Mystery Man 

LaTroy Williams, an independent candidate for county trustee, is raising eyebrows.

Anyone who owns a set of wheels and can afford the ever-rising cost of gasoline can drive around Shelby County these days and encounter almost everywhere, especially in predominantly African-American areas, an impressive number of portable billboards and other signs touting the candidacy for county trustee of one M. LaTroy Williams.

In some of these broadsides Williams is identified as "the real Democrat," a claim that he attempts to buttress with a full-color campaign flier that bears the imprimatur of something called the "Memphis and Shelby County Democratic Club." That no such Democratic Party organization exists has been established by numerous sources.

Among the signatures listed on Williams' mystery flier are one, "Minerva Jonican [sic]," which has been disowned by the real Minerva Johnican, a well-known former office-holder with a lengthy pedigree in Shelby County Democratic politics, and two more, "J. Chism" and "N.H. Ford," unknown personages whose names are clearly meant to suggest Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, a longtime force in Democratic Party affairs, and N.J. Ford, the late funeral-home owner and patriarch of an entire line of politically prominent Fords.

So far as is known, no member of the Ford clan is supporting Williams' bid for office. As for Chism, he pointedly asked Williams to leave the South Memphis grounds of the commissioner's recent political picnic when the candidate, who appears on the August 7th general election ballot as an independent, got involved in altercations with other attendees.

Chism, in fact, is an active supporter of Paul Mattila, the Democratic Party nominee and current interim trustee whose appointment by the commission to succeed the late Bob Patterson was shepherded by Commissioner Chism himself.

Mattila's foremost opponent is Republican nominee Ray Butler, a CPA who, like Mattila, was a longtime intimate of Patterson's. As a white Democrat with numerous Republican associates (many acquired during his long service as an aide to Patterson), Mattila would have to be favored in a simple one-on-one contest with Butler. What makes the race problematic for him is the presence of Williams.

An interesting and ironic sidelight to sometime businessman Williams' effort is the fact that a now-defunct company of his, First Supreme Trust Company, Inc., owes some $67,000 in back taxes to the very trustee's office which Williams hopes to direct. This well-documented fact is reminiscent of a previous candidate's run for the trusteeship, that of then state senator John Ford in 1990. Back then Ford, now serving time on one felony charge and undergoing trial for another, was the presiding official of N.J. Ford & Sons Funeral Home, which owed substantial sums to both the trustee's office and the city treasurer.

Under the circumstances, inquiring minds want to know exactly how all those billboards, signs, and fliers advertising Williams got paid for. They may not get to know, even though the next finanacial-disclosure deadline for countywide candidates is July 10th. Disclosures are unnecessary if a candidate does not appoint a treasurer, something that the law requires if campaign funds are raised — as they normally are — from third-party sources.

The only assumption consistent with legality is that Williams' campaign is self-financed — a circumstance that fairly cries out for some sort of verification.

• Chism's picnic over the 4th of July holiday drew a largish crowd, including all three leading Democratic contenders for the U.S. Senate this year — Bob Tuke, Mike Padgett, and Kenneth Eaton.

Tuke, a Nashville-area lawyer and former state party chairman, owns the most mainstream Democratic endorsements and is trumpeting a home-grown poll showing him well in the lead, with 32 percent of the vote, with 8 percent going for former Knox County clerk Padgett and Nashville businessman Eaton lumped in with three other nondescript candidates who collectively polled 3 percent. The remaining 57 percent was classified as "undecided."

Padgett, who numbers Chism in his camp, among others, disputes Tuke's findings, as does Eaton, who says he was encouraged to run by former 5th District congressman Bob Clement.

Even many backers of all three acknowledge privately that incumbent Republican Lamar Alexander will be virtually unbeatable in November.

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