Friday, June 10, 2005

A New Brew

In the post-sting ferment, local politics could end up looking, and tasting, different.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Nature famously abhors a vacuum, and so do Shelby County Democrats. In the aftermath of state senator Kathryn Bowers’ resignation last week from her position as local Democratic chairman, some well-known party names have resurfaced as possible successors.

One of them is David Cocke, a former party chairman on two prior occasions and a card-carrying member of the Ford party faction. (The Memphis lawyer is, in fact, the longtime attorney for former congressman Harold Ford Sr., though, as he rightly points out, has from time to time been on the opposite side from the Fords — notably during a dispute some years back concerning the desirability of local party primaries.)

Cocke, who acknowledges a serious interest in succeeding Bowers, is being encouraged to run for the now-vacant party chairmanship by none other than current 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., who launched his bid for a U.S. Senate seat the day before the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz arrests netted several prominent arrestees, including Bowers and the congressman’s uncle, state senator John Ford.

Another name being thrown into the hat is that of former chairman Gale Jones Carson, who serves as Memphis mayor Willie Herenton’s press secretary and has standing in the Democratic Party faction that is partial to the mayor.

“A lot of people have asked me to run, including people I don’t even know,” Carson said Thursday. “I have no intention of doing so,” she said, but declined to rule out a bid.

The names of the two well-known party warhorses have surfaced as a direct result of the FBI sting and its impact on the party. And not only Representative Ford but other ranking Democrats regard the naming of a known quantity as chairman to be one good way of stabilizing a shaken party on the eve of the 2006 election season.

Other names receiving some mention in party circles are those of former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman, Shelby County property assessor Rita Clark, and former chairman Jim Strickland.

The only two candidates for the Democratic chairmanship who have declared so far are Joe Young, who was a field director for the state Democratic Party under former chairman Jane Eskind, and Cherry Davis, currently a member of the party’s Shelby County executive committee. Though Young and Davis have some support in the Ford and Herenton wings of the party, respectively, neither yet commands the organized support of a faction.

Both spoke, however, at a weekend meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club, where they were well received. And they could be the beneficiaries of a growing momentum for new faces in party ranks — especially among those party cadres freshly recruited during last year’s presidential season.

A freshly minted group advocating such change is Mid-South Democrats in Action, an outgrowth of the Democratic presidential campaigns last year of both Howard Dean and eventual party nominee John Kerry.

Members of Mid-South Democrats were among those who turned up at local Democratic headquarters on Poplar Avenue for the regularly scheduled meeting of the party executive committee, at which Bowers tendered her resignation as chairman, effective June 25th.

Though professing her innocence of charges that she had accepted illicit funds from a dummy corporation operated by the FBI, Bowers acknowledged to party members that continuing in office would make her a lightning rod for criticism and would interfere with the party’s “progress” and preparations for next year’s political campaigns.

Although Bowers was politely received — even enthusiastically by what seemed to be a majority of those present, her support would have been shaky if she had opted to try to tough things out. As it turned out, the small contingent from Mid-South Democrats had been on hand to call for Bowers’ resignation if she hadn’t offered it. (Desi Franklin, a spokesperson for Mid-South, elaborates on the organization’s goals in this week’s Viewpoint on page 13.)

The G.O.P. Makes Its Move

And Democrats weren’t alone in stirring the newly turbulent waters. Meeting last Thursday night at the same time Bowers was tendering her resignation across town, the local Republican Party’s steering committee adopted a resolution formally asking the seven-member Republican majority on the Shelby County Commission to appoint Republican Terry Roland to the District 29 state Senate vacancy created by the resignation of John Ford.

Roland is a Millington businessman and a conservative who had made a strong feint some months back concerning a challenge for the GOP chairmanship. That job was subsequently won by Bill Giannini, whose chairmanship has been characterized by stepped-up Republican efforts in the Democrats’ electoral hinterland.

Backed stoutly by both the local and statewide Republican organizations, Mary Ann McNeil polled 36 percent as the Republican candidate in last month’s special election, won by Bowers, for the District 33 state Senate seat.

And, although Roland’s chances of prevailing were chancy, commission vice-chair Tom Moss, a Republican, indicated last week that the commission might depart from normal gentleman’s agreements requiring members of each party to vote for a representative of the other to fill vacancies in districts where the other party predominates.

Meanwhile, the new political climate was further demonstrated in a press release from Brian Kelsey, a freshman legislator from Germantown, who said that Bowers and the two other legislators arrested in the Tennessee Waltz sting (state senator Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga, a Democrat, and Representative Chris Newton of Cleveland, the lone Republican arrested) should follow Ford’s example and resign — assuming that audio- and videotapes were on handto back the charges.

If nothing else, that indicated that first-term representative Kelsey had not accidentally violated long-standing protocol two months ago when he issued an earlier press release directly challenging a ruling in the state House by Democratic speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

Clearly, political protocol is getting a working-over under the extreme circumstances now prevailing.

A Democrat Cautions

Representative Ford

One more time for the old French expression: The more things change, the more things remain the same. As if the Tennessee Waltz were not enough sour music for Congressman Ford, he was the recipient last weekend of an ode of sorts from John Jay Hooker.

Yes, that John Jay Hooker, the once-great party luminary and two-time party nominee for governor who in recent years has come off as something of a circus clown but still has a charismatic moment or two left in him. On his blog, Hooker vented a lyric to Ford that might have been entitled “Not Born To Run.” Or not this year, anyhow.

“Wait, Harold, Wait” was what it was actually entitled. After extolling the Memphis congressman as “a highly intelligent, capable public servant … a man of good character with a profound love of his country,” Hooker went on to say that “in my view, he should not run for the United States Senate, because I think it’s virtually impossible for him to be elected.”

Spelling that out, Hooker said, “I have talked to a good many people, most of whom are supporters of Congressman Ford, who would vote for him, and who think he would be a first-class United States senator, but who like me, think that the existing circumstance regarding his uncle and political bribery, make his election highly doubtful.

“I think the 2006 election is going to be difficult at best, as Governor Bredesen is now burdened with the TennCare problems. And therefore, I think the Democrats are going to have their hands full in re-electing Governor Bredesen.”

Hence, said Hooker, the congressman should wait.

As for the aforesaid Bredesen, whose reelection does in fact no longer look like the shoo-in it seemed to be a few scant months ago, the governor this week formally set August 4th as the primary election for ex-Senator Ford’s District 29 seat and ex-Representative Bowers’ District 87 seat. The general election date for both seats will be September 15th.

Those are dates to reckon with. But so are June 25th and July 23rd, dates of the first local Democratic Party caucuses and the party reorganization convention, respectively.

n David Pickler is too good a politician not to have been diplomatic when he announced publicly last week that which he had already confided privately some time back — namely, that he wouldn’t seek another term as president of the local conservative activist group Defenders of Freedom.

Consequently, his letter to DOF founder Angelo Cobrasci sounded a note familiar in other political leave-taking cases: “In light of the time commitments required by my new business, I do not feel I can give the appropriate level of time and energy to do the job properly.”

In a conversation after a recent appearance at the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon forum, Pickler, whose firm specializes in financial advice and estate planning, had indicated he would not serve another term as DOF president. He said then that DOF founder Cobrasci had approached him two years ago about taking the reins and he agreed — in the hope, he said, of moving the then nascent group “into the mainstream.”

Apparently, he succeeded in that aim. Several other mainstream figures, including Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell, were subsequently attracted into DOF. Pickler said in that conversation, as he repeated in last week’s letter, that he continues to support the aims of the group — though he said he disagreed with a recent mass e-mail from Cobrasci which suggested that DOF members should espouse a form of militant Christianity.

Cobrasci, who has become a fixture on the conservative and Republican circuits, was recently identified on a blog operated by Flyer staff writer Chris Davis (ThePeskyFly.com) as having once served a prison term for burglary, for which he was later pardoned by former Governor Don Sundquist. Cobrasci was then known as Greg Moore.

Pickler said he had been aware of Cobrasci’s past but still regarded him as a conscientious and public-spirited citizen.

Supporters of Pickler as the perennially reelected president of the Shelby County School Board need not fear, by the way: The line in his letter to Gobrasci that says, “I must respectfully decline any nomination to serve in any office,” applies only to DOF affairs. Pickler, an opponent of school consolidation and an advocate of special school districts, intends to continue in his current board role.

n Count A C Wharton, nominally a Democrat, as a backer of district attorney general Bill Gibbons, a Republican, for reelection next year. Wharton introduced Gibbons Monday afternoon at a well-attended fundraiser at Ronnie Grisanti’s restaurant and announced his support. ¥

Edwards Clarifies Tennessee Remarks

“Nonsense!” is the response this week of former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards to widespread reports that he, like Delaware senator Joe Biden, had attempted to distance himself from recent statements by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

Edwards was the featured speaker at last weekend’s annual Jackson Day Dinner for Tennessee Democrats on the grounds of the Hermitage, just outside Nashville. During a brief interview session with reporters, Edwards was asked about Dean’s recent remark that many Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives” and was quoted as responding that Dean was “not the spokesman for the party” but merely “a voice” that Edwards did not agree with.

The former senator’s remarks were coupled in mainstream coverage with Biden’s statement Sunday on ABC’s This Week program that the chairman “doesn’t speak for me with that kind of rhetoric and I don’t think he speaks for the majority of Democrats.”

But on his personal blog (oneamerica.com) this week, Edwards seemed to recant. Contending that he was quoted out of context, Edwards said, inter alia: “And then the flap arose: A chasm! A split! A revolt! Instead, how about: Nonsense!

“We are both talking about the Republicans and their failure to address the needs of working people. We both agree with this basic truth: This Republican president and this Republican majority are not doing what they should be doing for working people in this country. That’s a core belief we need to fight for. And what’s more, we agree that we — all Democrats and all working people — should be complaining, criticizing, and generally speaking out about this critical failure of the Republican Party and offering our positive vision for America. And we have.”

Among the other speakers at the Hermitage Saturday were the Democrats’ two declared U.S. Senate candidates, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. On Sunday Ford was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser at Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant.

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