Shelby County Democrats, who couldn't scare up a candidate for county mayor in 1998, apparently are going to have a fright wig of a contest for 2002. At least two prominent state legislators are now involved in serious commitments to a Democratic primary race for mayor, and a third may not be far behind.
State Representative Carol Chumney, who has hankered for a higher office for some time, held a meeting of supporters Saturday evening at Garibaldi's restaurant in the University of Memphis area and has already filed the required papers with the state Election Registry to form an exploratory committee. And state Senator Jim Kyle -- who, as the Flyer has reported, is actively seeking the nomination and several weeks ago hired a staff -- insisted Sunday that he would not be deterred by Chumney's entry.
"I think it bodes well for us as a party to have a spirited contest for county mayor," Kyle said, in words similar to those used by Chumney, who also said a contested primary would benefit Democrats.
Meanwhile, a third legislator, state Senator Steve Cohen, noted that his name has received some mention as a possible candidate and would not rule out seeking the office of county mayor himself.
As all three Democratic legislators pointed out, the political strength of incumbent Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, a Republican, has waned considerably since his uncontested re-election to a second term three years ago. Well-publicized problems with the county jail and with a burgeoning financial deficit are at least partly responsible for that.
Chumney, who said she intended to have another meeting with supporters "in about three weeks," pointed to three bills she has introduced -- dealing with mental health, jail conditions, and debt policy -- as evidence of her commitment to county issues. "I don't fool around," Chumney said about her commitment to the race.
Potential opponent Kyle professed some bemusement at the idea of Chumney's having formed an exploratory committee. "It's not legal for us [legislators] to raise money while we're still in session," he pointed out, referring to laws passed in the 1990s restricting state lawmakers' ability to hold fund-raisers during a session of the General Assembly.
Although she characterized the fact as a coincidence unrelated to her race, Chumney noted that a longtime ally, state Representative Mike Kernell, has introduced legislation in the current session that would permit modest in-session fund-raising efforts by legislators in their home districts. Kernell was in the group that met with Chumney at Garibaldi's.
Chumney also acknowledged that she had also given some thought to running in 2002 for sheriff -- a position that at least one of her Shelby County legislative colleagues had been talking her up for in Nashville last week. But she said she had settled on a county mayor's race instead.
Kyle, who has something of a head start organizationally, in that he has hired two aides -- Jeff Sullivan and Bob Kellett -- to assist him in researching both county and state issues, has kept open the campaign headquarters he used in his Senate reelection race last year. Kyle said he would be preoccupied during the session with his legislative duties, which include his supervision of patients' rights legislation.
Though he has not formalized his 2002 plans to the extent that Chumney and Kyle have and shied away from any commitment to a race, Cohen indicated that he was still considering running for county mayor. And he, too, said that the reawakening of interest among several potential candidates was a good sign for the Democratic Party.
Several observers, meanwhile, have pointed out the obvious -- that it is a given that a strong black candidate will probably emerge to contest for the nomination, too. And the name of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd still gets frequent mention among Democrats, especially suburban ones.
State Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), a sometime maverick who has nonetheless evinced an ability to create ties with members of the political opposition, has done it again -- this time with President George W. Bush.
And in the present case the tie that binds is quite literal. While attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislators in Washington last week, Cohen exchanged conversation with the president about the need for a state sales-tax deduction on federal income-tax forms, at the end of which Bush said, "I like your tie." Cohen then offered to give the tie he was wearing -- a light-green one with a floral pattern -- to the president.
Subsequently, he arranged to have the tie -- or a duplicate -- sent to Bush at the White House. Cohen, a member of the conference's executive committee, attended NCSL's annual "Leader to Leader" meeting along with state Rep. Matt Kisber (D-Jackson), co-chair of an NCSL task force on a "uniform voluntary sales tax agreement."
In addition to their scheduled tasks at the conference, both Cohen and Kisber had been asked by Lt. Governor John Wilder (D-Somerville) to do missionary work on behalf of the sales-tax deduction, which was permitted prior to 1986 for states, like Tennessee, which have no income tax. Kisber was a featured speaker on the subject at the conference.
Wilder, who likes to say "Uncle Sam taxes taxes," is a fervent evangelist on the subject of restoring the deduction and has talked up legislation that would remove the state sales tax altogether and replace it with a 6 percent flat income tax. The "6-0" plan, in fact, may get a vote during the current session of the General Assembly.
Both U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) and U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) have introduced legislation supporting the idea of allowing a sales tax deduction on the income tax.
Next month Shelby County's Democrats will have their biennial caucuses, followed by a formal convention, to select a new executive committee and a new chairman. Usually the identity of the latter can be surmised, or at least narrowed down to two or three names, by this point of the cycle. Not so this year.
Not up until now. But, in fact, the mystery of the Democratic chairmanship, circa 2002, may have moved far toward resolution last week, when a conversation at the bar of the Sheraton Hotel in Nashville (formerly the Hyatt Regency and the Crowne Plaza and site of many a consummation over the years, political and otherwise) ended with lawyer Percy Harvey, a member of the blue-chip firm of Stokes, Bartholomew, Evans, and Petrie, telling a group of visiting Memphians that he was interested in the chairmanship.
Since Harvey, an elegant man whose lifetime began in the rough-and-tumble world focusing on the South Memphis intersection of Trigg and Lauderdale, gets along easily with all the various factions of a highly diverse and factionalized party, and since he has already served as vice chair of the Shelby County Democrats at least twice, and since he says he's willing to serve, he may, ipso facto, be drafted ahead of all other comers.
Other names -- those of activist Mal Hooker and longtime party stalwart Gale Jones Carson, for example -- have been mentioned, but Harvey is far better known than relative newcomer Hooker, and he has been toiling in the party vineyards even longer than Carson, and he is at home with the Democrats' Ford and Herenton factions as well as with the party's residual Midtown and suburban whites.
Moreover, Harvey is connected to several ends of the social and governmental establishment by virtue of his main calling these days -- legislative lobbyist for a wide range of clients that include the Memphis school board, Shelby County government, and assorted components of the county's and the state's health care establishment.
It ain't over yet, but until someone better comes along (if, indeed, there is one such), Percy Harvey may be just what the Shelby County Democrats, always on the edge of disintegration as an organized unit, need to get themselves focused on the electoral challenges of a new millennium. (Overshadowed by the Republicans of late, they haven't been the county's dominant party since a decade or so back in the old millennium.) Had not a certain recent presidential contender already appropriated the slogan "I'm a uniter, not a divider," Harvey could arguably lay claim to it. And he may have the opportunity to do just that at East High School, where the local Democrats gather next month for their reorganization. -- JB