An endorsement by a sitting Democratic congressman of one candidate among many in a Democratic primary -- especially when that primary has for all practical purposes not really begun -- is rare, and it reflects the obvious desire among some state Democrats that the party unite behind a single gubernatorial candidate as soon as possible.
Besides Bredesen, a former Nashville mayor and the party's 1994 standard-bearer, there are three other Democrats in the field. They are: Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols; former state Education Commissioner and ex-Board of Regents chancellor Charles Smith; and former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro.
The Republican field for governor includes 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary and former state representative Jim Henry of Kingston.
Irony of ironies: The Shelby County Republican Party, which hit its high-water mark eight years ago when it elected a GOP mayor, two-term incumbent Jim Rout, now seemingly has nobody willing to run for the office.
Rout said months ago he wouldn't run again. District Attorney General Bill Gibbons decided against a race two weeks ago; former city councilman John Bobango followed over the weekend; and state Senator Mark Norris, who had been emerging as the newest consensus nominee, said no Tuesday morning. Later Tuesday, city councilman Jack Sammons and outgoing Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford also made clear they would decline the opportunity.
All of them, either publicly or privately, alluded to the huge problems facing the county financially, to its diminished resources, to the meager powers available to a county mayor (especially over two problem areas, the Shelby County school system and the county jail), to the demographic shifts which are inexorably creating a Democratic voting majority, and to the appeal which Democratic candidates already in the field might have along the Poplar Corridor, an area which a successful Republican would need to do well in.
When he conducted last week's monthly meeting of the Shelby County GOP's steering committee, party chairman Alan Crone had just learned of Bobango's decision. Somewhat wanly, he said to the committee, "If anybody here wants to run for county mayor, would you see me after the meeting?"
It may come down to Crone himself, who said this week that, if push came to shove, he'd consider running. Other possibilities include Commissioner Tommy Hart and city councilman Brent Taylor, who had already raised a sizeable campaign war-chest in hopes of mounting a race for Ed Bryant's 7th District congressional seat, deferred indefinitely after Fred Thompson decided to stay in the Senate and Bryant decided to stay where he was, too.
· Another unresolved issue of county government/politics is that of the commission's District 5, which Wellford is vacating. There are at least four different plans extant right now as commissioners consider redistricting from the perspectives of party and/or class and/or race.
The phrase "toss-up" is often heard as a desideratum for the East Memphis seat, which could be shifted in almost any direction -- north, south, east, or west. Wellford himself believes that the district will remain more or less unchanged.
In any case, few potential candidates for the seat have yet declared themselves. Two new ones are in the offing, however: Clay Perry, a Democrat who is U.S. Rep. Harold Ford's district director; and financial manager Bruce Thompson, a Republican.
· Memphis has become something of a battleground for the several Democrats -- at least three so far -- who hope to play Avis at the expense of Phil Bredesen's Hertz. They'll try to try harder, in other words, so as to catch up with the former Nashville mayor, who is reckoned as number one in next year's Democratic gubernatorial primary on the strength of his name recognition, financial war-chest, and commitments from party cadres.
It has to be said, of course, that Bredesen is trying pretty hard himself -- not only in Memphis, which he's visited several times, but elsewhere in the state. As he's confided, he considers certain remoteness of style and of effort to have been a major fault of his losing 1994 effort as the Democratic nominee against Republican Don Sundquist.
Consequently, Bredesen has not only made himself more available to the public and the media at what is still a fairly early stage of the governor's race, but his personality has generally remained sunny as well -- without the sudden unexpected frosts (actually, they were probably just preoccupations) that were a feature of his campaign eight years ago.
Moreover, Bredesen is keeping his rhetoric on the cautious side, especially where the issue of taxation is concerned. He has renounced a state income tax as a panacea and maintained consistently that he can "manage" the state out of its current fiscal doldrums.
But, while that position serves to neutralize the tax issue vis-à-vis potential Republican opponent Van Hilleary, the 4th District congressman who is adamantly against a tax increase, it leaves an opening of sorts for Bredesen's Democratic opponents -- Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols, former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro, and Charles Smith, who served formerly as both state Education Commissioner and as chancellor of the state Board of Regents.
Unlike Bredesen, none of the three have closed the door on the income tax, and Nichols has gone so far as to give a recent proposal for a 3.5 percent flat tax (coupled with a subsequent referendum) his conditional endorsement.
All three were more critical of Bredesen than of Sundquist when the ex-Nashville mayor attacked the governor last weekend for some of Sundquist's recent economies -- notably the closing of selected state parks, which Bredesen said was little more than a device to force acceptance of an income tax.
In almost identical language, the three other Democrats said that they might have applied other priorities but that Sundquist had little choice in the matter of making significant cuts. Smith, the most recent visitor to Memphis, went so far as to praise the governor for his "courage."
In one respect, Smith has to try a little harder to try harder. As he said Monday, "One big difference between me and the others is that, with the exception of the time I spent as Education Commissioner [for former Governor Ned McWherter], I've had very little experience on the partisan side of politics; so I've been doing my best to become acquainted with party people the last few months."
One measure of his success, according to Smith: a poll of state Democratic executive committee members and party chairs, meeting last month at Dickson, showed that he had doubled his support among them in less than a month's time, going from 12 votes to 23, against Bredesen's 43, with Nichols and Womack trailing.
Mayor Jim Rout has said no to a race. So, in the last few days, have District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and former city councilman John Bobango.
Undismayed, editor Cherrie Holden has included a hatful of names on the Shelby County Republican PartyÕs official website (www.shelbygop.org), listing no fewer than eight names and an open-ended whosoever-will choice for respondents to vote for in an interactive preference poll. The list is as follows:
city councilman Jack Sammons
State Senator Mark Norris
Shelby County commissioner Linda Rendtorff
County Trustee Bob Patterson
lawyer Duncan Ragsdale
County Commissioner Tommy Hart
County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel
Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor
It remains to be seen whether this group constitutes an embarrassment of riches or, should none of them step forward, just an embarrassment.
Holden has also included a poll on Republican candidates fornext yearÕs governorÕs race. Only two names are listed in this category, those of 4th District U.S. Representative Van Hilleary and former State Representative Jim Henry of Kingston.
BobangoÕs statement, dispatched via passalong email,is as follows:
ÓDear Fellow Republican,
"During the last several weeks, I have seriously considered running for County Mayor. My family and friends know I have a passion for public service and this community. However, I do not want my desire to serve the public to negatively impact those around me. After reviewing all the facts, I feel there would be an adverse impact, and therefore, I have chosen to not enter the race. My final decision was based on my responsibilities and obligations to my family, the law firm and its clients.
"I deeply appreciate all the prayers and encouragement I have received, especially over the last several days.
BobangoÕs dropout leaves the way open, among Republicans, for State Senator Mark Norris, who, as theFlyer first reported, is seriously considering a run.
Norris is fatalistic about the prospect that the legislatureÕs majority Democrats will reapportion the Senate so that Shelby County, which is losing a seat, will have one majority-Republican district including both himself and long-term incumbent Curtis Person.
Person, a respected veteran who has not even had an opponent since 1966, is regarded as unbeatable.
Moreover, Norris, a former Shelby County commissioner, has genuine concerns about the countyÕs future, especially on the fiscal front. Regarded as being on the right edge of his party economically, Norris has people skills that allow him to operate in the center. Even so, should he follow through and run, he may start from a position somewhat further back than Bobango or Gibbons would have.
As the week began, there were those who assumed that Bobango would hasten to announce his candidacy; as it progressed, talk at political gatherings focused on the fact that he was developing cold feet, especially as he considered the impact upon the race of Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton, a recent Democratic entry who has good support from Republicans, too, and across racial lines. Partisans of another Democratic candidate, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, maintain that he, too, has broad-based support.
As one Democrat put it Saturday, ÒThey [the Republicans] are scared. TheyÕre down to their fourth string now.Ó As he spelled it out, incumbent Mayor Jim Rout, who has decided not to run, was the first string; Gibbons was the second; and Bobango was the third.
In a conversation later Saturday, Bobango said that his decision not to run was not made until Thursday afternoon and communicated to a few people Friday.
"The fact is, last Sunday my wife and children and I had some studio photos made to be suitable for campaign use," said Bobango, who attributed his change of mind to family factors and the need to complete some of the practicalities of his law firm's two-year-old merger with that of the politically influential Farris firm.
He denied strenuously that anything having to do with the candidacy of Wharton or any other Democrat influenced his action.