Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Dems: It s Chism vs. Ford; Reps: It ain t over.

Dems: It s Chism vs. Ford; Reps: It ain t over.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 19, 2001 at 4:00 AM

The Democrats: Chism vs. Joe Ford

A new theater is about to open up in the struggle for Democratic supremacy.


Don't think for a moment that the old Ford-Herenton political wars are over. The main parties -- former congressman Harold Ford Sr. and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton -- may be keeping a nominal peace, but you can measure the depth of their continuing struggle by what their key surrogates are up to.

Case in point: Sidney Chism, the ex-Teamster leader who in recent years has been the mayor's chief political lieutenant, is not content merely to figure as the key strategist in three 2002 political races, two of which are direct contests with Ford choices; he is now determined to take on a Ford himself, head-on.

Chism, a veteran of inner-city and intra-Democratic politics who has extended his reach into the county, says he intends to oppose former city councilman Joe Ford in the race to succeed the late Dr. James Ford, the well-regarded Shelby County Commission member who died recently of cancer.

The former councilman, who ran unsuccessfully against Herenton in the city mayor race in 1999, is the choice of the Ford family and various others to succeed his brother. And county commissioner Michael Hooks, not necessarily a full-time Ford ally, pledged at a recent commission meeting to do what he could to get Joe Ford appointed to the seat.

(The commission has advertised the vacancy but has not yet resolved whether or at what point to appoint someone to succeed Dr. Ford; the position will, in any case, be on the 2002 primary and general-election ballots, like all commission seats, and Joe Ford is indeed expected to be a candidate.)

Chism protests that he will be running "for the commission, not against Joe Ford," but he makes a point of saying, "A seat on the county commission shouldn't be regarded as an inheritance or the property of a family. We don't need to be creating -- or sustaining -- any dynasties in Shelby County."

The confrontation between Chism and Ford, if it comes to pass, will be a major theater in a combat which already includes the Shelby County mayor's race and another commission seat. Chism is backing Bartlett banker Harold Byrd for mayor, and former Rep. Ford has indicated through allies and family members that he will offer vigorous support in the Democratic primary to Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton, his former college roommate. (A third Democratic candidate is state Representative Carol Chumney.)

Chism is also supporting Deidre Malone in a District 2 commission race against Bridget Chisholm, who was appointed to fill a vacancy last year with strong support from the Ford family. A third Chism-backed candidate, Randy Wade, a Sheriff's Department official running for sheriff, is not at the moment confronted by an obvious Ford-supported candidate. City councilman E.C. Jones is a candidate in the Democratic primary, however, and former Secret Service agent Henry Hooper may enter it.

It is uncertain as of yet what role will be taken in the various 2002 races by Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who saw his momentum for a senatorial race in 2000 set back by his involvement in his uncle Joe Ford's losing 1999 mayoral race. The current congressman, whose future horizons are primarily statewide and national, is nevertheless a family loyalist and will doubtless conduct himself accordingly.

Likewise in some doubt is the exact role to be played by Mayor Herenton, who was early on presumed to be in sympathy with Byrd's candidacy but has also been close to Wharton, who headed up two of his mayoral election efforts. Herenton may find himself forced out of his current position of de facto neutrality by the unexpected twists and turns of a Chism-Joe Ford race.

Jake Ford, the younger brother of Harold Ford Jr. and the older brother of Isaac Ford, who filed for county mayor last week as an independent, is normally a model of soft-spoken courtesy (a virtue which is, in fact, in fairly abundant supply among the sometimes volatile Fords). But, as the self-proclaimed manager of his brother's maiden political race, he professed himself outraged last week by the local media's disinclination so far to regard the Isaac Ford candidacy as major.

The fact is, however, that candidates' assumed importance is usually weighted heavily on such factors as their background in public or private life and on the political networks supporting them. The campaign of the 27-year-old Isaac Ford, who works for the consulting firm of his father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., is generally regarded as light in both regards and therefore suspect.

Young Isaac promised last week to be forthcoming on matters of "philosophy" and issues of county importance, but it will take more than position papers for him to be taken seriously as a candidate for Shelby County's major executive position. (To be sure, as Jake Ford points out, his 31-year-old congressman brother, now regarded as a major national comer, was also taken lightly by some at the start of his 1996 congressional campaign to succeed his father.)

Almost all observers tend to see the Isaac Ford candidacy as being temporary and a Trojan Horse ploy of one sort or another, although there are those who take it at face value.

What complicates the issue is the certainty, circulated along the Fords' network last week and acknowledged even by Jake Ford, that father Harold Sr., who has been spending much of his time in Florida, will play a role in the county election as a vigorous supporter of Democratic mayoral candidate Wharton. It was the former congressman who is given credit for talking Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles into switching his support to Wharton from Byrd. "He'll hurt A C more among whites than he'll help him elsewhere," contended Chism, whether out of wishful thinking or reasoned analysis. ™

The Republicans: It Ain't Over 'Til ...

Well, it ain't over, according to GOP wannabes who dispute a Scroggs consensus.


Well, at long last the era of uncertainty is over for Shelby County Republicans: After a long period of bashfulness and befuddlement, during which there was much more backing than filling, they've settled on a candidate for county mayor, state Representative Larry Scroggs of Germantown.

Or have they?

If it's true, somebody needs to tell county trustee Bob Patterson, county commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf, and radiologist/radio-station-owner George Flinn, all of whom were still, at press time, considering active races for mayor in the GOP primary.

"I think there's still a lot of play in this thing," said Patterson on Monday, a day after local party chairman Alan Crone presented Scroggs as the party's consensus candidate to Republicans gathered at Kirby Farms for the local GOP's annual Christmas party. (Patterson has already filed for reelection as trustee but said he might reconsider and switch tracks.)

Another skeptic was VanderSchaaf, who announced last week he was a possible mayoral candidate and made a point of saying at mid-week that he was still thinking about it. And then there was Flinn, who has been talking up a mayoral race for some time and pronounced himself "amazed" at hearing Crone describe him to the GOP party-goers Sunday as a candidate for state representative.

"I never told him I was a candidate for state representative. I guess he was trying to tell me," said Flinn, who added he was grateful to restaurateur John Willingham, an antiestablishment activist who interrupted Crone's introduction of party office-holders and candidates to declare, "Mr. Chairman, you're wrong about that. I believe Mr. Flinn is still a candidate for mayor!"

Mr. Flinn thinks so too, as it turns out.

"I know they want Larry to be the candidate and they asked me to consider running for state rep, which I said I would," Flinn says. "But I decided against that. What they're doing is trying to make up my mind for me."

Flinn's complaint echoes a running one by such other Republicans as Willingham and longtime party dissenter Jerry Cobb, who feel that chairman Crone, incumbent (and outgoing) county mayor Jim Rout, party national committeeman John Ryder, and other perennially prominent party members try to dictate to other Republicans on policy matters.

Patterson concurs. "Until fairly recently, we had a candidate recruitment committee to work up a consensus on candidates. They've done away with that, unfortunately." It has been no secret that Crone and Ryder, along with other Republican leaders like former chairman David Kustoff, have been trying for the last several months to find a name Republican to carry the party standard in next year's general election.

District attorney general Bill Gibbons, former city councilman John Bobango, and former Memphis Redbirds president Allie Prescott were three favored prospects, but all said no. Scroggs responded favorably to the group's entreaties last week.

On the immediate matter of Flinn's candidacy, Crone said Sunday he was under the impression, after having talked with the radiologist's political adviser, former county commissioner Ed Williams, that Flinn had agreed to run for state representative rather than for mayor, but Flinn said no such answer had been given by either him or Williams.

"I don't even know what district they want me to run in," said Flinn, who noted that, with the exception of the Germantown district being vacated by Scroggs and which may be subject to virtual elimination anyway (see below), all Shelby County districts are filled with incumbents, either Republicans or Democrats.

"There are plenty Democrats he can run against," shrugged Crone, suggesting as one possibility Henri Brooks, who represents a predominantly African-American inner-city district, which is likely, however, to be redistricted eastward, encompassing some traditional Republican turf in East Memphis.

The legislature's forthcoming reapportionment had a significant influence on Scroggs' decision to run. Scroggs, a serious legislator who has harbored ambitions for higher political office for some time, reflected on the fact that his position as one of the Shelby County GOP's junior House members in the Shelby County delegation made him vulnerable to a redistricting process which will be accomplished during the next few months under Democratic domination and in the wake of census results that call for elimination of one of the county's seats.

Scroggs will faithfully complete the 2002 legislative session, taking advantage of weekends and other breaks to do active campaigning for mayor. Meanwhile he may file some sort of legal challenge to a state law freezing fund-raising for legislators during a session (the General Assembly will reconvene in January), and he will avail himself of a loophole in that law that will be activated in the event of a special session (on taxes or whatever) midway in the regular session.

™ Scroggs' willingness to run for mayor simplified more than one problem for the GOP. As state Representative Paul Stanley (R-Cordova, Germantown) said, "Alan Crone got an early Christmas present." But Santa Claus was most generous to Stanley himself, who as the newest House Republican elected from Shelby County, was even more likely to be redistricted out of his seat than was colleague Scroggs.

Last year's census results indicated population shifts that will cost the county at least one seat in the state House of Representatives, where the number will go from 17 to 16, and one in the state Senate, where the reduction will be from six to five. ™

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