Chism Backs Strickland for Mayor 

Political broker renews intramural Democratic fight; remains pivotal in County Commission budget battle.

Chism and Strickland at Sunday Political Picnic

Jackson Baker

Chism and Strickland at Sunday Political Picnic

Adherents of City Councilman Jim Strickland's campaign for mayor are certainly pleased with their guy's ability to go fund-raising dollar-for-dollar against incumbent Mayor A C Wharton (both candidates having reported $300,000-plus in their first-quarter disclosures). And they're counting on a good showing for Strickland in both the Poplar Corridor and Cordova, where his message of public safety and budgetary austerity resonate.

But those predominantly white areas of Memphis (to call them by their right name) are probably not enough, all by themselves, to get Strickland over, especially since Wharton has his own residual strength in the corridor and with the city's business community, where the mayor can hope to at least break even.

There is also the mayor's advantage in being able to command free media on a plethora of governmental and ceremonial occasions.

Yes, it's probably true that A C's support in predominantly African-American precincts ain't what it used to be, and it never was what you would call dominating, not this year with all the well-publicized cuts in city services. And not with Mike Williams working the African-American community, along with Whitehaven Councilman Harold Collins and Justin Ford, and with the Rev. Kenneth Whalum ready to grab off a huge chunk of that vote, should he make what is at this point an expected entry into the mayoral field.

Still, Strickland needs to grab a share of the black vote to have a chance to get elected. Where does he get it? Well, he's attending African-American churches on Sunday, one of the well-worn pathways in local politics. So that will help. But probably not as much as the endorsement he got last Saturday at the annual Sidney Chism Community Picnic on Horn Lake Road from the impresario of that event. Longtime political broker Chism early on announced his support of Strickland from the stage of the sprawling picnic grounds.

Time may have tarnished Chism's reputation a bit, as it did his longtime ally, former Mayor Willie Herenton (an attendee at the picnic), but the former Teamster leader, Democratic Party chairman, state senator, and county commissioner still has enough influence to have basically put Randa Spears over as Shelby County Democratic chair earlier this year. And he may have enough to give Strickland that extra boost he needs to be fully competitive. We'll see.

Chism, as it happens, is mired in a couple of controversies at the moment. His employment as a "media specialist" by Sheriff Bill Oldham is regarded with suspicion as a political quid pro quo and pension-inflater by several Republican members of the Shelby County Commission, who at budget-crunch time are making an issue of it, along with an Oldham-provided job for former Shelby County Preparedness director Bob Nations.

And Chism may have reignited another long-smoldering situation when he used the bully pulpit of his picnic to attack an intramural Democratic Party foe, Del Gill, who was runner-up to Spears in the party chairmanship contest. Chism did so at first indirectly, on the front end of the event, while he was acknowledging from the stage the presence in the crowd of party chair Spears.

"She's been catching a whole lot of flak from one crazy person, but I hope y'all put him out of this city, and he'll be all right." Chism chose to be more explicit when he returned to the stage after a series of candidates in the city election had made their public remarks.

"I said something earlier," Chism said. "I said there was somebody who needed running out of town, and that person, I didn't call his name, but that person is Del Gill. ... He ain't worth two cents. ... He's been lyin' on me for 10 years He won't show up and do it to my face, but he lies all the time."

In a widely circulated email response, Gill returned fire, reminding his readers that he had taken the lead in having Chism censured by the local Democratic Party executive committee in 2014 for allegedly attempting to subvert the sheriff's campaign of Democratic nominee Bennie Cobb in favor of Republican Oldham.

Chism used his attack on Gill as a platform from which to launch his recipe for Democratic success at the polls: "We're not going to win any elections in Shelby County until we get into the mindset that we've got to get in the middle. If we get in the middle, we can elect Democrats, qualified Democrats.

"I didn't say you've got to be a super-intelligent magna cum laude educated person. I'm saying you ought to be smart enough to know that the people in this country are in the middle." He urged his listeners to "vote for the right person, and he ain't got to look like me; just act like me."

Actually, the two Chism battlefronts — his employment battle with GOP county commissioners and the Democratic Party fireworks — are connected. Such commission critics of Chism as Heidi Shafer and David Reaves, both Republicans, have made pointed remarks in private about what they claim was Chism's disservice to fellow Commissioner Reginald Milton, a Democrat, in intervening against Milton's own bid for party chairmanship. And Milton, perhaps unsurprisingly, has expressed his own skepticism about the sheriff's budget requests.

Shafer and Reaves, along with GOP Commissioner Terry Roland, are also suspicious that Oldham's wish to have Chism (and other Chism associates) aboard is related to a potential 2018 campaign by Oldham for county mayor, an office for which Roland, for one, has essentially already announced.

Oldham has been mum on the subject of his future political intentions, if any, but it is a fact that the progression from sheriff to county mayor has been made already by several predecessors — Roy "Skip" Nixon, Bill Morris, and current County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Random notes: The newly elected president of the Shelby County Young Democrats is Alvin Crook, who made something of a stir last year when, in the course of a public debate, he formally endorsed Van Turner, his Democratic primary opponent for a county commission seat.

Crook, who is employed as a courtroom bailiff, says his group will be making endorsements in the city election this year.

Other new Young Democrat officers: Regina Beale, first vice president; Jim Kyle Jr., 2nd vice president; Matt Pitts, treasurer; Rebekah Hart, secretary; and Justin Askew, parliamentarian.

• Two Shelby Countians, state Senator Mark Norris and attorney Al Harvey, were among three Tennesseans who were invited guests of British royalty at Monday's ceremony in Runnymede, England, commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta there.

Norris was invited in his capacity as immediate past chairman of the Council of State Governments; Harvey, along with General Sessions Judge Lee Bussart Bowles of Marshall County, represented the American Bar Association.

A sure sign that the city election season is heating up: On Thursday, June 18th, from 5 to 7 p.m., Patrice Robinson, a candidate for city council, District 3, and Mary Wilder, candidate for the council's District 5, will be holding simultaneous fund-raisers in different parts of town.

Overlapping events of this sort, still uncommon, will at a certain point in the election cycle, become routine.

• In its latest issue, the Tennessee Journal of Nashville takes note of the Tennessee Republican Party's concerted "Red to the Roots" campaign directed at capturing as many of the state's county assessor positions as possible next year.

The newsletter also notes that Shelby County Assessor Cheyenne Johnson, a Democrat, will be exempt from the purge attempt, having already won reelection to a four-year term in 2014. Johnson's being on a different cycle from other state assessors is a consequence of the county commission's consolidating all county offices into a common election cycle via 2008 revisions to the county charter.

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