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VOL. 127 | NO. 128 | Monday, July 2, 2012

Hart Discusses Congressional Bid With The Memphis News

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Countywide school board member Tomeka Hart talked with The Memphis News editorial board this month about her candidacy in the Aug. 2 Democratic Congressional primary – a challenge of incumbent Congressman Steve Cohen in the 9th District.

Hart’s challenge comes as Cohen seeks a fourth term after impressive victories over aggressive challengers in three past primaries, including former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton in the 2010 primary.


This is an edited transcript of the conversation with publisher Eric Barnes and reporter Bill Dries.

TMN: Why did you decide to challenge a highly funded entrenched incumbent Congressman?

Hart: I didn’t run for school board because I was trying to get into politics. I just thought that was a great avenue to make changes in the community. … In 2007 … my first trip to Washington, D.C., I met with Senator Alexander, Senator Corker, Congressman Blackburn, Congressman Tanner and Congressman Cohen. I said to Cohen, ‘Really, your most important role here is to build relationships with Senator Alexander and Senator Corker and the party in power. … Instead of talking about that his response was ‘What’s your favorite barbecue place?’ That’s what bothered me. … I just have always been frustrated with the leadership here.

TMN: So, you’re not so much running against Cohen’s voting record but what you see as a lack of leadership?

Hart: Yes.

TMN: To what degree can he show leadership in a Republican dominated Congress?

Hart: If the answer is the only way he can successful is if the Democratic party is the majority, then he doesn’t need to be there. He needs to come home and let someone else get there. I think there is clear leadership in working across party lines. He spends a lot of time blaming Republicans. And I get that. I understand the environment, but you can’t return divisiveness with divisiveness. You can’t be divided and that’s the answer. I happen to know that he’s not working with the Republicans. We’re missing out on opportunities. … What I see in that seat is a more proactive way of leading out. On the school board, there was something extra when we went to Seattle and sought out The Gates Foundation. The $21 million that we needed to raise locally in that 2-3 year period, we were able to do it in six months.

TMN: Is an example of that the whole issue with the airport?

Hart: I don’t care what anybody says, there a solution. Among the airport authority, the chamber, FedEx, Delta – there’s a solution somewhere in there. As a leader, you have the power to convene. I heard Mayor Luttrell say the other day the power of a leader is the ability to convene. All of the things that Steve is doing now -- the questioning of Holder and everything – that cannot happen just because a Facebook page has popped up and your challenger has been on there. He brags about being on the Transportation Committee but is that really affecting and improving the lives of his constituents or is it just about the corporations? I think we miss out, I’m sure, on more than we ever know because you can’t have these petty, “I don’t like someone.”

TMN: How much has the schools merger bled over into the reaction you are encountering as a candidate in this race?

Hart: Not as much as I thought. There are people who come up to me and say I’m supporting you because I like what you were doing with the merger. We use that as an example of proactive and bold leadership. … There are certainly some people who were opposed to the merger who may still be opposed to the merger. It doesn’t matter where you are on the merger. You’ve got to know that if you need leadership that’s going to stick to its guns, that’s going to take punches and be accountable for results. … It is a contrast. Steve doesn’t have a real record on education and I submit that I do.

TMN: It’s probably your signature moment. Are you happy with the outcome? Is it playing out how you expected it?

Hart: It actually is playing out less chaotically than I thought it would. People say the school system is disrupted. No. Teachers are showing up everyday. We thought they would. The disruption has been among the policy makers and the administration. I didn’t really know how the teaching would pan out. I was fearful of that. … I think the proponents of the Norris-Todd law are probably more disappointed than I am. I submit that Norris-Todd was never meant to be implemented. It was based on if Memphis voted. I think it was a scare tactic and they thought Memphians would say no to a merger. So we did it and as a result Sen. Mark Norris has spent a lot of time this year trying to clean it up. It was a pretty sloppy law. It left a whole lot open. It actually did not give power to the transition planning commission that they thought they would have. And who knew the judge was going to blend the board?

TMN: In this campaign, how is the money game – fundraising?

Hart: I knew it was going to be challenging. Quite honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to be as challenging as it has been. … But there are other ways to reach voters. I am lucky to work for an organization that has supported me taking a leave of absence. I’ve been doing this full time since May. We’re still pushing. We’re still trying. … There’s still a path to victory for us. We’re doing the right stuff. We’d like to have more money. But we had already charted our path to victory. We knew and we realized before the filing date that we weren’t gong to raise the money that we wanted to raise. But we made a decision that that wasn’t going to keep us out of the race. There’s a lot we can do.

TMN: Is race an issue in this campaign. For the last two people who ran against Cohen, it was an issue. Does it drive you at all?

Hart: That is not why I’m in this race. I am an African-American woman. Steve uses race offensively and defensively and he gets away with it. He plays it and then acts like everyone else played it first. Even when it was announced that I was running, he said he heard there was going to be a consensus black candidate. A consensus black candidate and the only black candidate are two different things. I can tell you I am nobody’s consensus black candidate because I am working hard and these are not people who are saying they will vote for me because I am black. We didn’t have a meeting and everybody black said they are going to vote for me.

TMN: Cohen does appeal to black and white voters.

Hart: Black people have been voting for white people forever. It’s not new. … I have a great constituency among all colors. I have relationships too. I think that Mayor Herenton was intentional in how he ran (in the Democratic Congressional primary in 2010) and what he did. He didn’t really campaign. I don’t know that we can use that race to project what will happen.

TMN: To the degree he campaigned, he campaigned as a black candidate with the slogan of “Just One” meaning just one black Congressman in the state.

Hart: I will say this, Herenton as a messenger – the messages never got through. But if you have an intellectual conversation about what he was saying – if FedEx didn’t have any black people working there, everybody would be focused in saying a multi billion dollar business can’t have one minority. … When you looked at the picture of the Congressional delegation that was powerful. The message he was trying to send made sense. The problem is it’s not just race -- it doesn’t mean that someone who is white can’t be pushing issues that are important to the black community. But we know we are looking at an eight county metropolitan statistical area that is on the verge of being the first majority black MSA in the country. You can’t have that group be divorced because then this MSA is doomed. We’re never going to attract all of these businesses. We are never going to get people here if we have such poverty. Those are issues that I think any candidate should talk about.”

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