Friday, November 4, 2005

Unusual Suspects

With skeptics still holding back, political unknowns vie for Ford's congressional seat.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 4, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Although the U.S. Senate campaign of U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. moves on apace (the congressman was the beneficiary of yet another local fund-raiser Sunday, a small-ticket "young professionals" affair at Felicia Suzanne's restaurant), skepticism still endures as to whether Ford is in the Senate race for the long haul.

The surest evidence for that is the lack so far of big-name declarations for the 9th District congressional seat -- a Ford-family preserve since 1974 when the current congressman's father first won it. The theory among local pols seems to be that Representative Ford is still holding on to all of his options -- including a possible 11th-hour decision to seek reelection to his congressional seat.

This is unlikely for several reasons -- foremost among them being the fact that a Senate race by Ford is essentially a no-lose situation. Already a media personage of sorts -- most recently, MSNBC's Don Imus delivered a televised dithyramb to Ford on his morning talk show -- the congressman clearly is in search of a national platform.

Victory in a Senate race would give him that, but so would the kind of full-scale attention that even a losing race would garner from the commercial and cable networks and the big-time national print media. In a worst-case scenario, Ford might emerge from defeat with an opportunity for a cable show himself -- or some other high-profile position in government or media or elsewhere in the private sector.

Ford's office released the results of a new poll this week purporting to show the Democratic congressman leading each of his prospective Republican opponents for the Senate seat: 38 to 37 percent over Ed Bryant; 40 to 38 percent over Van Hilleary; and 39 to 36 percent over Bob Corker. The Ford news release claims a "5 to 1" edge for the congressman over Democratic rival Rosalind Kurita.

Still, the usual suspects for a congressional race to succeed Ford are so far hedging their bets, leaving the field to the unusual ones. One of these, Northwest Airlines attorney Nikki Tinker, a former Ford staffer, has been pursuing what might be called a Milton Berle strategy, after one of the late iconic comic's patented stage devices.

Whenever something he did or said got a more-than-typical burst of applause from his audience, Berle would purse his lips in a modest frown and extend his left arm, palm outward, in a gesture of suppression. Meanwhile, the right hand, with rapid fingers going "gimme, gimme," was held conspicuously close to his chest.

So hath it been with Tinker, previously more or less unknown on the local political scene (though she was titular director of one of Representative Ford's unopposed reelection races). On one hand, she has disclaimed interest in being publicized as a candidate; on the other, she has pursued an ambitious game plan to advance her identity and prospects.

Beginning some months ago with a puff piece in the Washington insider publication The Hill, which pronounced her the "frontrunner" in the 9th District race, Tinker has since scheduled a series of one-on-one meetings with local movers and shakers.

And a fund-raiser held for her in late September by her local NWA boss, Phil Trenary, netted some $50,000 -- including decent contributions from several of the invited blue-ribbon luminaries (among them, Convention and Visitors Bureau director Kevin Kane, Plough Foundation executive director Rick Masson, megabusinessmen Jim McGhee and Henry Turley, and activist par excellence Gayle Rose. Tinker even reported a hefty donation from movie star Morgan Freeman).

Tinker may soon have real competition from another previous unknown, however. One Tyson Pratcher, deputy state director in the New York office of U.S. senator Hillary Clinton, has made several recent appearances at local political gatherings to publicize a possible run for the 9th District congressional seat.

At last weekend's picnic for county commission candidate Sidney Chism on the New Horn Lake Road parkgrounds, Pratcher was very much in evidence, as he had been the previous week at a meeting of the University of Memphis College Democrats.

Pratcher, a native of Memphis, described his mission as one of scouting the terrain for a race. "I'm thinking very seriously about it," he said.

Although so far only lawyer Ed Stanton and Ron Redwing, a former aide to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, have made serious open declarations of interest in the congressional seat, other names being talked about include those of Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey, former MLGW head Herman Morris, Blue Cross/Blue Shield executive Calvin Anderson, city councilman Myron Lowery, state senator Steve Cohen, and Shelby County commissioner Joe Ford, the current congressman's brother.

Return of the Don: Don Sund-quist was back on the reservation this past weekend -- literally. The former governor (1995-2003), who ran afoul of his Republican party-mates during his dedicated pursuit of a state income tax during his second term, was at the Ridgeway Country Club Friday night and was warmly welcomed as one of the speakers in a well-attended tribute to retiring Shelby County clerk Jayne Creson.

Sundquist, who retired with wife Martha to a home in Townsend in East Tennessee after leaving office, now serves as co-chairman, with former Governor Angus King of Maine, of the federal Medicaid Commission, charged with making proposals for Medicaid reform.

Friday night's affair, sponsored by the Shelby County Republican Women and organized by SCRW president Jeanette Watkins, also brought out another recent GOP luminary, former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, who served as emcee for the ceremony.

Attendance, which was generous and across the board politically, included both the previously declared Republican candidates for clerk in next year's election -- current Creson aide Debbie Stamson and Shelby County commissioner Marilyn Loeffel.

"Say It Ain't So, Leon!": Few issues have generated as much heat among local Democrats of late as what can be called the Great Leon Gray Controversy. There's a fairly humongous amount of fuming and snorting in party circles over the local Air America radio host's apostasy on certain matters -- most relating to the faith and morals side of the political dividing line.

What Gray has done in recent weeks has challenged both the party orthodoxy and the progressive consensus on all of the following: intelligent design (he's an advocate for it); gay rights (he has proclaimed, essentially, that gays have "forced" the rest of society to tolerate an equality that he sees as relating to lifestyle choice rather than a biological predisposition); and faith-based prerogatives in general.

For all this, Gray has been under steady attack by bloggers and callers -- many of whom have demanded that WTTQ AM-680 discontinue his services. He has his defenders, as well, though. One of them is David Cocke, the former local Democratic Party chairman, who puts it this way: "There's nothing Leon is saying that shouldn't be thought about seriously and be part of the dialogue." Are Gray's views, generally populist on economic questions but right of center on social issues, consistent with membership in the larger fraternity of the local Democratic Party? "Sure they are," insists Cocke, who has maintained for years that a major reason for the Democratic Party's loss of power and relevance has been its unwillingness to compromise with social conservatives.

A case in point cited by Cocke (and one that Gray would presumably concur with): The abortion controversy has proved unnecessarily intractable, says Cocke (a firm supporter of Roe v. Wade) because "both right and left have been unwilling to compromise and have adopted instead the 'slippery slope' philosophy." The parties could -- and should -- have found common ground, say, Cocke suggests, on curbing the incidence of partial-birth abortion.

Meanwhile, Gray reports that feedback at AM-680 has been voluminous both ways and has been "positive" on the whole. "What people have to understand is that, like it or not, there is such a thing as the Christian left," he says.

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