remembering that 58-percent of Memphis voters rejected Herenton in the 2007 mayoral race -- although Herenton makes a good point that most of those Republicans who may voted against him for mayor are not participating in this race. 

I'm convinced Herenton and his closest allies think they are going to win -- and win big. We'll see. But many of those supporters also fervently believed Nikki Tinker not only would beat Cohen one-on-one in 2008, but that it would not be close. They were right that it would not be close, but very, very wrong about the strength of Cohen's support among black voters in the 9th District.

Early-voting sets new August record

We ran a story today rounding up the early-voting numbers from Shelby County. Although Democrats improved a bit in the final week, the trend of a much-stronger Republican turnout was proven out, helping drive overall early-voting totals to 93,736, a record for early voting in an August election here. From the story:

Although more Democratic ballots were cast overall by Shelby County voters -- 52,645 (56.2 percent) to 40,347 (43.0 percent) -- Republicans showed enormous improvement in participation over recent elections, especially the 2008 elections, when only 35 percent of Shelby County voters supported the Republican presidential ticket.

Of the 30 best-performing precincts by percentage turnout, only three had more Democratic ballots; of the 24 best-performing precincts by total number of participating voters, only four had more Democratic ballots.

Also encouraging for Republicans and disappointing for Democrats -- turnout among registered white voters jumped and among registered black voters dropped compared with recent election cycles, considerably so when compared with the 2008 numbers Democrats were pointing to as proof that they could sweep countywide offices.

In all, 38,350 registered white voters participated, comprising 40.9 percent of all voters, compared with 31,525 registered black voters (33.6 percent) and 23,861 (25.5 percent) of those registered as "other," a category that includes a large number of recently registered voters who do not disclose race. Put another way, 21.3 percent of registered white voters participated compared with 15.2 percent of registered black voters and 11.2 percent in the "other" category.

That's the reverse of trends from the 2008 presidential election, when registered black voters comprised 40.7 percent of the early votes and white registered voters only 29.1 percent. In early voting in the 2008 August election, 67.6 percent of voters cast Democratic ballots vs. 31.6 percent Republican, and black registered voters comprised 43.2 percent of the early turnout vs. 37.5 percent white registered voters.
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at or 529-2564.

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