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The Play’s the Thing

And the name’s not far behind, as star quality turns a lukewarm election hot.

by Jackson Baker

or an election that had received very little advance ballyhoo (and one which played to relatively small audiences in the polling places of both Shelby County and Tennessee at large), the August 6th election finally managed to generate its fair share of drama. Unexpected outcomes, flamboyant personalities, and some cliff-hangers in the vote count: The election offered all that and more.

And even though names rather than issues seemed to predominate in voters’ thinking, the ultimate decisions may have owed much to some underlying considerations going far beyond the personal.

John Jay Hooker
The state’s Democrats, for example, faced with choosing someone from an eight-person field to carry the party standard against Governor Don Sundquist, would end up nominating one John Jay Hooker – an eccentric retread so far beyond the pale that he’d taken to costuming himself as Abe Lincoln. Yet if the silver-tongued Hooker – a onetime political prodigy turned has-been – stood for anything, it was for two issues that he’d talked about (and vows he’ll continue to talk about) relentlessly – judicial election reform and campaign finance reform.

Superficially, several election outcomes in Shelby County seemed – like Hooker’s defeat of Covington lawyer Mike Whitaker and six others whom no one will recall this time next year – to hinge on pure name recognition. There was the surprise showing in the county register’s race of former University of Memphis basketball coach Larry Finch, for example. And the unforeseen appeal in the suburbs of Downtown Joe Brown, the Criminal Court judge who had done his best, in eight years on the bench, to turn the hoary tenets of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence upside-down.

There was the debut of young Michael Hooks Jr., who seems to have ridden an illustrious family name into a seat on the Shelby County School Board. And there, all over again, was the well-worn – but still revered – W. Otis Higgs Jr., returning to the Criminal Court bench after a generation’s worth of futile challenges for this or that political post. With minimal campaigning, he beat veteran prosecutor Eddie Peterson and newcomer LaTonya Burrow in the Division 2 race.

And even Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges achieved what amounted to a recent personal high for his serial nuisance candidacies, netting a full 11 percent of the vote running as an independent against Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, the GOP’s main man in Shelby County, who wasted little time in sending out signals that he was eyeing the next political step up – the Tennessee governorship. (See Politics on page 10.)

After a chaotic night in which three separate electronic glitches – two affecting regular voting, another the absentee ballots – caused delays in counting and outraged candidates threatened to file injunctions, Shelby County’s vote totals finally began to be reported, at intervals on Friday, starting about 9 a.m. and continuing right up until 4 p.m.

The most tantalizing race – that for county register – waited until late afternoon to be resolved. At daybreak, Republican incumbent Guy Bates was leading the Democrat Finch by a mere 20 votes, and the full count of what was reported to be some 800 absentee ballots was first promised for early Friday morning.

It was mid-afternoon, however, before a final total was in. One of the first to know was State Senator Steve Cohen, who was taping his weekly Legislative Report cable-TV show at the Memphis Public Library. When the cellular phone in his shirt pocket went off, Cohen answered in mid-show and announced to the cameras that Finch had lost to Bates by the unofficial total of 128 votes.

“Larry always had trouble winning in overtime,” was the wry commentary of Cohen, a veteran University of Memphis booster in and out of the legislature. And no wonder this time, since a third candidate, Robert E. Harris, earned 3,267 votes – most of which, presumably, came at the expense of fellow African American Finch.

But the mere fact that Finch was that close to victory pointed up the unusual importance this year of the name-recognition factor. As a candidate, Finch was virtually AWOL: He slept late, missed forums, raised little money, networked not at all, and seemed wholly indifferent to (and untalented at) the art of gladhanding. He didn’t so much run for the office as let his locally famous moniker, superimposed upon a basketball on his yard signs, do it for him.

Marilyn Loffel and Jim Rout
Young Hooks, son of the current county commissioner and great-nephew of Ben Hooks, a former political eminence and lion of the civil-rights revolution, easily defeated three more senior candidates for the District 4 Memphis school board position left vacant by the death of Peggy Prater Harvey and the retirement of her interim replacement, Archie Willis.

Consistent with the plot mechanics of this year’s election season, there was even an anti-hero of sorts in this race – charter-school advocate Bill Wood, whose campaign devolved into a desperate defense against charges that he had falsified his attendance at the U.S. Naval Academy. At the Shelby County Republicans’ crowded election-night bash at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in East Memphis, Wood – who had finished last – stood immobile for hours in a doorway, wearing a sandwich-board sign that bore a 30-year-old photograph of himself – considerably younger and more svelte – in a cadet’s uniform.

Criminal Court Judge Brown, targeted for removal by the Republican Party, handily turned back a challenge from the multiply endorsed Terry Harris, an assistant District Attorney General who represented the legal mainstream’s disdain for the highly theatrical Brown, with whom the D.A.’s office had frequently tangled over his conduct of the late James Earl Ray’s legal appeals, and who was known nationally for his alternative sentencing (e.g., ordering a burglary victim to take something from the perpetrator). This fall, Brown’s fame is due to expand, as he becomes host of his own syndicated TV show.

But the extent of Brown’s local electoral success would stun even him. On the afternoon of election day, he was standing at the counter of the Election Commission, smoldering over what he considered the rude behavior that day of an election supervisor in North Memphis and writing out a formal complaint against her. Watching him scribble furiously, Election Commission chairman O.C. Pleasant said casually, “You know, you finished ahead in the early voting.”

“What!” said Brown, coming to a dead stop. He mused about the disclosure briefly, then wadded up his still-unfinished letter of complaint and walked away from the counter. “What the hell. I’m out of here!” he said, forgetting all about his earlier grievance.

And, indeed, for Brown to have beaten Harris in early voting – by a margin of 18,954 to 16,420 – was an astounding fact and an omen of sorts, foreshadowing the closeness of races that had been heralded as potential runaways for an overconfident Shelby County Republican Party. Spokespersons for the GOP had not been bashful about pointing out the preponderance of East Memphis and suburban votes among the 40,000-odd that had been cast at several area sites in an early-voting period that lasted from July 17th to August 1st.

Indeed, that result had been universally interpreted as being good advance tidings for Republican candidates in matchups with Democrats (and, in what often amounted to the same thing, for whites in matchups with blacks). The early voting totals in the Brown-Harris race and in several others – the clearly competitive Finch-Bates contest among them – nullified that concept.

Among the factors influencing the outcome in Shelby County were the apparent failure of the Republican Party’s much-vaunted sample ballot, which went out to 90,000 households, and the relative success of a last-minute series of black-originated ballots – those of State Senator Roscoe Dixon, commissioner Michael Hooks Sr., State Representative Ulysses Jones, and, most notably, the National Bar Association, a black attorneys’ organization which mailed some 50,000 sample ballots into the inner city in the campaign’s last two weeks. (Missing: the perennial Ford Ballot, a staple of the former 9th District congressman, Harold Ford Sr., but not a priority of his son, current U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr.)

Larry FInch
The black ballots largely balanced out the supposed early lead gained by white Republicans in the early voting period. Some of the consequences: Several African-American judicial candidates sneaked through to unexpected wins, Finch nearly pulled off his miracle, and Sheriff candidate Melvin Burgess ran a much closer second to GOP incumbent A.C. Gilless than expected.

Even as Gilless kept appearing on television to boast that the polls taken for his well-heeled campaign had him finishing up at the 60 percent level, his share of the vote kept declining down from that point. By midnight – when, as a way around some early computerized glitches, the cartridges from all outlying polling places had been taken downtown to be loaded up – the race was being reported as a dead heat. It stayed that way overnight as a reported crash of the central computer kept the totals at the halfway point.

One factor that may have boosted Burgess was some last-minute intervention by inner-city white Democrats – Cohen and Memphis city councilman John Vergos, both of whom made an effort to publicize their support. The media more or less short-shrifted these efforts, but word of mouth blipped them onto the radar screen late in the game. The significance of such efforts was to address, in however meager and late-blooming a fashion, Burgess’ need for crossover votes.

Fired by Mayor Willie Herenton in 1994 in a showdown over what Burgess deemed political intervention in a celebrated pepper-gas incident, the former Memphis police director made the ideal foil for a sheriff whose deputies were visibly campaigning for him and whose onetime chief deputy, Ray Mills, was about to go on trial on charges that included job-selling.

For much of the wee hours, it seemed that the vote-counting breakdowns might cause the 1998 general election to be aborted altogether. Cohen and his state senate colleague Dixon – looking after the interests, respectively, of Burgess and Finch – were among those in the general melee of candidates and handlers who filled up the smallish chambers of the Election Commission at Second and Poplar. Tempers got so frayed and the air became so electric that there were some on hand, like WREC-AM’s Craig Robbins, who thought back to the tense election night in October 1991 when a slow count of the Herenton-Hackett city mayor’s race had angry throngs roiling in the nearby streets.

But the turbulence and the talk of suits and injunctions eventually subsided – although even 21-year-old Berlin Boyd, a three-to-one loser to incumbent State Representative Barbara Cooper in the Democratic primary for District 86, continued to argue the need for recounts. “We always recount,” said the imperturbable Pleasant, who had kept his cool in 1991, even with the likes of a perfervid Harold Ford Sr. in his face.

Early this week, Pleasant professed to be unconcerned with charges of “incompetence” made by Cohen, who suggested that he would ask Tennessee Secretary of State Riley Darnell to do an investigation of the vote-counting. Others, notably General Sessions Division 12 candidate Loyce Lambert, the loser by an eyelash to incumbent judge Horace Pierotti, also questioned the “integrity” of the process, and Pleasant and his fellow commissioners were resigned to the fact that Lambert, Burgess, and several other near-winners might find legal grounds to press their revisionist case. Under state law, candidates have 10 days after an election to file a lawsuit contesting the validity of the results.

Meanwhile, what seemed to be left, when all was – however temporarily – counted and said and done was an altered political landscape, with the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans seemingly restored for the first time since the GOP’s blowout victories – state, local, and national – of 1994.

Superficially, the Republi-cans could claim another triumph. Marilyn Loeffel, their nominee in the well-watched race for Position 1, District 1 on the County Commission, won convincingly over Democrat Irma Merrill (see Politics on page 10). And most of the GOP’s other nominees and endorsees (a good many of whom were unopposed) won their elections. But even some of these – Pierotti over Lambert, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner over challenger Earnestine Hunt Dorse – barely squeaked through.

And the defeats of Republican endorsees in key judicial races were instructive: Considering the high-profile nature of Joe Brown’s courtroom eccentricities, it was tempting to conclude that the public – black and white alike – must have conferred its approval of judicial innovations along with the 20,000-vote majority and the 60 percent share it gave Brown.

A mild shocker was the ease with which incumbent General Sessions Court Judge John Donald, an African American, beat white GOP endorsee Danny Presley, an assistant county attorney and former city policeman. Clearly, Donald’s 60 percent share of the total was an indication of voter confidence in the two-term judge’s performance, but, just as clearly, it indicated that the edge in voter registration enjoyed by Republicans, as well as a continuing white population majority in Shelby County, could not by themselves guarantee a win for a candidate, like Presley, with respectable credentials.

It seems to be a fact of life that black voters hold the racial line more completely these days than do their white counterparts. But even this is not a given. Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft ran away from challenger Tarik Sugarmon in Division 8, amassing well over 60 percent of the vote against the son of General Sessions Judge Russell Sugarmon, a revered veteran of the civil-rights struggle who was himself unopposed.

It was in the multiple-candidate judicial races that demographic factors were most telling. The victories of Lonnie Thompson over Jim Lawrence and Gary Wilkinson in General Sessions, Division 6, and of Mischelle Alexander-Best over Jim Robinson and incumbent Charles Gallagher in General Sessions, Division 11, were clear instances of African Americans wedging out a win over two candidates splitting up the white vote. In retrospect, these outcomes were virtually foregone conclusions.

So was the win of city Judge Walter Evans over Part 1 Chancellor Neal Small and impressive newcomer Bill Cohn, who ran neck-and-neck with the incumbent.

District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, unopposed for reelection after a two-year P.R. exposition of his war against crime that was state-of-the-art, proved to have short coattails, several members of his staff losing their races for judgeships. One of these was the engaging E.S. “Chip” Forrester, who got lost in a five-person field of good candidates who happened to include Betty Thomas, who not only had the wedge edge as the sole African American in the race but who campaigned harder and more impressively than anybody else this election year.

More than race, more than party, more than incumbency, it indeed seemed to be the personality factor that predominated in the balloting that took place on and before August 6th. It remains to be seen whether that principle will be sustained in the reduced number of matchups between Democrats and Republicans for state executive and legislative positions in November.

The Play’s the Thing

And the name’s not far behind, as star quality turns a lukewarm election hot.

by Ed Cromer

On the first day of John Jay Hooker’s Bible class when he was a freshman at the University of the South at Sewanee, the professor asked each student to recite a favorite verse. Hooker offered this one, “He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”

Puzzled, the professor asked Hooker to cite the book, chapter, and verse. The student promptly did – only to be shown it didn’t exist. Humiliated, immediately after class he called his father, John J. Hooker Sr., demanding to know how the famed Nashville courtroom lawyer could have quoted to him so many times a Bible verse “that’s not in the Bible.” After a pause, the elder Hooker replied, “No, son, it’s not. But it ought to be.”

The younger Hooker, now 67 and suddenly the Democratic nominee for governor, has done a lot of horn-tooting over the years – waging serious gubernatorial campaigns in 1966 and 1970, running for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and heading, at one time or another, a national fast-food chain, STP Corp., the Nashville Banner, and United Press International. He has made and lost fortunes several times. Once an influential force in Tennessee, and even national, politics, Hooker in recent years has become a political gadfly – running races he couldn’t possibly win, or even affect, and filing countless lawsuits challenging campaign-finance and election laws.

Getting by on little money, occasionally dressing himself in Abe Lincoln garb, including a stovepipe hat, and frequently shadowboxing for exercise as he walks through downtown Nashville, Hooker is widely perceived as both a comic and tragic figure.

As a young and middle-aged man, the handsome lawyer/businessman/politician always was impeccably groomed and often attired in a three-piece suit with a gold pocket watch and a homburg. But several years ago he began appearing rumpled and unkempt. He alienated various friends in various ways, and became somewhat bitter. For a time, he took the anti-depressant drug Prozac. Five months ago, he underwent emergency surgery for internal bleeding, nearly dying on the operating table. But he recovered, was visited in the hospital by his old friend Muhammad Ali, and now looks and feels better than he has in years.

Though lacking his former wealth, power, and social standing, Hooker still has his keen intellect, unmatched oratorical skills, and personal charm. But his campaign against Gov. Don Sundquist, who’s raised $5.5 million, is sort of like Rocky Balboa’s first fight with Apollo Creed – it’ll be a success if he can get in his blows and go the distance.

John Jay Hooker was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and grew up beside the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville. With all he started with, he would say in the 1980s, he should have been president of the United States. But he never completed that first giant step, winning the Tennessee governor’s office.

Hooker graduated from Vanderbilt University law school in 1957, worked in John Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and served as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961. He nearly ran for governor in 1962 against Frank Clement, with Estes Kefauver and the Nashville Tennessean prepared to support him. But he waited four years and ran unsuccessfully, in a hard-fought, bitter Democratic primary, against Buford Ellington. In 1970, he finally won the Democratic nomination, but lost in the general election to Republican Winfield Dunn of Memphis.

Between those gubernatorial races, he started the Minnie Pearl fried chicken chain in 1968. It took off like a rocket, and Hooker, as chairman of the board, had his name on every chicken box – and even on the paper that covered soft-drink straws. At its peak the company had 567 stores and had sold 2,700 franchises. But a 1970 Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, which Hooker says was instigated by the Nixon White House for political purposes, eventually brought down the company.

Hooker also was among the charter investors in Hospital Corporation of American, founded in 1968, which also soared. He sold his stock in 1969 for $16 million.

From 1973 to 1975, he was chairman of STP Corp., maker of the STP gasoline additive. In ’76, he was favored in the Democratic primary for U.S. senator but lost to Jim Sasser, who went on to defeat Republican incumbent Bill Brock.

In 1979, Hooker and two Nashville businessmen bought the Nashville Banner from the Gannett Co. Disagreements with his partners eventually led to Hooker’s departure from the Banner. When he didn’t get the $6 million he claimed they’d agreed to pay him, he sued – eventually receiving a settlement worth about $4.5 million.

In 1982, he became chairman of United Press International, obtaining, in a vintage Hooker deal, a major interest in the struggling company for $1. Six months later, the owners weren’t happy, so Hooker agreed to sell back his stock for the price he’d paid – a buck.

He launched Hooker Hamburgers, a drive-through backyard-type burger business, in 1984 but sold it two years later. He fiddled with other entrepreneurial schemes afterward, but was never able to get anything off the ground.

But even with no visible means of support, he continued to pop up on TV and in the newspapers. He was an adviser to Jesse Jackson in his 1988 presidential campaign, traveling with him to 27 states and often being pictured at his side. Hooker played a major role in 1992 in persuading Ross Perot to run for president. In 1994, he ran as an independent in that year’s U.S. Senate race against Democrat Sasser and Republican Bill Frist, and two years later he had a key role in stirring opposition to Justice Penny White in the retention election which she lost.

And Hooker still has many celebrity friends – including talk-show host Larry King and actor Warren Beatty (Hooker had a cameo role in Beatty’s movie Reds, and he claims to have been the inspiration for Bulworth). He had enough name recognition to defeat Mike Whitaker and five unknowns last Thursday.

For the last four or five years, Hooker has been on a legal and political crusade to reform the election process. He wants to bar people who are ineligible to vote in an election from making campaign contributions in it. And he believes no one should be allowed to give more than $100 to a candidate. The current campaign-financing system, he argues, has so corrupted government that no other issue is worth discussing until it is reformed. And so, he has indicated that he might not talk about anything else in his race with Sundquist.

Back in the limelight, Hooker is happy as a lark and ready to toot that horn once again. He doesn’t have much chance of winning, but he’ll provide more color and entertainment than Tennesseans have seen in an election in a long time. n

(Ed Cromer is editor of The Tennessee Journal, a statewide political newsletter published in Nashville. This article was written especially for the Flyer.)

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