By Zack McMillin, Memphis Commercial Appeal
November 7, 2010

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has seen the new political maps. In fact, had you given him a crayola even before Tuesday’s elections, he could have colored in all that red himself — surrounding that speck of blue along the Mississippi River representing Memphis.

The most popular Democrat in Shelby County won’t say that’s why he agreed to a September meeting in his offices with Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam complete with media photo-op. But the message, intended or not, was hard to ignore — barring a political catastrophe, Haslam and other Republicans would be in charge at the state and federal levels and Wharton would do whatever he could to gain influence with them.

If that meant political hand-holding with a man leading a party opposed to Wharton on a myriad of issues, so be it. That moment, in a nutshell, is the new political reality facing Memphis and Shelby County — an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red.

On Thursday, as Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was holding a town hall meeting at City Hall (he’s up for election in 2012), Wharton candidly addressed the new dynamic.

“Quite frankly, it may be a blessing in disguise because maybe we turn a bit more insular and acknowledge … that we don’t stand a ghost of a chance if we go up against a red state in a divisive fashion,” Wharton said. “There is no room for infighting at all. It was rough enough in a blue state. Now in a red state these divisions will be exploited.”

At the federal level, Tennessee goes from a congressional delegation with 5-4 Democratic majority to one dominated by Republicans, 7-2 — four of them freshmen and three of them with zero experience at any legislative level lobbying for help for constituents.

Arkansas and Mississippi flipped from 3-1 Democratic majorities to 3-1 Republican, with the districts bordering Memphis in Mississippi and Arkansas also replacing Democrats with freshmen Republicans.

State Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Democratic minority leader, can list some reasons for optimism but says bluntly: “I’m afraid the city of Memphis is going to be made to understand what less federal spending means.”

But Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen, going into his third term representing the 9th District, remains positive. Though he no longer can partner with fellow Democratic congressmen John Tanner, Bart Gordon and Lincoln Davis of Tennessee (and Arkansas’ Marion Berry and Mississippi’s Travis Childers), the loss of 60-plus Democrats means Cohen’s seniority goes up substantially.

“It’s going to fall on me to do more,” Cohen said last week.

While Cohen proudly trumpets the federal money, including earmarks, his office obtains for places such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the University of Memphis and the Memphis International Airport, 7th District U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is opposed to the earmarking process and does not actively pursue them for her district — a principled stand that nonetheless has real consequences for businesses and institutions in Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Arlington.

The incoming 8th District freshman Republican Stephen Fincher’s campaign promised to support spending cuts, although the federal government has given his family and many of his most significant supporters many millions of dollars to grow cotton and soybeans, among other crops.

Fincher, whose district for at least one more term includes Millington and parts of Frayser and Raleigh, told the Jackson Sun: “I will be a servant to all — it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, a Republican or whoever. We may need to agree to disagree, but we’re all in the same boat.”

Collierville state Sen. Mark Norris, the majority leader, first offered a partisan talking point when asked about the new reality, emphasizing that Democrats had controlled the agenda in this area for more than a century.

“Whatever they wrought is what we’ve got,” Norris said. “Comparing that to what the future may hold after Tuesday’s election, it can only get better.”

Norris and Wharton both seized on one practical point in voicing optimism — because Haslam’s political base is East Tennessee Republican, he may pay more attention to Memphis and Shelby County for political purposes. It also helps that Haslam’s wife, Crissy, grew up in Memphis and both have many close friends in the area.

“This is a golden opportunity,” Wharton said. “He could be to West Tennessee what Richard Nixon was to China. … I believe he is in the best position to reach out politically.”

Kyle, the state senate’s Democratic leader, said two of the most important people in the county now are the two Marks — Norris and new Republican Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. Republican elected leaders will take their calls and listen.

“It enhances Luttrell’s posture,” Kyle said. “On the issues Mayor Luttrell thinks are important, he’ll have an entree much more so than others.”

Luttrell emphasizes his tight relationship with Wharton and desire to push a unified agenda that incorporates Memphis, Shelby County and its municipal suburbs.

“I’m not discouraged,” said Luttrell, who was also a part of that City Hall meeting with Haslam during the campaign. “I think we’ve got some opportunities.”

And Kyle mentions others the Memphis area is not accustomed to thinking of as allies — the other urban areas in the state and region that also are small islands of Democratic blue surrounded by Republican red.

“The challenge is to work with essentially rural and suburban legislators who don’t have any political allegiance to our issues,” Kyle said. “We’ll have to explain more and more why it is important to them to have vibrant urban communities. It compels us to work with the other urban areas, join forces and represent issues important to us.”

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