POLITICS: Smorgasbord 

It’s campaign time, and do you know where your candidates are?

You know it's political season when you have six events on your calendar within a two-hour time span - stretching geographically from downtown Memphis to east Shelby County. That was the case on Monday night of this week. Highlights from four of these:

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Earnestine Hunt Dorse fundraiser at the Best Western on Union Avenue downtown: A more-than-respectable turnout from members of the legal and political communities graced this affair for Dorse, a Memphis municipal judge who is running for Juvenile Court judge.

            Interesting Twist #1: Criminal Court Judge Loyce Lambert reflexively returned to her roots as a defense attorney and public defender, energetically presenting various legal scenarios by means of which Mary Winkler of Selmer, accused of killing her minister husband in a currently sensational case, might successfully defend herself at trial.

            Interesting Twist #2: Criminal Court clerk candidate Vernon Johnson Sr. vigorously defended himself against a charge by Democratic primary opponent Kevin Gallagher (also present) that Johnson, who entered diversion some years ago on a felony charge of theft was technically ineligible to pursue his current livelihood of bail bondsman.

            Asked for an informal opinion, Lambert ruled in favor of Johnson - that he had purged himself of any legal recriminations by completing the diversion process and possessed the same rights as any other citizen. "We turn 'em on and turn 'em off," she said. "He got turned back on."

            Interesting Twist #3: Dorse's husband, Fred Dorse, one of the more thoughtful members of the local political community, always planning and analyzing, laid out a somewhat counter-intuitive theory as to how Judge Dorse, his wife, could win in a field that includes both former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman and retiring state Senator Curtis Person.

            Conventional wisdom would hold that Coleman and Judge Dorse - both women, both African Americans - would split the same voter pool, giving Person, a white Republican, the edge. Not so, said Fred Dorse: "Veronica Coleman lives up in Millington, and she has more ties with the white Establishment than with the black community. It's she and Person who'll divide up their vote."

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J.W. Gibson fundraiser at the Hunt-Phelan Home on Beale. A well-connected local businessman, Gibson, a Democrat, African American, and candidate for the county commission, boasted a diverse and influential sponsor list that included the likes of Beth Gallagher, Ron Belz, Harold Byrd, the Rev. James Netters, Robert Spence, and former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris. He is also being actively promoted by former Commercial Appeal columnist Susan Adler Thorp, currently doing TV commentary and working in business and public relations

            Gibson's position is iffy by definition, a true gamble. He could be running in a three-man primary field against Derrick Harris and longtime incumbent Walter Bailey, or, if the state Supreme Court, which held hearings on the matter last week, upholds a 1994 countywide referendum in favor of term limits, against Harris alone.

            It makes a difference how the cards fall, in that influential veteran Bailey, one of three plaintiffs in the current suit, would be heavily favored if he stays in. In case he does, both Gibson and Thorp came armed with an argument against his incumbency. Bailey has had a long and distinguished career, both said, but now it's time for fresh blood. "What can he do now that he hasn't accomplished in the 30 years he's had to do it?" asked Thorp rhetorically.

UPDATE: Gibson is suddenly under challenge by a number of Democrats (and, more importantly, by official Democratic Party organs)for having voted in Republican primaries since 1994 and for actually having served as an officer of the local GOP steering committee last year!

The party's Primary Board (which includes opponent Harris) was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to consider expunging Gibson from the primary ballot. Such a move would need to be ratified by either the county party or the state party, and the local party's steering committee was reportedly scheduled for an imminent emergency meeting.

Stay tuned for further details.

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Regina Morrison Newman fundraiser at Palm Court in Overton Square. Newman is one of three candidates for the Position 4 General Sessions judgeship being vacated by longtime incumbent Russell Sugarmon. Opponents so far (April 6 is the deadline for filing) include Tony Kizer and Joseph K. Wilcox.

            The turnout for her affair included a number of well-known figures in the political and legal communities. Two in particular stood out: Judge Sugarmon, who is enjoined by the judicial code and by long tradition from involvement in political races and therefore issued no endorsement as such, and his wife, Gina Sugarmon, who isn't so constrained and, as one of the organizers of the event, does in fact endorse Newman.

            Another factor in Newman's favor is her sheer ubiquity at political events of various kinds during the last year. She is almost as much a fixture at such gatherings as is Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who rarely misses anything. There is a logic to such a steady presence and something intangible as well. In a metaphysical sense, the gods seem to favor such determination, and, in a more practical way, it surely helps out in name identification down the line.

            Especially in judicial races, where explicit talk about issues is limited by the nature of the judicial canon, just being there is half the battle.

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Campaign kick-off for 9th District congressional candidate Ralph White at the University of Memphis area Holiday Inn on Central Avenue. White, pastor of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church, is a likeable, gregarious sort, and his politics reflect the breadth of his relationships.

            Democrat White has, in fact, a number of Republican supporters (including campaign manager Burns Landess and former three-time congressional candidate Rod DeBerry - a fact White met head-on in remarks to his faithful Monday night. "I've always been a Democrat," he said, "but I'm not going to be the Democratic congressman from the 9th District, nor the Republican congressman from the 9th District. I'm just going to be the congressman for the 9th District!"

            By virtue of his professional calling, White knows how to pump up a crowd and did so Monday night, ending by standing at the doorway, Baptist preacher-style, and greeting each attendee on their way out.

            (UPDATE: The crowded 9th District Democratic field may be about to add two new filees. Intimates of state Senator Steve Cohen say he will file for the congressional seat either Friday or Monday, and Tyson Pratcher, who has resigned his position with U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, emailed supporters that he would shortly be doing the same.)

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In sum, these four events offered a taste of the ample smorgasbord that will be offered Shelby County voters during Election Year 2006. A fifth event during the same brief time frame Monday night was a fundraiser for incumbent Shelby County mayor A C Wharton at the Germantown home of Al and Ruby Bright, Sr., and a sixth was a League of Women Voters meeting at the Main Library on matters relating to urban sprawl - destined to be one of the key issues, both spoken and unspoken, in this year's mayoral and county commission races.

            Other events Monday relevant to campaign year included a forum for U.S. Senate candidates in Nashville, sponsored by the Tennessee Health Care Association, and an address on health by Governor Phil Bredesen to a joint session of the General Assembly.
            The governor, who has been roundly buffeted by proponents of TennCare for his significant budget reductions in the program last year, offered an innovation of his own, called "Cover Tennessee, " which would guarantee portability of health insurance for working adults and arrange for joint public-private funding assistance for low-income Tennesseans seeking coverage.

            It remains to be seen how serious a challenge Democrat Bredesen will face from the Republicans, but declared GOP candidate Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker promptly sent out an email denouncing the governor's plan as woefully insufficient, and another possible Republican entry, state Senator Jim Bryson of Franklin, was reported by the Tennessee Journal to be preparing his own health-care proposals.

            Meanwhile, Tennessee doctors, who served notice last year that they would be seeking serious caps on "non-economic" malpractice awards, are following through by showing up at the legislature in droves each Tuesday, wearing white lab coats and proselytizing for their legislation.

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