Thursday, June 7, 2001

The Gwatney Gambit

The plot thickens for the mayor's race as another candidate waits in the wings.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Although there are still three active candidates for the Democratic nomination for Shelby County mayor -- state representative Carol Chumney, state senator Jim Kyle, and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd -- and Byrd's momentum, especially, is gathering, yet a fourth significant public figure is thinking strongly of making a mayoral race as a Democrat.

This is Russell Gwatney, owner of several automobile dealerships and a recent chamber of commerce chairman who focused on evangelizing for educational needs.

Gwatney, whose previous foray into politics was an unsuccessful race as an independent candidate for the county commission in 1994, is reading from the same primer as other Democratic countywide candidates who see the county's demographics, notably a technical black majority, favoring them in 2002 but who understand that swing voters have developed the habit in recent years of voting Republican in Shelby County races.

With some exceptions, such as county assessor Rita Clark's two winning campaigns in 1996 and 2000, Democrats haven't fared well in such races. But Clark's success with suburban swing voters has encouraged Democrats to believe they can win with candidates who have sufficient middle-of-the-road appeal.

Hence, the high hopes invested in the likes of Byrd, whose indisputable Democratic identity -- from his service a generation ago in the state legislature and from two 7th District congressional races, in 1982 and 1994 -- is fortified by across-the-board business relationships and by his long identification as a booster and fund-raiser for the University of Memphis and other community causes.

Most party cadres see Byrd beginning to take the play away from Chumney, whose candidacy has to fly in the face of stereotypes, and Kyle, whose legislative efforts have saddled him with some difficult issues. But Byrd has a major liability, too -- notably his recent alienation from a Democratic faction, mostly made up of longtime Ford-organization cadres, who thought he undermined the chances of party nominee John Freeman in last year's special election for register.

Byrd's critics point to a $1,000 financial donation he gave independent candidate Otis Jackson, a former U of M basketballer, in a three-cornered race involving Freeman and the eventual winner, Republican nominee Tom Leatherwood, and suggest that Byrd organized even more support for Jackson after Freeman upset Byrd's choice, former U of M basketball coach Larry Finch, in a nomination session of the Democratic executive committee.

Byrd, who was a co-chairman of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, says all he did was give the donation to Jackson, a personal friend, after which he kept his distance from the local race. Since then, Byrd has made a point of helping Freeman defray his campaign debt, and, though known to be the personal choice for county mayor of Sidney Chism, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's chief political aide, the Bartlett banker has kept his lines of communication open to the Ford family and its allies.

"You still mad at me?" Byrd asked longtime Freeman friend and veteran Fordite David Upton at a recent party gathering. "Well, a little," said Upton, "but you're doing some of the right things now, no question."

Meanwhile, there's Gwatney, whose history of noninvolvement with intra-party disputes somewhat balances his minimal past participation in party affairs. "I want to see how Harold does" is the businessman's frank statement about his short-term strategy. If Gwatney sees Byrd faltering to any major degree, he has made it clear that he will enter the race.

Gwatney's problem is that Byrd already draws on much of his would-be constituency, and Byrd's chances of nailing down a base in both the business community and among mainstream Democrats will be greatly enhanced if a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser, scheduled for June 28th at Central Station, a day before the county Democrats' annual Kennedy Dinner, is a huge success.

The Hooper Factor

Like the mayor's race, the one for sheriff also has a dark horse -- or possibly two --waiting in the wings.

Henry Hooper, now a State Farm insurance agent but once both a Sheriff's Department employee and a Secret Service agent, has indicated that he intended to run for sheriff as an independent. Now, there is some thought in Democratic ranks to persuade him to run as a Democrat.

Hooper, who was Mayor Willie Herenton's first choice to be police director back in 1992 before former congressman Harold Ford Sr. exerted his influence on behalf of Melvin Burgess, is an imposing figure who as an independent could draw votes away from Randy Wade, the likely Democratic nominee.

Recently Hooper's stock took a bounce when he became the subject of an admiring, ostensibly nonpolitical, feature article in The Commercial Appeal.

Hooper is close to former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris, who has begun to actively plead his cause.

The situation has prompted a few Democrats to suggest to Chism that he might rethink his preferences and throw his authority -- and, by implication, that of Mayor Herenton -- behind Hooper in a Democratic primary. So far that scenario is considered unlikely.

As an alternative, some Democrats are recommending that Wade A) persuade former U.S. marshal Buck Wood to agree to serve as his chief deputy and B) announce the fact as part of his campaign.

The idea behind that proposal is two-fold -- to enhance Wade's potential in the general election and to keep Wood, who also has talked up a race for sheriff, from complicating that race any further.

Other observers see a scenario whereby both Wood and Hooper become independent candidates, creating a four-way race in which Democrat Wade and independent Hooper, both African Americans, vie with two white candidates: independent Wood and the Republican nominee (current Chief Deputy Don Wright or department administrators Bobby Simmons or Mike Jewell).

The Thompson Puzzle

Speculation about the 2002 electoral intentions of U.S. senator Fred Thompson was compounded this week with brand-new commentary in the national media and with the naming of a new chief of staff for the senator -- lobbyist and former law partner Howard Liebengood.

Some wondered if Liebengood, who was assistant minority counsel to Thompson on the Senate Watergate committee in the early '70s and who was the chief lobbyist for the Philip Morris Companies in recent years, means a focus on the administrative -- as against electoral -- aspects of Thompson's office.

Others wondered if it meant Thompson was gearing up for a major campaign -- either for reelection or, as The New York Times speculated this week, for governor.

Most observers saw the Times article, by B. Drummond Ayres Jr., to be something out of a time warp, since Thompson conspicuously swore off a gubernatorial bid back in February.

But, says Ayres: "To hear some of the rumor-mongers talk in Tennessee, Senator Fred Thompson is fed up with Washington and may return to run for governor, especially now that Senate Republicans are back in the minority."

The idea that Thompson will be a Senate candidate again is indeed subject to increased doubt around the state; yet the notion that he would, at this stage, return to the gubernatorial wars is regarded as far-fetched.

(But watch this space.)

A Beleaguered Pair

Two Memphis members of the state House of Representatives -- Bartlett Republican Tre Hargett and Memphis Democrat Henri Brooks -- have become the focus of increased attention in the last week, in ways not altogether to their liking.

Hargett -- who, with Nashville Democrat Sherry Jones, chaired a special committee appointed by House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) that was charged with making specific recommendations for budget reductions -- has taken some flak in the process.

Though the representative noted that his lengthy list of possible cuts were not recommendations as such but merely a compilation of the suggestions made by members of his committee, some observers were aggrieved by them.

After a testy conversation in Legislative Plaza with Tennessee State Employees Association director Linda McCarty, Hargett found it necessary to dispatch an all-points e-mail denying that he and State rep. Paul Stanley (R-Germantown) were recommending a reduction in the state's contributions to medical insurance for state employees, though a recommendation to that effect had been on the committee's list of possibilities.

"I am extremely disappointed that someone would take the committee comment and distort it so horribly in an attempt to use you and your colleagues by misrepresenting the actual details of what is happening in the Tennessee General Assembly," Hargett's e-mail said.

Brooks has become the focus of a continuing controversy over her public refusal to rise with other members when the pledge of allegiance is recited at the beginning of legislative sessions.

When she failed to do so one day last week House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh made a pointed request that she remain outside the chamber until after the daily pledge was finished. She declined and complained that the conversation had been one of "a master talking to a slave."

Brooks, an African American, gave as her stated reason for not standing during the pledge the fact that she regards the American flag as representing "those colonies that formerly enslaved our ancestors," contending, "For me to pledge allegiance would be a slap in the face and a dishonor to them."

Her actions and statements drew an unusual response from one Jim Boyd of Hendersonville, a self-proclaimed "Patriot Party" candidate for governor, who stated his intention of burning an effigy of Brooks outside the state Capitol this week. Boyd declared that Brooks was guilty of "treason."

How so? he was asked. "I know treason when I see it," he declared.

Box Score

The Memorandum of Agreement enabling the building of a new arena and the shifting of the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis may be voted on at a special meeting of the Shelby County Commission next Tuesday after members heard a preliminary presentation of the MOA from Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and others Monday.

If so, the plan is likely to pass -- with potential swing voters Clair Vander Schaaf and Tom Moss having indicated they will vote yes if some tweaking is performed -- particularly a loosening of the agreement's provisions, under a "competition" clause, that the team's proprietors would have first dibs to hold major money-making events at the new arena.

A sure no vote will come from Commissioner Walter Bailey who achieved a commission first Monday when he played for his colleagues and the overflow audience a recording from his voice-mail of a Memphis woman who opposed the arena.

Chairman James Ford, an arena supporter, denounced Bailey's action as "inappropriate" and "a stunt," but Mayor Rout lightened up the mood later by offering to share some of his own voice-mail favoring the arena. One call, he confided, had come from "an 82-year-old lady" -- his mother. -- JB

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