Bad News for the Mayor 

Early poll samplings give Chumney a lead over Herenton and others.

If there is a given in the developing Memphis mayoral campaign, it is that incumbent mayor Willie Herenton is weaker than anyone -- friend, foe, or neutral -- had previously imagined and that his weakness extends across the political spectrum.

That was the message of two new independent polls whose existence was first reported on MemphisFlyer.com last week. Though complete facts and figures were not available at press time, the two surveys reportedly not only show Herenton in significant decline with the electorate -- both white and black -- but reveal that City Council member Carol Chumney's two-years' worth of high-profile challenges to the mayor have elevated her to first place among the candidates now in the field.

Multiple sources confirm that one of the polls, performed by veteran pollster/strategist John Bakke on commission from businessman Karl Schledwitz, demonstrated Chumney to be in first place as of now and -- to answer something that political junkies have wondered about incessantly -- is doing well among the city's black voters in addition to its disenchanted whites. Former MLGW head Herman Morris, still working on his name recognition among voters at large, lags behind (though he, too, reportedly polls higher than Herenton), and erstwhile Shelby County commissioner John Willingham is further back still. Another poll, reportedly taken by lawyer Richard Fields, is said to contain similar findings.

One of Morris' mainstays, lawyer John Ryder, was philosophical about the results. "This will obviously buoy Carol, but it won't hold up over the long haul. Meanwhile, Willie will have to be pleased." Ryder maintained that Morris was the mayor's chief threat in the long term, and that what he saw as Chumney's short-term strength might actually be of some benefit to Herenton.

Morris himself noted that his entrance into the race had been later than Chumney's by several months and expressed confidence that future polls would show a significant rise on his part.

News of the poll generated a good deal of speculation about a possible entry in the mayor's race by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who has been relentlessly encouraged to make a race -- by members of the city's business establishment, in particular. A number of observers conjecture that Wharton, who said earlier this month that he would not run against Herenton, will rethink that position.

"He'll definitely run if Herenton drops out, and there's a 30 percent chance that he'll run even if Herenton stays in," opined one. For his part, the county mayor told the Flyer last week that he'd had conversations on the subject but that he wouldn't "kiss and tell" concerning the contents.

Whatever impetus had developed for a Wharton run was seriously blunted, however, by news late last week that the county mayor's son, A C Wharton III, had been arrested in Knoxville on charges of statutory rape. No one imagines that the incident would damage Mayor Wharton's popularity or electability. The concern is that the gravity of this private family matter would erode whatever appetite he had for running.

click to enlarge Carol Chumney - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

One of the known findings of the Bakke poll was that 51 percent of those polled had a negative reaction to Mayor Herenton. At the other extreme, A C Wharton's negatives were said to be only 3 percent. Another surprise finding was that a significantly larger percentage of African-American voters described themselves as "conservative" than those who considered themselves "liberal."

• State Senate speaker pro tem Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville) is launched on a serious P.R. effort to still the waters that were roiled among Democrats by her decisive vote in January for Republican Ron Ramsey (Blountville) as Senate Speaker and lieutenant governor.

Ever since then, Kurita's action -- which deposed long-time Speaker John Wilder (D-Somerville) and allowed her own elevation to the Senate post she now holds -- has cast her as an outcast among influential state Democrats. One of the most prominent, Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, wrote an open letter to statewide Democrats denouncing her for alleged defects in "trust, confidence, and moral character."

Kurita, who before the vote was widely regarded as a likely Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2008, has lately made a point of granting interviews explaining her vote on the speakership as a principled one in favor of majority control. (Until the switch last month of GOP senator Micheal Williams of Maynardville to "independent" status, Republicans held a one-vote majority in the Senate.)

This past weekend, while in Memphis to take part in Tennessee History Day activities, she met with members of Memphis' liberal blogging community at the East Memphis home of lawyer/activist Jocelyn Wurzburg. The invitation-only affair, arranged by local activist Paula Casey, was billed as "off the record," but the emerging consensus from the attending bloggers indicates they were only slightly mollified by Kurita's explanations for her vote. However civilly it is expressed, "No Sale" is still their predominant reaction.

• Shelby County Democrats have a new leader as of Saturday. Elected party chairman by the newly chosen Democratic executive committee was the Rev. Keith Norman. The vote, at Airways Middle School, was 48 to 18 for Norman over lawyer Jay Bailey.

Though the results were no surprise, the margin of Norman's win was larger than expected, and his support clearly spanned across all of the pre-existing party factions.

Bailey's cause had been hampered by what many saw as a too-little-too-late response to a mailing sent by lawyer Richard Fields to all voting delegates outlining a series of past disciplinary actions assessed or initiated against Bailey's work as an attorney.

Fields himself was elected to the new executive committee, returning him to a body he was forced to resign from a year ago for working in harness with the state Republican Party's lawyers to void the special election of state senator Ophelia Ford, since reelected.

According to blogger Thaddeus Matthews, a sworn Fields adversary, another new committee member, radio talk-show host Jennings Bernard, will attempt to have Fields unseated for activity since then that benefitted Republican candidates.

The new committee will have its first meeting this Thursday night at the IBEW Union Hall on Madison.

• Yes, Virginia, there's another special election coming in Shelby County. This one, at Governor Bredesen's direction on Monday, is for the seat in state House District 89 (centered on Midtown). The seat became vacant with the election last month of then Rep. Beverly Marrero to fill a vacancy in state Senate District 30.

Democratic and Republican primaries will be held on Thursday, May 31st, with the general election following on Tuesday, July 17th. Kevin Gallagher and Jeannie Richardson are known Democratic candidates; so far, no Republican candidate has announced.

At press time, the Shelby County Election Commission had not announced a filing deadline.• City Council member Brent Taylor has formally announced a decision that has been privately known for some time: Taylor, who was first elected in 1995 to represent District 2 (Cordova) and was the council's best-known and most consistent conservative, will not seek a fourth term.

A ready man with a hard-edged quip, Taylor was the subject of headlines back in 2004 when an irate Mayor Herenton, in the course of a heated meeting, asked him outside.

That argument, over personnel matters, blew over. But until Taylor began preparing his exit over the last year, he could be depended on as a headline-maker and as an exponent of minimalist government.

Taylor's announcement ensures a likely free-for-all for his seat -- one of several open ones in this year's city election. Petitions for city positions may be picked up at the Election Commisson beginning Friday, April 20th. Filing deadline will be Thursday, July 19th, and withdrawal deadline a week later, Thursday, July 26th.

• Friends and family paid homage to the late Larry Williams at a well-attended Saturday service at the P&H Café on Madison, a site favored by Williams, well-known as a writer and columnist for The Commercial Appeal and beloved as a political satirist on TV and in local Gridiron shows.

Williams, who frequently teamed up with the late Terry Keeter in public performances, was also a key member of the campaign team of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen during Cohen's first congressional run in 1996.

For further details on these and other political stories -- including a report on political guru James Carville's appearance in Memphis last week -- see "Political Beat" at www.memphisflyer.com.

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