Issue #22

I see it's time to talk about Memphis politics

New Developments


Last week, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres announced that he had raised an eye-popping $522,000 in the second quarter of 2019, making him the clear frontrunner for this deep-blue Bronx congressional district. Yesterday, he landed a major union endorsement, further cementing him as the main progressive alternative to his viciously homophobic City Council colleague, Rubén Díaz Sr. The New York City Hotel and Motel Trades Council, one of the most active and influential unions in the city’s labor movement, endorsed Torres; the union has roughly 2,000 members in the district, and is a powerful force for field organizing.

As a reminder to our subscribers, we recently spoke to Torres, and you can read that interview here.

New Primaries


Rep. Bill Foster, a leading figure in the conservative effort to remove Nancy Pelosi from the speakership (an effort which Pelosi rewarded by capitulating to their every demand), now faces a primary from the left in his reliably blue suburban district southwest of Chicago. Will County Board Member Rachel Ventura, first elected to represent the Joliet area on the county board in 2018, entered the primary on Saturday. Will County Board districts contain about 53,000 people apiece, and each district elects two members. Ventura was the top vote-getter for her district in 2018, which sits in the city of Joilet.

Ventura, a millennial single mother, says her decision to run against Foster was spurred by the moderate congressman skipping a promised meeting with a group of protesters (Ventura among them) who supported single-payer healthcare. Ventura ran for Will County Board with the support of Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive group, so she presumably has connections with progressive activists left over from her 2018 run. Combine that with the connections that come with being an elected official, and she has the potential to give Foster a real fight.


Businessman Steve Pemberton has officially jumped in to challenge Sen. Ed Markey. We’ve talked about Pemberton a couple times before. He’s head of HR for WorkHuman, a tech company based in Massachusetts, and the author of a best-selling memoir entitled A Chance in the World. In addition to Markey, Pemberton is also joining Shannon Liss-Riordan in the race. Massachusetts is not a state with automatic run off elections, so Liss-Riordan and Pemberton, likely appealing to similar voters, can’t be too happy about each other’s presence.

As part of Pemberton’s official campaign launch today, he released a video. We mentioned previously that Pemberton has been light on policy specifics, and this video does not provide much further illumination on that front, although he does list his three platform priorities as income inequality, student loan debt, and quality health care. What specifically will he do about these issues? Maybe he’ll get around to that later. He did tell Politico, though, that he supports impeachment and won’t take money from corporate PACs.


After months of speculation and increasingly clear hints, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has announced his candidacy for Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District. From our initial coverage of Morse:

Richard Neal has served as a congressman from liberal western Massachusetts since the 80s. His long tenure, institutionalism, and mediocre ideological bent have created an appetite from the left for a new congressman from MA-01. In 2018, local activist Tahirah Amatul-Wadud ran a low-budget campaign in the primary and took 29% of the vote, winning several towns, although Neal’s Springfield base held firm.

Holyoke is a small city of 40,000 that sits just a few miles north of Springfield. Neal won it by 30% in the 2018 [MA-01] primary. Morse has been mayor since 2011 and has been focused on revitalizing the once-prosperous mill town which has fallen on hard times. He has earned notice for his youth (he was first elected at only 22 years old) and for being openly gay. […] Morse has stayed popular enough to be elected again and again, and has put himself out there for progressive causes such as marijuana legalization. Neal is 40 years older than Morse, and has been in Congress for Morse’s whole life; if Morse is looking to make a generational change argument, he has plenty of fodder.

Since his 2018 race, Neal has only done more to invite a second primary; as chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, he’s the sole Democrat responsible for not getting Trump’s tax returns. He dragged his feet on requesting the president’s federal tax returns (which he is explicitly entitled to do), and has yet to take New York up on their offer to produce the president’s New York state tax returns. He also worked to make it illegal for the government to offer free online tax filing, protecting the business of predatory tax filing services like TurboTax. Back in the Obama years, he was a leading Democratic opponent of the Obama administration’s proposed fiduciary rule, which mandated that financial advisers act in the best interests of their clients. (Somehow, that was not already a rule.) The rule was supported by consumer advocates and labor unions, who said it would help protect workers’ retirement savings; it was opposed by Republicans and centrist Democrats, who said it would be bad for businesses (like MassMutual, a top source of campaign donations for Neal.)

Looking more into the particulars of this race, a few things stand out. One, Holyoke cast 4.6% of the primary vote in 2018, which isn’t a lot, all things considered. But Morse has been getting his name out through the local press, starting almost immediately after he was elected. (Side note, in this 2012 interview he promised to stay mayor for at least 8 more years, which is either remarkable planning or a total coincidence). Morse will likely also have the support of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who recently said they were “very likely” to back him. There’s also the looming question of Tom Steyer, a perpetual Neal critic who may or may not have been courting Morse into the race, but is now running for president, for a reason we’re sure makes sense to him. Steyer could get involved in this race, but who knows really.

There’s also the money aspect. Richard Neal has piles and piles of it. As of June 30, he reported close to $4 million in cash reserves, which is a lot, especially for a cheap district outside of any major metros. Morse won’t need to match that dollar for dollar, but Neal will be able to flood the district with money, so Morse will have to play some level of catch-up.


Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of four members of “the squad” and one of Congress’s most forceful advocates for impeachment, could face a challenge from the right in her 2020 primary. Brenda Jones, the president of the Detroit City Council, has been notably quiet about her 2020 plans; Jones ran in 2018 for this seat, left open by the resignation of John Conyers, and actually defeated Tlaib for the Democratic nomination for the November special election...but not the Democratic nomination for the regular election for the 2019-2021 term, which Tlaib won. Jones, not exactly a gracious loser, ran a write-in campaign for the full term; blessedly, it was a miserable failure. (We look forward to Democratic leadership shunning Jones for her divisive actions which undermine party unity.) As a result, Jones served only a few weeks in late 2018 before handing her seat over to Tlaib.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal certainly gives the impression that local Democrats aren’t entirely behind Tlaib. Keith Washington, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, said he wished that Tlaib--who has attended and spoken at a number of demonstrations in Detroit in recent months, even getting arrested at one in October 2018--would “stay focused more on the district.”

It’s worth noting that Tlaib won the Democratic primary in this heavily Black district because several Black candidates split the bulk of the Black vote. While Tlaib got a lot of Black votes in the primary, Brenda Jones got more; in a one-on-one race, Tlaib will need to do better with Black voters than she did in 2018. With incumbency, and her unusually high profile thanks to the president’s viciously racist attacks on her, she should be able to do that; however, she can’t afford to ignore this race.


Rep. Grace Meng has her first primary challenger since taking office. Melquiades “Mel” Gagarin, an organizer, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member, and stay-at-home dad, filed to run against Meng a couple weeks ago, but only officially launched his campaign with a website and everything yesterday. Gagarin aligns himself with the wave of leftist, anti-establishment candidates in Queens and was an active volunteer and field lead for Tiffany Cabán’s insurgent campaign.

Gagarin’s platform currently includes four priorities: affordable housing, immigration justice, universal basic income, and support for seniors. These are your bread-and-butter DSA-type policies, but nicely tailored to the district, which includes a smattering of NYCHA developments and significant immigrant and elderly populations. His “social housing” policy also sounds very similar to the one Ritchie Torres described to us in the conversation we published yesterday.

Meng, who was the first Asian-American elected to Congress from New York and a cosponsor of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, is not the most conservative Democrat, but there are a few key differences between Meng and Gagarin that may come up. In an open letter to Meng, Garagin outlines two key policies he supports but Meng does not: Abolishing ICE, and universal basic income. Universal basic income remains an issue which doesn’t exactly fall on a left/right axis, and it’s unusual to see at the centerpiece of anyone’s campaign. Additionally, Gagarin supports impeachment while Meng isn’t there yet, and Meng takes corporate money while Gagarin rejects it.

Gagarin ran for New York City Council in Queens back in 2009, when he was only 27 years old, but came in last place out of six with only 6.2% of the vote. If that race was any indication, he may lag in fundraising here, but then again, who hasn’t changed in the last 10 years? Gagarin has remained engaged in his community, and the connections he has made while working on Cabán’s campaign may prove useful to him. Gagarin is also well-known within the Queens branch of the DSA, but the group says it is still early for endorsements from them. Since the DSA likes to get very involved with the candidates they endorse, pouring volunteers, money, and staff members into their campaigns, the DSA can only afford to endorse so many people. Similarly, New Queens Democrats (a Queens branch of Our Revolution that endorsed Cabán), is unsure whether challenging Meng is a priority and has not yet decided whether to get involved in this primary.


Rep. Yvette Clarke nearly lost her primary to activist Adem Bunkeddeko in 2018, a near-massive upset that was overshadowed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory that same night. On Sunday, Bunkeddeko announced he was making another run for this very, very blue Brooklyn district. Clarke’s near-loss in 2018 speaks to her weakness as a candidate (and Bunkeddeko’s strength as one.) Bunkeddeko, like Clarke and a plurality of the district’s residents, is Black; Clarke is a reliably progressive vote in the House, making it difficult for a challenger like Bunkeddeko to turn the race into an ideological contest. Two obvious avenues for a primary challenge, race and ideology, were not readily available to Bunkeddeko; he ran against Clarke’s perceived inattentiveness to the needs of the district, which turned out to be an argument potent enough to win him the endorsement of the New York Times editorial board. To get a taste of what Clarke’s inattentiveness looked like, here’s an exchange between her and Bunkeddeko at a debate, from the Times’s coverage of 2018’s primary challenges:

“I understand that Ms. Clarke is upset by the fact that she has a competitive primary,” Mr. Bunkeddeko said at one point.

“Upset?” Ms. Clarke interrupted. “I’m laughing.

(We recommend that article for a nice couple paragraphs about the quixotic campaign of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

With an additional two years to win over voters, Bunkeddeko has a strong chance to unseat Clarke, and rematch between these two is a race to watch.


On Monday, former Shelby County Democratic Party (SCPD) Chair Corey Strong filed to run for TN-09, challenging incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen. On paper, that should be an impressive resume: all of TN-09 is contained within Shelby County, and roughly half of the Democrats in the legislature are from Shelby County. So the county’s Democratic Party should be a rare bright spot of power and organization in the state, right? Not nearly. The organization was so beset by internal fighting, potential criminality, and general ineffectiveness that the state party disbanded it in 2016

At the time, Corey Strong was an Executive Councilmember in the state party and part of the decision making process that led to the dissolution of the SCDP. When it re-formed nearly a year later, Strong was elected Party Chair. The fact that he was involved in the restructuring of the SCDP until it could be re-formed might have had something to do with that. Strong served for a bit less than two years, during which time he was most visible for overseeing a party sweep of the county offices (despite being a majority Black county Clinton won 62-34, it still had Republicans in 10/12 county offices, including Mayor, after a disastrous 2014), sending party aid across the border to help Mike Espy in the MS Senate Special, and calling out Republican racism. He announced his resignation in March, at which point the SCDP immediately descended into bitter factionalism. So while Strong is definitely connected within the party, it’s also unclear how much good that’s going to do him.

An unavoidable factor in the primary for this seat has always been race. Since 1974, some form of the seat had been represented by Harold Ford Sr., a popular black politician. When he retired in 1996, his son, Harold Ford Jr., overwhelmingly won the multi-way primary, with his main opposition being an outspoken liberal, white state senator from the city, Stephen Cohen, who mostly earned support among white voters. In 2006, Harold Ford Jr. forwent re-election in favor of an ultimately unsuccessful Senate bid. Cohen ran again, this time in a crowded field. Memphis was tired of the Ford dynasty, and in addition to their candidate, another six serious Black candidates wound up in the race. The vote was fractured to the point where the top vote getter was Steve Cohen, who earned 30.9% of the vote. In Tennessee, runoffs are triggered when no candidate reaches 30%. Cohen did best in the white areas of the district.

In 2008 he was challenged for re-election by the second place candidate from 2006, in a campaign that saw multiple attempts to make race an issue. Cohen won with 79% of the vote. In 2010, he was challenged by former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who quite directly argued that the seat needed to be held by a Black representative. Cohen won again with 79% of the vote, perhaps aided by a last-minute Obama endorsement. In 2014, he had another serious Black challenger in another campaign that saw race become an issue; this time he earned 66% of the vote.

At 67%, TN-09 has the highest proportion of Black citizens of voting age of any Congressional district. For years he was the only non-Black representative of a Black-majority district, a streak which ended in 2019 when Rashida Tlaib was sworn in. Tlaib, coincidentally, is also potentially facing a strong challenger this election (see the MI-13 item). Other than those two, every district which is 39% or more Black by voting eligible population has a Black representative. Unlike some other white representatives, Cohen seems acutely aware that he represents a district with a largely non-white population. He’s spoken frankly about racial dynamics in elections before, and tried to join the Congressional Black Caucus in 2007 after entering Congress. He was rejected, but stayed on good terms with the group, who endorsed him in later primaries.

Steve Cohen is no pushover, but certainly not invincible. Corey Strong could very well put up a better challenge than Cohen’s seen in a long time. Cohen’s challengers so far have fallen into the categories of “the politically connected” or “those who can raise money”, not both. Cohen’s also generally been in the position of being the most liberal candidate in the race. If that changes, loyalties may change as well.

View comments