Friday, December 7, 2001

Still Looking

That describes the Shelby County GOP in its search for a mayoral candidate.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2001 at 4:00 AM

The Shelby County Republican Party hierarchy has not given up trying to call the shots on a hand-selected nominee for Shelby County mayor.

After virtually every big name in the GOP has so far turned down chairman Alan Crone and his local helpers, their last hopes are being invested in state Representative Larry Scroggs of Germantown, who has so far proved receptive to the blandishments of Crone and company.

If Scroggs says no, the party nominee is likely to be radio magnate/radiologist George Flinn, who has been trying hard to get party sanction for a run.

Scroggs, who is heavily involved in pending TennCare legislation and journeyed to Nashville this week for a committee meeting on the state-run insurance system, is faced with a situation superficially similar to that of state Representative Carol Chumney, who is running for county mayor in the Democratic primary. But his choices are more limited than hers.

Chumney is in a position to hazard her mayoral race while preserving her options to run for reelection to her House seat. The deadline for filing a petition at the Election Commission to run for the state legislature is April 4th. The primary date for the mayoral and other local county races is May 7th. There is no reason why Chumney could not, for that intervening month, be an official candidate for both positions. (Serving in both positions would be another matter!)

If the Midtown legislator should lose her mayoral bid in a primary race that currently includes such stout opponents as Bartlett banker Harold Byrd and Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton, she could shift into a legislative reelection race without too much loss of momentum.

Scroggs would not have such an option. The very premise of his possible candidacy is that, as a candidate, he would have such support -- organizational and financial -- from the local Republican establishment as to virtually guarantee his victory in the GOP primary. That's the good news for Scroggs. The bad news is that he would, ipso facto, have to give up his legislative race.

Since victory, to say the least, would by no means be certain over the Democratic mayoral nominee, lawyer Scroggs might find himself in the position of having to sacrifice a public career he began fairly late in life and for which he has already garnered considerable respect.

"I'm serious about running, but I have to be very sure that's what I want to do before I make a commitment," said Scroggs, who promised a decision on the mayor's race by the weekend.

Another factor in Scroggs' decision is that he can't count on an exit from Flinn, who insisted this week that he intends to run whatever Scroggs or any other potential Republican candidate with establishment backing might do.

Flinn wouldn't be doing it totally by the seat of his pants (the pockets of which, it should be said, are well stuffed with money earned either from the ultrasound pioneer's patents or from the proceeds of his several Memphis-area radio stations). He'll have help from former legislator and county commissioner Ed Williams, a veteran of Republican politics who is serving just now in the more or less informal and honorific post of Shelby County historian.

* Several Republican conservatives still haven't given up on persuading former U.S. Attorney Hickman Ewing Jr., now back in Shelby County after years of serving in Arkansas as an aide to Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr, to run as a Republican candidate for county mayor.

* Even as Wharton was staging his long-awaited first public fund-raiser last Thursday night at the Racquet Club, he was welcoming at least one high-profile defector from Byrd's campaign.

This was the Rev. Billy Samuel Kyles of Monumental Baptist Church, an influential African-American cleric known from his friendship with the late Dr. Martin Luther King. Kyles was prominent in earlier stages of the current mayoral campaign as a listed supporter and co-sponsor of Byrd's campaign.

"There's another one coming right around the bend," claimed a supporter of Wharton's about the likelihood of another prominent black defection.

Byrd took the loss in stride. "I know there are going to be people who come under pressure to make some kind of change. I expect, in fact, there'll be some back-and-forth here and there between now and election day. I'm happy with the support I have, which is increasing -- not decreasing -- in both the African-American and the white communities."

Maxine Smith
Indeed, one of Byrd's key supporters is civil rights legend Maxine Smith, the former school board member and NAACP head, who proclaimed her continued fervor for Byrd in the wake of Kyles' change of venue. "This is not some overnight choice I've made," she said. "I'm super-positive for Harold."

And Byrd got two more backers from the African-American community: the Revs. Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Sr., the former of whom endorsed Byrd from the pulpit of Olivet Baptist church.

* Wharton's fund-raiser was a well-attended affair, which his backers said raised something in the $300,000 range.

The business support on hand proved reasonably wide and impressive (including well-known Republican consultant Mike Carpenter, who was there, he said, in his role as director of the state Association of Builders and Contractors).

Among the Democratic supporters present were state Senator Steve Cohen, former Democratic chairman David Cocke, and members of the political Hooks and Bailey families.

TV judge Joe Brown, clad in baseball cap and leather jacket, introduced Wharton, who spoke with his usual smooth aplomb.

Best line of the evening was from Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, the stoutest governmental opponent last spring of the commision/city council package that added public money to the NBA Grizzlies' kitty to attract them here.

Said Bailey, after admitting he'd attended three Grizzlies games: "I rooted for them all three times, just as I'm rooting for Duncan Ragsdale to beat 'em in court."

* Mayoral candidate Chumney pulled off something of a coup recently, getting the formal endorsement of the Memphis/Shelby County Women's Political Caucus. She continues to run hard, so far with a series of neighborhood gatherings rather than the high-profile public affairs of Wharton and Byrd (who had a fund-raiser scheduled this week at the home of lawyer Leslie Ballin).

* Shelby County Republicans may have had a hard time coming up with a candidate for county mayor. They've had little trouble finding people willing to run for sheriff. Mark Luttrell, director of the county Corrections Division, swelled the ranks of GOP candidates to four this week with a formal announcement Tuesday at the Ridgeway Inn on Poplar.

Luttrell made it clear he intends to feature the county-jail mess in his campaign. Pointing out that Shelby County had spent almost $5 million in the last decade in various legal expenses stemming from suits and judicial judgments concerning the jail, Luttrell said it was clear that the federal judiciary, members of which have levied a number of court orders against the county and mandated outside consultants for the jail, "don't trust the people running the department."

Other Republicans running for sheriff are Don Wright, the current chief deputy, whom Luttrell called "the de facto mayor," and departmental administrators Bobby Simmons and Mike Jewell (each of whom is running as an outsider within the department).

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