Thursday, November 15, 2001

The Larsha Gambit

Wharton's foes move to keep his name off the Democratic ballot.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 15, 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 (pronounced Lar-shay) 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 committee 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 the full committee's adoption of the resolution, however the subcommittee should rule.

Adjudicaton Certain

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 -- all white and, for the most part, Republican.

He said that Wharton, an African American, and his backers were trying to "play the race card" and that the county's black populations had long ago held meetings and "selected" Byrd as their preferred nominee. Larsha did not, however, spell out when or where these meetings were held or how official were their auspices.

Scrambling the Lines

Larsha's claim would seem, by any standards, to be a bit sweeping. It is a fact, however, that just as Wharton has white supporters, Byrd has a number of black ones, and his campaign continues to be active in African-American circles; Byrd does not accept the conventional wisdom that Wharton will necessarily inherit the county's black vote. Principals in his campaign say he hopes to get as much as 30 to 35 percent of it himself in a primary contest with Wharton.

Byrd's supporters point to the substantial vote that city councilman Jack Sammons got in from the county's black population in 1994 against a field that included eventual winner Rout, the Republican nominee, and Otis Higgs, a black lawyer (now a Criminal Court judge) who had the official endorsement of the Democratic Party.

Sammons, now the Shelby County Republican Party's treasurer, had the support of then congressman Harold Ford Sr. and of the vaunted Ford political organization. That organization is more loosely constituted now that Ford has been succeeded in Congress by his namesake son, whose focus is more on national issues than on local power-broking. Moreover, the organization was presumably weakened when former city councilman Joe Ford, who carried the family standard, was soundly beaten by incumbent Willie Herenton in the 1999 Memphis mayoral race.

The major campaign strategist in the 1999 city election was ex-Teamster leader (and former Democratic Party chairman) Sidney Chism, who is now the major force behind the Byrd campaign and those of several other Democratic candidates for various offices in 2002. Chism professed this week to have had no advance knowledge of Larsha's current resolution but -- in language strikingly 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," Chism 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.

An interesting indicator of how scrambled the normal power lines are in the developing county mayor's race is that, while Chism has long been been known as the political-action arm of Herenton, Wharton himself served twice as the mayor's campaign chairman. That circumstance has lent credibility to Herenton's public claim of neutrality in the Shelby County mayor's race.

The Ford Factor

A sleeper factor in the looming Shelby County showdown is the question of whether former congressman Ford Sr., now a political consultant living mainly in Florida, will choose to involve himself in the 2002 race. Some of Wharton's supporters contend that he ultimately will and point to the current support Wharton is getting from state Senator John Ford, who is assisting in Wharton's fund-raising activities.

"That's fine if [Ford Sr.] does get involved," says Chism, who insists that such a circumstance would create a backlash against Wharton. For his part, Byrd, who has never been considered close with the Fords, is at great pains these days to insist that he has no problem with them.

Like Chism, Byrd said this week that he had not been aware of the Larsha resolution until asked about it and that he would take no position on it, but he 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 that includes longtime governmental figures Bobby Bowers and Bobby Lanier and developers Jackie Welch and former Shelby County Commission member Charles Perkins.

Wharton: 'Losing No Sleep'

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 AC 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, who doubles as Mayor Herenton's press secretary, 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 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 are 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."

· One thing has to be said for Joe Cooper, the onetime squire of the old Shelby County Court and current candidate for the District 5 seat on the present-day Shelby County Commission: He doesn't lack either for issues nor for self-assertiveness.

So far Democrat Cooper is one of a few declared candidates for the East Memphis seat, which is being vacated by the current Republican seat-holder, Buck Wellford. One reason is that commissioners have not yet agreed upon the boundaries for a "toss-up" district which, by general agreement, will probably determine the balance of power on a commission which would otherwise be occupied by six white Republicans and six black Democrats.

Cooper, who is white, hand-delivered to each sitting commissioner his own reapportionment formula Monday. It would shift the district lines slightly in the direction of Hickory Hill and increase the number of black voters residing therein and keeping the registered-voter level more or less racially balanced.

"Let's get the show on the road," said Cooper, who has so far proposed, among other planks, the abolition of the county wheel tax, the sale of naming rights to county facilities; and a joint city/county committee to bring about governmental consolidation..

· "Here are the magic words: 'Governor Bredesen.'" So said Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton Saturday at a well-attended luncheon at the Rendezvous restaurant at which 8th district congressman John Tanner took the virtually unprecedented step of endorsing an active Democrat in a contested primary -- in this case, ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, a candidate for governor. "Phil Bredesen is still Bredesen," scoffed one opponent, former state Education Commissioner Charles Smith. Other Bredesen opponents are former State senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro and Knoxville district attorney Randy Nichols. ·

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