It's a year away from the August 2002 general election, and do you know where you pollster is? If you're a candidate -- actual or potential -- for Shelby County mayor, chances are that you do.
Among those who've decided to hire a practiced pulse-taker of the public mood are Democrats A C Wharton, Jim Kyle, and Carol Chumney. As for the Republicans, mega-developer Jackie Welch, who is not a wannabe himself, has hired the well-known pollster Berge Jacoubian to check out the prospects for a mayoral race by Welch's longtime friend, Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore.
Moore, as was first noted on the Flyer Web site (www.memphisflyer.com) last month, is still looking at three races -- one for reelection, one for the office of sheriff, and one for county mayor. Though Moore is considered unlikely to reach for the top ring on the pole, he has not yet ruled a mayoral race out. Hence Jacoubian.
Kyle, a onetime campaign aide himself, has a professional's attitude toward running for office, one which his opponents would be wise not to underestimate. The state senator for the Raleigh/Frayser area has signed on with Decision Research, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm which he used for his reelection race last year. Kyle's short-term intent is to devise strategy for the Democratic primary component of the mayoral race, which will be decided on May 7th of next year.
Wharton, who increasingly has handicappers talking him up as the favorite, not only for the Democratic primary but for the general election, has asked former University of Memphis professor John Bakke to run a preliminary poll for him.
Bakke, who has handled campaigns for clients as diverse as Harold Ford Sr. and Governor Don Sundquist, has racked up an impressive success record. His employment by Wharton is some measure of how seriously the Shelby County public defender is taking the race.
"I think he's a class guy, someone who has a strong identification with the important issue of education," said Bakke. (Wharton is a member and former chairman of the influential Tennessee High Education Commission.) Bakke said he had his pick of several potential candidates to work for. "They're all my friends. But besides thinking A C is the kind of person I'd like to see serve as county mayor, the race would be kind that requires some work, that I could make a real contribution to."
Since making an unsuccessful run for district attorney general several years ago, Wharton has often been talked up as a candidate for this or that office, but a number of factors -- definitely including the high fees he commands for his private practice -- have so far kept him from running.
The case for his winning the Democratic primary, aside from resting on his likeable personality and impressive achievements, is that he would be a name-brand black candidate running in a predominantly white field. In the general election, Wharton has enough crossover appeal to vie with any white Republican for the middle-of-the-road vote.
Indeed, Wharton, who managed two of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's election races, is that rare public figure who has a definite partisan identity -- in his case, as a Democrat -- without being confined by it. When he was Shelby County chairman for the U.S. Senate campaign of then-congressman Jim Cooper in 1994, his involvement did not keep him from offering the following wry observation on the then closely watched WKNO-TV program Informed Sources: "You know, [Cooper] is not a very exciting fellow. It's kind of like watching a man eat a mashed-potato sandwich."
Another Democratic candidate, State Representative Carol Chumney, was probably the first to hire a pollster, but she prefers for now to keep the identity of hers to herself. "We have a professional relationship, and I haven't yet got clearance from him," she says. "I will say that my poll showed that I had very high positives among the people who answered 'Yes' to name recognition questions."
Not everybody has tied up with a pollster just yet. A major contender for the Democratic nomination for county mayor, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, says that it's premature to be doing any serious polling.
"There are basically two kinds of things you find out from a poll -- what the issues are and how well you're doing," said Byrd this week. "At this stage of the race, a candidate ought to have at least a fair knowledge of both subjects without having to ask somebody."
Though he probably will do some polling down the line, Byrd is concentrating right now on what he calls "meet-the-people" events -- like the three-mile run he and a group of supporters took through the Binghamton neighborhood Saturday morning.
"We're going to do 20 of those runs altogether, and we will have traversed the whole of Shelby County before it's over," vows Byrd.
· The 90th birthday celebration last week for well-loved local Republican patriarch John T. Williams at the home of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout was a nice break in what was a depressing week otherwise in the life-passages department. Paul Gurley, who was a respected aide to two-term Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett, died, as did broadcaster Dave Black (see Viewpoint).
It was also the second anniversary week of the death of Ann Rickey, who was one of the more redoubtable local activists and political hostesses.
· Word comes from the camp of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Womack, the former state senator from Murfreesboro, that favorite Phil Bredesen better watch out, that Womack's money-raising has gone up dramatically after the surprise withdrawal of former party chairman Doug Horne.
It will take many a fund-raiser, however, for Womack to catch up with the former Nashville mayor, who made a fortune as a health-care entrepreneur. ·