The weather wasn't the only thing that came on hard the last week or two in Memphis and Shelby County. Political bombshells have been exploding all over the place.
The most attention-getting circumstances were undoubtedly the unexpected announcement last week by Sheriff Mark Luttrell that he would be running for Shelby County mayor and the weekend kickoff of former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's 9th District congressional campaign.
The first event radically transformed the county mayor's race from a prospective slam-dunk for the county's Democrats into one that suddenly tilted the other way. To rescue an old cliché, the GOP may have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when local Republican chairman Lang Wiseman and others were finally able, after months of trying, to persuade Luttrell, a proven vote-getter across party lines, to switch races.
What finally did the trick was a poll, commissioned by the GOP from longtime political consultant John Bakke, in the wake of a withdrawal from the county mayor's race of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd. The poll reportedly showed that the departure of Byrd, considered by many to be the one Democrat best able to raise money and run well countywide, left Luttrell with a potential commanding lead over Democrats Joe Ford, the current interim county mayor, and Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone.
That tremor was closely followed by Herenton's kickoff event on Saturday at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn. A sizable crowd gathered to hear the former mayor pitch his campaign, unmistakably and almost exclusively, around a theme which he and his supporters might call "proportional representation" but which would — and did — strike Herenton's critics as unadulterated racism.
In keeping with the composition of his almost entirely African-American audience — and with the reality of a contest that requires him to unseat a sitting incumbent, U.S. representative Steve Cohen, whom he once supported — Herenton began with a statement of arithmetic.
Noting that there were 11 congressional seats from Tennessee — two in the Senate; nine in the House — the ex-mayor said, "We just want one!" And the "we" were identified as "people who look like me."
Reminding his listeners of the upset victory over incumbent mayor Dick Hackett in 1991 that made him the city's first elected black chief executive, the ex-mayor said, "When Herenton arrived, black folks arrived in high places." And he cast his long-running legal jeopardy over his involvement in the sale and transfer of Greyhound Bus property in a racial light as well, contending, "I've been the target of people who want to dismantle what we've built ... all because I'm a man, all because I served the people and broke barriers and have been independent."
At one point in his speech, Herenton gestured toward a group of children who stood behind him on stage, holding red-and-white "Herenton/Congress" campaign signs. He said, "They ought to have opportunities in America. Every opportunity that African Americans have got to serve as leader, we've got to go after. ... They need to see people that look like them in positions of leadership."
In focusing so completely on the issue of racial identity, Herenton may simply be pursuing the one strategy he deems viable as a means of toppling incumbent Cohen, who, as the former mayor himself grudgingly conceded, had demonstrated significant appeal among black voters.
In the Democratic primary of 2008, Cohen defeated Nikki Tinker, a well-financed African-American candidate, by overwhelming margins in black precincts and carried the predominantly black congressional district by a margin of 4 to 1 overall. Moreover, Cohen is already well embarked on fund-raising for his 2010 campaign and has a nest egg in the vicinity of $1 million. Herenton himself is unlikely to raise much money, in that the two factors which once gave him fund-raising wherewithal — alliances in the business community and the fact of his mayoral incumbency — are no longer his to draw on.
Nor does he have an obvious political network at his disposal. Other than via the presence of a few candidates seeking election or reelection this year — something characteristic of any large-scale political event — there was no noticeable turnout Saturday of well-known politicians or public officials, black or white, and no public endorsement of Herenton save the obvious ones of Sidney Chism and attorney Ricky Wilkins, who shared the stage with the ex-mayor. Still, when Herenton concluded his kickoff with the ringing declarations that "I am back" and "We will win this election," he couldn't be discounted (and Cohen won't do so). It has to be remembered that the five-times-elected mayor is still unbeaten in political races.
• Also making weather last week was Shelby County commissioner George Flinn, freshly declared as a bona fide Republican candidate for Congress in the 8th District.
Flinn won the commission's unanimous support in a committee session last week for a put-up or shut-up resolution demanding that candidates for governor commit to allocating more federal funds for the Med.
The resolution, which called for gubernatorial candidaters to say yes or no to an explicit pledge, was described by Flinn as "one of the more important items we will ever consider ... an opportunity to show we're mad as heck, and we're not going to take it anymore."
The issue is that of federal funds disbursed to the state of Tennessee for uncompensated care administered at the Med to indigent patients. Traditionally, the lion's share of these funds has been distributed at gubernatorial discretion throughout the state's medical-care system, with only a remnant returning to the Med itself. Of $84 million generated by Med activity in the last fiscal cycle, only $34 million was routed back to the Memphis hospital.
At its January 25th public meeting, the commission voted emergency add-on funding of $10 million, but additional funding is still needed to keep the Med operating at full capacity — or even, as Commissioner Mike Ritz, a longtime supporter of fuller funding for the Med, has suggested, to keep it open. During discussion of Flinn's resolution last week in the commission's Legislative Committee, Ritz warned that TennCare cuts indicated in Governor Phil Bredesen's State of the State address might force the Med's closure.
"We beg the governor to send us money," Flinn said. "Right now, at this moment in history, we have a chance to say to the gubernatorial candidates how to allocate that money. After the election we don't have a chance to influence the vote."
Although Flinn is a Republican and will be running for Congress in the GOP primary, he said that the intent of his resolution was to reward or penalize candidates for governor regardless of party label — depending on how they responded.
The committee's discussion last week resulted in strengthening the language of the resolution to specify, at Flinn's request, that all uncompensated-care funds generated by treatment at the Med, not just a larger percentage of them, be returned to the institution itself.
Before the final unanimous vote, two commissioners had expressed tentative reservations about the Flinn resolution. James Harvey wondered if the resolution wasn't a "cart before the horse" matter that might injure relationships with elected officials.
And Henri Brooks appeared to minimize the effect of the resolution, calling it "a little pledge" and "a good little thing to do" but suggesting a visit to Washington to discuss the issue with U.S. representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, head of a Homeland Security subcommittee, might be more fruitful.
"I do not appreciate this being seen as a little pledge — or a little anything," Flinn responded heatedly, prompting Brooks to say she had not meant to "diminish or marginalize" the content of the pledge.
Striking a similar, if less public, note similar to Brooks' had been Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who tweeted his reactions to ongoing deliberations nonstop. Examples (spelling and puncutation as in the original): "Comm Flinn making melo-dramatic speech" and "Comm Malone: Calm down George the cameras are gone." The pledge resolution itself was deemed by Carpenter to be "Lots of elect posturing over a worthless sheet of paper."
Inclement weather postponed Monday's public meeting of the commission, which was reset for this Wednesday, when the gubernatorial-pledge matter was scheduled for a final up or down vote.