Delayed Verdict 

With Ford and Roland both out for now, the County Commission hedges on a District 29 senator.

The residents of state Senate District 29, which runs from top to bottom of the Shelby County riverfront, will just have to wait a while for representation in the Tennessee General Assembly.

After a dramatic week in which both of last year's major-party contenders ceased to be immediate prospects for holding the office -- one voluntarily, one involuntarily -- and in which the Shelby County Commission decided to put off deciding on the matter, the seat seemed likely to go unfilled for the duration of this year's legislative session.

First, in a dramatic and long postponed session of the state Senate in Nashville last Wednesday, Democrat Ophelia Ford, who was sworn in as the apparent 13-vote winner of a special election last September, became an ex-senator Wednesday afternoon when her colleagues voted 26-6 to void that election result as "incurably uncertain." Next, Terry Roland, the Republican contender in that election, took himself out of the running as a possible interim replacement at a Monday-morning press conference. Roland, who had been in the Senate gallery when the historic vote occurred last week, had hinted of his intentions then, suggesting that public hearings be held before the Shelby County Commission declared a successor to Ford.

And finally, later on Monday, the commission concluded intermittent debate on the matter by shelving plans for a vote on May 8th and scheduling one for May 22nd instead. A date that late could actually occur after the completion of the current legislative session -- a point recognized by Republican Bruce Thompson and Democrat Walter Bailey, each of whom pushed for the earlier voting date.

Bailey, who wanted assurances from his colleagues that the historical "ethnic" and political character of the predominantly black and Democratic district would be respected in naming an interim senator, was nevertheless willing to take his chances without such guarantees.

Ultimately, though, the commission adopted the position of Democrat Julian Bolton, who said there should be no "rush to judgment." At a fund-raiser for his 9th District congressional campaign later Monday, Bolton acknowledged his own concern that the commission, which has a 7-6 Republican majority, might name a Republican to cast the last few votes for what has been a traditionally Democratic district.

Thompson saw the issue differently, maintaining that the closeness of the disputed election called for a fresh look on the part of all commissioners. Asked after Monday's commission meeting about persistent rumors that his refusal to commit his vote in advance had prompted Roland's decision to withdraw, Thompson said only, "I made it clear to everyone that I was keeping an open mind."

Under the circumstances, whoever gets appointed on May 22nd is likely to be regarded as an honorary senator. Among those who have expressed interest to commissioners about the interim position is Belz Enterprises head Ron Belz, who has also nursed thoughts of running for city mayor.

Roland and the now-deposed Ford are both on the ballot again this year, though Ford must first defeat Steve Haley in the Democratic primary for a reprise of last year's race to occur.

click to enlarge Senate candidate Bob Corker (l) with Angelo Cobrasci at a recent gathering.
  • Senate candidate Bob Corker (l) with Angelo Cobrasci at a recent gathering.
Ophelia Ford's final appearance in the Senate, it was generally conceded, was dignified and capped by a graceful farewell speech to her colleagues. Before she got to that point, she had waited out a preliminary period in which she, like other Shelby Countians, was called upon to be a celebrant as University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, head Tiger football coach Tommy West, and members of the team were recognized in the chamber.

While others, including longtime U of M booster Steve Cohen, Tennessee Waltz indictee Kathryn Bowers, and venerable Senate speaker John Wilder all sported the blue-and-gray Tiger jerseys that were handed out, Ford chose to drape hers around her neck for a prolonged spell as a gesture of solidarity. Under the circumstances, it was the kind of thing the British call a nice distinction.

Ultimately, all of that was over, people were back in their workaday garb, and Wilder was banging his gavel to usher in the real business. Republican Micheal Williams, chairman of the special Senate investigating committee that had been digging into the District 29 matter from way back in January, announced that the committee had duly made a determination -- by a vote of 5-1, including two Democrats, one of them the Senate's Democratic leader, Jim Kyle of Memphis.

The upshot was that last year's special election -- dogged by irregularities both suspected and real (e.g., two dead voters) -- was found to have been "incurably uncertain." U.S. district judge Bernice Donald, who back in January had stayed Senate action on due-process grounds, had declined to issue a follow-up injunction earlier last week, and Williams thereupon asked for a favorable vote on the panel's findings to void the election.

Lt. Governor Wilder dutifully called for a vote, and that was when Cohen had his moment as the lone and last stay against getting the process over with. "Is there not going to be a debate?" he asked. The senator would say later that he hadn't premeditated anything other than to explain his reasons for voting against voiding the election.

In the end he did more, sounding like the lawyer he is as he recapped (or spontaneously re-created)) some of the arguments that Ford's attorneys David Cocke and Steve Mulroy had made on her behalf before Judge Donald on Tuesday.

In the course of his remarks, Cohen asked assistant state attorney general Janet Kleinfelter and former judge Ben Cantrell, the special Senate committee's lawyer, onto the floor of the chamber to explain -- awkwardly, as it turned out -- the reasons for voiding the election.

It all came back to that issue of incurable uncertainty, though as Cohen pointed out, neither Kleinfelter nor Cantrell was able to make the case for more than 12 suspect votes, one less than the margin by which Ford was certified the winner by the Shelby County Election Commission last year.

All in all, it was a spirited performance by the senator, at least as effective as the one made in court Tuesday by Cocke and Mulroy and one, incidentally, that will do Cohen no harm politically in his current campaign for Congress in the majority-black 9th District -- in which two of a numerous field of opponents happen to have the last name of Ford.

(At a South Memphis forum for 9th District congressional candidates Sunday night, Cohen recalled his feeling that Ford had been "like a lamb led to slaughter" on the day of the Senate vote.)

But in the end only six Democrats voted no against the resolution. Besides Cohen and Ford herself, the nay-voters were Bowers, Ward Crutchfield, the Chattanooga Democrat who himself faces trial in the Tennessee Waltz scandal, Democrat Thelma Harper of Nashville, and Joe Haynes, also of Nashville, the Senate Democratic caucus leader.

Kyle later made a point of saying his vote was not intended as any kind of criticism of Ford herself.

"I expect to see her back after November," the Democrats' Senate leader said. "She's been an effective senator." Kyle was careful to make one distinction. "A lot of the media has referred to this as an 'ouster,'" he noted. "It's anything but. Ophelia's done nothing wrong."

Who had? he was asked. "The whole election system," he said. "The election commission and county government both have something to answer for. And why haven't [district attorney] Bill Gibbons and the T.B.I. [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] come up with legal recommendations. Somebody has done something wrong, and they need to be identified and dealt with."

click to enlarge Senate candidate Bob Corker (l) with Angelo Cobrasci at a recent gathering.
  • Senate candidate Bob Corker (l) with Angelo Cobrasci at a recent gathering.
As if the Republican Party's conservatives were not divided enough by the dual presence of former congressmen Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant in this year's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, another fissure has developed in the ranks. Angelo Cobrasci, head of the Shelby County Conservative Republican Club, said last week he had decided to endorse former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, widely perceived as something of a moderate.

Apprised of this last Wednesday after a Nashville forum appearance alongside Bryant, Corker, and Democrat Harold Ford Jr., Hilleary shrugged and said the reason was probably his quick endorsement of the GOP gubernatorial candidacy of state senator Jim Bryson of Franklin. (Cobrasci has served as campaign manager for Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker, the state Minuteman head who switched his own bid from the Republican primary to independent status when Bryson announced.)

“You will notice I’m the only Senate candidate who has endorsed Bryson. Corker and Bryant haven’t,” Hilleary contended, maintaining that all his GOP rivals had done was welcome the entry of Bryson, who was strongly urged to run by ranking state Republicans.

Several observers at last week’s forum, held at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, noted that Ford, whom they credited with an effective and somewhat aggressive performance, delivered his own closing remarks and then upstaged Hilleary’s, either intentionally or otherwise, by exiting early, conspicuously shaking hands and making conversation with various attendees as he left during the former 4th District congressman’s attempts to sum up.

A day or so after the long-expecting unveiling of two statewide television spots by Corker, Hilleary rushed a couple of his own into circulation, one of them attacking both Corker and Ford as lacking conservative credentials.


ON THE MAY 2nd PRIMARY BALLOT

In addition to the Shelby County Commission races chronicled in this week's cover story, there are contests on the primary ballots for several other offices.

SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR: On the Democratic side, incumbent mayor A C Wharton is heavily favored over county jailers' advocate Jeffrey Woodard, who is running a protest campaign against what he sees as Wharton's cautiousness.
           

As it happens, Woodard is also giving verbal support to the campaign of outgoing county commissioner John Willingham, a longtime Wharton antagonist, who is pushing an ambitious program of reforms, including a proposed payroll tax. Opposing both the tax and Willingham in the Republican primary is political newcomer Brent Todd.

SHERIFF: Incumbent Mark Luttrell had the Republican ballot all to himself after Roland ally John Harvey thought better of a race, but several Democrats are vying for the right to challenge him on August 3rd. The field includes businessman and Alcohol Commission head Reginald French, educator Jesse Jeff, sheriff's deputy Bennie Cobb, and police captain Elton Hyman. French is favored.

CIRCUIT COURT CLERK: Democrats Roderic Ford and Johnnie Ruth Williams are vying for the right to oppose incumbent Jimmy Moore in August. Both Democrats are relative unknowns;
           
CRIMINAL COURT CLERK: Democrats Kevin Gallagher and Vernon Johnson compete for the right to take on incumbent Bill Key of the GOP. Gallagher, a former aide to county mayor Wharton, has campaigned aggressively and has support from key Democrats of both races who covet diversity on what is otherwise a predominantly African-American ticket; bail bondsman Johnson is a veteran activist;
           

JUVENILE COURT CLERK: In the Democratic primary, school board member Wanda Halbert and former clerk Shep Wilbun are competing for the seat now held by unopposed Republican incumbent Steve Stamson. The showdown is regarded as a tossup, though some regard Wilbun as the favorite because of a general feeling that his former tenure as clerk was unfairly maligned in the media and in the courts (where a misconduct charge against him was dismissed). The hard-working Halbert's tenacious campaigning is respected, however.
           

PROBATE COURT CLERK: On the Democratic side Sondra Becton takes on Leon Dishmon. GOP incumbent Chris Thomas is unopposed. Becton, a consistent antagonist of former boss Thomas over the years, is favored in her primary race.

SHELBY COUNTY CLERK: This clerkship, vacated this year by outgoing Republican incumbent Jayne Creson, has races going on in both parties. On the Democratic side, the contestants are Charlotte Draper, Otis Jackson, Zoltan T. Scales, and Joe Young.
Draper and Scales are currently employed in the clerk's office, while Jackson, a FedEx employee, and Young, a mental health administrator and former state Democratic official, have more political experience per se.  This race, like that between Republicans Debbie Stamson and Marilyn Loeffel, is considered too close to call.

Stamson, currently an administrator in the clerk's office and wife of Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson, has been endorsed by Creson and has considerable support among party regulars, while two-term county commissioner Loeffel has a strong base in her home base of Cordova and among social conservatives.

There are no primary races for DISTRICT ATTORNEY GENERAL, where GOP incumbent Bill Gibbons and Democrat Gail Mates are unopposed; for TRUSTEE, where incumbent Republican Bob Patterson and Democrat Becky Clark lack opposition; and REGISTER, where the August candidates will be GOP incumbent Tom Leatherwood and Democrat Coleman Thompson. -- JB

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