Wednesday, November 14, 2001

FOES SEEK TO KEEP WHARTON OFF DEMOCRATIC BALLOT

FOES SEEK TO KEEP WHARTON OFF DEMOCRATIC BALLOT

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2001 at 4:00 AM

The most original, disruptive, problematic (pick one) ploy of the developing Shelby County Mayor’s race will shortly get a trial -- probably in more than one sense of that word -- when opponents of the mayoral candidacy of Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton make a serious effort to keep his name off the Democratic Party ballot for next May’s local party primaries. The strategy surfaced last week when, at the monthly meeting of the party’s county executive committee, member Bill Larsha introduced a resolution that would give the committee absolute discretion over the names that would go on the party ballot and in particular the power to purge the names of potential candidates judged to be supported in substantial degree by Republicans. The resolution was tabled at the suggestion of chairperson Gale Jones Carson, who remanded it to a bylaws subcommittee for a recommendation. But Larsha, who identified himself as a supporter of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd and left no doubt the resolution was aimed at Wharton, said he would move for the full committee’s adoption of the resolution however the subcommittee should rule. Contacted this week, Larsha, Carson, and Shelby County Election Commission O.C. Pleasant all agreed that, if it passed, the resolution would then be adjudicated in court. None ventured a guess as to the result, since the case would involve bedrock issues ranging from a party’s right to control its own primaries to the voting population’s right to have unfettered elections. Pleasant cited a state law allowing parties to withdraw the party label from candidates for the legislature or for the party’s own governing committees who had a demonstrated record of voting in the other party’s primaries. “But the statute says nothing about other positions or an executive committee’s discretionary powers over the ballot,” said Pleasant. “What’s important,” Larsha said, “is that we Democrats act to prevent Republicans from choosing our candidates for us.” Like other foes of Wharton’s bid, mainly supporters of Byrd, Larsha, a part-time journalist for African-American publications, pointed to the prevalence in Wharton’s current support group of several current associates of GOP mayor Jim Rout He said that Wharton and his backers were trying to “play the race card” and that the county’s African Americans had long ago held meetings and “selected” Byrd as their preferred nominee. He did not, however, spell out when or where these meetings were or how official were their auspices. (Byrd, in fact, does have a number of black supporters and his campaign continues to be active in African-American circles; he does not accept the conventional wisdom that Wharton will necessarily inherit the county’s black vote and hopes to get as much as 30 to 35 percent of it hsmelf in a primary contest with Wharton.) Former Teamster leader Sidney Chism, the major force behind the Byrd campaign and those of several other Democratic candidates for various offices, professed to have had no advance knowledge of Larsha’s resolution but -- in language similar to that of Larsha -- said he approved of its goals. “It’s okay for the Republicans to come out in support of our candidates once we get them nominated but we shouldn’t let them pick our nominees,” he said. Chism’s at least tacit support for the resolution was bound to be meaningful, since he more or less called the shots last year on the naming of members of the current party executive committee and on the selection of its chairperson, Carson. Previously, Chism had been known as the political-action arm of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton -- with whom Wharton himself, as the mayor’s two-time campaign chairman, is also close. (That circumstance has lent credibility to Herenton’s public claim of neutrality in the mayor’s race.) Byrd said that he, too, had not been aware of the Larsha resolution until asked about it and that he would take no position on it but added that he “understood” why Larsha and others felt aggrieved. “I think there’s a genuine resentment of the same old worn-out group of insiders trying to control things,” he said -- apparently making reference to a group of Wharton backers including longtime governmental figures like Bobby Bowers and Bobby Lanier and developers like Jackie Welch and former Shelby County Commission member Charles Perkins. Of course, Wharton also has backing from undeniable Democratic Party regulars -- like State Senator Steve Cohen and former party chairman David Cocke, the latter of whom said angrily, “Let Sidney try something like this! Terrific! We’ll accuse him of hijacking the Democratic Party, and we’ll win with A C as an independent.” Cocke voiced the suspicion that Carson had never followed through on the committee’s decision months ago to petition the Election Commission for a primary next year and speculated that, under her leadership, the current committee might even attempt to nominate candidates by its own action rather than by public election. Carson angrily denied that, saying that she had long ago forwarded the necessary papers to the Election Commission. Pleasant backed her up on that. Another Democratic candidate for mayor, State Representative Carol Chumney responded to the growing controversy by saying she preferred to let “the people” decide matters by their vote but would not take a position on the resolution, which she said the committee should decide for itself. “One thing for sure,” she said. “Nobody’s ever going to accuse me of not being a Democrat!” As for Wharton himself, he was informed of developments late Monday night as he arrived home and said, “The gravity of the problems looming over this county right now is what I’m worried about. I’m not even going to concern myself with something like this. It won’t cause me to a lose even a minute’s sleep.”

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