Wednesday, January 30, 2002

HANGING IN THERE

HANGING IN THERE

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2002 at 4:00 AM

God never asked us to be successful. He asked us to be faithful." Those words, part of a stirring oration by city council member TaJuan Stout-Michell Saturday to the attendees at mayoral candidate Harold Byrd's headquarters opening at 3183 Poplar Ave., were a fair statement of the campaign's root premises these days.

Whatever smoke might be blown from now on by Byrd's supporters or by his opponents, or even by the candidate himself, the Bartlett banker -- who began his quest more than a year ago and was firstest with the mostest in fundraising -- has long ceased to be the frontrunner in the current Democratic primary competition for the office of Shelby County Mayor to succeed the outgoing Jim Rout. A single Republican, State Representative Larry Scroggs, has also declared for mayor thus far.)

From the point that he signaled an interest in the mayoralty late last summer, and especially after his formal announcement of candidacy in October, the clear frontrunner -- both in a poll or two and in more anecdotal surveys -- has been Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton, on the basis of perceived experience (he has toiled on public bodies dealing with law enforcement, mental health and education, for starters), personal likeability, and -- though Wharton is an African American and a Democrat -- his genuine ability to cross racial and political borders.

"Harold had it made until A C got in," is the phrase one hears from numerous pols sympathetic to both men, sometimes with a wistul shaking of the head on Byrd's behalf.

And, as if to rib it in, Wharton was able to flaunt a key endorsement Friday -- on the very eve of Byrd's headquarters opening.It came from State Senator Jim Kyle, who thereby got on the same bandwagon as his three Democratic colleagues in the Senate -- Steve Cohen, Roscoe Dixon, and John Ford -- at a press conference choreographed to suggest a united front and irresistible momentum for the Shelby County Public Defender, last Democrat to enter the mayor's race.

(Ford and Dixon, who had previously made their preferences known, were absent from the press conference; Cohen was present.)

Kyle, who had been the first to announce his interest in running for mayor early last year and the first (and so far the only) candidate to withdraw, had been talking privately for some time about what he saw as Wharton's good chances for election. Thursday he described Wharton as "better" than other "good" candidates.

The two recipients of this left-handed compliment were Byrd, of course, and State Representative Carol Chumney, who had not yet convinced most onlookers that she's a serious player -- even though she has quietly picked up endorsements from the Shelby County Women's Caucus and the AFL-CIO and could even be more of a sleeper than a spoiler.

Chumney also has ventured further and more explicitly into certain issues -- notably, city-county consolidation, which she favors -- though a key adviser or two are candid about her need to do so in order to overcome her better-heeled Democratic opponents' advantages.

For roughly a month, rumors have circulated to the effect that Byrd was on the verge of dropping out of the mayor's race before the final withdrawal date next month. "Not a chance," said Byrd, who insists he is in for the long haul and suggests that such reports had been planted by the Wharton campaign to try to stampede Democratic voters -- and financial supporters -- in the Public Defender's direction.

The timing of the Kyle announcement -- as much as the manner of it, overseen by a public relations firm -- was a confirmation both of Byrd's suspicions and of the confident, almost languid manner just now of the Public Defender, who also happened to be coming off a fresh (and lucrative) fundraiser or two.

Byrd had his own new endorsement Saturday -- from entertainer/entrepreneur Isaac Hayes, who gave a testimonial to Byr'd "morals, his character, his integrity." The campaign's hope clearly was that the impact of a cultural icon would prove more potent to a voting public than an endorsement by Kyle would be to political insiders.

The fact is, though, that Wharton is the clear frontrunner, and that it is no longer in Byrd's interest to pretend otherwise. What the Bartlett banker does have, to judge by the turnout Saturday, is a large and loyal commitment from a grass-roots population (heavily black, to judge by the crowd) that will stick it out with him.

His chances now are not those of a comfortable front-runner but those of a Rocky, an underdog with determination and spunk. In private, Byrd's campaign people employ the rhetoric of "the people versus the powerful" to describe their view of the race, in testament to what they see as Wharton's considerable numbers of supporters who are visibly well-off, politically established, and comfortable, but they have not yet ventured to make such rhetoric a strong and vivid part of their public appeal.

Nor do they (or can they) make much of another assumption shared by most of them -- notably the African Americans in Byrd's campaign. Namely, that a victory by Wharton in May might give the Democratic ticket in August an all-black look which, when complemented by the expected all-white roster of Republican nominees, could make the general election a de facto racial-line campaign, with resultant damage to a discussion of the issues.

Byrd himself seems to be having difficulty articulating what -- at this stage, certainly -- ought to be a populist campaign, and tends to answer almost every question put to him with variations on his stock speech, which begins with his difficult growing-up in McNairy County and trickles out somewhere around the point that the begins talking about the mounting county debt that he says propelled him into the race.

The trouble with that is that he's said that before and it sounded then, as it does now, too much like an accountant talking.

Still, the man is who he is -- well-liked, determined, and feisty if need be, as well as a sincere believer in opportunity for those who, more or less like himself back in those outdoor-privy McNairy County days, will have to come up from nothing.

It is a considerable irony that his major opponent happens to be a primary exhibit in his own person of such progress, and Byrd can only hope that Wharton's campaign style at some point begins to appear even more languid, lumbering and complacent than it already does at times -- to the point that voters might heed the strains of a candidate trying as hard as he can to come from behind.

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