Filling in the Blanks 

Harris jumps into county mayor’s race; Blackburn declares for Corker’s seat; other big names contemplate a race.

If Rip Van Winkle happened to be not a fictional character from a previous century but  a current resident of Shelby County, Tennessee, he would not have had to nod off for a full score of years to wake up to a drastically changed landscape. If he'd just blinked his eyes about midway through last week, he might have missed significant doings in the race for Shelby County mayor and that for United States senator.

click to enlarge State Senator Lee Harris
  • State Senator Lee Harris

The first major change in the projected 2018 political lineup occurred on Wednesday with the carefully stage-managed entry into the county mayor's race of Lee Harris, a Democratic state senator and former Memphis City Council member whose ambitions to keep on moving up in the political hierarchy were clearly signaled back in 2016 when he flirted with the idea of challenging 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen in that year's Democratic primary but thought better of it.

As the senator confided in a recent conversation, "I can serve anywhere" — the choice of a particular political office being something of a pure variable. Harris' interests in running for county mayor had been obvious for most of the current year but were screened somewhat by an elaborate Alphonse-Gaston scenario in which he appeared to be deliberating along with close friend and University of Memphis law faculty colleague Steve Mulroy, a former county commissioner and a mayoral candidate in 2014, as to which of them would actually make the 2018 race.

The veil was dropped abruptly on Wednesday via an interview in The Commercial Appeal, a venue choice made after scouting out the possible advantages of announcing in other media.

Harris has a reputation as a progressive but one adept at working across the aisle, a fact indicated by his partnership with Republican lawmakers on criminal justice issues and with GOP state Senator Brian Kelsey in seeking to safeguard the Memphis Sand aquifer. As of now, Harris would appear to be the likely Democratic nominee against the winner of the three-way Republican mayoral primary between County Commissioner Terry Roland, County Trustee David Lenoir, and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos.

But two other eminences with credentials both with Shelby County Democrats and with the civic and social universe at large are still meditating on a possible mayoral entry. Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd holds numerous political IOUs as a political donor and broker, a holdover following from his past as a Democratic state representative and two previous near-runs for mayor, and ample access to financial support.

Equally well-positioned is Shea Flinn, currently an influential Memphis Chamber of Commerce vice president and a former progressive spark-plug on the city council. Flinn's access to funding, too, would be considerable, and, in a political environment not over-stocked with charisma, he has more than his share. Either one of these figures, running in the Democratic primary or even as an independent, would have a dramatic effect on the outcome. The other major development last week was in the race for the seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker, whose decision not to seek reelection did not prevent him from continuing to make political waves. (See Editorial, p. 8) To no one's surprise, 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, an arch-conservative, quickly announced as a GOP candidate, though she withheld her announcement until Governor Bill Haslam, a favorite of moderate Republicans, publicly opted out.

Another conservative GOP prospect is former 8th District Congressman Stephen Fincher. And the party's centrist wing still hopes to convince Memphis philanthropist and longtime party eminence Brad Martin to make the race.

The state's Democrats may end up fielding a serious candidate, as well. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is seriously contemplating a Senate race, while Nashville lawyer and Iraq war vet James Mackler is already in the field.

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    • Starting Over

      As county government changes faces, deeper alterations may be needed.
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