Irony of ironies: The Shelby County Republican Party, which hit its high-water mark eight years ago when it elected a GOP mayor, two-term incumbent Jim Rout, now seemingly has nobody willing to run for the office.
Rout said months ago he wouldn't run again. District Attorney General Bill Gibbons decided against a race two weeks ago; former city councilman John Bobango followed over the weekend; and state Senator Mark Norris, who had been emerging as the newest consensus nominee, said no Tuesday morning. Later Tuesday, city councilman Jack Sammons and outgoing Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford also made clear they would decline the opportunity.
All of them, either publicly or privately, alluded to the huge problems facing the county financially, to its diminished resources, to the meager powers available to a county mayor (especially over two problem areas, the Shelby County school system and the county jail), to the demographic shifts which are inexorably creating a Democratic voting majority, and to the appeal which Democratic candidates already in the field might have along the Poplar Corridor, an area which a successful Republican would need to do well in.
When he conducted last week's monthly meeting of the Shelby County GOP's steering committee, party chairman Alan Crone had just learned of Bobango's decision. Somewhat wanly, he said to the committee, "If anybody here wants to run for county mayor, would you see me after the meeting?"
It may come down to Crone himself, who said this week that, if push came to shove, he'd consider running. Other possibilities include Commissioner Tommy Hart and city councilman Brent Taylor, who had already raised a sizeable campaign war-chest in hopes of mounting a race for Ed Bryant's 7th District congressional seat, deferred indefinitely after Fred Thompson decided to stay in the Senate and Bryant decided to stay where he was, too.
· Another unresolved issue of county government/politics is that of the commission's District 5, which Wellford is vacating. There are at least four different plans extant right now as commissioners consider redistricting from the perspectives of party and/or class and/or race.
The phrase "toss-up" is often heard as a desideratum for the East Memphis seat, which could be shifted in almost any direction -- north, south, east, or west. Wellford himself believes that the district will remain more or less unchanged.
In any case, few potential candidates for the seat have yet declared themselves. Two new ones are in the offing, however: Clay Perry, a Democrat who is U.S. Rep. Harold Ford's district director; and financial manager Bruce Thompson, a Republican.
· Memphis has become something of a battleground for the several Democrats -- at least three so far -- who hope to play Avis at the expense of Phil Bredesen's Hertz. They'll try to try harder, in other words, so as to catch up with the former Nashville mayor, who is reckoned as number one in next year's Democratic gubernatorial primary on the strength of his name recognition, financial war-chest, and commitments from party cadres.
It has to be said, of course, that Bredesen is trying pretty hard himself -- not only in Memphis, which he's visited several times, but elsewhere in the state. As he's confided, he considers certain remoteness of style and of effort to have been a major fault of his losing 1994 effort as the Democratic nominee against Republican Don Sundquist.
Consequently, Bredesen has not only made himself more available to the public and the media at what is still a fairly early stage of the governor's race, but his personality has generally remained sunny as well -- without the sudden unexpected frosts (actually, they were probably just preoccupations) that were a feature of his campaign eight years ago.
Moreover, Bredesen is keeping his rhetoric on the cautious side, especially where the issue of taxation is concerned. He has renounced a state income tax as a panacea and maintained consistently that he can "manage" the state out of its current fiscal doldrums.
But, while that position serves to neutralize the tax issue vis-à-vis potential Republican opponent Van Hilleary, the 4th District congressman who is adamantly against a tax increase, it leaves an opening of sorts for Bredesen's Democratic opponents -- Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols, former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro, and Charles Smith, who served formerly as both state Education Commissioner and as chancellor of the state Board of Regents.
Unlike Bredesen, none of the three have closed the door on the income tax, and Nichols has gone so far as to give a recent proposal for a 3.5 percent flat tax (coupled with a subsequent referendum) his conditional endorsement.
All three were more critical of Bredesen than of Sundquist when the ex-Nashville mayor attacked the governor last weekend for some of Sundquist's recent economies -- notably the closing of selected state parks, which Bredesen said was little more than a device to force acceptance of an income tax.
In almost identical language, the three other Democrats said that they might have applied other priorities but that Sundquist had little choice in the matter of making significant cuts. Smith, the most recent visitor to Memphis, went so far as to praise the governor for his "courage."
In one respect, Smith has to try a little harder to try harder. As he said Monday, "One big difference between me and the others is that, with the exception of the time I spent as Education Commissioner [for former Governor Ned McWherter], I've had very little experience on the partisan side of politics; so I've been doing my best to become acquainted with party people the last few months."
One measure of his success, according to Smith: a poll of state Democratic executive committee members and party chairs, meeting last month at Dickson, showed that he had doubled his support among them in less than a month's time, going from 12 votes to 23, against Bredesen's 43, with Nichols and Womack trailing.