Wednesday, August 17, 2005

POLITICS

Opponents of transforming the downtown parks recoup and regroup.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2005 at 4:00 AM

THE RESISTANCE

On Monday, defenders of the status quo were out in force downtown in front of Confederate Park, putting their best face forward, toting not Rebel flags but huge cardboard banners saying “SAVE OUR HISTORIC PARKS.” In the manner of high-schoolers doing a car wash they waved at passing Front Street motorists, who honked back in solidarity.

It was a decided contrast to the ragtag look of Saturday, when a handful of resisters to name-change proposals showed up in the park, most of them sporting vintage Confederate paraphernalia.

Where had Monday’s mainstream-style demonstrators been on the weekend, when the Rev. Al Sharpton and his local supporters had downtown bragging rights more or less to themselves? “We were asked to stay away, and we did,” said one of them, lawyer D. Jack Smith -- referring apparently to an advisory to that effect from the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization or perhaps one from the ad hoc “Save Our Historic Parks” movement itself.

Smith was an interesting case. In 1967, while a member of the state legislature, he had sponsored a bill striking down the old “Scopes law,” the notorious statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s schools. Only last month, on the 80th anniversary of the epic legal battle pitting William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow against each other, Smith had been invited to Dayton, site of the Scopes trial, and honored for his efforts in erasing what had long since come to be seen as a stain on the state’s record.

Why was he now defending a symbolism which some clearly regard as an equally ugly blemish?

“It’s entirely different,” Smith said. “History is real. This is factual, a part of Memphis. It gives us character. We look back as much as we look forward—in all parts of the country. It’s where we came from.”

The anti-evolution law was otherwise, he argued, “a mistake from the start,” or, as he said, supplying the formal legalese, “ab initio.” The statute which had bagged science teacher John Scopes had been “an attempt to impose a religious view on everybody against all our American principles.”

The military heroes of the Confederacy, on the other hand, had been “people fighting for their homes as much as anything else.” Smith, who numbers three warriors for the Southern cause “and one Confederate judge” among his antecedents, summed it up this way: “There was that famous quote. Someone was asked, ‘Why are you shooting it up?’ And he answered, ‘Because you’re here. You’re in our home.’”

These days, of course, Memphis is home to an African American majority, and, in the long run, the attitude of that majority is likely to prevail in questions like the naming of parks and the way in which the old Confederacy and its exemplars should be regarded.

At this stage, that attitude isn’t all that easy to divine. The Sharpton rally at Forrest Park had attracted a crowd estimated at 250 – a respectable but not overwhelming number. Mixed among the true believers had been a generous collection of media and curiosity seekers, and most of the heavy hitters among local black politicians had kept their distance. One African American mayor, A C Wharton, was nowhere to be seen, and the other, Willie Herenton, had formally repudiated the gathering. Like Smith, Herenton had given his imprimatur to the old Confederate emblems as representing “history.”

And there was an ordinary lay sense to that term. One of the onlookers at Confederate Park on Monday was housekeeper Regina Carroll, who sat on a bus-stop bench in front of the park, waiting on her ride. She, too, was a black Memphian, and her reckoning of things was entirely pragmatic. “This park has been named what it is for so long that, if they changed the name, I probably wouldn’t be able to find it.” She reflected further: “Just like they changed the name of Memphis State, but I still call it Memphis State.”

For the time being, the state of things in Memphis is unlikely to change as fast or as far as the Sharpton rally organizers -- Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey; his brother, Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey; and the Rev. La Simba Gray -- would like. There is a reason why people refer to the “weight of tradition.” It is something as tangible as granite or bronze and as hard to move without elaborate or heavy machinery -- which, in this case, means the engine of a galvanized public opinion, so far dormant, though some detect the beginnings of a rumble.

Fresh Faces

Even as efforts to alter the face of Memphis were under way in the matter of the city’s downtown parks, a different kind of change seemed inevitable in the matter of Memphis politics.

Although the rumor mill suggests that it is still possible that 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. might drop out of next year’s U.S. Senate race and run instead for reelection to his House seat, it is the overwhelming consensus that Ford’s candidacy is for real and therefore that any of several potential contenders will be taking the oath of office in Washington, come January 2007.

One of these is Ford’s former chief of staff, Mark Yates, an administrator in the investments department of First Tennessee Bank. Cast more or less in the button-down black professional mold of Ford himself, Yates served a stint back in the late ‘90s as local Democratic Party chairman. Out of active politics for several years, he has found, to his surprise, that he has a yen to get back in. Or, as potential office-holders tend to say, to “be of service” to the community.

Yates, who sees himself as bridging the political gap between the Ford orbit and that of Mayor Willie Herenton, hasn’t yet made a decision. But he’s begun to consult local Democrats about the matter. And, as a longstanding member of the city’s financial community, Yates is better situated than most to secure the right level of backing for a potential campaign.

A different situation altogether was presented by another newcomer – one Nikki Tinker, who to the astonishment – nay, the confusion – of most local political observers, was puffed in the D.C. publication The Hill by writer Jonathan A. Kaplan as the “front-runner” in the race to succeed congressman Ford. Only problem: Nobody in these parts could figure out at first who “front-runner” Tinker, billed as a “corporate lawyer,” was.

After a spell, it came to some – not all – of the puzzled ones: Tinker was the tall, slim, young woman who had been the titular head of Rep. Ford’s last reelection campaign. Though she, too, has begun to try to enlarge her circle of local contacts, she remained something of an unknown quantity. Literally. “Nobody knows who she is,” as Yates, put it bluntly this week. Maybe she can develop into a true contender, maybe not, but her trickle-down launch in The Hill, clearly engineered as an entrée to Beltway funding sources, came off locally as so much spin.

(For the record, other names being bruited about as potential congressional candidates: Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, former MLGW head Herman Morris, lawyer Ed Stanton, Blue Cross/Blue Shield executive Calvin Anderson. Presumed to be interested also are city councilman Myron Lowery, former mayoral aide Ron Redwing, state Senator Steve Cohen, and Shelby County Commissioner Joe Ford. Nor can Jake Ford and Isaac Ford, siblings of the congressman, be written off.)

Another newcomer of a different sort: Gubernatorial candidate Carl “Two Feathers” Whitaker, formerly an independent, has come forth as a fully-fledged Republican, with ambitions of taking on Democratic incumbent Phil Bredesen next year. Whitaker, a pillar of the right-wing “Minuteman” movement, is not exactly what mainstream Republicans, who still have good hopes of getting Nashville state Rep. Beth Harwell into the governor’s race, had in mind. (Meanwhile, sources indicate that an official announcement by Harwell is scheduled for sometime around Labor Day.)

Finally, there is the ultimate fresh face – that of Belz Enterprises president and CEO Ron Belz, who this week responded to rumors concerning a future race for Memphis mayor. Acknowledging that he had discussed the prospect with family members, Belz said frankly that such a venture might be “disruptive” to both family and business.

“No plans for a campaign have been made, and none are likely,” Belz said. Asked if he meant to shut the door on a mayor’s race, he repeated, “I have no plans,” a phrase that, to those in the political trade, usually qualifies as a “non-denial denial.”

Low Comedy in Federal Court

When Chattanooga’s Charles Love turned up in federal court in Memphis Tuesday to change his plea to guilty in the Tennessee Waltz matter, he might as well have come straight from Central Casting. Love looked just like what he was charged with being in the scandal – a bagman.

Dressed in a literally baggy brown four-button suit with cuffs that ballooned out low and overflowed onto the floor, erstwhile lobbyist Love let his attorney, Brian Hoss, do all the talking for him as the two of them listened to Judge Daniel Breen read from the indictment and, later, assistant U.S. Attorney Tim DiScenza detail portions of the government’s proof against Love.

The reading of the two documents and Love’s appearance together created a scenario that hinted at every sordid thing one could imagine, not only about the specific crimes of bribery and extortion but about the increasingly disgraced Tennessee legislature itself.

Love had after all led the FBI’s make-believe “eCycle” moneybags men to one of the state Senate’s presumed pillars, the venerable Ward Crutchfield, also of Chattanooga, whose legislative influence could be had, Love told the agents, if they had “gifts to bear.”.

And what the courtroom audience learned about Crutchfield, a co-defendant who has (so far) not changed his plea of not guilty, was in some ways more embarrassing to the senator’s reputation than the offenses he was charged with.

Crutchfield, said DiScenza, fastidiously avoided being so gross as to take into his own hands the eCycle bucks he got and kept asking for. He let his unnamed secretary do that, and when the FBI’s “undercover informant” (presumably the now infamous Tim Willis) came inquiring as to whether the main man had got his money, she was instructed to say that bagman Love had been “mighty nice to us today” or “mighty good to us today.” On those occasions when Crutchfield himself was coaxed into saying something for the FBI’s apparently ubiquitous video- and audio-tapes, he acknowledged receipt with words like “Thank you for being my friend.”

Right. Some friends you got there, Senator.

But the tale of ignominy became pure slapstick when DiScenza’s account got around to the part of the saga involving another co-defendant, state Rep. Chris Newton of Cleveland.

It was not just that Newton, the sole Republican bagged in the FBI operation, was charged with taking the bottom-dollar sum of $4500 for his promise to expedite legislation favorable to eCycle, it developed that middle-man Love had repeatedly skimmed from Newton’s payoffs, sometimes halving them. So the poor legislative shlepper ended up, as compensation for the fate that now awaits him, with maybe enough change to run a bar bill at the downtown Sheraton in Nashville, a late-hours hangout for General Assembly types.

Afterward lawyer Hoss met with reporters and assured them, among other things, that despite what they’d heard in court, his suddenly repentant client had “never done anything like this before.”

Right.

Like the other defendants, who include ex- Memphis legislators John Ford and Roscoe Dixon as well as current state Senator Kathryn Bowers, Love was accused of a series of “offenses against the United States.” If Love -- as of Tuesday, an ex-Hamilton County school board member -- turns state’s evidence, which seems likely, he might get off light on those formal charges, but his offenses against good taste and credibility will be a little harder to expiate.

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