Friday, April 1, 2005

Bowers, Bowers?

Precedent awaits whoever gets elected to state Senate District 33.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Whatever the outcome on May 10th, when the voters of state Senate District 33 go to the polls to fill a vacancy, the winner will be the first African-American woman to serve in the Senate from Shelby County.

Both Democrat Kathryn Bowers -- the current Shelby County Democratic chairperson, who, because of her party's historical predominance in the district, is heavily favored -- and Republican Mary Ann Chaney McNeil answer to that description, and they both were easy winners over multiple opponents in last week's special primary elections.

The District 33 seat was vacated earlier this year by the longtime incumbent, Democrat Roscoe Dixon, who now serves as an aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. It is held on an interim basis by former Teamster leader Sidney Chism, another Democrat and, like Dixon, a former party chairman.

In a relatively light turnout, Bowers won with 50 percent of the vote against Michael Hooks and James M. Harvey. Political unknown Harvey, a mortgage broker and former truck-driver, may have gained himself a political future by his surprising second-place finish. A disappointed Hooks, the current Shelby County Commission chairman, had counted on high name recognition and late-breaking endorsements to give him a chance against Bowers, a high-profile state representative.

Harvey had some 27 percent of the primary vote against Hooks' 23 percent.

McNeil, a retired educator who received a statewide Outstanding Principal award in 2003, polished off three Republican opponents with relative ease, polling 63 percent of the vote against 24 percent for Jason Hernandez, 6.6 percent for Barry Sterling, and 6.5 percent for Mary Lynn Flood.

Bowers' victory can be attributed to a number of factors, including industrious campaigning, the support of a small but dedicated corps of supporters, and her oft-repeated promise, which events may have overtaken, to resist Governor Phil Bredesen's plan for pruning the state's TennCare rolls.

Hooks rolled the dice with last-minute literature that featured endorsements from numerous city and county office-holders, including Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Wharton. He had campaigned in support of alternate revenue measures initiated by Wharton and endorsed by the county commission -- including a controversial real estate transfer tax, one that Bowers made a point of opposing.

If elected, Bowers could establish another precedent -- as the first person to be both the House and Senate sponsor of a bill to pass the General Assembly. That bill, a complex financing measure to benefit The Med, has already passed the House and would be signed "Bowers, Bowers" if it passes the Senate under her sponsorship.

"That can happen if the legislature stays in session past May 10th, and I think it will," said Bowers. "Oh, we'll make sure it stays in session that long!" jested state senator Steve Cohen, a prospective colleague, who was present at her celebration.

Two independent candidates, Ian Randolph and Mary Taylor Shelby, will oppose Bowers and McNeil on the May 10th special general election ballot.

n Harold Ford Jr.'s fund-raiser at the Hilton on Ridgelake Boulevard last week was a big-time social event at one level and a serious real-world enterprise on another. Though the invitation (signed onto by 80 sponsors!) bore the words "Re-elect Harold Ford," the event was fairly universally seen as an effort to build a kitty for the 9th District congressman's long-expected U.S. Senate race in 2006.

That's what all the talk has been about for months now in political circles, and that's what the multitude of attendees who showed up at the Hilton last Wednesday night was talking about. A word about those attendees, a truly diversified host: There were belles and bankers, architects and entrepreneurs, lawyers and legislators, judges and jukers, pols and peepers. At $1,000 a head for the top ticket, the turnout might well have been good enough to reach the designated goal of $1 million -- even making allowances for all the lesser players and outright comps on hand.

Oh, and one of the attendees -- the guest of honor, in fact -- was Bredesen, who chose to appear on Ford's behalf despite the fact that a state senator from his party, Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, one of those whom the governor depends upon to pass his legislation, is already a declared candidate for the very U.S. Senate seat that Ford is presumed about to seek.

"I don't have a problem with that," Kurita said by telephone last week. "The only thing I can conclude is that the congressman really is running for reelection, and the governor is entirely within his rights to support him. He attended many a fund-raiser for me when I was running for reelection to the state Senate."

Kurita refused even to countenance the idea that, with Ford conspicuously on the cusp of decision about the Senate race, Bredesen's help with the gala big-money fund-raiser might tip the scales for the mediagenic congressman.

"He's running for reelection to Congress," Kurita said again, with the air of one dutifully -- or wishfully -- repeating a mantra.

She elaborated: "Don't you think it's interesting that I'm declared. Ed Bryant is declared. Beth Harwell is declared. Bob Corker is declared. Van Hilleary is declared. And he [Ford] isn't declared? I take him at his word that he's running for reelection. This is March! We've got the Senate field. Anybody who's serious about running should be there by now." (Bryant, Harwell, Corker, and Hilleary are Republican entries.)

Kurita vented what sounded like competitive instincts regarding Ford only once, when she was informed that the congressman's fund-raiser had been proclaimed -- at least formally -- off limits to the media.

"But it's a public office!" she said. "The whole point is to serve the people. It's not something you do for the elite or for those who give you money. Running for office is something that should be done in public, not behind closed doors. I can't imagine barring the media from a fund-raiser!"

Even if access to Ford's fund-raiser turned out not to be universal, advance word concerning it surely had been. For some weeks, it -- like a follow-up fund-raiser next week in Nashville -- had been ballyhooed far and wide in the political community of Tennessee.

That made it all the more baffling that state senator John Ford, whose problems with the Senate Ethics Committee, the state Election Registry, and various other corners of officialdom -- including, reportedly, the FBI -- have been even more widely publicized, professed last Wednesday in Nashville not to know that his congressman nephew was having a fund-raiser in Memphis that night.

"Really?" he said, looking genuinely puzzled. It was a big deal, Senator Ford was told. A thousand bucks a head. The senator smiled. "That ain't much!" he said, probably ironically. It is much, of course, especially when one considers the size of Representative Ford's crowd Wednesday night.

But state senator Ford, whose predicament is considered by many the proximate cause of his nephew's hesitation about running, may have been preoccupied. His situation went from bad to worse the very next morning, with the Ethics Committee's decision to broaden its inquiry and involve the state attorney general's office. He had that to contend with, along with a host of new disclosures concerning his involvements with firms doing business with state government.

"I'm about fed up with all that stuff, with people impugning my integrity," Senator Ford said. "I'm getting ready to drop some libel suits on 'em!"

It's a fair bet that his celebrated nephew, evidently still trying to make up his mind, would just as soon the fuss and bother in Nashville came to an end too. It's not as if the congressman didn't have his own new problems. The left-of-center Black Commentator, a Web site which virtually has him under siege, fronted a new lead story last week: "Why We Can't Trust Harold Ford, Jr."

And the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call reported that the Congressional Black Caucus members were miffed at Ford for not supporting their independent budget initiative.

Those salvoes will have little effect in Tennessee, however, and if -- after last week's Memphis fund-raiser and the upcoming one scheduled for this week in Nashville -- Representative Ford has any tears to shed about them, it will definitely be on his way to the bank. n

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