It increasingly looks like State Sen. Steve Cohen, who last month captured the Democratic nomination for Tennessee’s ninth district, will be facing a serious independent challenge from the scion of the Ford political dynasty.
Cohen, who beat out a deep field of African-American candidates in the primary, now faces Jake Ford, son of Harold Ford Sr. and brother of Harold Ford Jr., the two men who have held the seat for decades. Jake Ford sat out the primary, and is now running as an independent, but describes himself as a “lifelong Democrat”.
On Tuesday, the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association voted to endorse Ford, a 33-year-old political novice who has never held elected office, instead of Cohen, a 24-year veteran of the Tennessee state senate, according to one of its leaders, Reverend LaSimba Gray of Memphis’ New Sardis Baptist Church. After conducting interviews with all three candidates, LaSimba said, the group’s political action committee voted 4-3 to endorse Ford over Cohen, a recommendation that was then ratified by the larger membership body.
The endorsement puts the ministers at odds with some of the city’s prominent black leaders; at a September 6 press conference in support of Cohen, boosters included Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, as well as civil rights leaders such as longtime NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith and lawyer Russell Sugarmon.
Cohen currently represent a state senate district that is over 50% black. “Everything Steve Cohen has won politically, he won with African-American support,” LaSimba said. “So that’s my whole point. Steve has been enjoying almost unchallenged African-American support in his district.”
In another sign that Ford is playing to win is the fact that Jake Ford was accompanied at the interview by father Harold Ford Sr., the longtime holder of 9th district seat. (In 1997, Ford Sr. passed the seat on to Ford Jr., who is now running for Bill Frist’s Senate seat.) Ford Sr. has reportedly returned to Memphis from his home in Florida to work on Jake’s campaign.
The elder Ford told the ministers “that his son had gotten into this race and he was not going to abandon his son in this race,” LaSimba said. What Ford said “resonated with the committee very strongly and that was [that] Steve Cohen had never supported him, and had supported and served as the campaign manager of the man who ran against him. That hit home with a lot of the committee members. Here’s a man who’s running saying he’s represented African-American interests, and then you tell me on the other hand that you never supported the historical congressman from the 9th congressional district and you have managed the campaign of an opponent?”
LaSimba said that Ford was referring to Cohen’s past support of Mark Flanagan.
Ford Jr., fighting to become the first black senator since Reconstruction from the former Confederacy, is not openly backing his brother or Cohen. And speaking of Ford Jr. … he’ll attend a fundraiser in New Jersey on Sunday, hosted by NORPAC, a major pro-Israel political action committee.