Friday, May 13, 2005

What Next?

Several political Rubicons are about to be crossed.

Posted on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

By the time this column hits the street, the special election for state Senate District 33 will be over with, and, unless some unforeseen extraterrestrial event occurs to influence things, Democrat Kathryn Bowers, currently a state representative, should be the winner.

That prognosis is based not just on the district's historical Democratic tilt but on Bowers' own track record as a highly visible public figure and scrappy campaigner.

To be sure, Shelby County Republicans waged a dedicated and resourceful get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of GOP nominee Mary Ann McNeil -- particularly in Collierville and other eastern precincts of the sprawling district, which stretches across southern Shelby County from Presidents Island in the west to the Fayette County line in the east. Early vote totals in the historically Republican areas were disproportionately high.

But Bowers and her cadre of supporters are no slouches at organization either and, once they got wind of the GOP efforts, redoubled their own. On the eve of voting, a top-heavy Bowers vote seemed the likely outcome.

If Bowers is the winner, she will try to expedite her Senate swearing-in -- both for its own sake (she desperately wants to pull off the hat trick of sponsoring in the Senate a hospital measure she initiated in the House) and to unseat interim senator Sidney Chism as fast as possible.

Chism, an ally of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and longtime political broker in his own right, is regarded by many as having been the political force behind recent Democratic primary opponents for Bowers, Representative Lois Deberry and others. Those House members, along with state senator Steve Cohen, lobbied county mayor A C Wharton and members of the Shelby County Commission against his appointment earlier this year. (Chism prevailed in the commission by one vote.)

Despite this background, Chism said Tuesday that he hoped Bowers would win. Chism did tell fellow legislators that if McNeil should prevail, she would probably be able to hang on in subsequent elections.

File that theory under the category "Moot."

By the way, former Teamster leader and Democratic chairman Chism confirmed reports that he intends to run for the Shelby County Commission seat now held by Cleo Kirk if Kirk's suit against term-limit restrictions does not succeed.

· Next question: Who will try to succeed Bowers as state representative from District 87? No doubt the newly energized Republicans will try to field a presentable candidate. But meanwhile, these are the Democratic names that have surfaced:

Greg Grant or Alonzo Grant: Both these political brothers have made races in the past, and Alonzo Grant made an unsuccessful bid for the District 87 seat as recently as 2002.

Rome Withers: This scion of a politically active and professionally illustrious clan (father Ernest Withers is a distinguished photographer) would like to follow in the footsteps of his late brother Teddy Withers, a former legislator.

Barry Myers: This well-regarded community activist is a protégé of Roscoe Dixon, the former senator in District 33, who resigned to become an aide to A C Wharton.

· And next question: Who will try to succeed Bowers as party chairman when the Democratic executive committee meets in July to reorganize?

The answer? It could be Kathryn Bowers.

That's according to David Upton, the veteran Democratic activist and behind-the-scenes presence who has worked in several of Bowers' campaigns over the years and has been a chief strategist in her Senate race.

"A lot of party people and public officials want that to happen," said Upton this week. Translation: Upton will try to make it happen.

Another candidate with good prospects is Joe Young, who served as spokesman for Jane Eskind during her tenure as state Democratic chair in the '90s. Supporters of Young held a well-attended reception for him this past weekend. "I like Joe. He'd be a good chairman if Kathryn doesn't do it," said Upton.

Gale Jones Carson, the former party chair who was narrowly defeated by Bowers in last year's party election, remains influential and is a spokeswoman of sorts for the current out-of-power faction in the Democratic Party. And who will that faction support for chairman?

"There's no sense in us saying anything until right before the election," Carson said coyly.

Meanwhile, the names Sondra Becton and Cherry Davis, both former Carson supporters, have got some traction.

And two can play at that game of "people-have-asked-me."Carson, who serves as Herenton's press secretary, said she's not interested in running again herself: "Been there, done that." But she adds she too has been sounded out about running again.

"Not by me," commented Upton waggishly.

· Oh, and one more question: Who will succeed John Ford as state senator from District 29 if the senator follows through on his statement, made to the Flyer last week, that he won't seek reelection in 2006?

Capitol Hill in Nashville was buzzing with speculation about that this week, and political circles in Memphis have begun to stir as well. Be assured: Among the names that will end up in the hat will be at least one spelled F-O-R-D.

Shelby County commissioner Joe Ford, a veteran of the Memphis City Council as well, has indicated a possible interest in running for another office, and it is well known that Jake Ford and Isaac Ford -- the youngest two sons of former congressman Harold Ford Sr. and the brothers of current congressman and U.S. Senate aspirant Harold Ford Jr. -- have a desire to run for public office as well.

· Out of commission: Members of the Shelby County Commission and regular attendees of the commission's meetings are long used to the biweekly protests from opponents of privatizing the county jail and corrections center.

These protests, led by county corrections officer Jeff Woodard, usually occur at the tag-end of commission meetings after completion of the regular agenda and, while they are doggedly, even relentlessly pressed, are well within the commission's usual protocol.

Monday's version of the protest was augmented by a group of supporters calling themselves "Coalition Against Private Prisons" and escalated the campaign, which is aimed at combating a process under which two private-prison organizations, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, are bidding to privatize county facilities.

Members of the coalition bestowed petitions and reams of other printed material on commissioners and took to the dock to argue heatedly against privatization. Commission vice chair Tom Moss, sitting in for Chairman Michael Hooks during that part of the proceedings, felt compelled to admonish the group at one point about respecting the commission's procedures.

That was in response, he said later, to two circumstances: a portion of the distributed materials that ended with the phrase, addressed to Commissioner David Lillard, "You suck," and an accusation by Woodard that Commissioner Bruce Thompson, who initiated the commission's call for bids on privatization, was influenced by his relationship with current CCA lobbyist Nathan Green, who had worked on behalf of Thompson's election in 2002. Moss made it clear he thought the accusation was a stretch.

Not for veteran pol Joe Cooper, though, the candidate who opposed Thompson in 2002 and says he intends to do so again in 2006. Said Cooper: "I think it's time for Commissioner Bruce Thompson to resign. It's hard for him to tell the truth. There's an obvious close relationship between the interests of CCA and his political cronies, notably Nathan Green." Cooper said Thompson had further "tainted" the issue by initiating a Request for Proposal (RFP) on his own and expressed solidarity with Woodard and the other jailers and corrections workers who have protested the prospect of privatization.

Thompson dismissed Cooper's remarks as stemming from political opportunism and dismissed as "absurd" allegations that he was in league with Green: "There's a difference between hiring somebody three years ago and working for them today. And should all 13 of us on the commission be held in conflict because we all know [former commissioners] Ed Williams and Charlie Perkins, who're working with the GEO group?"

Thompson acknowledged that he was sometimes made "uncomfortable" by the barrage of criticism he has received from privatization opponents but insisted that the county's revenue crunch was such that he was duty-bound to explore alternatives to the present county-managed corrections system.

· Cooper, incidentally, continues to urge that substantial portions of Shelby Farms be made available for commercial use. During his race as the Democratic nominee against Republican Thompson three years ago, he made such a proposal -- one that even he acknowledges aroused significant opposition and backfired on him.

But now he's actively campaigning for the concept again. In a recent op-ed for The Commercial Appeal and in an appearance before the Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville two weeks ago, Cooper proposed selling off all but a core 800 acres to create a ring of posh residence and office buildings, a "Central Park-like" environment. Doing so would net the hard-pressed county as much as $1 billion and solve the current revenue crisis, he said.

Cooper, who intends to take his proposal before the County Commission soon, drew several responses from the legislators, ranging from the suggestion of Representative Bubba Pleasants, a Bartlett Republican, that "we've got to do something," to that of Representative Mike Kernell, a Memphis Democrat, who wondered out loud if Cooper had in mind to sell Mud Island to Mississippi as well. ·

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