Still Swinging 

Repeat candidate Carol Chumney bores in on front-runner A C Wharton.

click to enlarge Carol Chumney with campaign aide Rick Maynard - JACKSON BAKER

By virtue of their high-profile public positions, Shelby County mayor

A C Wharton and Memphis mayor pro tem Myron Lowery have been able to dominate much of the news of the ongoing mayoral campaign. But, with a month to go, others — like former City Council member Carol Chumney — are sure to be heard from.

Like her campaign in general this year, Chumney's headquarters-opening event on Saturday started slowly. Part of the problem may have been the overcast weather or a competitive event. (County Commission candidate Norma Lester drew a generous crowd of Chumney's fellow Democrats for an indoor fund-raiser at the MLK Center on Beale downtown.)

Ultimately, Chumney gathered a decent crowd and decided to warm up the crowd for the band rather than vice versa. The result was certainly one of her best speeches of this year's campaign, rivaling anything she did on her first run for city mayor in 2007, when she finished a reasonably close second to incumbent Willie Herenton in a multi-candidate race.

Wharton, who is considered the front-runner in this year's special mayoral election, may not be as easy a target as Willie Herenton was two years ago, but Chumney honed in on him just the same, charging that Wharton was "jumping ship" and running for city mayor before he'd figured out what to do as county mayor.

She cited what she said were problems at the Med so dire that the hallowed institution servicing Memphis' poor might have to close its doors, and she ridiculed what she characterized as a "40-point plan" by Wharton that would bring "new layers of bureaucracy to city government."

As for herself, she promised to fine-tune the city's police force and to give special attention to developing vacant properties, both at the neighborhood level and at the Pyramid and fairgrounds. She reminded her audience that she had accomplished some things as a former legislator and council member, notably in the area of improving standards for child care.

All in all, it was an energized appearance, helped no doubt by her decision to elevate Rick Maynard, a former campaign aide to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, to the position of campaign manager or coordinator.

• Another mayoral candidate sure to be heard from further is lawyer Charles Carpenter, who seems to have ground troops and something of a budget. One of Carpenter's proposals — to raze the Pyramid and start over with North End development — is indicative of Carpenter's intent (and need) to break out of the pack of challengers, as well as away from his longtime identification as a Herenton partner and ally.

On that point, Carpenter was at pains recently to correct what he said was a frequent misstatement in the media — that he had run all of Herenton's five mayoral campaigns. He was involved in only three, he maintains — the initial Herenton run of 1991 and those of 2003 and 2007. Wharton, who bore the title of campaign chairman, ran the other two, in 1995 and 1999, Carpenter said.

• There was a changing of the guard at the Shelby County Commission on Monday — and a changing of commissioners' pay grade, as well.

Joyce Avery, a second-term Republican from Arlington, assumed the chairmanship from outgoing chair Deidre Malone, a Democrat, and so felicitous was the transition that one could almost forget the modest acrimony that may have lingered from Malone's failed attempt back in July to get herself elected to a second consecutive term as chairman.

There were no notable apostasies on Monday. The commission voted 12-1 for a controversial 5 percent pay reduction in commissoners' pay, from $30,000 annually to $28,500.

Not that the feeling was unanimous. Irate Democrat Sidney Chism denounced it all as "showboating," and several other commissioners expressed reservations, Malone confessing she was "not sure it's the right thing to do," and both Steve Mulroy and fellow Democrat Matt Kuhn expressing concern that the vote might contribute to the devaluing of the public sector. And Democrat Henri Brooks renewed her appeal of last Wednesday's committee session for the idea of "restructuring" the commission, making its positions full-time and compensating them in kind.

But in the end only Chism cast a vote against the commissioners' pay cuts. The others either acquiesced in the majority sentiment or, like Republican commissioner George Flinn, continued to see the self-abnegation as "leadership" in a time of general economic woe.

The commission's unanimity broke down somewhat on a subsequent vote to apply an equivalent 5 percent pay cut to the salaries of the sheriff and county mayor, with five commissioners — Democrats Kuhn and Mulroy and Republicans Mike Carpenter, Mike Ritz, and Avery voting to restore Sheriff Mark Luttrell to his current salary of almost $118,000. The majority was willing to see the sheriff's position reduced by the same proportion as the commissioners', to $115,000.

• U.S. representative Cohen has been no slouch at garnering national publicity since his first election in 2006. The congressman has appeared on various TV shows, has figured in numerous interviews by Capitol Hill journalists, and has made more than his share of news, most notably in the worldwide coverage of his sponsorship last year of a congressional resolution apologizing for slavery.

Cohen figured prominently twice this week in The New York Times, and whether these two mentions accrue to positive or negative outcomes is something for time, and not the Times, to unravel.

The first mention was in Sunday's edition of The New York Times Magazine, in James Straub's article "The New Israel Lobby," which deals with the emergence of J Street, a progressive Jewish lobby, which, among other things, aims at a more even-handed approach to Middle Eastern questions, especially the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, than traditional organizations like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Cohen figures in the article as a representative Jewish congressman drawn to J Street's positions. A paragraph reads:

"Even J Street's staunch friends on the Hill acknowledge the potential costs of their position. Steve Cohen, a Democratic congressman who represents Memphis, told me that in his mind Israel had squandered its heroic status through its wars in Lebanon and Gaza and had come to be seen as 'the neighborhood bully.' But he recalled that 'when J Street first surfaced, the talk among members was, "Do we get near them?"' The organization had endorsed Cohen and asked if he would record a video for its Web site. 'Several veteran Jewish members cautioned me not to do it,' he said. 'They were afraid I would be attacked by AIPAC. Some people whispered about the possibility of having an opponent.' He went ahead and made the video. He also signed the J Street letter calling for deeper American engagement in the peace process. I asked if there had been any repercussions. 'I'm thinking about it,' said Cohen, a significantly wryer-than-average legislator. 'I did have some strong AIPAC supporters who didn't come to my last fund-raising party. And they're normally the first people to come forward.'"

Though "the New Israel Lobby" is generally sympathetic to J Street, the section on Cohen, like the article as a whole, stresses the possible political dangers of breaking with AIPAC and other established pro-Israel lobbies.

Monday, a day later, would see the appearance of a Times article by reporter Robby Brown, who spent several days in Memphis recently interviewing various people about next year's pending Democratic primary showdown between incumbent congressman Cohen and former Mayor Herenton, who has indicated he will oppose Cohen.

Brown's article makes the usual stops, alluding to Cohen's easy go of it against African-American opponent Nikki Tinker in 2008, his efforts to attend to the interests of the disproportionately black constituency of the 9th District, Herenton's oft-quoted "Cohen is an asshole" remark to the Flyer, and the ex-mayor's essential challenge, summed up in Herenton's analysis of the contest: "It's going to be about race, representation, and power."

A representative quote comes from the Rev. Ralph White, pastor of Bloomfield Baptist Church who has been a vocal supporter of Cohen: "There are those who come up to me and say, 'Even though I love Steve, this is a very important seat to the African-American community.' It's a very sticky, touchy situation."

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