State representative Carol Chumney, matched against George Flinn in a November 13th runoff election for the District 5 City Council seat, announced Monday that she is resigning her legislative seat immediately "in order that the people of District 89 will have the opportunity to choose my replacement."
As Chumney noted, state law requires a special election to fill a legislative seat vacated more than a year prior to the next regularly scheduled statewide election. Vacancies created with less than a year to go before such an election would be filled locally by the Shelby County Commission. Had she waited until the conclusion of the runoff, the cutoff date would have passed. "The people of my district would rather choose their own representative than have the Board of Commissioners choose one for them," Chumney said.
Chumney's announcement follows a good deal of local discussion about the method of choosing her successor -- especially in the ranks of her fellow Democrats, where concern has been expressed that a Republican might be appointed by the commission, which is dominated 7-6 by the GOP.
Chumney conceded there was "risk" in offering her resignation now but added that she was confident of success in the runoff election if her supporters remained motivated to cast their votes in what is likely to be a low-turnout affair.
The Midtown state representative, who led in initial balloting by a margin of 4,690 (39 percent) to 3,632 (30 percent) for Flinn, was confident also that she would eventually have the endorsement of lawyer Jim Strickland, who finished third with 3,215 votes (26 percent).
Or so she indicated to supporters at an open house at her Poplar Avenue headquarters last Friday. Chumney, who had initiated two telephone calls to Strickland in the immediate aftermath of the election, said she "very much" wanted Strickland's endorsement and thought "one more phone call" could win her erstwhile opponent's support.
Strickland was keeping his own counsel, though he noted drily, a propos the issue of telephone calls, that two inquiring calls of his to Chumney went unreturned earlier this year after he had declared his candidacy and she was rumored to be considering the race.
"Anyhow, I think the important endorsement would be from John Vergos if he chose to make one," Strickland said. Vergos, the retiring District 5 councilman, had endorsed Strickland before the first balloting.
Chumney's resignation drew a raised eyebrow from runoff opponent Flinn, who referred to it as "tardy" and said, "She is obviously responding to her constituents' concerns about running for one office while holding another. As a physician and successful businessman, I have learned the importance of keeping my word and doing what is right. I hope her move was for the right reasons and not just to generate publicity."
In an obvious effort to counter the contention of some (like WREC-AM talk-show host Mike Fleming, whose conservative constituency overlaps with Flinn's) that Chumney's move reflected confidence in the outcome of the runoff, Flinn said, "This election is not over. I believe in the power of the people. Our effort doesn't presume the choice is already made." And he added, somewhat more astringently, "I believe the voters want citizens who serve them, not politicians looking to the next election."
Kemp Conrad, chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, which has endorsed Flinn, was even less charitable. Chumney has "resigned for clearly partisan reasons," Conrad said in a statement, contending that "Chumney could have resigned before the Oct. 9 election if she truly cared about wanting voters to have a choice, but instead she wanted to wait in order to make sure that she personally had a spot in the run-off election on November 13. She could have also waited until after the run-off election, but instead she has chosen an option that could cost Tennessee taxpayers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars just to elect someone to finish her job in Nashville."
Conrad was able to find a silver lining, though, in that Chumney's resignation provided "two open seats to fill with ethical and effective Republicans."
Primary contests for the special election would be held on December 14th or December 16th, Chumney said, citing advice given her by Bob Cooper, Governor Phil Bredesen's legal adviser. Cooper informed Chumney that the general election would follow on February 10th.
Among those known to be considering a race for the vacated seat are Democrat David Upton and Republican Jim Jamieson, a Northwest Airlines employee who promptly issued a statement to confirm the fact of his candidacy. Others, including Chumney friend Mary Wilder, may also throw their hats into the ring.
A surprise entry is the likely one of Maura Black Sullivan, director of planning for the Shelby County school system. Sullivan, a longtime friend of veteran activist Upton's, will be giving birth in mid-December, at roughly the time of the special election.
When Republican Ed Bryant looks into a crystal ball, as he did last week for the Shelby County Young Republicans, the former 7th District congressman sees himself running for the U.S. Senate in 2006. And he sees "the current governor," Democrat Phil Bredesen, doing the same thing.
Let's examine that latter thought -- an original one with Bryant, so far as we know -- a little closer. "I have a theory that Bredesen runs nationally," Bryant elaborated in his remarks to the YRs last Tuesday night at the Fox & Hound on Poplar. Bryant suggested that 9th District congressman Harold Ford's well-known Senatorial ambitions would come to naught, that the Democrats would nominate someone from the Nashville area instead, and that it would most likely be Bredesen.
If successful, Bredesen might become a running mate for New York senator Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' most likely presidential candidate in 2008, Bryant said. Bryant, who unsuccessfully opposed Lamar Alexander in the Republican primary in 2002, was explicit about his own Senatorial ambitions.
"Those same problems that caused us to run in the first place those same feelings, those same desires are still there. If I had to make a decision today I would definitely run for the Senate. I'm going to make some noise and raise my hand and say that I too am available for that office."
Bryant stressed that his race was dependent on current Senate majority leader Bill Frist's following through on his pledge not to seek reelection in 2006.
For much of his talk, Bryant seemed preoccupied with the specter of Bredesen. "The governor is governing like Van Hilleary," he said, referring to Bredesen's Republican opponent in 2002, then the congressman from the state's 4th District. "But he's very partisan. He's acting like a Democrat behind the scenes, working in a very partisan manner."
Besides Bryant and Ford, Zach Wamp, the Republican congressman from the 3rd District, has advertised his intentions of becoming a Senate candidate if Frist does not run for reelection.
Through a spokesperson, Bredesen indicated he had "no plan" to run for the Senate and intended to run for reelection as governor in 2006. Bryant had speculated that his congressional successor, 7th District Rep. Marsha Blackburn, might be a candidate in a gubernatorial race, especially if the seat is open. Blackburn is also considered another Senatorial possibility.
Bryant, now practicing law in Nashville with the Baker, Donelson law firm, devoted much of his talk to GOP hopes for taking control of the state legislature. As of now, the Republicans trail the Democrats by five seats in the 99-member state House of Representatives and by two seats in the 33-member state Senate.
"Even though we're more seats behind in the House, that's a more doable situation," Bryant theorized.
The same issue -- that of capturing seats for the GOP in the legislature -- was very much on the mind of state Republican chairman Beth Halteman Harwell, who was in Memphis over the weekend to attend a meeting of the state Federation of Republican Women and to address attendees at the Dutch Treat Luncheon on Saturday at the Piccadilly Restaurant on Mt. Moriah.
Harwell, a state representative from Nashville, also mentioned capturing Tennessee's 11 electoral votes for President Bush as a priority for 2004. Though it was clear that both of her aims were supported by most members of the traditionally conservative gathering, Harwell encountered more dissent than she expected, both on matters pertaining to loyal Republican unity and on policies of the Bush administration.
Shelby County commissioner John Willingham, recently defeated in the Memphis mayor's race, and several supporters repeated their criticism of local party chief Kemp Conrad. More unexpected were challenges to the president's $87 billion reconstruction package for Iraq from conservatives Jack Theobald and Mickey White, both of whom questioned the wisdom of the expenditures.
Jim Fri, an industrialist and a member of the Republican Party's moderate wing, added his criticism of Bush's actions to suspend federal funding for abortion counseling.
Harwell defended Bush, while state GOP political director Randy Stamps, who accompanied her, reassured attendees that the state party would lend its offices to mediating the local party dispute.