With scarcely more than a week to go until the December 16th Democratic primary to determine Carol Chumney's successor in state House District 89, the main issue continues to be that of residence. Of the two Democrats on the ballot -- Beverly Robison Marrero and Jeff Sullivan -- only Marrero is a current bona fide resident, insists one of her key backers.
This is state Senator Steve Cohen, who got some choral support Friday from outgoing city councilman John Vergos, who accompanied Cohen and Marrero to early voting at Trinity United Methodist Church on Galloway. Sullivan, an early voter himself, is, needless to say, of another mind about the matter.
Calling Marrero "committed to this district," Vergos said, "We have allowed politicians in this system to not live in the district or have some sort of sham seat, and we do it all the time, and that doesn't make it right. We shouldn't let them cherry-pick an area like that." He and Cohen agreed that current laws with relatively loose requirements regarding residence of public officials need to be strengthened.
Cohen, noting that he, Marrero, and Vergos were doing something that "Ms. Marrero's opponent can't do -- vote," said that Sullivan "doesn't live in District 89, can't vote in District 89, and it's really rather ridiculous to think that somebody who can't even take part in the election is asking you to cast a vote on their behalf when they can't even cast a vote for themselves."
Sullivan's response? He voted for himself at the Berclair Church of Christ early-voting site on Saturday, availing himself of the opportunity to make an official change-of-residence at the voting site.
Cohen had disputed Sullivan's contention that his current residence on Reese, a house purchased in 2002, was "until recently" within the District 89 lines. "In reality, that redistricting was the 1990 redistricting, not the 2000 redistricting," said the senator, who characterized the recent rental of a property on Graham Street within the district by Sullivan and his expectant wife Maura Black Sullivan as "making it appear that he's a resident of the district when he's not."
The Sullivans haven't established utility service at the rental property, "and they have a campaign sign, not a For Sale sign, in the yard of the house they own," Cohen said.
The Sullivans have said that their personal lives and professional careers had both revolved around the Midtown area that comprises District 89, that the house they own is only blocks away from the district line, and that they do in fact intend to reestablish residence on Graham.
Amplifying on that Saturday, after his vote at Berclair, Sullivan said, "We do, in fact, have a For Sale sign in the yard." He then directed some return fire at Cohen.
"I'm really beginning to wonder who I'm running against here. My opponent never says anything," Sullivan said. "Steve Cohen does all her talking. I feel like I'm running against Steve Cohen. If Steve Cohen wants to be in the state House of Representatives, he needs to resign his seat in the Senate and run for state representative, because there are plenty of qualified candidates who would love to represent the people of this district."
Sullivan said that he grew up in District 89 and lived here "for over 30 years ... fighting with other Democrats to win elections here in Shelby County" while opponent Marrero was "living the high life in Florida." He said, "This crap about my not being able to vote for myself is just a lie," and added, "My opponent doesn't know the issues. My opponent knows nothing about state government."
To which Marrero said: "When he [Sullivan] and I have appeared at forums, I've talked as much as he has. I'm a good listener, I know I'm not lazy, and I know I can read. I'm not a member of any group or clique. Anybody who knows me knows I'm an independent person. I'll be the one pushing the button in Nashville, nobody else, and the people in the district are the ones who will tell me what issues are important to them, nobody else."
Not all observers regard the residency issue as one of high import. Veteran Democrat Steve Steffens, proprietor of a widely read e-mail network in local Democratic Party circles, circulated two missives in which, after declaring himself satisfied with both candidates and noting that Sullivan had lived in the district "for 30 of his 39 years," he expressed exasperation on the point.
Professing himself "tired of the sniping," Steffens said, "We have two good candidates. Can we stick to the real issues, please? In the end, the only people who will decide this election are the good Democrats of District 89. I suspect that they are more concerned with a vote on how TennCare may be changed than whether somebody lives half a mile outside the district." In his second e-mail, Steffens noted, "State law on this issue only requires that a candidate move into the district within 30 days after he/she has been elected. That made it," he said, "an ex-issue."
Not to Cohen. Not yet, anyhow. At press time on Tuesday he had scheduled an afternoon press conference at the Criminal Justice Center, where he said he intended to present District Attorney General Bill Gibbons with evidence that Sullivan had committed a possible felony by making false claims about his residence under oath.
• Meanwhile, there's a third candidate to succeed Chumney. Making his move under the radar screen is Jay Sparks, campaign manager for Chumney's recent council race.
Sparks isn't on the primary ballot and -- presumably -- won't be a write-in candidate on February 10th either. What he's after is more limited -- an interim appointment by the Shelby County Commission that would let him serve only until Chumney's long-term successor, either Marrero or Sullivan, is certified after February 10th.
Chumney, who has reaffirmed her neutrality in the Marrero/Sullivan race, acknowledged last Friday that she had talked up Sparks' prospects with members of the commission. And she followed that up with a visit at a commission committee meeting on Monday, making the case that the district needed representation for that portion of next year's legislative session -- three weeks or so --that would precede the February 10th general election.
"I wouldn't call it lobbying," she said last week. "I would say that I've made the case for Jay. I think he'd do a good job. He's used to fielding requests from people in the district and helping them out on things, and he'd certainly be able to do that capably until the election process was concluded and the full-time representative was sworn in and could serve."
On Monday she called attention to the possibility that a write-in candidate could still theoretically upset the Democratic primary winner on February 10th -- an evident argument against appointing the winner of that contest.
Although Commissioner Linda Rendtorff, who once served in Lamar Alexander's administration as human resources director, had expressed interest in an interim appointment for herself, she dropped that idea on advice of county attorney Brian Kuhn that she would have to resign from the commission in order to serve.
Thereafter Rendtorff and all others who expressed an opinion indicated they would be more inclined to appoint next week's primary winner than to appoint Sparks or some other fill-in choice. The commission formally advertised the vacancy on Monday and reserved the right to appoint a temporary seat-holder at its next meeting on December 22nd.
• Chumney confirmed the sense that many have that she's champing at the bit and ready to go as a council member from District 5 (Midtown, East Memphis). Though she won't be sworn in until the New Year, she isn't bashful about her attitudes or intentions.
"Mayor Herenton's raise was too high," she pronounced on the late-night council vote this past week that upped the mayor's salary from $140,000 to $160,000 -- reversing a previous vote turning down the raise.
On the mayor's proposed reorganization of the MLGW board, Chumney had this to say: "We definitely need to shake it up. It obviously needs more people on it with a business background. Beyond that we need to look at pay issues. The rate of salary increases for rank-and-file employees has been well below that for upper management. And I think mid-level people need to have their benefits strengthened."
The councilor-elect would prefer to see council committee meetings held on alternating weeks with the public meetings held in the council chamber, rather than on the same day, as at present.
She also is dissatisfied with the current method of allocating a maximum two minutes per speaker to citizens who wish to address the council on issues. "I think we need to do something about that, and I intend to open up the forum a bit by having open meetings around the district."
• If Tennessee Republicans are able to achieve a majority in the state Senate after next year's elections, they may choose a Democrat to lead them.
That's if they follow the example of state Senator Curtis Person (R-Memphis), who extolled the virtues of Lt. Governor John Wilder (D-Somerville) at a well-attended $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for Wilder Thursday night at the Memphis home of city councilman Jack Sammons.
Person, who has held legislative office since 1966 and has been opposed only twice during that period, left no doubt as to his own loyalties. After toasting Wilder for empowering the Senate "as an independent body" some three decades ago, Person said flatly, "If the Republicans gain control of the Senate next year, I want it known that I'll vote for John Wilder to be speaker once again."
Person's statement was reminiscent of remarks he and other leading Senate Republicans made on Wilder's behalf three years ago when the lieutenant governor was challenged for his Senate seat by Savannah mayor Bob Shutt, who had gained the GOP nomination but got limited support from partymates statewide. Wilder won that one easily.
Since surviving two purge attempts by Democratic factions in the 1980s, Wilder, a sturdy octogenarian who does two vigorous bicycle rides a day, has presided over the Senate as the choice of a bipartisan coalition. During brief remarks at the fund-raiser Thursday night, Wilder quipped, "I think more people like me in Memphis than they do in Nashville."
Other senators present at the fund-raiser, where Wilder was introduced by FedEx founder Fred Smith (who co-hosted with AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde), included Democrats Steve Cohen and Jim Kyle, both of Memphis, Jo Ann Graves of Gallatin, Don McCleary of Jackson, and Doug Henry of Nashville, and Republican Mark Norris of Collierville.
Also attending were state mental health commissioner Virginia Betts, Tennessee secretary of state Riley Darnell, state comptroller John Morgan, state treasurer Dale Sims, and numerous other politically influential members of both major political parties.
• Monday's vote by the county commission to defer yet again a vote on whether to hire an independent consultant makes it more and more likely that construction of the FedExForum will proceed without serious incident or interruption.
After last week's public grilling of project consultant John Hilkene and Public Building Authority director Dave Bennett (his second in two weeks) by the commission's Public Service and Tourism committee, headed by John Willingham, even Willingham, one of the arena project's severest critics, seemed somewhat mollified.
Asked why he sought a two-week deferment, the latest of several, on the proposed hiring of Barnett Naylor/Hanscomb, a local firm, to vet the arena project, Willingham said, "It's because we're finally getting some answers." That might relieve Bennett, who said after last week's committee session, "This is likely to go on as long as Commissioner Willingham can get some publicity. We've already answered every question that's been asked, several times over."
Commissioner Walter Bailey, another skeptic on arena matters, conceded that there didn't seem to be enough votes on the commission to engage the local firm.
If it turns out that there are when the full commission meets again in two weeks, Hilkene, who seemed to suffer the ordeal of last week's interrogation fatalistically, tapping a pencil on the table and biting his lip as he heard questions by Willingham, Bailey, and others, intends to be stoic about the matter.
"I've met with them [representatives of the local firm]. They know their stuff. I can deal with them," Hilkene said. n