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Ex-mayor injects race into primary

By Don Lemon and Jason Morris, CNN
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Race brought into Tennessee primary
  • Willie Herenton hopes voters in Tennessee's 9th District will look at color of his skin
  • Herenton challenging incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen in Democratic primary
  • Cohen has backing of Obama, Congressional Black Caucus
  • Both candidates say they think Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of their work

Memphis, Tennessee (CNN) -- Forty-two years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while promoting the importance of the content of one's character. Today, an African-American candidate who marched with King is hoping the voters in a Democratic primary race will look at the color of his skin.

Willie Herenton, who served as mayor of Memphis for almost two decades until he resigned in 2009, is making race a key part of his platform in his attempt to unseat incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen.

Herenton's main campaign slogan on yard signs, flyers and T-shirts is the phrase "Just One," a reference to his belief that there should be at least one African- American representing Tennessee in Congress.

"I believe that it is very clear to the majority of the citizens of this community that we lack representation. And all we are seeking is just one, well-qualified, African-American to serve in an 11-member Tennessee delegation that is currently all white," Herenton said.

The August 5 primary in Memphis' heavily Democratic 9th Congressional District has attracted unprecedented attention from President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus. Both are looking beyond race and backing Herenton's white, Jewish opponent.

Cohen has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, receiving endorsements from many of its members and a contribution from its political action committee.

The president gave Cohen a rare, written endorsement in mid-July.

"Congressman Cohen is a proven leader in the United States Congress and a strong voice for Tennessee," the statement said. "Together, we passed historic health care reform, and together we're continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people. I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress."

Herenton said that even though he respects Obama, he was upset with his decision to get involved.

"I'm disappointed that the president intervened. This is a local race, a local race that the citizens of this community should determine the individual that they want to represent them without the interference from the White House and the president," he said.

In addition to downplaying the endorsements, Herenton says growing up in an impoverished part of Memphis and spending his career serving the people of the 9th District makes him more qualified for the job.

He draws attention to Cohen's singing and dancing at campaign events, saying he is "trying to act black."

"It's patronizing, it's pandering, it's almost playing on the emotions of the people. And I, like many in my city am resentful of that type of behavior." Herenton said.

Cohen says he is bothered by that type of rhetoric and says his opponent is desperate and looking for a ticket to Washington.

"You know it's something he does, and I think it's grasping, because I'm not trying to be black. I understand the black community better than most Caucasians do because I have spent so much time working on issues," Cohen said. "I represent everybody, and I work hard for people to get them opportunities. And I just think that race should not be an issue in 2010."

Four years ago, Cohen became the first white congressman since 1972 to win the district. Canvassing for votes this past weekend in Memphis' predominately African-American Whitehaven community, many of his constituents re-enforced his belief that his hard work on key issues such as education, health care and the economy resonated with voters more than skin-color.

When he met resident Lillian Fisher and her children, she gave him a big hug for helping her oldest son find a job.

"If it wasn't for you and that education lottery, he now works with the Tennessee lottery in Nashville, thanks to you, so you keep up the good work," Fisher told him with a huge smile.

Herenton has never lost a political election, even though he says he is always considered the underdog.

"According to our polls, we'll get about 80 percent of the African-American vote, and we feel comfortable with getting anywhere from 5 or 6 percent of the white vote. The way we calculate it, there is no way Cohen can win. This is a real uphill climb for him," he said.

Cohen says he is not worried about the election at all and wishes Herenton stayed focused on the issues at hand instead of race.

"It does get to be a drag. The issues should have been addressed more fully. There are differences; the truth is I am a strong, hard-core Barack Obama Democrat," Cohen said. "My district needs a liberal, because we need policies that work for people."

Herenton says he does not want his campaign reduced to just race and that voters should look at his unique qualifications as former mayor and school superintendent. But he says it would be wrong to just ignore the topic of race all together.

"This great nation is still in denial that race matters. In my view, race continues to permeate every facet of American lives. Especially white America is in a state of denial when it comes to race," Herenton said.

Both candidates believe that MLK would be proud of their work.

"I think if Dr. King were alive today, he would support the proposition that the American democracy fosters inclusion, the American democracy respects representation of diverse people in his government, and he would be sympathetic and would be encouraging to a group of people that seek representation," Herenton said.

And asked about what people will be saying on August 6, a day after the election, Cohen says he hopes people will see Memphis in a different light.

"I think they will be saying that citizens of the 9th District voted in a way that Dr. King will be smiling upon, voting on the content of their character and not the color of their skin."