Two prominent local officials made major moves last week in their quest for new political offices.
Shelby County Commission chairman Deidre Malone had a coming-out, $500-a-head fund-raiser at the Racquet Club Thursday night on behalf of her campaign for county mayor. Meanwhile, current county mayor A C Wharton, campaigning for Memphis mayor, drew 1,500 attendees for a "unity prayer breakfast" at the Cannon Center. Cost per attendee was a relatively modest $30.
The two events had a connection of sorts and, considered together or singly, provided ample fodder for would-be analysts. Wharton was listed as one of the sponsors of Malone's fund-raiser but did not make it to the event until it had formally concluded and most guests had departed.
Malone attracted some of the usual suspects among influential donors (e.g., cell-tower magnate Billy Orgel and zoning lobbyist de luxe Homer "Scrappy" Branan) and the core members of her longtime support group (e.g., Calvin Anderson, Greg Duckett, Paula Casey, and Desi Franklin).
But her gathering, while respectably sized (numbering just over 100, counting attendees and those who dropped off contributions) may not have provided a conclusive answer to the question: Can she raise enough money and support to keep out other name candidates?
Wharton's event, on the other hand — held on a seriously rainy Saturday morning — was prodigious enough, both in quantity and quality of those attending (a Who's Who of politically influential types), to stop potential opponents in their tracks. Whether it will or won't remains to be seen, of course.
Employing one of the oddest analogies yet heard in a local political campaign, Wharton promised to be a "windmill," generating positive change for the city. But, that metaphor aside, there was nothing else in the event suggestive of the quixotic man of La Mancha. Wharton's event was considered essential enough to draw two declared Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Kim McMillan of Clarksville and Mike McWherter of Jackson — and one probable one, state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis.
• Kyle seems clearly to be preparing a run for governor, joining McMillan, McWherter, and a growing field of other candidates from both parties hoping to succeed Governor Phil Bredesen, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term in 2010.
Kyle, who is the Democrats' leader in the state Senate and was one of the attendees at the state Democratic Party's weekend retreat in the resort community of Monteagle, sponsored a Sunday-morning prayer breakfast for his partymates. Beforehand, he told the Flyer that he would be making an announcement "as soon as the [legislative] session's over."
The nature of that announcement seemed clear enough, as he expounded on his likely strategy. "I'm going to build a wall around Memphis," said Kyle, who had previously floated trial balloons for both a gubernatorial race and one for Shelby County mayor. As he clarified his metaphor, it became obvious which way he intended to go.
"I'm going to build a wall around Memphis," he repeated, "and then work hard on the rest of the state." Which is a fairly definite way of saying that, with no other Democrats from Shelby County seeking the governorship, he intends to consolidate home-base support as a first step toward running statewide.
Kyle was asked: Is fellow Shelby Countian Bill Gibbons able to build a similar wall? "Nope," he said firmly, "not with Brad Martin raising money for Bill Haslam." Martin, a former state representative and Memphis-based entrepreneur, is one of the state's high-stakes political players; Haslam, an oil-company scion and the mayor of Knoxville, is favored by many observers to win the GOP nomination.
Other already announced gubernatorial candidates attending the Democrats' weekend retreat were McMillan, state senator Roy Herron of Dresden, and Nashville businessman Ward Cammack.
• Everybody who was at the Monteagle summit seems to regard 4th District congressman Lincoln Davis' Saturday night speech to attendees to have been a legitimate Kumbaya moment.
And, moreover, many of the self-professed progressives who have distrusted Davis the most for his conservatism are now singing the praises of a politician who, as they see it, has miraculously morphed from Blue Dog to just plain blue.
Even the lingo adopted by Davis for the occasion for his keynote address had to be gratifying for the summit attendees, many of whom represented what might be called the "progressive" or Obama wing of the party. Davis made a point of complaining about right-wing Republicans who, as he saw it, dominate the airwaves, for example: "They talk about liberal media. If you find it, tell me where it is. I want to watch it some day. It doesn't exist!"
He did acknowledge the presence of such countervailing pundits as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "I don't go to bed at night until I've heard her," he said. "She can sure twist [the right-wingers'] heads."
Davis talked up credit-card reform, national health care, President Obama's stimulus bill in general, and extended unemployment benefits in particular. He defended the president's meeting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and called for "a new Latin American policy."
Most important, from the point of view of party chairman Chip Forrester's supporters, Davis made a point of embracing Forrester onstage, praising the chairman for his grassroots organizational efforts and likening him in that respect to Obama.
That act, Davis' speech itself, and the very fact of his being there signaled to many in the crowd the pending resolution of a schism between Forrester and the party's liberal wing, on the one hand, and, on the other, the party's conservative establishment, represented by Davis, the state's other congressmen (except for Memphis' Steve Cohen, who stayed out of the factional dispute), and Governor Bredesen.
That much healing remains was indicated by the fact that the only congressman attending was Davis, who happens also to represent Monteagle in Congress. Conspicuously absent were representatives of the governor's office.
As a result of a recent working compact between the party's two wings, Forrester and his team will focus on party organization and grassroots efforts, while candidate recruitment and fund-raising will be the province of the establishment, with Bredesen and the congressional representatives having direct oversight.
(See also Viewpoint, p. 17.)
• Wearing his district attorney's hat, candidate Gibbons presided over a widely noted press conference last week, attended by representatives of other law enforcement and government agencies, in which eight grand jury indictments were announced for members of the Shelby County Clerk's office.
Though not indicted herself, Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware was designated as having offered bribes to three of the indicted employees for official services.
What the councilwoman did, according to the indictments, was offer money "to register a vehicle without the vehicle having gone through inspections required by the City of Memphis or without other proper documentation required to register the vehicle."
The sums involved were unspecified. Other members of the clerk's office were indicted for "accepting a benefit to 'run multiple transactions ... as opposed to running a fewer number of transactions at one time.'"
Among those attending the press conference, held in Gibbons' office in the Criminal Justice Center, were Sheriff Mark Luttrell, Police Director Larry Godwin, and officials of the state Department of Revenue and other official services.
Unmentioned in the indictment were Charles Nichols, former CEO for county clerk Debbie Stamson, and for the previous clerk, Jayne Creson. It was public allegations that Nichols had rendered improper services that first called attention to the ongoing investigation.
Gibbons declined to answer directly when asked if Nichols was cooperating with the investigation. The district attorney noted only that Nichols wasn't named and that the investigation was "ongoing."
He used the same term to describe the status of Ware, who was reported as hospitalized when the indictments came down.