Friday, February 1, 2002

Hanging In There

Once a front-runner, Byrd's chances now depend on his coming on as an underdog Rocky.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Harold Byrd and friend before the faithful.
God never asked us to be successful. He asked us to be faithful." Those words, part of a stirring oration by TaJuan Stout-Mitchell Saturday to the attendees at mayoral candidate Harold Byrd's headquarters opening at 3183 Poplar Avenue, 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 fund-raising -- has long ceased to be the front-runner 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 front-runner -- 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 AC got in" is the phrase one hears from numerous pols sympathetic to both men, sometimes with a wistful shaking of the head on Byrd's behalf.

And, as if to rub 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) fund-raiser or two.

Byrd had his own new endorsement Saturday -- from entertainer/entrepreneur Isaac Hayes, who gave a testimonial to Byrd's "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 front-runner 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 of a Rocky, the 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 number 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 he 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 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.

* How're you gonna keep 'em down on the farm? In the case of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who was allegedly retiring from politics after the current term to devote time to family and private pursuits (including, yes, a farm), you may not be able to.

Rout, who considered running for governor this year before opting out of both a gubernatorial race and a race for reelection as mayor, went barnstorming Thursday in a statewide fly-around on behalf of former state Representative Jim Henry of Kingston, who seeks the Republican nomination for governor. That puts Rout on the other side of the GOP primary race from 7th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, who held a press conference, along with other Shelby County GOP officials, to indicate his support for his congressional colleague, 4th District congressman Van Hilleary.

The Shelby County mayor and son Rick Rout, who is Henry's Shelby County field rep, accompanied the candidate all the way from the Tri-Cities in northeast Tennessee to the one-day tour's final stop in Memphis late Thursday afternoon.

"I knew I'd be working for a gubernatorial candidate named Jim. I just thought it would be a different Jim," cracked Rick Rout as he presided over the occasion in Memphis at the Signature Air terminal in the airport. (Besides his father, two other Tennessee dignitaries -- former Mayor Gene Roberts of Chattanooga and Mayor Dave Bradshaw of Oak Ridge accompanied Henry on the plane tour.)

After being introduced by Jim Rout Sr., Henry responded angrily to his third-place position in a poll released by presumed GOP front-runner Hilleary, calling the poll "bogus" and pronouncing Hilleary unelectable.

The poll, carried out under Hilleary auspices, showed the 4th District congressman running first among Republicans, little-known minister Bob Tripp second, and Henry third.

Henry challenged the poll's authenticity and said, "We [Republicans] don't need to be involved in something like that." And he responded with a firm "No!" when asked if Hilleary, who is vacating his 4th District congressional seat to run for governor, could be elected.

"With the kind of trouble the state is in, people are looking for someone with experience in local and state government. They don't want to take any chances," said Henry, who cited "the good old days" when he worked with former Governor Lamar Alexander in several capacities, including that of House Republican leader.

Declining to reveal how much money he had raised in his campaign so far, the former state representative and Kingston mayor chided Hilleary for several press releases publicizing the congressman's purported receipts, most recently to the tune of $2.1 million, saying, "If you make this a money game, we might as well concede the election to Phil Bredesen." (Former Nashville mayor Bredesen, a Democratic candidate for governor, is independently wealthy and has also issued a press release claiming fund-raising totals of $3.1 million.)

Henry said to the supporters in attendance at the terminal that the election should be about "trust" and that he trusted the people to vote via referendum on whether or not the state should have an income tax.

Henry agreed with Hilleary about one matter, however -- that of declining to sign an anti-income-tax pledge. "It would be irresponsible for a potential governor to take a position like that, especially if we're asking the people to vote on it," said Henry, who said he personally opposed a state income tax.

If Henry had Rout, however, Hilleary could boast a whole roster of Republicans at his press conference Monday. Not just erstwhile rival Bryant but the likes of county Register Tom Leatherwood, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas, County Clerk Jayne Creson, County Trustee Bob Patterson, state Representatives Paul Stanley and Bubba Pleasant, state Senator Mark Norris, and former local GOP chairman David Kustoff.

And, while he continued to protest his opposition to a state income tax and showed an affinity for the proper Republican buzzwords on most other issues, Hilleary also made an effort to suggest that his continued electability from Tennessee's 4th District, which stretches from East Tennessee into Middle Tennessee and is, he says, predominantly Democratic, shows him to be capable of outreach to the political opposition.

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