POLITICS: Two More for Mayor 

Willingham, Morris get ready; plus Ramsey Confides; Kyle vs. Kurita; Lincoln Day Dinner: Mulroy as Point Man; A C's Mixed Bag

All right, pundits. Get your slide-rules out, and calculate who takes votes from whom. Mayor Willie Herenton and Councilwoman Carol Chumney won’t be alone in this year’s mayor’s race. It appears they are certain to be joined by former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham and former MLGW head Herman Morris.

Willingham, who has been a candidate in both of the last two mayoral contests (one for city mayor in 2003 and another for county mayor last year), recently held an organizational meeting at Pete & Sam’s Restaurant on Park and made it clear to a decent-sized crowd of attendees that he’d be running.

Reportedly, Willingham is forming an exploratory committee. One of his main men, incidentally, is Leon Gray, the former radio talk-show host for the local Air America affiliate.
Morris will be making his first race and, to judge by table talk at last weekend’s Shelby County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn, he stands a very good chance of getting the local GOP’s endorsement. (Morris, Willingham, and Chumney were conspicuous among the attendees at the dinner, as was District 5 City Council candidate Jim Strickland. All save Willingham have Democratic personal histories.)

Before taking the MLGW job, attorney Morris had headed up the local NAACP chapter. His multiplicity of insider connections ensures that he will not lack for financing. The question remains: Can he put together a sufficiently large coalition of establishmentarians and voters disillusioned with Herenton (both blacks and whites) to be anything more than a spoiler?

Ancillary question: From whom will Morris take more votes? Herenton or Chumney?

As for Willingham, even some of his closest friends are dubious that the third time could be the charm for him. In both of his prior mayoral races he was a distant second (to Herenton and A C Wharton, respectively), though he sought to challenge the vote count in both instances.
The former commissioner and Renaissance man of sorts (he’s been a barbecue maven, an engineer, and a Nixon administration aide, among other things) is quite literally irrepressible, though, and remains determined to vent several issues having to do with revamping local government and exposing alleged corruption.

Willingham professes not to believe that he and Chumney are competing for the same vote, although the councilwoman, too, has developed something of a following among voters who want to turn the page and start all over.

For that matter, Morris also has potential appeal of the throw-the-rascals-out sort. One task confronting the well-connected lawyer is to prove, à la Kipling, that he can “walk with kings and keep the common touch.” He has certainly walked with kings, but the former star collegiate athlete remains an unknown quantity in terms of street cred and how-to on the hustings.

  • Who Knew the Secret?Ramsey Confides: One of the reigning celebrities at the GOP’s Lincoln Day celebration Saturday night was newly installed state Senate speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who ousted octogenarian John Wilder, the longtime, nominally Democratic speaker, last month.

    Lieutenant Governor Ramsey regaled the crowd with humor (referring to his election as the first Republican Senate speaker since Reconstruction, he cracked: “One hundred forty years! Just think of it, 140 years! John Wilder was just a young man!”) and a choice revelation:
    Although the key vote for Ramsey by Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville) was a surprise to most people until the moment it happened, Ramsey revealed the five people who knew about it and saw it coming: himself, his wife Cindy, Kurita, his chief of staff Matt King, and state senator Mark Norris of Collierville, who succeeded Ramsey as the Senate’s majority leader.

  • Kyle vs. Kurita: Kurita, by the way, was the subject of a scathing letter sent out this week to elected Democratic officials throughout the state by state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Senate Democratic leader. Writing in his individual capacity on campaign letterhead, Kyle denounced Kurita for an action he saw as undercutting Democratic prospects in the state and beseeched fellow Democrats to “hold her accountable for her actions.”
    Before her vote to unseat Wilder, Kurita had been elected by the Senate Democratic caucus to serve as head of the party’s candidate-recruitment efforts.
    (The full text of Kyle’s letter is available here.)

  • Back to Basics: The major speeches at the annual Lincoln Day banquet — from Ramsey, 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (who took aim at “the media”), and former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts, the keynoter — reflected, if anything, a hardening of existing GOP positions on social issues like gay rights and abortion and a qualified — but not absolute — support for President Bush’s Iraq policy.

    Watts, an African American and potential vice-presidential candidate who is sometimes touted as his party’s answer to Democratic senator Barack Obama, did, however, include a conspicuous appeal for “diversity” in a speech that electrified the crowd.

  • Point man: Just as was presumed last year when he successfully contested the Shelby County Commission’s District 5 seat with Republican Jane Pierotti, Democrat Steve Mulroy has emerged on the current commission as the swing vote. And more: Mulroy has conspicuously taken the lead in arguing for party positions, offering solid legal advice, for example, during Monday’s debate on a second Juvenile Court judgeship (See editorial here), and actually getting ahead of Title VI advocate Henri Brooks on at least one recent equal-opportunity employment issue.

  • Coming Out Smoking: Governor Phil Bredesen’s proposal in his Monday-night State of the State address to finance educational improvements by tripling the state’s cigarette tax (to 60 cents a pack) is his first major revenue-enhancement initiative and could turn out to be a controversy on the order of his scraps with former state senator (now congressman) Steve Cohen on lottery issues.

  • A C’s Mixed Bag: Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, speaking to the downtown Rotary Club on Tuesday, expressed a guarded preference for the idea of elected additional judges in Juvenile Court. Wharton declined, however, to commit himself on two other issues: a preferred location for a proposed Toyota plant (nearby Marion, Arkansas, versus Chattanooga) and the question, after a recent court decision affecting Knox County, of whether several constitutional Shelby County offices should be elected or appointed.

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