Nashville City Hall Race Captures Political Spotlight

Posted January 29, 2007 at 6:09pm

Second of two parts

There was former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), all over the national airwaves last week, breaking the hearts of Tennessee Democrats. [IMGCAP(1)]

“I don’t have any plans to run against Lamar Alexander,” Ford told CNN, referring to the popular Republican Senator who is up for a second term in 2008.

Even most Democrats concede that Alexander, a former two-term governor and U.S. secretary of Education with more than 40 years on the Volunteer State political scene, will be difficult to beat.

But surprisingly, the list of possible challengers to Alexander does not begin and end with Ford, the charismatic young Memphis Democrat who lost the 2006 Senate election by 3 points and whose future — on the national stage and at home — remains very bright.

Ask Tennessee Democrats about their rising political stars and they are able to identify a few prominent figures who could run for Senate in 2008 — or for governor in 2010 or for a House seat whenever a rare vacancy occurs next.

The list begins with Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell (D), whose eight-year tenure in City Hall comes to an end in September.

“A lot of people are interested to see what his next move will be,” said one Tennessee Democratic insider.

Purcell is an attorney and former state House Majority Leader who also could take a look at the 2010 open-seat gubernatorial race, though Ford and Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) may be in the mix then as well.

Matt Kuhn, the chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party in Western Tennessee and a seasoned political operative who managed Purcell’s first mayoral campaign, said the mayor “is very methodical” and likely would give himself plenty of lead time before jumping into another race.

No matter what he does, the crowded, competitive election to replace Purcell will be the political highlight of 2007 in Tennessee. Candidates in the nonpartisan City Hall contest include former Rep. Bob Clement (D), who lost to Alexander in the 2002 Senate race, and Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, the highest-ranking black official in the Nashville area and a popular local sportscaster.

Looking beyond 2007 to the Senate race with Alexander, Bob Tuke, a politically wired Nashville lawyer and Vietnam War veteran who just completed a stint as a highly visible state Democratic chairman, is talked about as a possible challenger. So is state Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D), who began running for the Senate last year but deferred to Ford in the Democratic primary.

For years, some Tennessee Democrats have argued that Kurita, who represents a district in North Central Tennessee, has just the right profile to do well in a statewide election. The problem for her has been raising money — and convincing enough of the party’s liberal interest groups to back her in a primary.

“She’s a gun-toting woman from the country, but she’s also a nurse,” said Mike Kopp, a veteran Tennessee Democratic strategist who is now a partner at a Nashville marketing firm. “Pretty compassionate.”

But recently Kurita may have become persona non grata to many Democrats. She infuriated party leaders earlier this month by siding with Republicans when the state Senate voted to replace the Democratic lieutenant governor, a state Senator who had been in the job for 36 years, with a Republican Senator.

“I’ve got to tell you, it’s got county chairs really ticked at her,” Kuhn said.

Still, there are other promising Democrats in the state, party leaders said, who, like Kurita, could have broad appeal.

One name in the mix is state Sen. Roy Herron (D), an ordained minister who is a co-chairman of Faithful Democrats, a four-month-old national organization for religious Democrats. Herron, whose wife also is a minister, is seen as a possible successor to Rep. John Tanner (D) whenever the 10-term lawmaker decides to move on.

“He appeals to the liberal labor base but because he’s a minister he also carries the Christian label,” Kopp said.

Another possibility for Tanner’s seat is Matt Kisber, a successful banker and businessman who is the state commissioner of economic and community development. He lives in Jackson, the biggest town that’s wholly within Tanner’s 8th district.

Another rising star in the 8th district is freshman state Sen. Lowe Finney (D).

Democrats, Kopp said, “would love to run somebody” against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), but her district gave President Bush two-thirds of the vote in 2004, and it isn’t likely that it will be competitive any time soon.

Still, Democrats in that neck of the woods are high on former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan (D), who now serves as a senior adviser to Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). Kurita is another possibility in Blackburn’s 7th Congressional district.

With Davis contemplating a gubernatorial run in 2010, Democrats are wondering who could be in the mix to replace him if he makes the statewide race. But his 4th district is so diffuse and meandering — it’s one of the biggest Congressional districts east of the Mississippi River — that it’s hard for insiders to identify an obvious successor.

Meanwhile, the Memphis-based 9th district continues to bear watching. The circumstances surrounding the victory of freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D) were so unusual that he could be a perennial Democratic primary target.

In a district whose population is 60 percent black, Cohen won by being the sole major white candidate in a 15-way Democratic primary race last August, taking 31 percent of the vote. Several well-known black political figures and business leaders ran — and they may try again. If the field shrinks considerably from 2006, the numbers may not add up for Cohen.

“I’m sure you will see some people challenge him,” Kuhn said. “I don’t know who. I’m sure some of the people who ran before will. The big question is, will a Ford run?”

Although the powerful family has lost some of its luster, Ford is still a big name in Memphis, with a Ford now serving in the state Senate and on the Shelby County Commission.

Attorney Joe Ford Jr., a cousin of Harold Ford Jr.’s, was one of the losers in the Democratic primary that Cohen won. Then, in the general election, Jake Ford, one of the erstwhile Senate nominee’s brothers, ran in the general election as an Independent.

Even if a Ford doesn’t challenge Cohen, one of the family’s allies might. Mentioned most often: attorney Nikki Tinker (D), a former campaign manager of Harold Ford Jr.’s who was the runner-up to Cohen in the Democratic primary. She had strong backing from EMILY’s List and could snare the group’s support again.

“I don’t know if [Cohen] is ever going to be safe, to tell you the truth,” Kuhn said.