Here Come the Dems!

Suddenly, Democratic prospects for key races begin to emerge from the woodwork.

by Jackson Baker

Up until now, Democratic candidates for major races, either local or statewide, have been about as common as volunteers for lethal-injection experiments.

Well, all of a sudden here they come. At the gubernatorial level, there’s a veritable rush:

• Mike Whitaker of Somerville, an attorney and former District Attorney General who now serves as chairman of the state Racing Commission, on Tuesday became the first Democrat to formally announce his intention of running for governor against Republican incumbent Don Sundquist.


Left to right: John Lowery, Mike Whitaker, and John Mark Windle.

Though he is a resident of Fayette County, Whitaker maintains law offices both in Memphis and in Covington, and he is well acquainted with powerful state Democrats from several areas locally – notably state party chairman Houston Gordon and State House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, both of Covington; and Lt. Governor John Wilder, the State Senate’s chief presiding officer, of Somerville. (Whitaker is a former law associate of Wilder’s and a former law partner of Gordon’s.)

Gordon acknowledged having discussed with Whitaker the idea of his running for governor (“as I have with several more”) but expressed surprise in learning of Whitaker’s intentions on Monday. “He’s a fine man, and he’d be a fine candidate, and the Republicans better watch out if he’s nominated,” said Gordon, who said he expected other qualified Democrats to express interest in running before May 21st, the filing deadline for a statewide primary race.

• John Mark Windle, a fourth-term state representative from Livingston, is thinking of running for governor, and, toward that end, has begun an exploratory tour of the state – one which brought him to Memphis on Saturday. As a member of the legislative oversight committee looking into the issue of prison privatization, Windle sat in Saturday morning with fellow state representatives Joe Towns and Larry Miller of Memphis for an open forum on privatization at City Hall.

Windle has said that he’d been willing to run for governor if he could raise as much as $2 million for a competitive race. (Sundquist has something between $5 million and $6 million in his campaign kitty already.)

• Larry Wilkes, a Springfield attorney, has also talked seriously of running.

• Joe Hollingsworth, a Clinton businessman who once served as chairman of an economic advisory committee to Sundquist and fell out with the governor when the group’s advice was not heeded, has been sizing up a race for some time.

• Wayne Ritchie of Knoxville, a state representative who has announced he will not seek reelection to his House seat, is talking pointedly of making a gubernatorial bid.

• Marianne Eckles, a state representative from Murfreesboro, has also considered a gubernatorial race. Eckles is currently the sponsor (with State Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis) of a bill that would transfer authority for dealing with state mental health from the governor’s office to the legislature.

Whitaker and the rest of the Democratic wannabes face several obstacles – ranging from Governor Sundquist’s current high approval rating in polls to the fact of his immense war chest. The state Democrats’ potential money crunch is one reason why – with significantly less than a year to go before the November general election and with all candidates currently operating within new state campaign fund limitations – Gordon had hoped to come up with a consensus candidate long before now.

Just as they are in federal elections, statewide candidates are now limited to receiving donations of $1,000 per person per election cycle (a primary campaign and a general election campaign each constituting a cycle). Political action committees are limited to giving $5,000 per recipient per cycle. And – in a provision insisted on by a governor

who ran against a self-made millionaire (Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen) in 1994 – candidates may spend no more than $200,000 of their own money through both election cycles.

Another provision of the new state law – whose provisions will be invoked for the first time in the 1998 election season – is that state legislators may not raise campaign funds while the General Assembly is meeting. That effectively puts the money-raising plans of Windle, Ritchie, and Eckles on hold until late April, when the legislature, which convened last month, is scheduled to adjourn.

Citing non-binding opinions by former state Attorney General Charles Burson and current AG Knox Walkup that the state law’s limitation on use of personal funds is unconstitutional, Gordon and other state Democrats have talked about challenging the new law in court but have not yet done so.

n Another race in which the Democrats have been sorely lacking a candidate is that for Shelby County Mayor, where GOP incumbent Jim Rout has both a half-million-dollar war chest and what his fellow Republicans feel is a lock on the office.

But even though State Senator Jim Kyle, who had been rated as the Democrats’ best hope, recently decided that the race was too much an uphill proposition and declined to run, various local Democrats still believe that electoral arithmetic favors their party.

A working paper prepared by former local Democratic chairman Jim Strickland demonstrates that in recent years black turnout, which normally favors Democratic candidates, has progressively increased proportionate to the county’s white vote, which is generally weighted toward Republicans. In 1996, for example, African-American voters accounted for 44.2 percent of the final vote, white voters for 48.7 percent.

Such numbers lead to the theory that a Democratic mayoral candidate who had appeal to white voters could count on enough votes to win, and local businessman John Lowery is now actively considering a race for mayor. Lowery is the founder and chief executive officer of Revelation Corporation, a multi-purpose cooperative of major black church denominations, which has as one of its primary objectives the creation of home-owning opportunities for African Americans.

Lowery, who has also mulled over the notion of a race for governor, served both as staff director for former U.S. Representative Harold Ford and as campaign coordinator in the 1992 reelection effort of former county assessor Michael Hooks.

“I’m not surprised that a potential Democratic candidate sees what is a real opportunity for success. John’s an attractive candidate, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t others thinking seriously about running,” said Shelby County Democratic chairman Mark Yates.

The same state law which restricts the use of personal funds for a gubernatorial candidate also limits the amount of personal money a countywide candidate can spend to $20,000, but this provision, too, is open to legal challenge.

n Others elsewhere may have said it (or something like it), but surely nobody else but should have said it with the same controlled indignation and absolute absence of irony as did state House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington.

Caucusing with his fellow Democrats last Monday, just before Governor Don Sundquist’s State of the State address, Naifeh was listening to their complaints about the then-ongoing move in the nation’s capital to name Washington National Airport for former GOP president Ronald Reagan (who fired all those striking air traffic controllers back in 1981, remember?).

By way of summing it all up, Naifeh demanded,“Why in the world would they name something for Ronald Reagan that’s already named for George Washington?”

(Apparently, the bill to rename the airport, having now been approved by the GOP-dominated Congress, would leave both names in place, as in the “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.”)

n Incidentally, Washington isn’t the only place where the subject of interns has come up lately. Just before he adjourned the House last Thursday, Naifeh cleared his throat and delivered to the gathered state representatives a stern admonition to show “respect” to their interns and staff members.

“We’re not high and mighty. The people elected us to represent them up here, not to conduct ourselves like demagogues,” Naifeh said (presumably meaning “demigods”).

Word is that the culprit who prompted this sermon was State Rep. Bill Boner (D-Nashville), he of several wives and as many elective offices. The former congressman was serving as mayor some years back when a country music singer he was trysting with made her admiration public. In essence, she bragged, in song and testimony, of his romantic endurance in terms that suggested he was aptly named.

Others found Boner’s name symbolic in more than the sense meant by his lady love. He experienced various and sundry administrative problems, too, and the current imbroglio, which reportedly prompted Naifeh’s remarks, concerned a highly charged disagreement with a secretary which ended in her being fired.

n U.S. Senator Bill Frist, who as the Senate’s only practicing physician has frequently been called upon to administer emergency medical attention to congressional visitors, has seen more than his share of medical misfortune at close range recently.

During the past holiday season, Frist lost both of his parents to illness, within days of each other. And his 14-year-old son Harrison was discovered to have contracted spinal meningitis after a family outing to the Orange Bowl game featuring the UT Vols vs. the University of Nebraska. Young Frist has since recovered fully.

n Tennessee’s other U.S. Senator, Fred Thompson, is the featured speaker at the annual Lincoln Day dinner of the Shelby County Republican Party, to be held Saturday at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. This year’s event, which will feature several other local and state GOP dignitaries, is under the chairmanship of Patti Ricossa. Tickets for both a 5:30 reception and the 7 p.m. dinner are available at 683-7788 or at 682-3335. n

“ A Stupid, Insane System”

According to Mike Whitaker, the newly declared Democratic candidate for governor, the issue that “pushed me over the edge” is capital punishment. “I will end it if I can,” said the attorney, former DA, and current Racing Commission head as he prepared to make his formal entry into the gubernatorial race on Tuesday.

“I’ve been a prosecutor, and I’m certainly not soft on criminals. But it’s a stupid, insane system that keeps people on death row for seven or eight years,” said Whitaker, who promises to commute the death sentences still remaining for inmates in Tennessee.

The death-penalty issue has figured in several controversial cases statewide, and voter reaction to perceived “softness” on the issue was cited as one reason for the successful recall vote in 1996 against former state Supreme Court Justice Penny White. All sitting justices and other appellate judges face a similar Yes/No vote this year.

Whitaker also intends to oppose Governor Sundquist on the issues of charter schools and prison privatization, both of which Sundquist has proposed in this year’s budget message to the legislature. He doesn’t like the state’s current TennCare insurance system, which emphasizes the role of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and proposes to “take it apart, piece by piece.”

Whitaker advocates changing the state constitution to permit a citizen referendum on establishing a lottery. In light of complications arising from various inducements made at the level of state government to attract Bud Adams’ NFL Oilers, Whitaker promises, “I will not spend one penny of state funds to corral another vagabond sports daddy, nor will I ever set foot at an Oilers game.” n

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