The first Democratic candidate to announce for Shelby County Mayor, state Senator Jim Kyle, has become the race's first significant dropout.
Just before noon on Tuesday, Kyle had copies of a brief statement of withdrawal hand-delivered to his three primary opponents -- Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, Shelby County public defender A C Wharton, and state Representative Carol Chumney.
The statement read in part: "Both the political landscape and the fiscal problems facing our state have changed dramatically since I began considering a race almost a year ago ..." It went on to refer to the "historically long legislative session" and "political changes" and concluded, "This difficult decision has been made easier by the presence of excellent candidates in the Democratic primary. I wish them well."
In conversation, Kyle amplified his reasons: "First of all," he said, "we were in session too long, and that put me behind. Then we went to war, and that stopped everything again. Third, there was A C, who has as much name identification as I have. But what sealed it was when I determined we [the General Assembly] were not going into special session. That meant there was a very good chance I would be up there [in Nashville] for a long time next spring, and I needed that time."
As Kyle noted, a special session, which at one point seemed certain for the current week, could have resolved the state's financial issues. Without a special session, Kyle -- a key member of the Senate's Finance Committee -- and other legislators are likely to become entangled in a lengthy regular session next year, possibly lasting into the summer as the last two sessions have. Kyle could not have campaigned effectively during that time and by state law could not have raised money during the session.
The departure of the outspoken and respected senator, who had planned to campaign aggressively for city-county consolidation, will probably provide a marginal demographic boost to both Byrd and Chumney -- both whites -- in a county where racial identity always counts for a substantial portion of the vote.
· Until such time as former city councilman John Bobango actually takes the bit in his teeth and gets out on the cinder track and formally starts his expected race for Shelby County mayor, the opportunity is still there for other name-brand Republicans.
To date, a number of GOP hopefuls have pawed the track warily, checked out either the odds or the Democratic field -- which includes several highly touted runners -- and, for whatever reason, backed away. Early on, most of these -- like probate court clerk Chris Thomas -- were conservatives.
As recently as last week, word went out that another such, County Trustee Bob Patterson, was thinking of running, but -- although Patterson has not yet officially ruled the idea out -- it now seems doubtful that he'll risk his current position for a mayor's race.
That's the rub for so many prospects -- the sacrifice of a safe seat in the pursuit of an unknown quantity.
As it turns out, there's another mainline GOP prospect -- one whose interest, ironically enough, may actually have been kindled by facts relating to an incumbency which he'd dearly love to keep.
This is state Senator Mark Norris, a former county commissioner. Elected to the legislature just last year without opposition, Norris rapidly became a player in Nashville. He was elected parliamentarian by the Republican Senate caucus and to a number of other party posts whose import was somewhat more than ceremonial.
In July, during the nitty-gritty last days of the 2001 regular session of the General Assembly, Norris became one of his party's chief negotiators in the Senate's ultimately futile effort to reach a bipartisan consensus on a budget measure,.
While his politics -- especially on fiscal matters -- were dependably conservative, Norris proved adept at maintaining sunny relations with his ideological opposites in the Senate and was a swing vote on occasion -- as when he lent his vote to Democrat Steve Cohen's lottery bill, providing decisive momentum to put over a perennial proposal that had failed of passage for the previous two decades.
But Norris is the least senior Republican in a county which is slated to lose one of its Senate seats during the forthcoming reapportionment based on the 2000 census. Although both he and fellow Republican senator Curtis Person are members of the GOP's reapportionment committee, their party's say in the matter will be subordinated to that of the Senate Democrats, who are likely to place both the hugely popular Person, who has not even had an opponent since 1978, in the same district with Norris.
If worse comes to worst, and that happens, and, especially if Norris gets an inkling of it before the February 21st filing deadline for county races, he may think seriously of a return to the politics of the county, whose fiscal affairs absorbed him during his time on the commission.
· The chairman of the Election Commission, O.C. Pleasant, has all but decided on a race as a Democrat for Shelby County clerk, to oppose GOP incumbent Jayne Creson. Pleasant, who would have to face the choice of whether to resign his long-term position on the commission, also gave consideration for a while to the idea of running for county trustee.
· Pending the resolution of the district lines for county commission District 5, currently occupied by the retiring Buck Wellford, a Republican, most potential candidates for the seat are holding back on formal announcements.
Not Republican Jerry Cobb and Democrat Joe Cooper. Cooper, in fact, is busy constructing the elements of a platform. He, too, is a proponent of consolidation and called this week for the establishment of a Consolidation Charter Commission.
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All that seems so long ago now, but it was all the rage in statewide political and media circles just before the horrific September 11th scenario prompted a previously reluctant Thompson to rise to a sense of mission and to announce for reelection, after all reenlisting, in effect, in the federal ranks.
No one much cares or pays attention now to Lamar Alexander, who has reverted to the condition of distinguished obscurity which characterized him before his late-summer bloom as a Senate hopeful. For those with an interest, however, the facts are these, as certified anew by Senator Bill Frist and other sources close to the National Republican Senatorial Committee which Frist now heads:
The drama in which Alexander was to do his late cameo appearance occupied the better part of a year since 9th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant made what for him was a fateful decision to back off a gubernatorial bid, yielding his place in that line to his colleague from Tennessee's 4th district, Van Hilleary.
Up until then, both Hilleary and Bryant had been eying the Senate seat in case Thompson chose to run for governor (that was the presumed issue back then) or the governorship in case he didn't.
Bryant appears to have gambled that Ole Fred, a sometime actor, would take the part which his GOP lodge brothers had picked out for him, that of providing another, rejuvenated Republican governorship in the post- Sundquist era. Nor for the first nor the last time, though, Thompson declined to be typecast and renounced a gubernatorial bid which meant that Hilleary had his race to run and the luckless Bryant didn't.
Then came Thompson's prolonged bout of indecision regarding a reelection race for the Senate. Bryant's hopes flared again and he launched a shadow campaign of sorts, which was well advanced when the Alexander gambit materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, in August. It began with an unattributed one-sentence item in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Alexander was floating an interest in the Senate race. In reality, it was being floated for him by Frist and/or delegated operatives in the NRSC.
The senator more or less confirmed all this in Washington last week. "We're in a tight battle for control of the Senate. Right now, as everybody knows, it's a single-seat majority for the Democrats and every seat counts," he said. Did he contact Alexander about a race? Frist nodded. "Yes, it was my responsibility to make sure that we had a candidate with enough means and name-recognition to make a serious, competitive race." Was it doubly important to him that the Republicans hold on to the Tennessee seat? "Oh, yeah," he said expansively. "No doubt about it."
And another source, speaking on assurances of anonymity, put it simply: "If Fred had not run again, Lamar was in." No two ways about it.
The reason: Neither Bryant's poll figures nor his fund-raising had generated enough confidence at the NRSC to go for broke with him. (Parenthesis: This was very probably a premature judgment on Bryant, who has a demonstrated ability to wear well with voters who've gotten to know him.)
Alexander, by contrast, was a known quantity as well as a proven statewide name. Given the stakes, in a Senate destined to be shaded one way or the other by the narrowest of margins, he looked good to the NRSC and to its chief.
It's that simple. And, again, whatever the surface noises of the occasion, the reality was that Alexander was presumed by those mostly closely related to the national Republican senate effort to be locked in. Before September 11th stoked Senator Thompson's sense of duty and changed everything.
· District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, after giving the matter "careful consideration" over the weekend, announced at a press conference Monday that he would not be a candidate for Shelby County Mayor. "Simply put," Gibbons said, "I prefer being district attorney to being county mayor." Gibbons' decision puts the ball in the court of lawyer John Bobango, a former city councilman, as far as the Republican Party is concerned. For some time Bobango's interest in the position has seemed more intense than Gibbons'. The two had long made it clear that whichever one of them decided to run would have the support of the other, and Gibbons gave Bobango his explicit endorsement Monday.
In private conversations during the several weeks that preceded his moment of decision, Gibbons had made it clear that he had doubts about the job of county mayor as one he felt strongly enough about to seek or even as one that might serve as a stepping stone to higher office. And his commitment to the unfinished business of his current office seemed genuine.
In his statement Monday, Gibbons touted achievements in problem areas ranging from gang violence to drug-traffic control to child abuse, but he said, "Crime remains far too high ... . This is not the time for me to walk away from this job."
Gibbons said "from day one I have been somewhat reluctant" about running for county mayor. He said the job of city mayor actually appeals to him more. The question he faced: "What obligation do I have to seek an office I'm not excited about holding?"
None, he concluded, becoming the second person, along with Jim Rout, to conclude that there are better things to do than be county mayor. It is questionable, of course, whether Gibbons could have won the nomination or the general election next year. He promptly endorsed his friend and fellow Republican Bobango.
"John Bobango would make a great mayor," he said. Gibbons added he foresees a "divisive, expensive Democratic primary" and a united Republican Party behind Bobango.
"For parts of the Democratic Party the stakes are high and I think it is going to get rough," he said.
· A statewide poll released last week by the Knoxville News-Sentinel showed that Democrat Phil Bredesen and U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary are the clear leaders for their respective parties in the gubernatorial race, with margins of 34 percent for Bredesen to single digits for various Democratic contenders and 50 percent for Hilleary to 10 percent for his only GOP opponent so far, state Rep. Jim Henry of Kingston.
Henry, who maintains that the poll results were misreported and that Hilleary, too, had only a 34 percent showing, still professes confidence, though. Both he and Knoxville District Attorney General Randy Nichols, a Democratic contender, have logged serious time of late in Memphis. (Nichols spent an entire week doing meet-and-greets in the area.)
Both Henry and Nichols are reckoned as moderates on most questions. Henry has so far not determined his position on tax reform, other than to favor it generally but reserving judgment on a particular form. Nichols, however, took the bold gamble this week of all but endorsing the proposal for an income tax that may form the basis for a legislative special session beginning next week. And he hurled a charge of pandering at ex- Nashville mayor Bredesen, who has distanced himself from a state income tax and promised instead to "manage" the state out of its current financial difficulty.
"He's obviously afraid of taking a stand," said Nichols of Bredesen. Of the proposed special session, Nichols said, "I approve of it; it's obvious we have a serious revenue problem and the legislators who want to deal with it deserve support." Nichols said he also liked the dimensions of the plan, a 3.5 percent flat tax with corresponding reductions in the sales tax and elimination of the Hall income tax.
Of the weekend poll, Nichols said in the News-Sentinel : "With the limited name recognition I have outside of Knox County, that is very encouraging. I knew that name recognition is what we have to overcome, with Mayor Bredesen having run statewide in 1994. I've always thought that if we could be right behind him at the start of the year, we could be in a position to win the nomination."
Other Democrats were equally optimistic. Democrat Charles Smith professed to believe that the poll showed he had momentum. "I feel because we have been out campaigning hard in the past two weeks (after the poll was conducted), the race has tightened significantly. I think at this point the polls are not too meaningful but I think we've got momentum."
Former state Senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro saw "a wide-open race" and declared, "There are a lot of uncommitted, undecided voters and that also applies to the Democratic primary, which is what I'm running in right now."
Republican challenger Henry, meanwhile, saw his double-digit showing as proof that he was best off among those challenging the front- runners.
John Branston contributed to this column.
Weeks of intense speculation ended this week when Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton decided to make a formal announcement of his long-rumored candidacy for county mayor Wednesday morning at The Peabody.
Wharton said this week he would emphasize his more than 20 years experience as a private attorney, Shelby County public defender, and board member for the Memphis Housing Authority, Methodist Healthcare, and various education commissions.
"It would be much more to my private benefit to go off and be a high-paid consultant," said Wharton, "but I sort of feel an obligation to put something back in."
News of Wharton's taking the plunge comes only days after he gave serious second thoughts to holding back from running, according to sources familiar with the campaign. The hard core of Wharton's support, however, included the likes of Bobby Lanier, the longtime administrative aide to both former county mayor Bill Morris and incumbent mayor Jim Rout, an early enthusiast for a Wharton candidacy after Rout declared some weeks back he would vacate the seat.
Lanier served ultimately as a decisive source of support and encouragement for the well-liked and highly regarded -- but traditionally cautious -- man known almost universally in political, legal, and governmental circles as A C. "I've talked to him, and he's running," pronounced Lanier firmly last week in the midst of reports about possible waffling on the public defender's part.
Wharton's entry would seem to virtually complete a Democratic field that already includes Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, state Senator Jim Kyle, and state Representative Carol Chumney. None of these have so far given any indication that they're thinking of withdrawing.
"I've been in county government for more than 20 years and I've learned a lot," Wharton said this week. "I'm in a position to see how we could do somethings better, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, education, and health care." He said he is making the announcement "sooner than I would desire" but was prompted by the fact that other candidates have already started raising money for the race.
Wharton said he had gone back and forth on the timing and nature of his announcement in recent weeks as the news was dominated by the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the current anthrax scare, and the economy. Pressure from within his own camp for him to go ahead and declare and put an end to speculation like that of last week undoubtedly played a role, too.
"Not a day has passed that I did not go through a careful weighing process," Wharton said.
The remaining mystery is the identity of the Republican contender. At least two public figures are still strongly considering making the race: District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who has formed an exploratory committee, and lawyer and former Memphis city councilman John Bobango.
Both are thought of as strong potential contenders, but only one of them -- by what amounts to a common-sense prior agreement between the two moderate Republicans, who share a common base -- will end up running. Meanwhile, the two are enacting a complicated ritual whereby each says beatific things about the other while (perhaps) trying to out-maneuver him for party support.
Some of Wharton's Democratic opponents -- notably Byrd, who months ago began a well-heeled, highly organized and orchestrated campaign -- have made the most of Wharton's GOP connections, mainly people close to outgoing mayor Rout (a Republican who has distanced himself from his erstwhile supporters' pro-Wharton effort). Besides Lanier, other members of Rout's circle now prominent in Wharton's support are longtime county lobbyist Bobby Bowers, former Shelby County Commissioner Charles Perkins, and suburban developer Jackie Welch.
City council member Ta Juan Stout-Mitchell was among several African Americans at a Byrd fund-raiser the weekend before last who expressed unease at the degree of support for Wharton in the traditional Shelby County business/government establishment.
Even so, Wharton has had good support among key Democrats as well -- two examples being former party chairman David Cocke and state Senator Steve Cohen -- and has been reckoned by most observers as being the man to beat. Undeterred, Byrd has indicated he will continue to campaign vigorously and is apparently geared up for a lengthy one-on-one struggle.
Among other Democrats, Kyle has polls which show him in a strong, competitive situation in the party primary, while Chumney is beginning to intensify her efforts among party cadres and has several events planned for this week and next.
Mark Luttrell, the director of Shelby County's Division of Corrections, has, friends say, made a firm decision to seek the office of sheriff in next year's Republican primary.
After years of turmoil and scandal involving Sheriff's Department personnel and policies, Luttrell came to the fore as the result, more or less, of key Republicans' search for someone who was both a new face -- at least to the county's voters -- and yet had ample experience in law enforcement.
Other Republicans seeking the office are Chief Deputy Don Wright and two other Sheriff's Department administrators, Bobby Simmons and Mike Jewell.
Assistant Chief Randy Wade is so far the only major declared Democratic candidate and has mounted a strong campaign with support from elements of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's organization.
Henry Hooper, an insurance agent and former member of the Secret Service, has said he will run as an independent, and there are even rumors that former Criminal Court judge Joe Brown -- he of the nationally syndicated TV show -- is considering a race.
John Branston contributed an interview with A C Wharton and other material to this column.
Also reporting the receipt of suspicious packages Wednesday were Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout and U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in his Washington office. Both officials said they would have their mail specially bagged for inspection by the FBI or other law enforcement authorities.
Nick Smith, a spokesperson for Frist, said that the senator's office in Memphis received in Wednesday afternoon's mail what appeared, when opened by a staff member, to be a dosed envelope.
Further details were not immediately available and will be reported as soon as they are.
The senator, who was in Washington, where offices began closing Wednesday in response to the anthrax scare, has by now appeared on virtually every political news or talk show, regular or cable, discussing the disease and the various means for responding to it.
Frist later issued a statement on the receipt in Memphis of what he called "a suspicious package." He called the circumstances "a deplorable act, which I'm hopeful turns out to only be a hoax." After noting that the FBI was now in charge of investigating the package, Frist said that he would remain "in touch with authorities to ensure that the appropriate actions are taken to ensure the safety of those individuals affected."
Hardly had the ink dried on District Attorney General Bill Gibbons' announcement last week that he had formed an exploratory committee to look into a race next year for Shelby County mayor than the other half of the Shelby County Republicans' Alphonse-Gaston Act was heard from. Lawyer John Bobango wants it known that he is still thinking seriously of running for Shelby County mayor -- notwithstanding his friend Gibbons' action.
Meanwhile, incumbent Mayor Jim Rout wants it known that he is not aiding and abetting the candidacy of Democrat A C Wharton -- notwithstanding the activities in that regard of some of his closest associates.
And the fact that Rout was urging Bobango to make the race as recently as a day or two before Gibbons announced his committee last week is something that should be known in its own right.
"I don't see any point in forming an exploratory committee just yet because I think it's still early to start raising money. But I'm studying it very carefully and I'll make a decision within three weeks or so," said Bobango, the former Memphis city councilman who has more or less agreed with Gibbons that only one of them should end up attempting to become the Republican standard-bearer.
"That's still the case, but it's still possible that either one of us could make the race," said Bobango, who insisted that Gibbons' announcement should not be regarded as pre-emptive. "In fact, I urged him to [form a committee], but it won't keep me from deciding to run. I honestly think that whichever one of us picks up the phone in the next three weeks and tells the other he's running will be the candidate. It's a matter of which one of us is the first to become convinced he ought to do it."
Bobango said he had had several conversations about the mayor's race with Rout, who counseled him to run, adding, "I assume he's had similar conversations with Bill, though I don't know for sure."
For his part, Rout -- clearly stung by recent allegations from various disgruntled Democrats that he is secretly supporting Wharton -- is making a point of asserting his GOP credentials, the exhortations to Bobango being a case in point. "I think he's determined to see that there's a quality Republican candidate and, frankly, I think that's the real message of Bill's decision to announce his committee," said Bobango.
The uncertainty concerning Rout's preferences has been based on the fact that several well-known political figures close to the county mayor - - notably his aide Bobby Lanier, developer Jackie Welch, Shelby County government lobbyist Bobby Bowers, and former County Commissioner Charlie Perkins -- are solidly in the camp of the all-but-declared Wharton, the current Shelby County public defender. (Other Democratic candidates are Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, State Senator Jim Kyle, and State Representative Carol Chumney.)
But it could well be that all of these members of Rout's circle merely consider themselves free agents in the wake of the county mayor's decision not to run for reelection and are merely trying to establish a new allegiance -- seeing in Wharton an electable centrist they could work with.
· The presence of so many Rout people and other white independents and Republicans in the start-up campaign of Wharton, an African American, is an irony of sorts, counter-pointed by a significant number of blacks in the rival Democratic campaign of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who is white.
Former county commissioner Vasco Smith and his wife, former NAACP head and school board member Maxine Smith, held a monster reception for Byrd Friday night. Usually campaigns overstate the numbers of those who attend such functions, but the Byrd campaign's estimate of 300 attendees is surely well beneath the actual level. The Smiths' sprawling East Parkway residence was -- literally -- filled to the rafters.
Among those present were city council member TaJuan Stout- Mitchell (who said Byrd was entitled to black votes on the strength of his "demonstrated record of commitment" and expressed concern about the Rout contingent backing Wharton), County Commissioner Cleo Kirk, Dr. Shirley Raines and Dick Ranta of the University of Memphis; developer Henry Turley; Rev. Billy Kyles; lawyer Richard Fields; Rodney Herenton; Happy Jones; current NAACP head Johnnie Turner; moving company owner Tom Watson; and school board member Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge.
Wharton, incidentally, has tentative plans to make a formal announcement for mayor next week.
· Wonder of wonders! Former Vice President Al Gore, who warmed up for a recent high-profile visit to Iowa by shmoozing with local supporters at the Memphis home of Jim and Lucia Gilliland, is getting good reviews. One pundit even documented a "new, more relaxed" Gore.
The vice president, who (according to advance speculation, anyhow) had originally planned a broadside of sorts against the policies of President Bush, was forced to adjust quickly when the terrorist attacks of September 11th intervened. What Gore did in his keynote address at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner of Iowa Democrats in Des Moines was avoid any hint of partisan rhetoric, instead offering his unqualified support for the president.
The Boston Herald's Wayne Woodlief awarded appropriate kudos: Gore, he wrote, "one of the smartest men in American politics, has the sense to bide his time and support Bush as the president moves the nation through a crisis, yet still emerge as his party's prime challenger when challenge becomes appropriate again -- as it always does in a democracy."
And Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star awarded Gore some style points. The former veep used to arrive at places via Air Force 2 and pull up to his destinations in a cavalcade of official cars accompanied by police vehicles, sirens screeching. No more, wrote Kraske, who found that Gore "showed off a new, more relaxed speaking style" and "might have found himself a new, and somewhat dramatic, campaign style that had him sneaking into eastern Iowa in a rental car, accompanied only by a cell phone and a map ... ."
It gets better: "Along the way, Gore called up old friends and met them in coffee shops. He came off as a guy without a care in the world." Kraske echoed Woodlief in his estimate of the "aplomb" with which Gore paid an "obligatory nod to President Bush for his handling of the terrorism crisis." Said Kraske: "He was gracious, unwavering and direct, which is exactly what he had to be ... Gore effectively undermined the ongoing spat over who had won the November election ... [By] showing up in Iowa and then accepting another prominent speaking engagement in New Hampshire on October 27th, Gore keeps his 2004 political options open."
Ironically, two Memphians who have had ample prior exposure to Gore -- sports executive Steve Earhardt and Democratic activist Rex Ham -- had separately made observations last week to the effect that all Gore needed to do in order to shed his stiff image was to travel by his lonesome, without fuss or entourage. He appears to have done just that in Iowa -- which, none too coincidentally, is the first presidential caucus state of 2004.
And New Hampshire, where Gore will also serve as keynote speaker for a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, happens to be the first primary state of that presidential-election year.
·When U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. shows up in the Shelby County Commission auditorium Monday for the area Anti-Terrorism Summit he has called, he may appear to be a victim of some mild terrorism himself, having picked up a shiner last week. The congressman's bruised eye, which required four stitches, came about when he collided with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) during a pickup basketball game in the House gym last week. "He felt like Joe Frazier after the 'Thrilla in Manila," quipped Ford's administrative assistant, Mark Schuermann.
Incidentally, Schuermann, who has been doubling as Ford's press secretary since his return early this year from a stint as spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), can lay that burden down. Freshly hired by Ford is new press secretary Anthony Coley, who comes from the office of Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.).
Ford has invited all local mayors, emergency management officers, and representatives of law enforcement agencies to the anti-terrorism summit.
· So far two candidates have announced for the soon-to-be- vacated District 5 of the Shelby County Commission. Both mavericks, they are Democrat Joe Cooper (who has a variety of proposals for defraying county obligations by allowing paid private sponsorship of public venues and functions) and Republican Jerry Cobb, who has a well-established reputation as a whistle-blower and muckraker. Another Democrat, lawyer Guthrie Castle, is in the wings, ready to throw his hat in as soon as new district lines have been determined. ·
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