Face it: The conclave of Southern and Midwestern Republicans who just met at The Peabody for three days, attracting presidential candidates and big-time national media alike, are not as square around the edges as Democrats (who see themselves as the curators of cool) would like to believe.
The main public business of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference got under way Friday with a former governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, playing "Love Me Tender" and "Memphis, Tennessee" on the piano and reached its climax, more or less, with Mike Huckabee, the governor of adjoining Arkansas (and one of the aforesaid presidential hopefuls), playing a hot and credible bass on "Free Bird" during a Saturday night jam session.
Oh, there was a plenary session on Sunday morning, with a gospel choir and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp speaking and a few other housekeeping details going on. But by then the event's presidential straw-vote poll, first of the 2008 presidential campaign, was history, most of the attendant press had decamped, and the majority of SRLC delegates -- from 35 states overall, as Tennessee senator Bill Frist had made a point of telling the home-state media on Friday morning -- were somewhere between the check-out desk at their hotels and the check-in desk at the airport.
Anyhow, the real drama of the convention, such as it was, was played out between those first notes tickled by Alexander and the licks hit by Huckabee. Much oratory and a generous quantity of bloviating had ensued. Tons of barbecue and other comestibles underwent liquidation. And there had been the requisite amount of schmoozing and, if the testimony of South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham can be read between the lines, carousing.
Graham, a bachelor, was tousled and casually dressed when he showed up for his spot on the dais Saturday morning, in the wake of dour and moralistic musings by Kansas senator Sam Brownback, a social conservative. "That was one noble and high-minded speech," Graham began. "Well, that part of the program's over. We're going to have real fun for a few minutes. And I'd appreciate less clapping, because my head hurts. I don't know about y'all, but I stayed out way too late."
Graham continued to stoke his audience with insider jokes, the 50-year-old senator suggesting at one point that if he followed all the precedents of his predecessor, the late centenarian Strom Thurmond, "my wife'll get born sometime next year."
Once he got going, though, Graham struck the same chords with his folksy drawl as almost everybody else who spoke, going somewhat lighter on anti-abortion rhetoric than Brownback, but sticking close to the party song-sheet on issues like tax cuts and tax credits and the planned elimination of the "death tax" (read: estate tax), "which is socialism." Harping like most other party orators on the need for immigration reform, Graham cracked that "it's harder for me to get my bags through the airport than it is for somebody to walk across the border."
Like the other speakers, too, he pledged continued fealty to his admittedly down-in-the-polls party leader, President George W. Bush, whom he characterized as being "under siege" but insisted was "the Winston Churchill of our time," especially in his determination to seek out Islamic terrorists everywhere and, in a flight of rhetoric that got the delegates on their feet, "capture 'em and kill 'em!"
So there it was: Graham's brief sweep -- like the other speakers at the tightly run weekend affair, he had roughly 15 minutes to do his thing -- indicated some of the elements of a credo that, as he maintained, had brought the Republican Party in his lifetime from "nowhere to somewhere" in the South and made this region the "anchor of the party": fiscal frugality, deregulation, border control, rally-round-the-flag rhetoric.
Add to that the celebration of conventional mores that most of the speakers poured on thick. Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney surprised many observers by coming down from what he described as "the bluest state in the Union" and finishing second to favorite-son Frist in the straw-vote poll. Part of that was due to Romney's reported marshalling of a corps of College Republicans to inflate the vote, but his success may have owed as much to his denunciation of the gay unions recently declared legal by the judiciary in his state.
Marriage is about "the raising and nurturing of children," insisted Romney, going on to declare, "Every child in America has the right to a mother and father." And, to further indicate the extent to which he was on the side of the conservative angels, Romney added the crowd-pleasing non sequitur, "This country should never become the France of the 21st century!"
And every Republican eminence, without fail, celebrated the recent confirmation of a host of conservative federal judges, notably including Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Majority Leader Frist, in his sit-down session with members of the Tennessee media as the convention was getting under way, had cited that as his "single greatest accomplishment" the fact that, through last year's eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the filibuster, he had been "able to right a court system that was terribly broken."
In his own remarks to the delegates later that first morning, Frist's Tennessee colleague Alexander would make the issue the centerpiece in his triad of Democratic misprisions -- "higher taxes, liberal judges, and mediocre schools."
And how did Democrats respond to all this? State party chairman Bob Tuke came down from Nashville and made himself available to the media, along with such local Democratic stalwarts as state senator Steve Cohen and county commissioner Deidre Malone.
"I fought the war in Vietnam, not in a bar in Alabama," ex-Marine Tuke pointed out dryly in a dig at the current commander in chief. Tuke said the war in Iraq had been undermined by the "lack of people with military experience" in the Bush administration. "That's why they're pursuing the wrong strategy, have failed to see that the troops have armor, and have forced Guardsmen to endure endless extensions of duty. There's an utter lack of sensitivity. They've cut veterans' benefits and underfunded the V.A. and first responders and failed to provide for proper port security."
And so on, in a perhaps telling catalog of reasons why, especially in the wake of the recent controversy over administration plans to lease ports to Arab emirates, Bush's poll numbers have plummeted.
Republicans at the SRLC meeting took note of the poll problem, with several of them, like erstwhile party maverick John McCain of Arizona, himself riding high in the polls, using it as an opportunity to declare a need for party solidarity. Other Republicans -- like Frist, who pointedly noted to reporters his role in putting the controversial port transfer on hold -- declared a discreet distance from Bush, where necessary.
Here and there, other critics of the Bush administration made their play -- like gay activist Jim Maynard, who led a group of protesters keeping a daily vigil across Union Avenue from The Peabody. But for the most part, the Republicans were able to showcase their cause (and the host city, for that matter) without much resistance. Leading Democratic officials, including mayors Willie Herenton (see Viewpoint, p. 19) and A C Wharton and Congressman Harold Ford Jr. made what amounted to courtesy calls during the three-day meet.
Some of the most telling rebuttals of the gospel preached at The Peabody, or at least of its chief priest in Washington, came, usually off-camera and off the page, from members of the respectably sized national media contingent in attendance. In reviewing the politics of straw-vote polls like the one held in Memphis, syndicated pundit Charlie Cook recalled candidate Bush "crashing and burning" during a Midwestern conclave of Republicans eight years ago. "It set him back at least six months," said Cook.
And on Sunday morning, MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews, strolling around downtown in search of vintage Memphis architecture, confided to a group of autograph seekers that he'd had dinner with Bush just a month previously, and thought him a "nice guy" but one who was out of his element as president.
As for those who want to succeed Bush, home-stater Frist didn't wow many onlookers with his speech on Saturday but did win the straw vote, with almost 37 percent of the nearly 1,500 votes cast. Romney made his surprising second-place showing with 14 percent, and third place was tied between Virginia senator George Allen and a vote of confidence for Bush himself. (McCain, still regarded with suspicion by party regulars despite his lofty popularity in most polls, floated the Bush vote in advance as a tactic, most observers thought, to distract attention from his own anticipated showing. He ended up with 4.6 percent.)
If nothing else, the Republicans in Memphis put on an impressive display of their range. Consider Huckabee: In addition to his demonstrated ability to do Skynyrd riffs, he's a bona fide Baptist minister and a marathon runner who shed 110 pounds in something like a year's time. With the 2006 off-year elections just ahead, Democrats have somewhat less time than that to work off their own dead weight and begin to play catch-up.
A short while ago, a good deal of attention was being focused on what perils might await Mayor Willie Herenton in Atlanta, where he was -- and is -- subject to a subpoena in the corruption trial of that city's former mayor, Herenton's erstwhile friend Bill Campbell.
As the current week got under way, Herenton's troubles were closer to home. For one thing, the various unions that work under contract with the city were holding regular meetings to discuss how to hold de facto negotiations with City Council members and do end-runs around an administration that, in the words of one union official, is "pissing on us."
That was some of the rhetoric that got vented at a "Union Summit" meeting last week at the Memphis Police Association headquarters on Jefferson. Present were representatives of the MPA, Firefighters, ASCME, IBEW, and other unions that have also been holding a series of sitdown discussions with council members, two at a time.
More ominously for the mayor, former radio talk-show host Thaddeus Matthews, whom Herenton dismissed as a "societal misfit" back in January, had gained provisional ballot access for his Recall Herenton movement and was visibly gathering steam putting together an organization to that end.
Last week the Shelby County Election Commission formally approved Matthews' initiative for the August 3rd general election ballot, provided he made some minor changes in the wording of it and, more to the point, proved able to collect nearly 70,000 bona fide signatures from registered voters living in Memphis.
Faced with a deadline of June 3rd, Matthews went right to work. On Monday night, he announced to an enthusiastic crowd of 100 or so supporters at the Marriott Hotel on Thousand Oaks Drive that he'd already gathered "close to 1,000 signatures in just two days." He then solicited volunteers to do petition work at a variety of intersections, mainly at Southeast Memphis and East Memphis locations.
There were somewhat more whites than blacks in the crowd, and when Samuel Lofton, an African-American attendee, pointed this out, Matthews responded heatedly, "I don't give a damn about a man's color. If you got a problem with white folks, you're in the wrong place. You need to go someplace else."
Monday night's group of supporters was politically as well as racially diverse -- ranging from conservatives like David Fentress of the Dutch Treat Luncheon to political mavericks like Shelby County commissioner and county mayoral candidate John Willingham to Karen Shea, long active in women's causes, to Brad Watkins, leader of Democracy for Memphis, one of the two local Democratic reform organizations that gained effective control of the party last summer.
"White and black, he's pissed off a lot of both kinds of folks," Matthews said about Mayor Herenton, to the crowd's vocal assent.
(Matthews, who has dropped his intention of running for a County Commission seat this year, may have other political plans; he is one of four people, including current incumbent Dedrick Brittenum, to have picked up petitions for the District 4 City Council seat vacated last year by Janet Hooks and up again for special election on the August ballot. Others are Janis Fullilove and Hazel Longstreet.)
Though she says she is getting the same kind of freeze-out from the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that forced Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett out of a Senate race in Ohio, Tennessee senatorial candidate Rosalind Kurita proclaimed in Memphis last week that she was in the race to stay.
"I'm the only Democrat in the race," Kurita insisted at both a Friday press conference and a fund-raiser later in the evening at the home of Southwest Tennessee Community College professor Steve Haley.
At the press conference, held in front of the federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Memphis, Kurita took her Democratic primary opponent, 9th District congressman Harold Ford, to task for his vote in favor of last year's Republican-sponsored bankruptcy bill and challenged Ford to a series of debates on that and other issues.
"Memphis has the highest number of bankruptcy filings in the nation -- and Congressman Ford is out helping credit card companies. He needs to explain that vote," Kurita said.
Referring to the widely ballyhooed joint appearance in Memphis this week of Ford and Illinois U.S. senator Barack Obama, Kurita, a state senator from Clarksville, took note of the fact that Obama had used the line, "I believe we are our brother's keeper," in defining the mission of the Democratic Party.
Kurita herself has featured the line on the stump in explaining her candidacy, usually adding, as she did in Memphis on Friday, "We're a nation of souls, not a multinational corporation focused on the bottom line." She said that, in contrast to her own emphasis on traditional Democratic principles, Ford seemed intent on sounding as Republican as possible.
Addressing several score local supporters at the fundraiser, Kurita restated and elaborated on these views and called for rethinking the nation's responses to the Iraq war and health care. She stated her opposition to free-trade proposals, and when one attendee said that job loss to foreign countries hosting multinational corporations was "in the nature of capitalism," she rejoindered, "Well, that's why I'm a Democrat."
Kurita said afterward that, though ("to my knowledge") national Democratic officials have not called her potential donors asking them to hold off (something that was done in Hackett's case), she has never been listed on the DSCC Web site as a candidate, along with Ford.
Meanwhile, Mid-South Democrats in Action, the other major reform group to emerge in last year's party organization, announced that it had invited "all Senate candidates," including both Kurita and Ford, to a forum, co-sponsored by the University of Memphis College Democrats, which will be held in early June.
Don Sandberg, a spokesman for MSDIA, said that Kurita had accepted. As for Ford: "Over a week ago, the congressman's staff person responsible for campaign scheduling indicated she would have to discuss this with the congressman and get back with me. To date, I have heard nothing."
The local political landscape was convulsed somewhat last Thursday, the withdrawal date for primary candidates in countywide races. The unexpected withdrawal of District 5 commissioner Bruce Thompson, a Republican, led to a week-long extension of the filing deadline for that race under the terms of the 1991 state "anti-skullduggery" law. The new deadline is this Thursday at noon.
Democratic candidate Joe Cooper's hopes were raised high momentarily but quickly came down to earth with the realization that not only would other Republican candidates (the names of John Ryder and Jerry Cobb got mentioned) have a chance to file, his residency-based suit against opponent Steve Mulroy would become moot, since Mulroy's new District 5 residence was established well before the new filing deadline.
In a statement to the Flyer, Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission head Mike Heidingsfield, who had been courted by local Democrats as a prospective party candidate for Congress in the 7th District, has apparently closed the door on such a possibility -- at least for the immediate future.
Pointedly citing "political affiliations I do not have," the statement said in part: "I am flattered by the earnest and genuine nature of the overtures made to me by the leadership of the Democratic Party both within and outside of Shelby County, and I am humbled that many have suggested that I am qualified to serve in the U.S. Congress. ... However, it is clear that my service to the Crime Commission and the community could not be sustained during a political campaign and my overriding commitment is to the former." -- JB