Thursday, July 5, 2001

Byrd On the Wing

A good payday kicks off the former Bartlett legislator's county mayoral race.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 5, 2001 at 4:00 AM

For some weeks, the conventional wisdom has been that Bartlett banker Harold Byrd was emerging as the front-runner in the Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor.

Partly this was on the strength of Byrd's support by Sidney Chism, known to be close to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and the closest thing in Shelby County just now to being a political kingmaker.

Partly, too, it was due to the supposition that Byrd, as a member of a family of prominent Democrats who thrived for years in the heavily Republican enclave of Bartlett, had significant crossover appeal. Neither Harold Byrd nor his brother Dan Byrd, who succeeded him as a state representative in the early '80s, ever lost a legislative race.

(Harold Byrd has, however, lost two races for the 7th District congressional seat -- one in 1982 in the Democratic primary to Bob Clement, who later lost to Republican Don Sundquist, and another in 1994 as the Democratic nominee against current congressman Ed Bryant.)

And partly Byrd's presumed lead among Democrats was based on his ability to raise money, honed over the years as a leading booster and fund-raiser for the University of Memphis and other civic causes.

That last consideration got a boost at Byrd's official opening last Thursday night at Central Station, where a crowd of some 300 gathered and a kitty of some $307,000 (some of it accountable to backers not present) was announced from the dais.

Byrd delivered a somewhat lengthy formal address, the thrust of which was that the current county administration had incurred too much debt without making enough progress.

He got appreciative applause from the crowd, which included several public officials, former U of M athletes, and participants in the recent drive to bring an NBA team to Memphis.

Other Democrats in the race are state senator Jim Kyle and state representative Carol Chumney. Possible entrants are automobile dealer Russell Gwatney and state senator Steve Cohen.

E.C. Makes His Move

Memphis city councilman E.C. Jones ended some weeks of speculation Monday by formally announcing his candidacy for sheriff as a Democrat. But the councilman, who has considerable support in the Frayser-Raleigh area and a knack for fund-raising, has been put on notice by various Democrats who are supporting the candidacy of Randy Wade, a ranking Sheriff's Department administrator who has the support of Herenton advisor Sidney Chism, who has turned into the city's leading political broker, at least among Democrats.

Jones can expect to see his voting record, which includes abundant participation in Republican primaries in recent years, publicized, and one Wade supporter, G.A. Hardaway, wants Jones put on notice that, if he follows through with his sheriff's race, Hardaway will promptly begin organizing an opposition to Jones' next council reelection bid. His ideal candidate is Memphis School Board member Lee Brown.

Meanwhile, friends of Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore say that he is likely to declare for sheriff as a Republican in the near future.

Is Jim Rout Still Thinking of a Governor's Race?

"It's amazing how persistent these rumors have been," said Shelby County mayor Jim Rout last week about reports that, having been a prime mover in securing the deal that will build a new arena in Memphis for the Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association, he was considering leaving his day job and taking up an executive position with the Grizzlies.

"There's nothing to them, I can assure you, but a lot of people seem to be talking about that," Rout said.

About another widely discussed matter, his electoral plans for 2002, the county mayor was less categorical.

Some have begun to wonder out loud whether Rout actually intended to run for reelection, and he is not ready yet to give a definitive answer. "Most probably, I will run again for mayor, but there are some people talking to me, I have to acknowledge, who still want me to run for governor and are asking me to reconsider," Rout said.

The county mayor ruled out such a race some months ago, and U.S. rep. Van Hilleary of Tennessee's 4th District quickly went on a fund-raising spree, signed up numerous party cadres for his campaign, and became the prohibitive favorite.

But state Republicans are still not united in their support for Hilleary, who, as a congressman, is suspect among those who think that Governor Don Sundquist's lack of success with the legislature owes something to his lack of prior administrative experience.

State rep. Larry Scroggs of Germantown is considering a race for governor, and former state representative Jim Henry of Kingston is beginning to organize a gubernatorial effort.

Rout, as an experienced county executive, is, as he says, being sounded out by various Republicans, and not just local ones, for a change of mind.

* Rout has, meanwhile, acquired a new deputy. Kelly Rayne-Brayton, who had been serving as executive assistant to Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson, has moved upstairs in the county administration building. She was recently named chief legislative assistant and special counsel to Mayor Rout.

The position is similar to, but not identical with, one formerly held by Nathan Green, a longtime Rout aide who is now in private business as a lobbyist and consultant.

* The issue of the composition of the Public Building Authority, which will oversee construction of the new NBA arena, remains unresolved -- but the withdrawal from consideration last week of state rep. Tre Hargett of Bartlett leaves the way open for state rep. Larry Miller of Memphis to complete the legislative component of the Authority.

A new state law, largely unnoticed at the time it was passed and signed into law this spring by Governor Sundquist, mandates that a member of the state Senate as well as a member of the state House of Representatives must be named to the PBA, whose former statutory membership of 9 was thus elevated to 11.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, under the impression that he had the right to name both legislative Authority members, named Memphis' John Ford from the state Senate. County mayor Rout then expressed concern about having his own input, and, armed with a legal opinion from County Attorney Wilson, worked out an arrangement with Herenton whereby he acquired the de facto right to name a member from the House.

Two House members -- state rep. Larry Miller, a North Memphis Democrat, and state rep. Tre Hargett, a Bartlett Republican, both expressed their interest in serving. But Hargett's candidacy picked up some active resistance from Memphis legislators, like Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who resented the GOP legislator's failure to vote for at least one of the enabling bills for the NBA arena in the legislature.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington made a point of endorsing Miller for the PBA, and Hargett, after a conversation on the floor last week with Naifeh, drafted a letter to Rout withdrawing his candidacy and praising Miller.

That gives Miller something of a definitive edge, and it is possible that Rout will name him to the Authority later this week.

After the 11 members are jointly proposed by both mayors, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission will have the opportunity to approve the choices and formally vote the newly reconstituted body into being.

Living the Dream

Hope-Springs-Eternal Department: Joe Cooper, who has held an office or two, worked for various office-holders, run for numerous positions in local government, and operated a number of businesses, many on Beale Street, is mainly functioning as a free-lance consultant these days.

And he has a new bee in his bonnet, which he hopes becomes a buzz in the ears of some of the public officials and private citizens who just labored so mightily to conceive and sell the idea of a new arena for the soon-to-be Memphis National Basketball Association franchise.

Operating on the supposition that the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League are shopping for a new home (a fact that team's owners are doing their best to bruit about, perhaps in an effort to jack up the level of financial support they're getting from the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans, where they currently play in the Superdome), Cooper wants the local movers and shakers to consider enlarging the proposed new basketball arena or, alternatively, renovating the Liberty Bowl so as to attract the Saints.

The team's owners are, in fact, being avidly courted just now by another suitor, Mississippi governor Ronnie Musgrove, who hopes to entice them to a site on the Magnolia State's gulf coast.

After running his idea by both Mayor Herenton and the architectural firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, which is undertaking to renovate The Pyramid for interim play by the transplanted Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA, Cooper hasn't yet made any converts.

The architects told him enlarging the proposed arena to make it multicapable would so vastly increase its costs as to make it prohibitively expensive (given that it took all the political wiles of Herenton and Shelby County mayor Rout to sell the $250 million package that will build the new NBA arena).

And Herenton in essence told Cooper that he has his hands full just following up on the NBA deal, but thanks anyhow.

And if there's one fact that sports-hungry Memphians remember full well, it is that the Liberty Bowl, even as potentially renovated, was long ago adjudged unsuited to the purposes of the National Football League by that league's potentates.

"Hey," says Cooper, perhaps beginning to realize the difficulties he'll have making his case, "what's wrong with proposing something else positive for Memphis? We're big-league now. We don't have to stay negative."

As good an object lesson as any of the heady mood that still lingers after the success of the recent NBA drive. (But don't hold your breath, Joe.)

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