Friday, December 17, 2004

Yule Tides

Usually, pols wind down over the holidays; this year, they're turning up the heat.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2004 at 4:00 AM

First the blast, then the bombshell? One of the major social events of each December is the bash thrown by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Ever since 1991, when such an affair preceded Herenton's inauguration to his first term, the city's glitterati and movers and shakers have gathered in the Continental Room of The Peabody to sample the generously available edibles, potables, and quotables (which is to say, each other).

At a suitable point in the evening, there is always an exhortatory address by Hizzoner, followed by a dance band and some congenial hoofing by the more energetic. A good time is had by all.

This year, there were some variations on all that.

To begin with, there was but one member of the City Council on hand -- count 'em, one: first-termer Scott McCormick. No Barbara Swearengen Holt, no Rickey Peete, no Myron Lowery -- to name but three of the council members who have generally been considered close to Herenton. Unsurprising, of course, was the absence of Carol Chumney, the councilwoman who would be mayor. Chumney had her own party a couple of weeks ago at the Central Avenue Holiday Inn, with many of the same prominent lobbyists and zoning lawyers present. She indicated she would also not be attending the Christmas dinner that was held this past weekend for other council members at Folk's Folly.

Pete Aviotti, the mayor's special assistant and the impresario of this annual Christmas party, jested -- a propos a circumstance reported recently in this column -- that he had encountered Chumney at another gathering a few evenings ago and volunteered to bring her a glass of wine. "I'm going to have a Sprite," he quoted her as saying, somewhat solemnly. (The Flyer story contained a "he said/she said" anecdote wherein the two had divergent memories concerning Chumney's consumption of wine at a prior event and whether Aviotti had been solicitous, teasing, or even gallant, as he recalls, or intimidating, in Chumney's account.)

Though attendance overall seemed conspicuously down from past years, there were some expected attendees at the Herenton party, like Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and his former right-hand man, Bobby Lanier, who left office during the flap over former aide Tom Jones' retirement benefits but allowed as how he was now busy at work on Wharton's reelection campaign. There were some surprise guests too -- like Joyce Kelly, the mayor's erstwhile fiancée.

One of the mayor's longtime backers from the business community mused out loud about reports that Herenton may be a person of interest in one or more federal investigatons currently under way. "He may have done some things wrong," the man said, "but I don't care. He's been good for the city."

Present also at the party was longtime Herenton intimate Reginald French, who has himself been involved in an ongoing federal investigation into alleged political corruption involving city construction contracts in Atlanta, a case in which French testified after apparently wearing a wire for the prosecution. It is uncertain how much of an overlap there might be between that case and anything involving Memphis city government -- though speculation on the point has been rampant.

His spirits -- and his mayoral access -- seemingly undampened by that circumstance, an ebullient French said at the mayor's party that Herenton would have a "bombshell" to unload at his forthcoming New Year's Day prayer breakfast. "It's going to be hot! It'll make last year's look tame," said French, referring to Herenton's full-decibel blast at City Council members, one that engendered yearlong tensions at City Hall and involved, among other things, claims of divine sanction for the mayor.

There was something of a buzz among partygoers as to just what the bombshell might be: The consensus was that it involved a Herenton plan for an extensive reorganization of city government -- with a restructuring of Memphis Light, Gas & Water at the heart of that plan.

The mayor himself was keeping his own counsel. When, as is customary at these Christmas-party affairs, Aviotti introduced him midway in the proceedings and he took the dais, Herenton was unwontedly restrained. He said little that was exhortatory, little, indeed, of any sort that could be remembered later on, except for his half-hearted urging of partygoers to get down on the dance floor. Immediately thereafter, the band started up, and a somewhat desultory line dance got under way.

Doubling Up: Too much success can, as they say, breed discontent. Or an embarrassment of riches. Or simple variety. Or whatever. In the wake of the GOP's national election triumph, Republican women in Shelby County are experiencing one or more of these outcomes, big-time.

Many members of Shelby County Republican Women, a long-established organization in these parts, learned of the formation of an alternative group only last week, when, as they prepared for their own annual Christmas party, they received invitations to a competitive party given by the new organizaton, Republican Women With Purpose.

"Theirs is more expensive," said Jean Drumright, chairman of this year's SCRW Christmas party, referring to purportedly higher dues and other membership fees charged by RWP. "They must be the rich Republicans!"

"I hate it that they're taking it personally," said Barbara Trautman of Germantown, president of the new club, which had a combination "announcement meeting" and Christmas party of its own this week at the Germantown home of longtime GOP eminence Maida Pearson Smith.

As Trautman explained it, the new club -- which arose out of campaign efforts on behalf of the Bush campaign -- will be more convenient for Republican women in the Germantown/Collierville area. "They wanted their own club in their own neighborhood area," Trautman said.

RWP (let us be the first to use the acronym) will meet at Ridgeway Country Club on Poplar Avenue in Germantown, a point considerably farther east than SCRW's traditional meeting venue at the Racquet Club on Sanderlin.

One of the mainstays of the new club is parliamentarian Annabel Woodall of East Memphis, a longtime SCRW member.

Like SCRW, RWP is in conformity with rules of the state and national federations of Republican women, and one of those rules -- perhaps inconvenient for those Republican women caught in the middle, geographically or otherwise -- is that full membership, including the right to hold office, can be had in only one club sanctioned by the governing federations.

"I've tried to reassure them. We can work together," insisted Trautman. "There's room for all of us. I mean, Nashville has three clubs, and Dallas has 16!"

Both clubs had the GOP brass out this week. Guest of honor at SCRW's Christmas party, held Monday at Devonshire Gardens, was the outgoing state Republican chairman, state representative Beth Halteman Harwell of Nashville.

Harwell, who intends to be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006, inaugurated a new slate of SCRW officers, headed by Jeanette Watkins of Germantown.

Scheduled to do the equivalent honors at RWP's meeting was 7th District U.S. representative Marsha Blackburn, that group's guest of honor. Blackburn is another possible Senate candidate in 2006.

Among those attending both parties were former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, yet another 2006 Senate hopeful, and his wife, Cyndi.

Harwell In: That Senate race -- for the seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, who most likely will run for president in 2008 -- numbers three definite contenders on the Republican side, as of now.

Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker is already in, and Bryant is certain to follow. Simultaneous with Blackburn's trip to Memphis on Monday, Bob Davis of Nashville was being installed as her successor in the GOP chairmanship. That allowed her to make it definite, she confirmed Tuesday: "I will absolutely be a candidate for the Senate seat."

Elkington vs. Person? Ranking state Republicans are putting the screws on two GOP state senators -- Curtis Person of Memphis and Tim Burchett of Knoxville -- who have indicated they will break ranks with their fellow Republicans (who now hold a majority of one in the Senate) and vote for octogenarian John Wilder of Somerville to continue in his role as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor.

The state GOP's governing board voted Saturday to permit Republican officials to endorse future opponents for Person and Burchett. (Beale Street impresario John Elkington said at Mayor Herenton's Christmas party that he had been lobbied by key Republicans to consider a race against Person in 2006.) •

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