First Things First: Political Developments Around Shelby County in the New Year 

There are other well-known politicians in the mix, but insofar as there is speculation about the frontrunner in the 17-member race for General Sessions Court Clerk, much of it focuses on the two Shelby County commissioners in the field — Reginald Milton and Eddie Jones, both Democrats.

More so than most of the other contenders — even former Memphis City Councilman Joe Brown and former City Court Clerk Thomas Long — the two commissioners have a good chance of generating support from other local figures, not only via name recognition but as a result of their current prominence in active government positions.

On the matter of name recognition, there were early prospects for the presence on the ballot of one of Shelby County's best-known political names, but former state Senator John Ford, who was caught up in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz bribery sting several years back and served a prison term, failed to get the judicial order he needed to legitimize his candidacy. And perennial candidate Roderic Ford, no relation to the clan of political Fords, failed to qualify.

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It goes without saying that neither Milton nor Jones would even consider trading on their ability to shape legislation that moves before the commission, but it is equally obvious that habitual petitioners before that body would necessarily be concerned about the need to maintain cordial relations with both, to the maximum degree possible. Be not surprised if the two commissioners' financial disclosures don't end up showing an unusual number of identical contributors, even to the similarity of amounts given.

Meanwhile, Milton would seem to have an initial edge in garnering high-profile endorsements. Over the weekend, he was able to note online that he had the public backing of freshly reinaugurated Mayor Jim Strickland. And word is that additional endorsements are on the way from 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen and Myron Lowery, the former longtime councilman who has just been sworn in as City Court clerk.

Jones is likely to be heard from on the score of endorsements, as well.

Though most attention is being paid to the 13 candidates vying in the March 3rd primary — held on Super Tuesday, simultaneous with the Democrats' closely watched presidential primary — four Republicans are on the GOP primary ballot, as well — former Probate Court Clerk Paul Boyd, Michael Finney, George D. Summers, and Lisa W. Wimberly.

• So far in his tenure as mayor, Strickland has been cautious about handing out his imprimatur. In 2018, he gave endorsements to Patrick Dandridge and Mary Wagner, candidates for Environmental Court judge and Circuit Court judge, respectively, and both were successful in their quest. Other than that, nada.

Now that Strickland is, by his own statement, done with running for public office, he may prove more eager to lend his name to other people's causes. Such, in any case, is the opinion of some of those closest to him.

One thing noteworthy about the Milton endorsement is that it comes in a party primary. Though Strickland continues to designate himself a Democrat and a generation ago served a term as Shelby County Democratic chairman, his political base has been essentially nonpartisan, and he scored highly among city Republicans in both his mayoral races.

• A year ago, Strickland was on the cusp of a re-election race, and accordingly, his remarks at his annual New Year's prayer breakfast basically centered on what he could put forth as achievements in office. His speech at this year's breakfast focused on the need to confront the issue of early childhood literacy.

Touting such community programs as Arise to Read and Team Read, the mayor called for volunteer efforts to raise the literacy rate among Memphis youth. As he noted, "Students in low-income communities are, on average, three grade levels behind their peers in affluent communities by the fourth grade. Think about that," adding, "Only 25 percent of all third graders in public schools in Memphis read at third-grade level."

The mayor got hearty applause when he reminded his audience at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn of the forthcoming city/county joint pre-K program. As he said, "We initiated what has become a community-wide effort that will result in free universal needs-based pre-K, for the first time in our city's history."

During his swearing-in speech on New Year's Day at the university's Rose Theater, Strickland let another new shoe drop, unveiling plans for a new Public Service Corps that would employ members of the city's "dropout" population — men and women who, for one reason or another, lack a high school education — to pick up litter at $12 an hour. The program, whose beneficiaries would include Memphians who have run afoul of the legal system and are trying to find their way back into society, would, as the mayor described it, deal simultaneously with the issues of blight, poverty, and under-education.

• The main sanctuary at Germantown Presbyterian Church was completely filled Saturday, as a massive crowd turned out to bid farewell to Bobby Lanier, who died last week at the age of 90.

As several speakers at the funeral service noted, Lanier had an abundance of friends. Attendees included a virtual Who's Who of people involved in the public life of Shelby County. Former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, one of a string of county mayors whom Lanier served as a right-hand man, in effect, spoke for them all with a eulogy. Other speakers included Bill McGaughey, who attested to Lanier's decades-long supervision of the Germantown Charity Horse Show, and Pastor Will Jones, who presided over the service and spoke movingly of Lanier's intimate involvement with church activities.

• The aforementioned Congressman Cohen is a fixture at the annual New Year's prayer breakfasts begun by then-Councilman Myron Lowery and continued by current County Commissioner Mickell Lowery, the clerk's son. And the congressman's ruminations and forecasts of political circumstances to come are a significant feature of those breakfasts.

Understandably, perhaps, Cohen, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which formally prepared articles of impeachment for President Trump, focused this year on the still-pending (and not yet arranged) Senate trial of the president, emphasizing the necessity of the event as a means to preserve the validity of the Constitution. Cohen, it will be remembered, was an early advocate, introducing a resolution of his own to that end in 2017, and he may end up serving as an official House manager during the Senate trial.

Meanwhile, the Congressman has a primary opponent this year in former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Corey Strong. Consultant Steven Reid has released new polling figures showing Cohen with lofty favorability ratings. In four samplings taken since December 2018, Cohen has maintained local favorability percentages ranging from 82 percent to 92 percent. The most recent figures, from September, show Cohen with 88 percent favorability among Democrats at large and 87 percent among African Americans, who predominate in his district.

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