Still in the Game 

Two events indicate candidate Herman Morris is in the mayor's race to stay.

It would seem that mayoral candidate Herman Morris, whom some have sought to write off, remains a force to be reckoned with.

A generous crowd of attendees turned out for the former MLGW head at a Racquet Club fund-raiser May 24th, where Morris showed off his gracious wife Brenda and his two academically excelling sons. He may have over-promised somewhat, though — calling himself the only potential mayor "with a real first lady." John Willingham, for one, has a potential "real first lady," and so, presumably, do many of the 14 or so others in the race.

Even so, Morris has served notice that he's in the mayor's race for the long haul, with at least a chance to be regarded down the line as the major alternative to incumbent Mayor Willie Herenton. (That presupposes a foldo from City Council maverick Carol Chumney, though — and that's not guaranteed to happen.)

Morris' chief liability would seem to be that he isn't entirely comfortable while greeting individuals or crowds. As his handlers say, though, there's time — four months plus — for Morris to grow into the role.

The fund-raiser was the second of two timely events scheduled for challenger Morris last week. The first was a Tuesday night appearance with Willingham in a unique two-candidate mayoral forum sponsored by the East Shelby Republican Club.

The crowd at Pickering Community Center in Germantown (strange place that, for a Memphis mayoral forum!) seemed somewhat predisposed to Willingham, a longtime club member himself. The former commissioner, who is given to verbal prolixity the way Britney Spears is given to nights out, profited from the one-minute-per-answer rule imposed by moderator Stan Peppenhorn.

Another reason for his relatively strong showing was that Willingham, no fool despite his sometime air of eccentricity, knew the subject matters asked about in greater detail — whether they concerned governmental subjects at large or Willingham hobby-horses like the FedExForum "Garage Gate" scandal which he did as much as anyone to uncover.

Morris came off as able and responsive, though his answers were generally delivered in over-broad outline, even in the case of a brief discourse on the utility he once headed.

Sometimes that penchant worked to his advantage, as when he began an answer to a question about prospective new taxes by saying, "We don't need any." (Really that's all his audience wanted to hear, and any explanation as to why that was the case was so much icing on the cake.) Similarly, Morris deftly dispensed with a question about term limits with the line: "Good idea. Three terms too late!"

Quips, Ideas, and Red Flags: The most intriguing new idea came from Willingham, who indicated that it might be "worth it" to look into public financing of an on-campus football stadium for the University of Memphis if the school and the state of Tennessee could provide as much as two-thirds of the funding. Morris seemed more open to a Fairgrounds site at some point down the line.

All in all, though, Morris may have done what he needed to for the long haul of a race that, after all, ends in October. His very reason for being there was to indicate to the attending Republicans that he was amenable to their concerns — a point reinforced as well by the presence of his co-campaign manager, party veteran John Ryder. (The other co-chair is former officeholder Minerva Johnican, a longtime Democrat.)

And though Shelby County Republican chairman Bill Giannini has publicly said there was "no chance" that Morris would get an endorsement from the local GOP, the chairman has also asserted that there was "no chance," either, that Willingham could get elected — a belief widely held in political circles, even among members of Willingham's own circle.

An End-Game Strategy: Under the circumstances, Morris needs only to hold on long enough — meanwhile building up name identification, credibility, funding, and support — to become identifiable in the public mind as the logical alternative to incumbent Mayor Herenton, who polls suggest is plumbing the depths of unpopularity right now.

Presupposing that there is no bounceback for Herenton (which cannot be ruled out), Morris' hopes depend largely on a stall developing in the campaign of Chumney, who was the leader in early mayoral polls but whose go-it-alone reputation may at some point cost her.

In any case, the Willingham-Morris mano a mano — ridiculed in some quarters for not being more inclusive — served its purpose as a friendly intramural sparring match, put on for the edification of Republicans looking for a candidate to get behind. One note of caution for both men: One influential Republican commented afterward that Chumney, who has a following among grass-roots sorts alienated from politics as usual, might get as many GOP votes as "both these guys put together."

STATE POLITICS

"Tired Blood": Another legislative week begins with the ever-surprising saga of state senator Ophelia Ford unresolved, and, as things now stand, unlikely to be.

After weeks in which her chronic absenteeism from the ongoing legislative session in Nashville and a mystery illness were the main facts discussed about her, Ford made up for lost time in the last couple of weeks with some conspicuous acts of commission.

There was her odd performance week before last in a subcommittee hearing on the Department of Children's Services' handling of investigations into child deaths. Ford, member of a family known for its funeral home business as well as for its total immersion in politics, may have mistakenly chastised the DCS for negligence in the matter of death certificates (not a departmental concern), but it was her manner, seemingly both confused and overbearing, that gave rise to doubts about her sobriety.

When the senator was hospitalized the next day after falling off a bar stool in her Nashville hotel, those doubts were magnified, especially when brother Joe Ford, chairman of the Shelby County Commission, talked of a likely alcohol problem and proposed to journey to the state capital personally in order to get his sister into rehab.

Nor was that all. Next a Nashville cabbie complained of being manhandled by an "intoxicated" Ford, though the driver has declined so far to press charges.

For all that, Senator Ford's situation seemed to have stabilized as this week got under way. Denying an alcohol problem, she issued a statement attributing her recent problems to clinical "anemia," which she also described by the popular name "tired blood." She also insisted that she intended to continue serving in her office, at least until the election year 2010, and meanwhile Commissioner Ford apparently dropped his rehab plans.

One factor in staving off a more drastic resolution is the fact that Ford's vote could be crucial in determining the outcome of several key issues as the legislature winds down this week and next. Senate Democrats were of no mind to sacrifice one of their own, and Senate Republicans were not pressing the issue.

Kurita resolution advances: Having passed the first major obstacle by getting a favorable vote on her proposal to elect Tennessee's constitutional officers in her own chamber last week, state Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rosalind Kurita hopes to gain approval by the House this week.

If successful, she would then need to get two-thirds approval in both bodies next year in order to put the proposal, in the form of a constitutional amendment, on the statewide general election ballot in November 2010. The offices affected would be lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, comptroller, and secretary of state.

While visiting Memphis the week before last, Governor Phil Bredesen took a stand against the proposal, contending that in all instances (save, possibly, the office of lieutenant governor) the proposed change would put the affected officials under too much direct pressure from "special interests."

In any case, Kurita's success so far was a counter of sorts to the fact that key Senate Democrats still resent her vote in January in favor of Republican Ron Ramsey as Senate Speaker and lieutenant governor.

Down to the Wire: Voters in state House District 89, centered on upper Midtown, go to the polls this Thursday to determine the winner of two special primary elections.

Democrats choose between Kevin Gallagher and Jeanne Richardson, each of whom — to judge by endorsements and turnouts at their events — would seem to command a decent-sized share of the party base.

Two relatively unknown Republicans — Wayne McGinnis and Dave Wicker Jr. — vie for their party's nomination.

The two winners will compete in a special general election on July 17th. — JB

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