Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Bobango Still In?

The former councilman keeps his hat ready to toss, while Byrd summons a throng.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 9, 2001 at 4:00 AM

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. ·

You can e-mail Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com.

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