Thursday, March 7, 2002

After the Fact

In the wake of Byrd's withdrawal, Wharton may choose to start talking policy.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 7, 2002 at 4:00 AM

To start by telling it like it is, especially in the wake of Democrat Harold Byrd's withdrawal: At this stage, the only way AC Wharton can lose the Shelby County mayor's race (in all fairness, we should add the qualifier "arguably") is to get run over by a truck.

There are two or three trucks out there, in the form of other major candidates, but it's hard to see how Democrat Carol Chumney or Republicans Larry Scroggs and George Flinn can muster the necessary octane and/or momentum.

Wharton will come under considerable pressure of another sort, however. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton said Sunday that he was "disappointed" with Wharton's failure to come out foursquare for city/county consolidation, and he praised the public defender's primary opponent, Chumney, for being "courageous and forthright" on the issue.

"I think AC's advisers have been keeping the wraps on him or giving him bad advice," Herenton said while attending Sunday's NBA game at The Pyramid between the Memphis Grizzlies and Seattle Supersonics. He said he still had no plans to endorse a candidate for Shelby County mayor but might end up doing so between the May 7th countywide primaries and the August general election.

Despite considerable prodding from the media, Wharton -- who served as chairman of two Herenton election campaigns -- has contented himself so far with saying he approved the Memphis mayor's recent appointment of a task force on consolidation and would wait on its results before commenting. Meanwhile, Wharton has said, he would welcome "functional" consolidation of certain joint services.

Of course, virtually every local public figure -- even those, like Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, who vehemently oppose consolidation per se -- has come out for some degree of functional consolidation of services.

Chumney alone has endorsed a form of consolidation quite similar to that of Herenton himself and has pledged to push for both it and a form of school funding similar to the Memphis mayor's call for separate city and county districts linked via a single-source funding method.

State Representative Scroggs has said he doubts both the desirability of consolidation and the accuracy of projections that it would reduce governmental costs, while radiologist/media mogul Flinn has not yet been heard from.

An influential member of Wharton's "A" team said this week that the surprise last-minute dropout of Byrd, only minutes before last Thursday's deadline for withdrawals at the Election Commission, might free up Wharton, who has so far campaigned in generalities and run on his persona, to talk turkey on issues.

"With Harold in the race, we had a potential threat from the left," said the adviser, who does not discount Chumney entirely but reckons her as less of a threat than Byrd, whose ubiquitous bus signs and billboards -- now sad artifacts of a spent campaign -- advertised the financial wherewithal of a candidate with several hundred thousand dollars in the bank.

With Scroggs locked into an anticonsolidation position and with Flinn a possible skeptic on the issue as well, Wharton would presumably feel freer to express a contrasting view in the general election.

Meanwhile, Chumney indicated she would step up her efforts to force specific answers from Wharton. "Otherwise, we're not going to have any change in the same old way things are done in Shelby County."

* Byrd's withdrawal astonished most observers, though in retrospect it seems to have had a certain inevitability. The Bartlett banker's decision followed receipt Tuesday of a fresh voter survey by his Washington-based pollster, whose findings were that Wharton had a significant lead and was guaranteed victory in a three-candidate primary.

The prospective vote totals of Byrd and Chumney, however, added up to more than Wharton's total; so Byrd resolved to try to persuade Chumney to withdraw. The poll showed Wharton with a percentage of 41 percent, while Byrd and Chumney were each at 22.

Clearly, neither of the runners-up could prevail in a three-way race, and Byrd, on the strength of his far larger war chest, hoped to persuade Chumney that he was better equipped to hazard a challenge that only one of them could feasibly make.

This determination culminated in a two-hour conversation between the two Thursday morning -- after which Chumney, though she agreed to "think about it," resolved to continue.

Her decision resulted in Byrd's own decision to withdraw, roughly an hour before the deadline.

Wharton held a press conference at his newly opened Poplar Avenue headquarters Thursday afternoon, praising Byrd for having Shelby County's welfare at heart and inviting Byrd to join his own campaign. That may not happen any time soon; both the game ex-candidate himself and many of his influential supporters may need an adjustment period before committing themselves to anybody else's efforts.

Byrd could be pardoned for feeling snake-bit. His race for Congress in the state's 7th District fell victim to Republican Ed Bryant. And he was considered to have good chances against incumbent Republican mayor Jim Rout, whose own decision not to run opened up a pathway for Wharton.

* Publicity this past week concerning former congressman Harold Ford's business activities demonstrated so tight a connection between himself and son Sir Isaac Ford that some wondered how the latter's independent candidacy for county mayor jibed with his father's steadfast support for Wharton.

One possible answer: Isaac Ford was there as a possible drain on the votes of Byrd, had he gotten the nomination. Though Byrd had been anxious to propitiate the onetime political power broker, who is still influential, Ford never forgets a political slight, and there had been several occasions when he and Byrd had been on opposite sides of intra-party matters.

The upshot: Expect no serious campaigning from Sir Isaac with Wharton as the Democratic nominee.

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