Follow this chain of events.
Harold Ford Sr. is running for his fourth term in Congress and he faces opposition in the 1980 Democratic primary from another black elected official – Shelby County Commission Minerva Johnican.
Ford wins but does not forget and returns the favor when Johnican runs for re-election in 1982. Ford backs Julian Bolton who beats Johnican.
Johnican returns the favor two years later by backing a Republican, Karen Williams, in Williams’ challenge of Democratic state Representative John Spence, who is backed by Ford. Williams beats Spence.
Politics can be a set of chains similar to this. And if you look closely enough you can have a pretty impressive chain even if some of the links become a bit thin.
Johnican’s decision to challenge Ford at the height of his political powers may have had its origins in John Ford’s 1978 County Mayor gambit. He and the family political organization talked a number of probable contenders for county mayor in the 1978 county general election out of making the race in the name of a consensus black candidate – John Ford. Then Ford himself dropped out of the race.
On the other end of the chain, Johnican ran for and was elected to the Memphis City Council in 1983 and then satisfied her desire to make a race for mayor by running unsuccessfully for Memphis Mayor in 1987.
The bid for Memphis Mayor was another milestone in local politics which has included few women as mayoral contenders – city or county mayor. Their ranks include Pat VanderSchaaf and Wanda Halbert as well as Deidre Malone and Carolyn Gates.
Johnican, who died last week at the age of 74, will be remembered at a Saturday funeral service.
Johnican, like another departed political icon we’ve talked about recently on this blog – Otis Higgs – certainly didn’t win every political skirmish or battle over the years and she probably didn’t make it as far in elected office as her ambitions dictated.
But that is not always the mark of political success and more importantly political influence.
I’m not talking about the kind of political influence referenced in decisions made by legislative bodies as well as state and federal court indictments. This is influence on the culture of politics – the atmosphere that a citizen jumps into when he or she makes a decision to run for elected office or support someone else running for office beyond voting for them.
That kind of influence is almost always a mixed bag. A candidate who loses more bids for office than they win can influence the way candidates to come conduct themselves and their strategies. A candidate who wins can nevertheless be a cautionary influence of what not to do.
And some candidates define the times only to be left behind when the times change.
The vote totals aren’t what matters the most because the outcome is only the beginning for those who win. Then comes the very different job of governing.
That job begins about where the Robert Redford character in the movie “The Candidate” utters the final line of the movie – “What do we do now?”
Because most political lives involve both winning and losing, the influence of most political figures with any history is a study in how they acted when times were good and how they acted when times were bad and how much responsibility they really own for the good times and the bad times.
Johnican’s political involvement remained even when she was out of the public eye and public office.
Her name turned up regularly on the campaign finance reports of various candidates who hired a group of campaign poll workers she supervised over the years.
Johnican was also a bit of a prankster. The deadline for candidates to file their qualifying petitions at the Shelby County Election Commission used to be an event that drew large numbers of the hopeful, the desperate and the cautious to Election Commission headquarters at 157 Poplar Avenue.
Candidates could check out qualifying petitions without having to specify what office the petition was for. They would fill in that minor piece of information, especially if it was a citywide or countywide office, sometimes after they had collected the necessary 25 signatures.
In this particular election year, Bolton was the target of the prank as he was watching the clock and contemplating no or minimal opposition. Johnican borrowed someone else’s petition and made sure Bolton saw her as she raced around to get signatures. When someone asked what she was running for, she said County Commission loudly enough that he heard and then she started laughing and put a merciful end to the prank.
The last sound truck I ever saw used in a campaign was during Johnican’s 1987 run for mayor. I’m sure there are still some freelance sound trucks out there operated by political independents.
But Johnican’s came with a schedule and a jingle written especially for the campaign and it showed up as rival candidate Bill Gibbons was campaigning door to door in Lamar Terrace.