Monday, April 8, 2002

GOP OPTIMISM GROWING LOCALLY

GOP OPTIMISM GROWING LOCALLY

Posted By on Mon, Apr 8, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Although the Democrats’ chances in this year’s major statewide races for governor and U.S. Senator are arguably improving all the time, they may be running into snags at the local level. Part of the problem is a spillover from the relative good fortune that finds the Democrats with virtual nominees in place statewide. 5th District U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville is a bona fide consensus candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by the GOP’s Fred Thompson, and ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen‘s two Democratic primary opponents for the governorship -- veteran educational administrator Charles Smith and Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols -- are so far just blips on his radar screen , both revenue-wise and poll-wise. The Republicans, meanwhile, increasingly have what looks like a governor’s race -- with challenger Jim Henry of Kingston running hard enough to cast doubt on the ultimate suitability of 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, if not yet on his likely victory in the GOP primary. And, unless President Bush explicitly insists on 7th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant‘s withdrawal during his visit to East Tennessee this week (and maybe not even then), Bryant seems likely to take Governor Lamar Alexander down to the wire in the Republicans’ Senate primary. How is that bad news for Shelby County Democrats? It ensures that the county’s Republicans will be out in force on August 1st for the simultaneous statewide primary and local general election. Meanwhile, the Democrats, lacking dramatic statewide contests, will have to work harder to get voters to turn out for the nominees they will have selected in next month’s primary for countywide offices.. The situation is complicated for the Democrats by the bad feeling being generated in Democratic ranks during the party’s increasingly acrimonious race for Shelby County mayor. At Sunday’s third of four officially scheduled party forums for mayor, only one of the three candidates present -- presumed favorite A C Wharton -- answered enthusiastically in the positive when each was asked by an audience member for a pledge of support to the party’s eventual nominee. Rev. C.C. Buchanan, whose curious campaign -- invisible everywhere else but at the forums -- has so far alternated between jokes at his own expense and attacks upon Wharton, said he could not support the Shelby County Public Defender because of Wharton’s alleged Republican ties and lack of identification with “working people.” And State Representative Carol Chumney, a more credible adversary, managed to sound as perfunctory as humanly possible while uttering the words, “I will support the Democratic nominee.” The thermostat is being turned up by the candidates’ rank-and-file supporters, too. Two women partial to Wharton’s campaign complained about Chumney to audience members in the aftermath of Sunday’s debate in the Botanical Gardens auditorium at Audubon Park. One, activist Sue Jackson, amplified on a question she had asked during the forum, the thrust of which was to allege that Rep. Chumney had legislated to give private developers exploitation rights on public property. [Chumney would say later that Jackson had misrepresented a bill co-sponsored by herself and State Senator Steve Cohen years ago that enabled new residences to be constructed on the cleared land appropriated for the unbuilt portion of I-40 West; the previous houses on the property had been demolished to make way for the artery.] The other interlocutor, teacher Jerry Cocke, escalated from a supercharged defense of a Wharton remark concerning Chumney’s law firm to a heated claim that Chumney had gone so far as to undermine American principles of legal representation. Chumney, who sponsored reform legislation on Day Care, had criticized Wharton, without naming him, for representing accused violators; Wharton had rejoindered -- merely to show that all law firms had imperfect clients, said Cocke -- that Chumney’s firm represented persons charged with Medicare fraud. Chumney had the last thrust, an ironically two-edged one: "If my firm [Glankler, Brown] is so bad," she asked, why had two of the partners contributed to Wharton's campaign? More or less from the time that Bartlett banker Harold Byrd withdrew from the mayor’s race and she became the last obstacle to what most observers considered an inevitable Wharton victory, Chumney has been hitting her opponent hard at every opportunity -- for taking developers’ money, for enjoying too much Republican support, and for not taking stands on hot-button issues like consolidation (which she favors). Increasingly, Wharton has been hitting back, and -- rhetorically, at least -- the Democratic race for mayor has become a real contest. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been spared anything so personal or potentially divisive thus far. Businessman/physician George Flinn plans a big media blitz that should be hitting the airwaves any day now, but, so far as is known, his mainstream opponent, State Rep. Larry Scroggs, is not targeted in any of the ads. Scroggs, for his part, is mostly ignoring Flinn. At this juncture, it would appear that Shelby County Republicans -- considered the demographic underdogs just weeks ago -- have a fighting chance of holding on the mayor’s office being vacated by the GOP’s Jim Rout. With the Democrats feuding and with high levels of interest in statewide and regional Republican primaries guaranteeing a good GOP turnout on August 1st, local Republicans are recovering from early doldrums and beginning to be optimistic about what could happen -- in the mayor’s race and in contests for several other positions.

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