MAYORAL-FRONT EARTHQUAKE!

Ford son in, but Dad backs Wharton; Scroggs in, VanderSchaaf too?

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“Things are moving fast now. This mayor’s race is getting a shake-up. It’s kind of like an earthquake.”: That sentiment, expressed Wednesday night by Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, a Democrat and one of the already declared candidates for Shelby County mayor, is, if anything, something of an understatement.

Just within the last 24 hours all of the following facts became known:

  • Sir Isaac Ford, a 27-year-old and the youngest son of former congressman/powerbroker Harold Ford Sr., filed a petition with the Election Commission to run for mayor as an independent;

  • Ex-Rep. Ford himself hardened plans to throw his entire political weight behind the existing mayoral candidacy of another Democrat, Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton;

  • State Representative Larry Scroggs, a Germantown Republican, finalized his own definite plans to run for mayor;

  • Shelby County Commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf insisted that Scroggs’ decision would not deter him from running, thus creating the real possibility of a contested Republican primary.

    Whew!

    The devil, as usual, is in the details. Here, then, are the details, case by case:

  • ISAAC FORD: Young Ford’s completed filing, which occurred less than 24 hours after he picked up his petition on Monday, is the realization of a plan which he had confided two weeks ago, immediately after the funeral of his uncle, the late Shelby County commissioner James Ford. Although it is hard to imagine that his action was completely out of sync with his father’s plans, one of the former congressman’s siblings insisted that the senior Ford, now a political consultant residing mainly in Florida, had not signed off in advance on his son’s action. Isaac Ford himself had said his father thought his run would be a “great idea” and had, said the younger Ford (a brother of current congressman Harold Ford Jr.), bought him five new suits to signify his approval.

    It is rare but not unprecedented for members of the Ford clan to take divergent paths during an election year; in 1994, as one example, State Senator John Ford ran for county mayor without the endorsement of his brother, the then congressman, who supported independent Jack Sammons, then as now a Memphis city councilman, for the position.

    But the former congressman is also a master of elaborately orchestrated scenarios whose purpose does not fully reveal itself until fairly late in the game. One immediate theory of the Isaac Ford candidacy (if it turns out that Ford Sr. did indeed condone it, at least tacitly) is that the former congressman would use his son’s candidacy as a means to force specific concessions from Wharton in return for the withdrawal of Isaac Ford, whose independent candidacy presents the specter of a split in Democratic and African-American ranks that would threaten all Democrats, including Byrd and State Representative Carol Chumney, another candidate, but would impact Wharton most seriously.

    Another theory was that Isaac Ford’s venture is only a shadow candidacy, a temporary one meant to immobilize other possible opposition to Wharton.

    One thing for sure: if there is method to this madness, it is subtle stuff indeed.

  • THE FORD-WHARTON AXIS. Former Representative Ford is not only solidly in the Wharton camp, he has been an active force in lining up endorsements and alliances helpful to the Public Defender. It was he who prevailed on the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, an erstwhile Byrd supporter, to switch sides recently, and the ex-congressman has also called other Democrats partial to the Bartlett-based Democrat, asking them to change over, too. Ford Sr. has promised to make a highly public appearance on Wharton’s behalf in the near future in Memphis and to line up virtually the entire Ford apparatus, once a mighty force in Memphis elections (especially in Democratic primaries) behind Wharton.

    Byrd’s partisans, who once held out hope that the congressman might at least keep neutrality, concede that the ex-congressman will be an active force behind Wharton, Ford’s former college roommate at Tennessee State University, but express a hope that his move will somehow benefit Byrd. “He’ll drive away votes from A C in the white community,” insisted former Teamster leader and current Byrd campaign kingpin Sidney Chism. Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

    Other than his former relationship with Wharton and perhaps an honest belief that Wharton would be best for the county, what factors are behind the ex-congressman’s campaign plans? Probably foremost is the fact that the political allies of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Ford’s historical arch-rival for political leadership, though split somewhat between the candidacies of Byrd and Wharton, are still primarily in the camp of the former-- Chism and lawyer Richard Fields being cases in point. (Another Herenton heavy hitter, Reginald French, is with Wharton.)

  • THE SCROGGS CAMPAIGN: The news that other Republicans (most recently VanderSchaaf and possibly County Trustee Bob Patterson) might enter the mayor’s race served as a stimulus to the Republican establishment that centers on such pillars as incumbent Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, party chairman Alan Crone, and lawyer John Ryder, a national committeeman whose presence in a campaign is the GOP establishment’s version of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

    Moreover, Scroggs, a serious legislator who has harbored ambitions for higher political office for some time, reflected on the fact that his position as the junior House Republican in the Shelby County delegation made him likely to be the sacrificial victim during legislative redistricting, a process which will be accomplished during the next few months under Democratic domination and in the wake of census results that call for elimination of one of the county’s seats. Scroggs would seem to be odd man out.

    A scenario agreed upon Tuesday by such GOP stalwarts as Rout, Ryder, and former county Republican chairman David Kustoff calls for the following schedule: an anticipated flattering column about Scroggs in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, one which would reveal his decision to run; a formal announcement of candidacy on December 20th, during which Scroggs will be flanked by former mainline GOP mayoral prospects Bill Gibbons and John Bobango; a $1000-a-head fund-raiser to be held on January 7th, the eve of the 2002 session of the General Assembly, during which Scroggs’ ability to raise funds will be suspended by state law prohibiting legislators from raising money during session.

    Scroggs will faithfully complete the 2002 legislative session, taking advantage of weekends and other breaks to do active campaigning for mayor. Meanwhile he may file some sort of legal challenge to the statute freezing his fundraising ability, and he will avail himself of a loophole in that law that will be activated in the event of a special session (on taxes or whatever) midway in the regular session.

  • VANDERSCHAAF: Not many details here, except that the commissioner says he has received abundant encouragement to run for mayor since news of his intention were made public in The Flyer, and he had no intention to back down gracefully, making the way clear for Scroggs.

    A factor here is that a condition of mutual estrangement exists between VanderSchaaf and members of the GOP establishment. There are several factors accounting for this -- two of them being a history of disagreements with Rout and the anger of several Republicans close to lawyer David Lillard and former deputy Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson over VanderSchaaf's role in commission horse-trading that kept Lillard and Stamson from getting to fill vacancies, respectively, on the commission and for the office of Juvenile Court clerk.

    VanderSchaaf is not alone; he could count on allies among other dissident Republicans weary of what they see as the long-term domination of party affairs by an establishment cabal.

    Though VanderSchaaf would have to sacrifice a reelection bid (which is currently opposed by GOP activist Joyce Avery), he may have reached a point in his political career at which he would just as soon shake the pillars of the temple as try to live meekly within it.

    Then again, it may be a simple case of his math telling him he can win.

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