A New Direction 

Dozens of candidates compete for City Council seats at a pivotal moment in Memphis' history.

There is a reason why you have to get out and about to see how things are going with this or that City Council candidate in the 2007 city election. Looking at financial disclosures is one thing, getting good word-of-mouth is another, checking out endorsement lists and the helpful voter guide prepared by the Coalition for a Better Memphis is yet a third. These are helpful indicators to the analyst, in a way that, say, position papers (which any self-respecting undergraduate can cook up) aren't.

But the best tool of all is the eyeball. Two cases in point: The race for District 9, Position 2, seemed at first a classic showdown between two seasoned but youngish candidates — Kemp Conrad and Shea Flinn — but all it took was one look-see at a mid-city meet-and-greet for the even more youthful political newcomer Frank Langston (a packed wall-to-wall affair transcending various political and civic lines) to understand that he, too, had to be considered a player.

Yard signs can tell a tale, too. When retired businessman Lester Lit, who warmed up for his District 8 council bid with an unsuccessful County Commission race last year, told me he'd gone door to door and had located a yard sign at the home of someone I knew on Kirby Parkway, I drove by the next day to take a look. To my astonishment, every other yard on that well-traveled, posh thoroughfare seemed to bear a Lit sign.

Clearly, Lit has learned a lot about campaigning, is working hard (he's dropped 40 pounds in the process of running!), and must be ranked among the most serious candidates this year.

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Indeed, the makers of yard signs and vendors of billboard space seem to be thriving this year, as several candidates in an unusually wide-open election year are unbuttoning their pocketbooks and visibly rolling the dice. Another sign of their avidity will be the deluge of mailed materials Memphians can expect at their houses in this post-Labor Day stretch-drive period — with scarcely two weeks to go before the start of early voting on September 14th and less than a month until Election Day itself on October 4th.

And, though most of the television advertising you'll see will be by mayoral candidates, not a few council candidates — particularly in the six "super district" races — are taking to the airwaves, too.

What's at stake for council candidates is the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new era in city government, with a majority of council incumbents eschewing a race for reelection and others in jeopardy. Whoever ends up being elected mayor will be faced with a virtually recast council, steeped in voter outrage over incidences of corruption, fiscal strains, and a panoply of vexing urban problems.

On the plus side, this year's crop seems for the most part to have done its homework, and most are realistic and ready to go to work on issues like de facto consolidation, charter change, and what to do about the Fairgrounds, the riverfront, and other problem areas.

Here's a thumbnail look at the races as of now. And don't worry too much about possible oversights and premature judgments: The outlook in these contests will be continually chronicled, amended, and accounted for in weekly coverage, on the Flyer Web site, and in a final pre-election issue.

District 1: For decades this district, spanning the city's far-northern wards from Frayser to Cordova, has been the bailiwick of white, independent-minded working-class types — the retiring E.C. Jones, a hound for constituent service, being a case in point. Demographics, though, have evolved, and two of the three leading candidates are African-American.

The early leader has been Stephanie Gatewood, who is well financed and supported and has represented the district for two terms on the school board. She faces fairly stout challenges from firefighter Antonio "2 Shay" Parkinson, a former Music Commission chairman who has a reasonably diverse base of support, and from Bill Morrison, a teacher who was the Democratic nominee last year against Republican incumbent Marsha Blackburn.

As a measure of the demographic sea-change, Morrison is the only white candidate.

Among other candidates, Jesse Jeff and Riesel Sandridge have some name identification from prior efforts, and W.B. Bates II, Rudolph Daniels II, and Keith Ferguson have all mounted efforts. Ferguson in particular generated some early e-mail activity but seems to have flagged of late.

Gatewood hopes to hit the magic figure of 51 percent to avoid a runoff. District 2: Comprising the city's ever-expanding eastern edge, this district is white-dominated and suburban in outlook. Though there are several impressive African-American candidates running, the race is generally considered a two-man affair between political veteran Bill Boyd and relative newcomer Brian Stephens, both white.

Businessman Stephens got off to an early start, a fact which helped him stabilize after Boyd, a former assessor and longtime political activist, drew on his numerous connections to get the Republican Party's endorsement, a coveted commodity in this district.

Of the black candidates in the race, Ivon Faulkner is an impressive campaigner with name identification from previous races; Georgia Cannon is well known and well regarded as a result of a banking career and her many civic involvements; and Karen Camper, a military veteran, has run a poised campaign.

Other candidates are Daryl Benson, Daniel Price, Todd Gilreath, and Scott Pearce, the latter of whom has generated a fair amount of yard-sign activity in the eastern precincts.

District 3: This is one of two districts in which low-profile incumbents face stiff challenges from opponents who may be better known.

The officeholder here is Madeleine Cooper Taylor, who had enough community standing — mainly from her work in medical auxiliary circles and with the NAACP — to earn an interim appointment last year to succeed TaJuan Stout Mitchell. But she has hardly been active enough since to become a household name, while Harold Collins, a seasoned local-government hand employed now in the district attorney's office, has long association with both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, the latter of whom has gone public with his support of Collins.

Two other candidates — Memphis city schools video maven Ike Griffith and education entrepreneur Coleman Thompson — have a fair degree of name identification from previous races and could contend. Others running are Albert Banks III, Davida Cruthird, Jerome Payne, and Ronald Peterson.

District 4: Longtime school-board stalwart Wanda Halbert was overmatched in her Democratic primary race for Juvenile Court clerk last year against Shep Wilbun, but her name recognition and degree of support are far greater than those of opponent Johnny Hatcher, who has run for various offices before but never as a true contender.

District 5: This Midtown-East Memphis district has been the province for the last four years of mayoral contender Carol Chumney, and one of Chumney's opponents from the 2003 race, lawyer and former local Democratic chairman Jim Strickland, has basically been running for the seat ever since, amassing a generous war chest and across-the-board political support while easily establishing himself as the odds-on favorite.

Of his five opponents, two — Jeff Bailey and Kerry Rogers — have been fairly inactive, though Bailey made a serious effort to introduce himself, at least to media outlets, early on. By general consent, Strickland's chief challenger is environmental activist Bob Schreiber, who — largely using his own money — has made a genuine effort to be competitive with yard signs (riskily identifying him merely as "Bob") and other campaign paraphernalia.

Though widely respected, Schreiber has so far seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight — something that can't be said about another activist candidate, Denise Parkinson, who has been a leading figure in the citizen effort to save Libertyland and who is as outgoing as Schreiber is (or seems to be) private and withdrawn. Unlike Strickland and Schreiber, however, Parkinson seems financially limited in her ability to mount a visible campaign.

Though he has generated relatively little attention so far, lawyer Richard Parks, who ran unsuccessfully last year for a judgeship, seemed relaxed and forthcoming at the lone District 5 forum to date, as did Parkinson and Strickland. As indicated, Schreiber hasn't yet gotten his legs in that kind of environment.

For what it's worth, there would seem to be a healthy streak of public-sector populism running throughout the District 5 candidate field. With a cumulative score of 92, Strickland had the second-highest ranking overall in scoring by the Coalition for a Better Memphis.

District 6: Several of the district races seem destined for runoffs, but none more so than this one, held by an incumbent, Edmund Ford, who went in roughly a year's time from being a fairly nondescript council member to being one of the most controversial, if not disliked, members of all time. Indicted twice and observed by the public in a bug-eyed apoplectic state several times during that time frame, Ford is bowing out — but only from his reelection race.

The incumbent's son, candidate Edmund Ford Jr., is a more soft-spoken, even eloquent specimen, but his father's notoriety makes it unlikely that he'll win outright. A host of other candidates, several of them impressive, are contesting the issue.

There is former school board member Ed Vaughn, hopeful of mounting a political comeback. There are impressive newcomers like educator James O. Catchings and South Memphis Alliance president Reginald Milton. There are former candidates with still uncooked seeds, like Clifford Lewis and Perry Bond and Alicia Howard. And there are relative unknowns, like Charles Etta Chavez (that's a she!), Jesse Chism, Philmore Epps Jr., and Willie H. Justice III.

District 7: Incumbent Barbara Swearengen Holt-Ware may have changed her name in the last year (by marriage), but she hasn't changed her nose-to-the-grindstone profile on the council — one that will doubtless assure a fairly easy reelection.

For the record, though, she has three opponents: Veronica Sherfield Castillo, Preston T. Poindexter, and Derek D. Richardson. Castillo has managed to impress several observers, Poindexter has something of a following in Frayser, and Richardson is virtually unknown. All of them face long, long odds.

Super Districts 8 and 9: When the late U.S. district judge Jerome Turner was faced years ago with resolving a series of racial-discrimination suits, he worked in Solomonic mode, often splitting the difference between plaintiffs and defendants in unexpected ways. His way of resolving a suit regarding council districts was typical. Abolishing six city-wide at-large districts, he created in their place District 8, a majority-black "super district," and District 9, which was majority-white. Each of the two new super-districts elected three representatives.

A proviso of the new arrangement was that, unlike the case of the seven regular districts, which employed runoffs when no candidate owned a simple majority, outcomes in the six super-district races would be winner-take-all. That same "no-runoff" provision also applies to citywide voting for mayor and city clerk.

The irony is that a methodology that was meant to buttress the rights of the original African-American plaintiffs has, with the passage of time and demographic change, come to offer the same advantages to what is now a city-wide white — not black — minority.

That's sort of what outgoing councilman Dedrick Brittenum was driving at recently, when he suggested that the terms "majority" and "minority" be eliminated as descriptive phrases for legal purposes.

For the time being, anyhow, the system holds.

District 8, Position 1: This position, currently held by Joe Brown, is likely to stay that way, despite the incumbent's penchant for over-the-edge public discourse (sometimes rivaling that of colleague Ford). Brown kicked up an international furor in 2004 when, serving as council chairman, he denied a visiting Iraqi government delegation entrance to City Hall on grounds that they might be a security threat.

A street populist of sorts, with roots in neighborhood organizations, sanitation entrepreneur Brown is, perhaps appropriately, chairman of the council's committee on public services and neighborhoods. Though he has a following of his own, he no doubt profits from having the same name as the former Memphis Criminal Court judge who now reigns over the airwaves as a TV jurist. And, for that or whatever other reason, he has eschewed appearing in public forums with his opponents or other council candidates.

The two other candidates for Position 1 are Tiffany Lowe and Ian Randolph. Lowe, a family service counselor, has made virtue of necessity, boasting of her redemption from gang associations of her past that included several arrests and convictions, while Randolph, a financial adviser and former president of the Annesdale-Snowden neighborhood association, has demonstrated a penchant at public forums for arranging his responses to issues in orderly capsule form — or "bullets," as he calls them.

Each is making a strong effort with hopes, probably remote, of catching up with Brown.

District 8, Position 2: When longtime incumbent Rickey Peete resigned his council seat to focus on his defense on a second bribery and extortion charge (he was convicted of such a charge during a previous council stint in 1988), his council mates appointed in his stead Henry Hooper, an insurance executive with a serious mien and a past as a secret service agent. As council chairman Tom Marshall wished out loud at the time, Hooper might strike the public as Peete's opposite, image-wise.

Hooper has proved, as advertised, a dignified presence — maybe, in his slow, deliberate way of speaking, too much of one. But he promptly suffered an embarrassment of his own when it was revealed he was the subject of an IRS lien of nearly half a million dollars.

In any case, his incumbency has not been conspicuous enough to forestall a host of opponents, the best known of whom is Janis Fullilove, currently a Charter Commission member and a radio talk-show host of some years' standing. Fullilove, who may be regarded as a slight favorite in the race, was for better and for worse the personal choice of the disgraced but popular Peete.

Another hopeful, expected to vie for the lead with Hooper and Fullilove, is Trennie Williams, a poised ex-Marine who runs the family-owned newspaper Silver Star News. Williams, whose voter base is Orange Mound, has performed well in public forums so far.

Another candidate who has been much in the news is 18-year-old George Monger, a precociously informed college freshman at Southwest Tennessee Community College whose extreme youth has been his major calling card. Other candidates are Matthew Jordan, Derrick Lanois, Brian L. Saulsberry, and David W. Vinciarelli, the latter being the lone white candidate in the race.

On the evaluation scale of the Coalition for a Better Memphis, Williams leads Fullilove and Hooper in that order, though these and three other candidates — Lanois, Monger, and Vinciarelli — are closely clustered.

District 8, Position 3: Poor Del Gill. You can't fault the well-known maverick Democrat and perennial candidate for trying, but this time he's up against an even more formidable opponent than usual — longtime incumbent Myron Lowery, who chairs three council committees and is a member of the Charter Commission besides. Well-known and highly respected, Lowery has as good a chance of any council candidate of leading this year's election ticket. (City clerk Thomas Long, who gets to run citywide, will probably end up the top vote-getter, though.)

It is sometimes said of Gill, who is bright but highly abrasive, that he might not win even if his name was the only one on the ballot for a given position. The predicament of Lowery's other opponent, Toni Strong, is quite different. Though president of the South Memphis Neighborhood Association and a good performer in the candidate forums so far, she is still relatively little known district-wide. In any case, Lowery, whose campaign organization is well-funded and well-oiled, is in little danger of being bested.

District 9, Position 1: Businessman Scott McCormick, an activist member of an activist family and chairman of the council's parks committee, has been one of the council's pivotal members in his two terms so far. He has often proved to be a consensus builder and, more than most council members, has been willing to line up with maverick colleague Chumney, as when the two of them took the lead in repealing the city's easy-exit pension formula requiring only 12 years of service.

Even with a name opponent, McCormick's prospects for easy reelection would be good, but Cecil Hale, a former private contractor in Iraq who ran for Congress last year in the Republican primary, has been largely AWOL from public events and has engaged in little visible campaigning.

Expect a slam dunk for the incumbent.

 

District 9, Position 2: At the outset, this race looked, as mentioned above, like a showdown between two youngish politicians — former Republican chairman Kemp Conrad and former interim state senator Shea Flinn, a Democrat. Both are well-connected in local political and business circles and have varying degrees of bipartisan support. Conrad, who, as the GOP's helmsman, seemed serious about outreach to African Americans, has enjoyed close ties in the past with Mayor Herenton and with the mayor's son Rodney. He is the Republican Party's endorsee but can also boast support from such centrist Democrats as power lawyer John Farris and Shelby County commissioner J.W. Gibson.

When Conrad wondered of someone recently what kind of equivalent support Flinn had across party lines, the answer he got was short and succinct: George Flinn, the candidate's father and a GOP member of the county commission. The senior Flinn, a well-heeled radiologist and broadcast magnate, is no passive onlooker. And the junior Flinn, for that matter, proved during his brief service in the legislature this year that he could build bridges to his counterparts across the aisle.

From the beginning, as now, it has seemed obvious that Memphis Watchdog blogger Joe Saino, an inveterate scourge of corruption and politics as usual, would be a figure to reckon with, bringing his prodigious research on public issues into the balance.

What nobody seemed to conjure with at first was the impact of the 23-year-old Frank Langston, member of a local entrepreneurial family and an activist in a variety of causes who has generated some impressive across-the-board support of his own. Starting out almost unnoticed, he has become a bona fide contender and his very presence in the race has blunted the others' expectations to some degree — opinions differing as to whether Conrad or Flinn will be more affected.

Joe Baier, a disafffected scourge in his own right, has support among conservative voters, as does Saino. Though listed on the ballot, James Lochbihler, a firefighter, is not actively campaigning. Ranking by the Coalition for a Better Memphis shows Conrad, Langston, and Flinn in that fairly clustered order.

District 9, Position3: This race had, very early on, looked like a free ride for newcomer Reid Hedgepeth, who had avowed support from the outgoing councilman, Jack Sammons, as well as from FedEx founder Fred Smith. When developer Hedgepeth won the endorsement of the Shelby County Republican Party on top of that, his way home seemed even clearer — especially since the partisan facts of life suggested that Democratic activist Desi Franklin would be his major opponent.

And Franklin, as it happened, was having to deal with competition from two other established Democrats — Vollintine-Evergreen activist Mary Wilder, who just completed an interim term as state House representative, and Boris Combest, a party executive committee member with roots in the African-American community.

But that preliminary reckoning yielded to several other realities — among them, the vigorous and well-funded campaign efforts of both Franklin and, as indicated above, the aforementioned Lester Lit, whose Poplar corridor and East Memphis inroads are much more likely to come at the expense of Hedgepeth than of anyone else.

Franklin still has much to worry about from Wilder, whose neighborhood clout will be buttressed and extended by the grunt work of the indefatigable David Upton, spinmaster and G.O.T.V. guru par excellence and Franklin's dedicated rival among Democratic power brokers. The hard-working Combest is more of an unknown quantity, and both he and Wilder will be hurting for funds in comparison with Franklin, who can number Republican patriarch Lewis Donelson, the venerable senior member of her law firm, among her adherents.

And not to be ignored is Lit. Like Langston in the Position 2 race, he has graduated from spoiler to contender.

Franklin, by the way, boasts the highest rating of all candidates, a cumulative 93, in evaluations by the Coalition for a Better Memphis.

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