Thursday, February 7, 2002

Sources Of Support

Wharton's is from ex-Rep. Ford, among others; Chumney takes comfort in a poll.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Though a high degree of personal ambition and perhaps even an over-proportioned ego are known concomitants of many -- nay, most -- politicians, candidates for public office still like to maintain that their electioneering is a response to the request of others or to an urgent public need. Or to both.

For those who do well in politics, there is probable substance to such claims.

In the Shelby County mayor's race, state Representative Larry Scroggs, so far the only Republican candidate, was clearly drafted by the local party leadership, desperate to find a conventionally acceptable standard-bearer.

Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, a Democratic candidate whose mayoral race was discussed at some length in this space last week, is known, liked, and respected in enough local political, business, and civic circles that it would be strange if he weren't asked to consider public office.

Ditto with Shelby Count Public Defender A C Wharton. And state Representative Carol Chumney no doubt has her share of such boosters as well, though her reasons for running -- and for staying in when others, mystified at her persistence, are suggesting she drop out -- owe a good deal to the science of public-opinion research. To her pollster, in short.

Wharton: "Early On" Got Harold Ford's Support

First, a clarification from the Shelby County public defender as to some of the sources of his own encouragement.

There has been a good deal of word-of-mouth and informed speculation concerning the likelihood that Wharton will have stout support in the Democratic primary from Harold Ford Sr., the former longtime congressman and political kingmaker who is now a consultant and sometime resident of Florida but still regarded as a major force in Memphis and Shelby County elections.

Those reports are now duly confirmed by Wharton, who, when asked in an interview this week if he had received explicit assurances of firm support from the former congressmen, said, "Early on. Yes."

Less well known -- at least partly because Wharton is reluctant to discuss the circumstances -- is that Wharton's resolve owes much to encouragement from the former congressman's brother, the late Shelby County Commissioner James Ford.

"Everybody will be bringing in Dr. Ford as an excuse for everything they intend to do," Wharton offers semiseriously as one reason why, without some prodding, he has preferred so far not to mention a conversation that occurred shortly before the commissioner's death. Reasons of delicacy have been another consideration.

Wharton also offered some clarification of his pre-announcement conversations with Bobby Lanier, a major Wharton strategist now and a former chief assistant to outgoing Mayor Jim Rout, a Republican. When rumors started last year concerning Rout's possible withdrawal from a reelection effort, he called Lanier several times to find out more.

"You should consider it [a mayor's race] yourself," Wharton says he was told by Lanier when the shape of Rout's ultimate decision became obvious, and that suggestion rapidly escalated into an offer of support. Shortly thereafter Lanier became Wharton's chief mover and shaker, which he remains today.

(The public defender insists that no assurances have been given Lanier about his future status and that no conversations about it have even been held.)

Expressing concern that a misconception might exist about his conversations last year with current opponent Byrd, Wharton said the banker asked him to discuss a possible Byrd candidacy when it was still pending and that -- though "uncomfortable" because of his formal status as a Rout appointee -- he acceded reluctantly.

Wharton said categorically, "I was never asked about my own possible future intentions, and I never said I would support Harold," though he acknowledged that Byrd might have drawn an inference from the mere fact of the conversation.

So Why Does Carol Chumney Stay In?

Though he likes to specialize in business and marketing research, Memphis pollster Berge Yacoubian has had his share of name political clients -- Bob Clement, Robin Beard, Mike Cody, Otis Higgs come to mind -- and if it seems to have worked out that he's had more underdogs than not, that's how he likes it.

Republican Beard defied the odds and unseated a congressional incumbent in 1972, then was able to survive the Democratic landslide during the Watergate year of 1974. No longer advised by Yacoubian, he lost a Senate bid in 1982 against then incumbent Jim Sasser. Part of the problem, thinks Yacoubian, was that Beard overlooked issues in favor of negative attack ads that backfired.

In fact, he sees part of his job as helping candidates prepare not only for election but for what comes next if all goes well. "Unlike other consultants, whom I will not name, I do not want to elect someone who can't govern," he says. Nor does he want his advisees to make nice, especially. "Some candidates want to be so loved they can't act," he says disdainfully.

Yacoubian says he prefers to leave the spotlight to his candidates, the most prominent of whom at the moment is state Representative Carol Chumney.

Of all the candidates for mayor, Chumney is probably the most direct in pressing specific issues. And, despite being told frequently by friend and foe alike that she has little chance of being elected and should consider switching to another race while she can, Chumney resolutely declines to do so.

A look at a survey done by Yacoubian in October provides some insight into both these circumstances.

The most overwhelmingly approved three issues noted by Yacoubian in a table entitled "What Voters Want" are: 1) the passage of "laws to toughen standards for daycare center operators" (92 percent of all potential voters sampled approving it; 89 percent of Democrats); 2) "new funding system for public schools" (89 percent of all voters and 88 percent of Democrats); and 3) "support full consolidation" (78 percent of all voters, 81 percent of Democrats).

Chumney, of course, is the principal sponsor of legislation to tighten day-care standards, and she has made frequent mention during her current campaign of the school-funding issue while pushing consolidation relentlessly.

If Yacoubian is correct, Chumney may not be risking as much by being explicit as her opponents are in responding more indirectly. In any case, Yacoubian says candidly, it's the best antidote to what he sees as a bandwagon strategy underway on Wharton's behalf.

The poll, taken at that point last fall when Wharton was announcing his mayoral candidacy, reflects a sense that the Shelby County Public Defender ought indeed to be regarded as the frontrunner in Democratic ranks.

In Yacoubian's reckoning, Wharton was first choice of Democrats polled -- by 37 percent to Chumney's 27 percent, 7 percent for state Senator Jim Kyle, who has since withdrawn from the face and endorsed Wharton; and 6 percent for Bartlett banker Harold Byrd.

Interestingly, Byrd rises to a close second place among independents polled by Yacoubian, with 23 percent to Wharton's 25 percent. Chumney's figure was 18 percent, and Kyle's was 12 percent.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Yacoubian's poll shows voter approval of previous job performance to be higher for Chumney than for any of her Democratic opponents.

In short, Yacoubian's poll figures suggest that Chumney may not be so out of it -- among Democrats, anyway -- as conventional wisdom has it, and they provide a basis for her seeing Byrd as a rival claimant to runner-up status and, therefore, as a nemesis to be taken on directly.

In any case, Chumney did just that -- as recently as the weekend, when she called a press conference to protest the fact that Byrd was allowed to lease campaign headquarters on Poplar Avenue that she had been denied a lease for previously.

The property's owner, Stanley "Trip" Trezevant, who supports Byrd, responded by saying he saw no issue involved, but Chumney indicated she would begin a process, both locally and in Nashville, of instituting anti-discrimination complaints.

Yacoubian's October poll seems to forecast a greater degree of participation by women than of men in this year's elections, and Chumney said Saturday she thought the figure for women would be as high as 65 percent -- yet another reason why she thinks her chances shouldn't be discounted (and a possible reason, too, for her pushing the discrimination hot-button).

Granted, Chumney has raised relatively little money compared to opponents Wharton and Byrd, but she regards this as the consequence of her chances being discounted so consistently in public opinion -- the anecdotal kind, that is. She thinks the scientific species -- as in pulse-takings by Berge Yacoubian -- tell a different story.


NASHVILLE -- He came, he saw, and he got down.

That's one way of describing Al Gore 's appearance before a crowd of home-state Democrats at the Renaissance Hotel Saturday night.

Got down, as in did his best aw-shucks-I'm-just-a-Tennessean number, wearing casual dress, a simple open-collared blue shirt conveying an authenticity that his starched-blue-jeans-and-cowboy-boots combo of yore never did, and that adjunct-prof beard of his (yes, he still has it) gets him closer to redneck than you would think possible.

Got down, too, as in got down to business, attacking the Bush administration for fiscal shortcomings and environmental excesses, for stroking the rich and for stiffing campaign-finance reform.

"For everything, there is a season," Gore said (those words being also the appended title of the prepared text his helpers handed out). "And tonight, as a new election season begins, I intend to rejoin the national debate."

He did so before an audience of several thousand that included a good many reporters for national news outlets, interested in whether the former vice president intended to hazard a new presidential bid. In the event, he was coy. Having promised to re-enter the national debate, Gore said, "Whether I will do so as a candidate in 2004 or not, I don't know yet ... ."

For the time being, Gore's political medium is a freshly formed PAC whose name, "Leadership '02," is as limp and unassuming in its own way as the beard is and which will "train young people in the skills of democracy and help Democratic candidates in the elections this November."

Gore will be hitting the road, presumably on the national map, too, but especially in Tennessee, where he intends to continue the work of reconciling himself to the home state which rejected him last year by a crucial 80,000 votes. "I want to make it clear," he said, "that I understand there's a lot more work for me to do here -- more fences that need mending. But it's work I am looking forward to because I want you to know that I love this state with all my heart and soul."

And Gore has put some money where his mouth is. As Memphis' Pace Cooper, the West Tennessee chair of Saturday night's "Election Kickoff 2002" effort (and one of three statewide), noted, "The state party is almost bankrupt,"and Gore's visit churned up some $30,000 in ticket sales (at a mere $25 a head) and another $100,000 in "sponsorships."

The Democrats will be counting on Gore to help deliver the governorship and, most especially, the 4th District congressional seat which Republican Van Hilleary is vacating to make his own gubernatorial run and which will likely tip the state congressional balance between the parties (currently 5-4 in the GOP's favor).

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