Monday, July 6, 2009

Candidate Chumney's Conundrum

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2009 at 12:45 AM

1ee7/1246859833-chumneyt_mug_4.jpgSee also update for this article, "Score One for Chumney."

The continuing proliferation of candidates in the forthcoming special election to succeed retiring mayor Willie Herenton highlights the predicament of the outgoing mayor’s chief competitor in 2007, former city council member Carol Chumney.

Chumney, who finished second to Herenton in 2007 with 35 percent of the vote, had been determined to sound upbeat about her chances on the day of Herenton’s surprise retirement announcement two weeks ago. She stoutly maintained that she was still the candidate of “change” and had lost none of the momentum or support she had two years ago.

But the fact remained that Chumney, a dependable TV sound bite during her one term as a nonstop political maverick and would-be reformer, has been out of the public eye for almost two years now. And, instead of having the increasingly unpopular and vulnerable Herenton as a foil, as in 2007, she has to make do with the comparatively sunnier and unblemished A C Wharton, the term-limited Shelby County mayor who is the odds-on favorite in the developing field for city mayor.

Moreover, new rivals are emerging almost on a daily basis, some of them — like her 5th District council successor Jim Strickland, a proven money-raiser — able to make a strong claim on the erstwhile Poplar Corridor support of Chumney, never a strong fundraiser. And yet another serious competitor, long-term councilman Myron Lowery, will go into the October 8th special election as acting mayor.

All of this increases the difficulty factor for the former longtime state representative as she heads into her second mayoral campaign (and her third mayoral campaign overall, having finished a distant second to Wharton in the 2002 Democratic primary for county mayor).

Accordingly, with the clock already ticking, Chumney seems determined to reestablish in voters’ minds what her claim to office is all about.

Calls for an investigation

Her first effort in that direction took place last week, drawing on people’s fresh memories of multiple indictments of county clerk’s office employees for practicing favoritism and worse, Chumney went after presumed frontrunner Wharton with a charge that the county mayor had improperly authorized a member of his staff to take his private Mercedes automobile through one of the shortcut annual re-licensings that had become notorious.

Jerry Fanion, a personal aide whose presence at Wharton’s side has made him a familiar figure to the media, is believed by the county mayor's critics (perhaps one should say "election opponents," and not just Chumney) to have asked that the inspection phase of the re-licensing procedure be skipped, as it apparently had been in the recent past (and maybe historically) for several other individuals and office-holders .

Or so it was implied in a pre-emptive statement apparently emanating from the mayor’s office itself via an “internal investigation.” WMC-TV promptly quoted “a spokesperson for the county” as saying, “"Wharton understood that the vehicle was being inspected and registered by Mr. Fanion on his personal time. All witnesses confirmed that neither Mayor Wharton nor Mrs. Wharton was aware that the vehicle had not been properly inspected.”

And — poof! — amid the weightier news of Mayor Herenton’s surprise resignation, Chumney’s charge caused little impact. Such minimal attention as she got from her effort to pinpoint Wharton as an entitlement-minded member of the Good Ole Boy network dissipated quickly as public and media focus turned to a series of dramatic revelations in last week’s exclusive Flyer interview with Herenton.

Then came a wave of speculation about the mayor’s possibly changing his mind about resignation, coupled with the first burst of news about chairman Lowery’s transitional plans for the mayoralty.

It was in this unfavorable context that Chumney chose to issue a press release renewing her call for an “independent investigation” of Wharton’s car licensing, to be carried out by the District Attorney General’s office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chumney’s statement was largely ignored — even privately ridiculed in some media quarters.

That was the background for a new alarm sounded by Chumney, on the night of July 4th, as public attention was caught up in the holiday spirit and with a variety of public celebrations.

And, indeed, one of the Independence Day events was the occasion for Chumney’s latest expression of concern.

Fireworks…

According to Chumney and others attending this year’s Red White & Blues 4th of July celebration downtown, a menacing situation occurred at Tom Lee Park before and during the event’s scheduled fireworks display.

“There was inadequate police protection,” maintained Chumney, who said that two large grass fires were set on the periphery of the event by a large group of youths — numbering from 60 to 100 — who also fired rocket-like fireworks and threw firecrackers into the crowd. “There were families with children who became frightened,” said Chumney, who reported that she and other members of her group made frequent 911 calls in an effort to contact fire and police authorities.

Firemen arrived at some point to extinguish the fires, she said, but police were slow in arriving and few in numbers, according to Chumney. “This lack of police protection is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be corrected in city government,” she said.

Chumney’s account was seconded by Kate Mauldin, a Chumney friend who was also in the crowd and said the group of youthful marauders came and went several times as the crowd gathered in preparation for the annual fireworks event, sponsored this year by the Beale Street Merchants Association in cooperation with participating radio stations.

Eventually, both Mauldin and Chumney agreed, police vehicles arrived in sufficient force to provide an appropriate level of control, and the fireworks display went on as scheduled. “But it took much too long for that to happen,” said Mauldin.

Chumney said another problem with the event was the apparent absence of portable toilet facilities and bottled drinking water. “But mainly there were too few police for far too long. I actually felt sorry for the ones who were here. They were so badly outnumbered.” She added that, regardless of the sponsorship of the Tom Lee Park festivities, the event occurred in a public park and the city should have provided a more credible level of security.

Whether because of distractions resulting from the scale of related Fourth of July events elsewhere in the downtown area or because the event described by Chumney and Mauldin occurred in isolated areas not visible to other observers, the Flyer was not immediately able to confirm the reported disturbances.

…and Flying Saucers

Karen Rudolph, spokesperson for the Memphis police, said that there had been numerous police officers in the vicinity of Tom Lee Park and that to her knowledge there had been no reports of serious problems at the event.

“There were a lot of juveniles,” she said, but nothing out of the ordinary. As for the police presence questioned by Chumney, she said the site had been patrolled by members of the department’s Organized Crime Unit (OCU), its Criminal Apprehension Team (CAT), and various tactical units.

That has the sound of a debunking. Whatever the situation at the riverfront, it was clearly not drastic enough to have prompted widespread news coverage, or any news coverage at all other than this note.

Chumney’s questioning of Wharton’s actions (or those of his staff) generated something of a skeptical attitude here and there in the media — so far expressed more sotto voce than out loud. To put it bluntly, some suspect opportunism on her part and make bold to suggest (prepare yourself for a shock) that candidates may say and do certain things to advance their private political agendas.

Indeed, Chumney’s reaction to whatever juvenile activity occurred at Tom Lee Park provoked one highly suspicious media colleague to whom I mentioned it to wonder if I would consider reporting it if she (or presumably any other candidate) claimed to have seen a flying saucer.

“Of course,” was my answer, and not just because I recalled that the mainstream media had done exactly that last year in the case of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. (Come to think of it, especially if she or anybody else running claimed to have seen a flying saucer; statements like that tend to speak for themselves.)

The fact is, prejudging candidates and their motives is a dicey business. And prejudging the public’s ability to make up its own mind about questions of sincerity or relevance is even dicier.

Still, it says something that mayoral candidate Carol Chumney can provoke such a reaction the second time around. And it probably wasn’t wise for her to have amped up her rhetoric: “When I am mayor, there won’t be a shortage of police at events like this.” Or words to that effect.

If all she’s doing is looking for an issue that will resonate with the voters…well, duh, I hear that politicians as a class tend to do that. With October 8th just a hop, skip, and jump away, one could hardly — or, at least, I could hardly — blame her.

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