Seasonal Fallout

As Senator Kyle exits the county mayor's race, Senator Norris ponders an entry.

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The first Democratic candidate to announce for Shelby County Mayor, state Senator Jim Kyle, has become the race's first significant dropout.

Just before noon on Tuesday, Kyle had copies of a brief statement of withdrawal hand-delivered to his three primary opponents -- Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, Shelby County public defender A C Wharton, and state Representative Carol Chumney.

The statement read in part: "Both the political landscape and the fiscal problems facing our state have changed dramatically since I began considering a race almost a year ago ..." It went on to refer to the "historically long legislative session" and "political changes" and concluded, "This difficult decision has been made easier by the presence of excellent candidates in the Democratic primary. I wish them well."

In conversation, Kyle amplified his reasons: "First of all," he said, "we were in session too long, and that put me behind. Then we went to war, and that stopped everything again. Third, there was A C, who has as much name identification as I have. But what sealed it was when I determined we [the General Assembly] were not going into special session. That meant there was a very good chance I would be up there [in Nashville] for a long time next spring, and I needed that time."

As Kyle noted, a special session, which at one point seemed certain for the current week, could have resolved the state's financial issues. Without a special session, Kyle -- a key member of the Senate's Finance Committee -- and other legislators are likely to become entangled in a lengthy regular session next year, possibly lasting into the summer as the last two sessions have. Kyle could not have campaigned effectively during that time and by state law could not have raised money during the session.

The departure of the outspoken and respected senator, who had planned to campaign aggressively for city-county consolidation, will probably provide a marginal demographic boost to both Byrd and Chumney -- both whites -- in a county where racial identity always counts for a substantial portion of the vote.

· Until such time as former city councilman John Bobango actually takes the bit in his teeth and gets out on the cinder track and formally starts his expected race for Shelby County mayor, the opportunity is still there for other name-brand Republicans.

To date, a number of GOP hopefuls have pawed the track warily, checked out either the odds or the Democratic field -- which includes several highly touted runners -- and, for whatever reason, backed away. Early on, most of these -- like probate court clerk Chris Thomas -- were conservatives.

As recently as last week, word went out that another such, County Trustee Bob Patterson, was thinking of running, but -- although Patterson has not yet officially ruled the idea out -- it now seems doubtful that he'll risk his current position for a mayor's race.

That's the rub for so many prospects -- the sacrifice of a safe seat in the pursuit of an unknown quantity.

As it turns out, there's another mainline GOP prospect -- one whose interest, ironically enough, may actually have been kindled by facts relating to an incumbency which he'd dearly love to keep.

This is state Senator Mark Norris, a former county commissioner. Elected to the legislature just last year without opposition, Norris rapidly became a player in Nashville. He was elected parliamentarian by the Republican Senate caucus and to a number of other party posts whose import was somewhat more than ceremonial.

In July, during the nitty-gritty last days of the 2001 regular session of the General Assembly, Norris became one of his party's chief negotiators in the Senate's ultimately futile effort to reach a bipartisan consensus on a budget measure,.

While his politics -- especially on fiscal matters -- were dependably conservative, Norris proved adept at maintaining sunny relations with his ideological opposites in the Senate and was a swing vote on occasion -- as when he lent his vote to Democrat Steve Cohen's lottery bill, providing decisive momentum to put over a perennial proposal that had failed of passage for the previous two decades.

But Norris is the least senior Republican in a county which is slated to lose one of its Senate seats during the forthcoming reapportionment based on the 2000 census. Although both he and fellow Republican senator Curtis Person are members of the GOP's reapportionment committee, their party's say in the matter will be subordinated to that of the Senate Democrats, who are likely to place both the hugely popular Person, who has not even had an opponent since 1978, in the same district with Norris.

If worse comes to worst, and that happens, and, especially if Norris gets an inkling of it before the February 21st filing deadline for county races, he may think seriously of a return to the politics of the county, whose fiscal affairs absorbed him during his time on the commission.

· The chairman of the Election Commission, O.C. Pleasant, has all but decided on a race as a Democrat for Shelby County clerk, to oppose GOP incumbent Jayne Creson. Pleasant, who would have to face the choice of whether to resign his long-term position on the commission, also gave consideration for a while to the idea of running for county trustee.

· Pending the resolution of the district lines for county commission District 5, currently occupied by the retiring Buck Wellford, a Republican, most potential candidates for the seat are holding back on formal announcements.

Not Republican Jerry Cobb and Democrat Joe Cooper. Cooper, in fact, is busy constructing the elements of a platform. He, too, is a proponent of consolidation and called this week for the establishment of a Consolidation Charter Commission.

You can e-mail Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com.

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