High turnout in Memphis

Hillary Clinton is favored in Tennessee, but heavy voting in the state's black population center could bode well for Barack Obama.

Published February 5, 2008 11:07PM (EST)

In a city famous for machine politics, political yard signs, misleading endorsement ballots, and lopsided Democratic majorities, voters are turning out in large numbers in traditional Democratic strongholds.

In South Memphis, Tenn., where the population is almost entirely black, "stronghold" means winning margins of 431-2, 184-1, 666-2 and 934-1 in some precincts in 1996, the last time a candidate named Clinton was on the presidential ballot. But this year heavy turnout could bode well for a Clinton opponent. Tennessee is only 16 percent black, a low percentage by Southern standards, and Hillary Clinton was once first lady of neighboring Arkansas. But big numbers in Memphis, which holds half of Tennessee's African-American population, could bode well for the fortunes of Barack Obama.

"We've had a very good turnout so far," said Sharon Brown, election officer at Orleans Elementary School, one block from the church where Hillary Clinton made her only West Tennessee campaign stop last Saturday. "It shocked me that there are no pamphlets. People have been coming up asking for them."

At Pyramid Recovery Center, election officer Marva Norman called the turnout "astronomical." Five hours after the polls opened, about 200 people had voted. "It's on par with the mayoral election last October."

Citywide, a record 30,000 people participated in early voting in January, and 70 percent of those voters were Democrats.

Booker Mayfield, a 75-year-old truck driver, said he voted for Obama. "I think he's capable of handling the problems of this country," he said. "My biggest issue is all around us -- gas prices, unemployment, everything except racial issues. I do not want to get into that stuff."

This year, there was also no repeat of 2006's infamous "Ford Democratic ballot." For years, elections in Memphis have been heavily influenced by the politically powerful Ford family, starting with former 9th District Rep. Harold Ford Sr. and continuing with his son and successor (and failed senatorial candidate) Harold Jr. Jake Ford attempted to succeed his brother Harold Jr. in the same House seat, but lost in the Democratic primary to Steve Cohen. Jake then decided to run against Cohen in the general. Continuing a tradition of printing up voting instructions on mock ballots and distributing them as fliers to inner-city voters, on Election Day 2006, Harold Sr. circulated a flier labeled "Ford Democratic ballot." It listed his son Jake as the candidate instead of Cohen.

This year, at least one member of the Ford family sounds like he could be supporting a Republican. At the family business, the venerable N.J. Ford & Sons Funeral Home, Joe Ford, brother of Harold Sr., uncle of Harold Jr. and a member of the Shelby County Commission, wouldn't say whom he is voting for. He allows that "of all the candidates, I like Huckabee. I like the way he talks."

By John Branston

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