Thursday, July 16, 2009

Republican Heavyweight Watkins Gives Herenton an Unexpected Boost

Posted By on Thu, Jul 16, 2009 at 9:35 AM

dd6e/1247755278-billwatkinsmug2.jpgThe real news in congressional candidate Willie Herenton’s most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission is not his naming of lawyer Ricky E. Wilkins as his campaign treasurer but the simultaneous designation of CPA Bill Watkins as the outgoing mayor’s “custodian of records” for the campaign.

Wilkins — like Keith McGee and Joseph Lee — is one of those perennial Herenton protégés who might as well be joined to Herenton at the hip. Their relationship with the longtime Memphis mayor is one of steadfast reciprocated loyalty, and Herenton’s patronage has always been the motor and maintenance of their careers. With the mayor’s support, Wilkins has floated several trial balloons for candidacies of his own over the years, but so far none of them has materialized.

Watkins’ participation in the Herenton campaign is more significant. Reference has been made in various news accounts to the Watkins-Uberall executive’s involvement in a variety of Republican office-holders’ campaigns — the most recent being that of register Tom Leatherwood’s unsuccessful Republican primary challenge in 2008 to 7th District U.S. representative Marsha Blackburn.

But all of that is an understatement: In his own right, Watkins, a former chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, is a pillar of the G.O.P. establishment. He and his wife Jeanette are longtime mainstays of the local party organization, and Watkins’ involvement, many more times than not, has made the difference between a winning Republican primary campaign and a losing one. (Leatherwood’s long-shot loss is one of the exceptions.)

More so than Wilkins, Watkins is used to handling numbers, and his firm is regarded as a leader in the accounting industry. Beyond that, his importance to Herenton’s campaign lies in his potential for magnetizing the soon-to-be-ex-mayor’s fundraising, particularly among national sources where Watkins is a known quantity. Symbolically, too, Watkins provides some check to the well-known — and somewhat ironic — penchant for garnering G.O.P. crossover votes of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, Herenton’s 2010 opponent.

[UPDATE; Bill Watkins III (or "Tre"), a partner in his father's firm, stressed to the Flyer Thursday night that the involvement of Bill Watkins and Watkins-Uberall in Herenton's campaign would be "purely professional," restricted to accounting responsibilities only and involving no "strategic" aspect.]

Particularly if the gubernatorial campaign of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a Republican, should slump (and Gibbons’ reported fundraising totals so far put him well behind the G.O.P. leaders), the Herenton-Cohen race could attract a good deal of interest among Republican voters in the 9th District by the time of next year's primary season. In past elections, Democrat Cohen has done surprisingly well among such voters despite his reputation for political liberalism.

Though nobody’s idea of a Republican beau ideal (to say the least), Herenton’s dedication to Democratic causes has been conspicuously on and off, and his support for Republican Lamar Alexander’s senatorial campaign in 2002 was a significant boost for Alexander in his victory over Democrat Bob Clement.

However modestly and however symbolically, Bill Watkins represents a foot — a toe, rather — in the door of a Republican establishment and voter base that otherwise would seem distant beyond reach for Herenton.

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