Friday, May 10, 2002



Posted By on Fri, May 10, 2002 at 4:00 AM

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, “ said Shakespeare (and surely we can update the Bard by including within his scope today’s Shelby County politicians, regardless of gender), “which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” Well, there was certainly some right smart surf-riding in Tuesday’s primaries for county wide offices. In fact, if the two remaining election days in Shelby County in August and November measure up to the year’s first one, which saw Democrat A C Wharton and Republican George Flinn nominated for county mayor, the record books may have to be rewritten. A number of precedents were established Tuesday. Among them:
  • the closest County Commission race ever run, in which veteran pol Joe Cooper defeated fellow Democrat Guthrie Castle by one vote (count ‘em, er, it, 1). Cooper, who defeated Castle by 1313 to 1312, will square off in the August general election against Republican Bruce Thompson, who defeated GOP mainstay John Ryder, by a shocking two-to-one margin. Whichever party wins the pivotal 5th District (East Memphis) seat will control the commission, also by one vote;
  • the most expensive countywide primary race to date, one in which radiologist/broadcast mogul Flinn spent nearly half a million dollars of his own money to overpower State Rep. Larry Scroggs. Flinn will try his tested air-war tactics in August against Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton, who kept runnerup State Rep. Carol Chumney under 20 percentage points;
  • the greatest wipeout of incumbents in the history of the Commission, one in which chairman Morris Fair and long-serving member Clair VanderSchaaf both went down -- to insurgent Republicans John Willingham and Joyce Avery, respectively -- and two other incumbents, Republicans Linda Rendtorff and Tom Moss, survived without much to spare. At issue in all four races was the incumbents’ support for public funding of the proposed NBA arena downtown, a final vote on which was scheduled for early Wednesday, in the wake of the election. Another outcome of consequence:
  • Republican Mark Luttrell and Democrat Randy Wade easily won their parties’ nomination for Sheriff to succeed the outgoing A C Gilless. Ranking officer Wade's three-to-one win was exepcted over the well-credentialed (ex-Marine, Secret Service) if almost apolitical Henry Hooper, but Luttrell coasted much more easily than was generally anticipated against Chief Deputy Don Wright and Commander Bobby Simmons. In retropect, the outcome of the Republican sheriff’s primary should have been obvious --though observers of the race fell into the habit of regarding it as a three-way contest and kept up the habit right until the end. Some of the other races -- Flinn vs. Scroggs; Thompson vs. Ryder (and third candidate Jerry Cobb); the two commission races in which incumbents were dumped -- evolved from their original assumptions in the same way. Many of the primary races had a fool-the-eye aspect to them in which the main threads didn’t get tied (or untied) until late. Other scenarios, of course, were obvious from the word Go. Cases in Point: MAYOR’S RACE (DEMOCRATIC):It’s hard to see how Chumney could have run Wharton close, but the problem was not that she didn’t handle her issues well. She had several, which she was able to express succinctly and sometimes used to keep Wharton off balance during their frequent encounters at candidate forums. She stressed her foursquare support of city-county consolidation versus Wharton’s ambivalent (if erudite) discussions of the issue; her utter spurning of developer support and developer money; a promise to seek a moratrium on property tax increases; and her personal history as a legislative reformer of the daycare industry. None of it seemed to matter, least of all to the women whom Chumney counted on as a major source of her support. Though it will be a while before proper soundings can be made about gender voting in Tuesday’s election, it would seem from the results, which saw Chumney come in at only 17 percent of the total, that women probably were as inclined as men were to give their trust to the affable and competent presence known far and wide as A C. (Wharton’s use of his initials in his campaign paraperhanlia was no accident.) Chumney repeatedly underscored the fact that Wharton’s political identity, though nominally Democratic, was ambiguous at best. Voters seemed to see his apolitical patina as a plus, not a minus (and may continue to through the general election campaign -- a concern, surely, to Flinn as he tries to rally Republican cadres in the wake of a primary battle that, from time to time, took on bitter overtones). One reason why Chumney’s focus on perfectly legitimate issues failed to net palpable results was the often overlooked fact that voters tend to choose candidates as much by the cut of their jib as by the heft and purity of their position papers. Despite the now fashionable criticism of “horse race coverage” of political races, voters use some such standard themselves in deciding whom to vote for. They know instintctively that the “issues” of a campaign may turn out to have little if any relation to the actual problems of governing and they focus most of their own attention on how the horse bears up under the stress and drama of a race and much less to whatever kind of ideological saddle is along for the ride. MAYOR’S RACE (REPUBLICAN): The other side of that coin turned up in the Republican race, however. Flinn’s huge differential in financial resources (one, it should be said, that, in its five-to-one ratio, reflected the disproportion existing between Wharton and Chumney, as well); allowed him to highlight in mailouts and TV commercials a bareboned image of himself as a fiscal conservative interested in education, economic development and public safety while representing Scroggs, generally known as a cautious, even parsimonious legislator, as some kind of Mad Taxer. Flinn’s approach even involved the ruse, late in the game, of suggesting that a $1,000 personal contribution to Scrogg’s campaign by Governor Don Sundquist, a longtime friend, meant ipso facto that Scroggs was a co-conspirator with the governor in backing a state income tax that Scroggs has, in fact, made a point of opposing. A striking thing about Flinn’s victory is that it was achieved almost entirely by means of paid broadcast media -- most of the nearly half million dollars of his own money that went to his election effort was earmarked for that sort of “air war,” and he did almost no public campaigning beyond a headquarters opening and a couple of forums. Scroggs, on the other hand, was forced to fight a relentless ground war, pressing the flesh as he could between obligatory trips to Nashville for legislative service and trying to get as much free media as possible to counter Flinn’s charges. Though Flinn in post-election interviews characterized his Democratic opponent, Whartion, as “a friend,” and predicted they would campaign against each other in sweet harmony, it would surprise no one if he did not continue with the same kind of air war as before, dropping high-megaton bombs at frequent intervals. Wharton will have much more of a wherewithal to respond, of course, but not even he can match what could turn out to be a personal warchest of two or three million dollars. “We weren’t able to counter Flinn’s charges,” was the post-election lament of Scroggs’ media adviser Harlan Judkins, echoing a lament made often during the race by Scroggs himself. Judkins predicted that the decidedly middle-of-the-road Wharton might attract a number of disaffected Republicans in the general election, but this, of course, presumes that the Public Defender’s moderate, unthreatening image withstands the bombardment of the general election campaign and emerges intact. Outlook for August: The same demographics which favored Wharton, an African-American with proven crossover potential, would suggest an easy victory, but we have learned too much about the effects of unrestrained big-bucks campaigning in recent years to write off Flinn -- who will have the HOP'd statewide-primary bonus vote working for him but who must somehow find a way to reconcile the estranged segment of his would-be constituency. COMMISSION RACES (REPUBLICAN): The election results would seem to indicate that there is an aroused electorate in the suburbs, one deeply suspicious of incumbents and of what is imagined to be their free and unilateral use of the taxing power for questionable public purposes. This belief, expressed in some unexpectedly well-produced mailouts by restaurateur Willingham, who in previous losing races, had not used such sophisticated materials, resulted in bad news for District 1, Position 3’s mild-mannered Fair, who campaigned minimally and was a known supporter of the NBA arena and the use of public bonds to finance it. (Both Fair and the other commission casualty, VanderSchaaf, routed in District 4, Positon 1, by the dedicated Avery as much for his freewheeling personal past and for collaborations with the commission’s Democrats as for his arena decisions,voted with the majority to approve the issuance of revenue bonds in a surprisingly anti-climactic morning-after commission meeting, thus completing the final step necessary to begin actual construction of the arena.) Willingham’s daughter, Karla Templeton, came close to upsetting commission incumbent Linda Rendtorff, in Distict 1, Position 2, and Tom Moss in District 4, Positon 2 escaped the purge largely through the good fortune that his chief opponent, ex-Lakeland Mayor Jim Bomprezzi, had to deal with a vendetta of his own in the race, from estranged home-town alderman Mark Hartz. Although winner Thompson, a financial planner with good support from key Memphis business executives, had enough pure presence and natural political instinct to win on his own recognizance, so to speak, his victory over Ryder and Cobb owed something, too, to the voter discontent over a burgeoning county debt which Thompson, in his mailouts and TV spots, was able to link, fairly or not, with Ryder, a longtime force in county politics and a veteran assistant county attorney. (Ryder could console himself with a cast of well-wishers at his election-night venue, the home of Jesse and Annabel Woodall, that arguably contained the cream of Shelby County Republican society.) The other winner in District 5, Democrat Cooper, was the most atypical of all candidates. While Castle’s campaign availed himself of some astute mailouts and some active phone banks, all targeting key Democratic voters, Cooper almost single-handedly hauled his simple red-lettered yard signs (left over from previous campaigns) all over Shelby county and even on the approaches in from Tunica, Mississippi. As always, Cooper’s signs read, “It’s Time-- Now.” Maybe it is time, but, as the redoubtable Ryder found out, Thompson is no slouch. One way or another, however, the 5th District commissioner of the future will probably line up with both Democrats and Republicans, depending on the nature of the vote. So will winner David Lillard, who beat David Shirley, Stuart Acree, and Mundy Quinn in Distrixct 4, Positon 3. Other winners Tuesday, especially in the predominantly African-American Democratic districts, were decided not so much by policy considerations or by voter reactions to this or that recent development. All the Democratic incumbents were returned, and, in open seats, Joe Ford beat sister Opehlia Ford, as expected, in District 3, Position 3.while Deidre Malone won handily in District 2, Positon 3. Outlook for August: Regardless of what happens in the 5th district or of which party numerically controls the commission, it will almost certainly prove harder to get spending measures and bond issues through the body than has proved the case over the last few years. SHERIFF’S RACE (REPUBLICAN): Luttrell had sole possession of what might have been the winning issue all by itself -- his expertise in incarceration, as director of the county’s Corrections Institute, at a time when both the media and the public imagination had been repeatedly snagged by the county jail, its cost overruns, and the seemingly endless record of court judgments against it . On top of that, Luttrell was supported by members of the Republican establishment, notably outgoing Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, and assisted by capable handlers (his say-it-all slogan, “Change for the Better,” was recognizably out of seasoned consultant John Bakke’s bag of tricks). By the end of the race, Luttrell, whose fundraising had trailed the others’ early on, surpassed that of Simmons and was approaching the level of Wright’s, which was up around the $200 thousand level. In an election year that, as often as not, treated experience in office as a character flaw instead of as a credential, career Sheriff’s Department employees Wright and Simmons came off as stereotypical Good Ole Boys, while the tall, rawboned Luttrell was not only a new face, he looked more like someone who had walked off a movie lot and not out of one of the Department’s back rooms. His media availed itself of that same no-nonsense look-’em-in-the-eye image, while Wright presented himself in a montage of bland family--style tableaus and Simmons tried for an older-fashioned use of actual news clips and vintage photographs to chronicle his own career and, later, the presumed failings of his opponents. One of his latter ads may have done him in -- and simultaneously boosted Luttrell. It savaged Wright for purportedly cutting County Commissioner Michael Hooks (who was handily reelected Tuesday) too much slack in the course of the commissioner’s arrest for crack possession two years ago. Even some of those closest to Simmons thought the ad made him look like a slasher, especially to those who saw the repentant Hooks as a poster person for rehabilitation. (Ironically, Simmons, wearing a blue blazer and looking relaxed, came off very well in a non-political ad which, appearing in the week before the election, did not present him as a lawman but as a pitchman for Lucky Motor Sports.) SHERIFF’S RACE (DEMOCRATIC): Wade’s victory over Hooper, even more lopsided than Luttrell’s over the Republican field, was, on the other hand, a case whereby virtual incumbency (a lifetime’s work in the Department), good political connections (with, for example, the “North Memphis Mafia,” an established group of political figures whose ad hoc leader is Memphis city councilman Rickey Peete) overpowered an opponent almost without real connections or professional backup to match his undeniably impressive resume. Hooper, whose admirable military and law-enforcement background could be learned about only in some homemade-looking leaflets which the candidate generally passed out himself, didn’t have the money to get his message out even if he’d known how. His slogan, “The Candidate of Change,” came off as nondescript -- a contrast in every way to the somewhat similar one of Luttrell. Outlook for August: Luttrell should be able to profit from the boost given Repuiblican candidates by the simultaneous GOP Senate and 7th District primaries, both hotly contested. He will continue to stress jail improvements and cost control, while Wade will also campaign as a reformer -- for streamlined booking procedures and humane treatment of the mentallY ill, among other issues. ON THE CLERKS’ FRONT: The Republican incumbents, Trustee Bob Patterson, Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore, Criminal Court Clerk Bill Key, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas, County Clerk Jayne Creson, and Register Tom Leatherwood all won easily over minimal or non-existent opposition, as did Juvenile Court Clerk Shep Wilbun, a Democrat. Challengers in August will be Democrats E.C.Jones, for Patterson; Del Gill, for Moore; Ralph White, for Key; Steve Stamson, for Wilbun, Sondra Becton, for Thomas; Janis Fullilove, for Creson; and Otis Jackson for Leatherwood. Outlook for August: Here at least, there will be little change in the conduct of affairs, and probably little change in the composition of office-holders. It is otherwise ot the commission, where some new and potentially turbulent waters will shortly start to swell and which the new mayor, whoever he be, will be forced to heed and learn to navigate. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies -- Jerry west, Pau Gasol, et al. -- have safely made the cut. Some key issues of the past are now moot.
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