For the second consecutive presidential election year, Tennessee's two cents' worth on choosing a leader for the country may have heightened value.
In 2008, the Volunteer State — which, then as now, voted on the multi-state primary date known as "Super Tuesday" — was the subject of intense competition in the Democratic primary between advocates of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And Clinton, who had early on sewed up most support from the state's Democratic establishment, edged her rival, doing well enough in Tennessee and a few other states to continue campaigning for several more months.
This year, on March 6th, the contest in Tennessee is in the Republican presidential primary — between early front-runner Mitt Romney and three GOP rivals, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. Ostensibly, the race, which began early last year with a Republican field of 10 contenders, is considered by most to have been winnowed down to a two-man showdown between Romney, the well-heeled former governor of Massachusetts, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
But the Republican race has seen so many tos and fros and ups and downs that it would be folly to count out any of the top three — Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich, the onetime GOP speaker of the House. (Even Texas congressman Paul, a hard-shell libertarian with a highly committed, if probably limited, support base, could do well in Tennessee.)
The state is voting according to a complicated "winner-take-most" formula, whereby Tennessee's delegates to this year's Republican national convention in Tampa — 27 from the state's congressional districts and 28 elected at-large — will be apportioned according to the candidates' final vote totals, with top finishers earning delegates at a higher percentage rate than also-rans.
Like Clinton before him, Romney has support from his party's ruling elite in Tennessee — notably from Governor Bill Haslam — and his well-placed surrogates may have to bear much of their candidate's burden. In any case, at press time Romney's campaign schedule listed no in-state events for the candidate between now and Tuesday, though Haslam will head up what is billed as a "Shelby County/West Tennessee Organizational Meeting" for Romney at Jason's Deli on Poplar Avenue on Thursday afternoon.
Santorum, who hopes to appeal to evangelicals and other social conservatives, showed up at a Tea Party event in Chattanooga on Saturday, while Gingrich, an on again-off again contender who is hoping to return from the politically dead for maybe the fourth time in the last campaign year, was in Nashville for several events on Monday and another in Chattanooga on Tuesday.
Former speaker Gingrich had surrogates, too — having named state senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and state representative Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport) as his Tennessee co-chairs some weeks back. Though he drew hecklers at an afternoon rally at the state Capitol on Monday, Gingrich was presumably more concerned with his standing in recent polls.
The most recent sampling in Tennessee, a new Vanderbilt University poll of 815 registered Tennessee voters, showed Gingrich in fourth place at 13 percent. Santorum led with 38 percent, followed by Romney with 20 percent, and Paul with 15 percent.
Gingrich's big win in South Carolina in mid-January was followed by a drubbing by Romney in Florida, and Gingrich has since yielded his place as Romney's main challenger to Santorum, who is also competing with the former speaker for primary votes in the Southern states.
The presidential primary race may succeed in galvanizing election-day turnout, which, in the case of local races also on the ballot, was slight during the early-voting period that ended this week.
LOCAL RACES: The contested ones include party primaries for two county offices — general sessions court clerk and assessor of property — as well as a race to fill the District 1, Position 3 seat on the Shelby County Commission that was vacated late last year by Mike Carpenter.
The position of district attorney general, vacated in 2009 when then district attorney Bill Gibbons resigned to become state Safety and Homeland Security commissioner, is also on the ballot, but interim incumbent Amy Weirich, a Republican appointed by Governor Haslam, is unopposed on the GOP ballot, as former state legislator and city council member Carol Chumney is on the Democratic ballot.
The district attorney race will be resolved in the county general election of August 2nd, which is also the date for primary voting on state legislative positions.
The contested local races on March 6th break down as follows:
General Sessions Court Clerk
There are five Democrats seeking the position and two Republicans. (An independent, Patricia McWright Jackson, will be on the August 2nd general election ballot.)
Democrats: The contenders are Otis Jackson Jr., Ed Stanton Jr., Sidney Chism, Marion G. Brewer, and Karen Woodward.
Jackson, a former University of Memphis basketball star, is the incumbent but is currently under suspension following his indictment on charges of official misconduct for improperly coaxing financial contributions and campaign activity from his subordinates. As he noted wryly in one public forum, this state of affairs presented opponents with an "opportunity" and is the major reason for there being a relatively crowded field.
Stanton, a county administrator of long standing and the father of current U.S. attorney Ed Stanton III, is well regarded and, as he boasts, was the unanimous choice of the general sessions judges to succeed Jackson on an interim basis. As such, he is a de facto second incumbent in the race.
Chism, currently the chairman of the Shelby County Commission, is a former Teamster leader and onetime chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, who has been one of the major political brokers of the last two decades in Memphis and Shelby County. He was especially close to former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton during the latter's heyday.
Brewer, a retired teacher and principal in the Memphis City Schools system, is making his first political race, branding himself the "non-politician" in the race.
Woodward, also a first-time candidate and former teacher (in the Shelby County Schools system), is running from a similar "non-political" perspective and has been assisted in her campaign by Jimmy White, a well-schooled local political figure who once served as state commissioner of labor. Her filing petition barely got in under the wire on deadline day and required a judicial ruling in her favor.
Outlook: Jackson will draw his share of votes, on the basis of his incumbency and name identification, but the latter factor cuts both ways because of his precarious legal status and recent notoriety. Stanton commands enough respect to draw a significant vote, as well. Brewer is an impressive figure with standing in the community, and Woodward is a promising new face with the added advantage of being the only white Democrat on the ballot, should there be an ethnic split.
Chism's political clout, degree of support, and organizational ability (huge portions of South Memphis are filled with his yard signs) may give him the win over the other Democrats, though Stanton recently put out a mailer containing endorsements from the likes of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen and Ruby Wharton, as well as one from Shelby County commissioner Justin Ford, who, interestingly, turns up on Chism's endorsement list, as well. Chism also boasts endorsements from Herenton, Councilman Jim Strickland, and MCS board member Patrice Robinson.
Republicans: The contenders are Rick Rout and James R. Finney.
Rout, currently an employee of Shelby County Juvenile Court, is the son of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and a longtime Republican Party activist, having held several executive positions with the local party. He is frank to say, apropos Jackson's remark cited above, that the current disarray in the general sessions clerk's office is a major reason for his entry in the race.
Finney is a legal process server who retired from the Navy after 25 years' service. Aged 75, he proudly noted, at a recent forum, that he was the oldest candidate running in this year's county election. He also conducts a weekly talk show on KWAM-AM radio.
Both Rout and Finney have had publicized financial problems — Rout as the plaintiff in a still-unresolved lawsuit against a now defunct insurance agency which once employed him and which he says still owes him money; and Finney, who is making regular payments on an I.R.S. lien for back taxes.
Outlook: Mainly on the basis that he is a known quantity among Shelby County Republicans, whose rank-and-file activists will probably turn out disproportionately, Rout should gain the GOP nomination.
Shelby County Assessor of Property
Three Republicans and two Democrats are vying for a position which is charged with the responsibility of setting and periodically reviewing real property values for the tax rolls and has, over the years, generated its share of controversy and turnover at the helm.
Democrats: The contenders are incumbent assessor Cheyenne Johnson and realtor Steve Webster.
Johnson was elected assessor in 2008 after serving 24 years in the office, 10 of them as chief administrator for former assessor Rita Clark.
Webster, a well-acquainted local Democrat, has hazarded a couple of unsuccessful political races to date against better-established candidates, and his race against Johnson would seem to be another uphill battle.
Outlook: Though Webster may yet have an opportunity to serve in public office, it is unlikely to be this year. Johnson was the beneficiary of a recent fundraiser attended by Mayor A C Wharton, and she has like support from other major party figures.
Republicans: The contenders are Randy Lawson, Tim Walton, and John Bogan.
Lawson, a videographer and provider of a wide variety of other high-tech services, was for a decade technology manager for the city of Germantown. He promises to cut the expenses of the assessor's office through more prudent use of both personnel and physical resources.
Walton, a realtor, has been a review appraiser for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is a current member of the Tennessee Real Estate Appraisal Commission, He, too, promises to bring about fairer and more efficient processes.
Bogan, a retired Navy commander, is currently a deputy assessor who says the office is currently being mismanaged, with a lack of proper accountability. He has also attracted considerable attention of late as president of the Fisherville Civic Club and a principal in that community's controversial recent attempts to stave annexation by Memphis.
Outlook: The GOP race is almost a coin-flip situation, but Lawson's technological expertise has outfitted him with a series of self-produced TV spots that could boost his prospects, provided he can get them proper exposure on local airwaves.
Shelby County Commission, District 1, Position 3
Republicans: This district, which essentially rims the edge of Memphis proper from northwest to southeast, has been GOP-dominated in recent years, and two candidates — former Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel and newcomer Steve Basar — are facing off on the Republican side.
Though she has been more or less politically inactive since being term-limited in 2004, Loeffel presumably still has ample name recognition, both from her commission service and from her longtime prominence as a leading member of FLARE (sometimes also spelled FLAIR), a once flourishing organization devoted to socially conservative ideals. Her main bailiwick is Cordova.
Basar, who has been a steady presence as an attendee at local governmental meetings over the last year or so, is a local businessman who has devoted considerable time and energy to development of the Greater Memphis Greenline and other environmental activities. A native of Detroit, he is currently supply planning manager at Schering-Plough.
Outlook: This one is a tough call, a case of established identity versus promising new face. Presumably Loeffel's neighborhood base is still intact, though probably not to the same degree as during the former commissioner's years of public prominence. Basar is still a relative unknown, though his support along the Poplar Corridor parallels that of other former businessmen-turned-politicians, and he has active support from such current Republican commissioners as Heidi Shafer and Mike Ritz. He has previously voted in some Democratic primaries — a fact criticized by Loeffel.
Loeffel, who has some support from serving officials, too, may have the edge on pure name identification, but it's a coin flip.
Democrats: Unopposed on the Democratic side of the ballot is Steve Ross, an audio-visual consultant and activist who is well-known among local Democrats for his "Vibinc" blog, which often covers public issues in surprising depth.