MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Former Mayor Willie Herenton tried to stir up his low-key congressional campaign Wednesday by claiming again that his race is a good reason to send him to Washington.
Herenton smiled for the cameras at a news conference, donned a white, red and blue cap and held up a sign reading “Just One” — a campaign slogan that reflects Herenton’s contention that Tennessee needs one African-American U.S. representative to fight for Memphis, a majority black city.
Herenton, the city’s first elected black mayor, resigned that office last year to try to unseat incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen in the August Democratic primary. Cohen is white, as are the other 10 people who represent Tennessee in Congress.
“This picture is totally unacceptable,” said Herenton, holding up a campaign handout with a photo of the state’s two U.S. senators and nine representatives.
“I’m truly urban. This is an urban district. It has some critical urban needs that you have to feel, feel within your belly.”
Herenton is pushing the race angle in a campaign criticized as inactive and lacking specifics. Herenton has made few campaign appearances and is far behind Cohen in fundraising. The incumbent has more than $706,000 on hand and Herenton has $8,400, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database.
Democrats have held the 9th District for three decades and the party’s primary winner is expected to win in November. The district lines roughly equal the city borders, and Cohen in 2006 became the first white to be elected since 1972.
Cohen’s race was an issue in his two previous primaries, but in those elections he faced several black opponents. This time Cohen goes head-to-head with Herenton, providing a referendum on race and politics in Memphis, where about 60 percent of the city’s 671,000 residents are black.
At Wednesday’s news conference Herenton touched on issues he would tackle as a congressman, such as abating poverty, helping urban public schools and the cutting into the trade deficit. But he offered no detailed plans or strategies he would use if elected.
It resembled a sparring match at times, with references to Muhammad Ali and an invitation for reporters to “come at me as hard as you want to.”
Herenton, a former Golden Gloves boxer, traded shots with reporters who asked questions about controversies that arose during his record 18-year mayoral stint. He took jabs at Cohen, saying he has no record and “hasn’t achieved anything” in Congress.
Cohen released a statement later Wednesday touting his experience in the House, including being appointed regional whip and chairman of the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law.
Herenton said many Memphis voters know him well and respect his accomplishments as school superintendent and mayor, which included revitalizing the downtown area, improving Memphis’ economy, and increasing home ownership.
“For thousands of citizens of Memphis, I will always be their mayor,” Herenton said.
On one occasion, Herenton drew a line when comparing blacks and whites, saying the facts show whites have had better opportunities to succeed than blacks. So, more diversity is needed in Congress to level the playing field, Herenton said.
Herenton’s reliance on the black vote is an obvious move, but he’s counting on help from across the spectrum. For example, he said he doesn’t agree with everything about the tea party movement, but he does “agree with some of their frustrations.”
Later, he said: “I’m going to get a lot of white votes; you may not believe this.”
Herenton also brushed aside some questions about a previous federal investigation, saying he has already addressed it.