Not a Laugher

The county commission's 5th District race could be crucial in a number of ways.

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No one has ever accused Joe Cooper, an off-and-on restaurateur/businessman, of bashfulness -- either in courting publicity or in hazarding risks. As an elected Squire in the '70s of the old Shelby County Court (the body which preceded the current Shelby County Commission), Cooper was a ubiquitous presence -- on TV, in the papers, on radio.

Most of this exposure was wholly voluntary on the part of Cooper, who on a slow news day could be counted on to ring up journalists with an idea worth at least a brief sound bite or quotation. Some of the attention Cooper got, however, was unsought; a host of personal problems, the most fateful of which was a 1976 conviction in federal court for bank fraud, kept the "Marrying Squire" (he got that name for officiating over a record series of nuptials) in the news.

Cooper and his friends (of whom he has always had many, including people prominent in government, business, and the media) regard that conviction -- which resulted in a brief amount of time served as a dormitory mate of Watergate figure John Mitchell -- as wholly political, the payback for Cooper's decision to challenge an incumbent congressman in the Republican primary.

Yes, folks, Joe Cooper, the current Democratic nominee for the pivotal 5th District Shelby County Commission seat, used to be a Republican. Ironically enough, he still figures large in the affairs of the GOP. A box on the home page of the official Shelby County Republican Party Web site memorializes him as a "Dem Wit" and shows a cartoon bulldozer bearing his name about to raze a natural habitat.

More or less in Cooper's honor, the local GOP's steering committee, which normally meets at party headquarters on Poplar Avenue, held its July monthly meeting last week in the lakefront clubhouse at Shelby Farms, the 4,000-acre undeveloped property which Cooper, as much as anyone else, has brought to the forefront of public awareness.

At that meeting, Shelby County Republican chairman Alan Crone made frequent reference to the expansive, publicly owned property as being one of the major issues of the 2002 general election and introduced the GOP nominee for the 5th District commission seat, Bruce Thompson, as "the only thing standing between Shelby Farms and Joe Cooper."

What Crone referenced, of course, was Cooper's recent suggestion to sell off roughly three-fourths of the Shelby Farms acreage to private developers in order to retire a substantial portion of the current $1.4 billion county debt. The proposal, made more or less in tandem with another one by current Shelby Farms board chairman Ron Terry to turn the property over to the care of a privately run conservancy, roused the ire of Cooper's usual detractors (of whom he also has many, including people prominent in government, business, and the media), as well as of conservationists in general.

Cooper claims victory in the only showdown held so far in the contest of rival concepts. He figured prominently in behind-the-scene maneuvers, both locally and in Nashville, that stymied the Terry plan, which was narrowly defeated in two commission votes and would anyhow, Cooper contends, have been blocked by his allies in Shelby County's legislative delegation had the matter proceeded to the General Assembly for approval.

Upping the ante, no doubt for electioneering purposes as much as anything else, Cooper held a press conference Monday to outline his ideas on how to proceed. He proposed three alternatives: 1) leaving Shelby Farms "as it is"; 2) approving "the conservatory plan presented by Ron Terry under a management agreement with Shelby County Government"; or 3) reducing the proposed conservancy area to a core of 843 acres (the same site, more or less, as Central Park in New York) and selling the surrounding 3,000 acres "to the highest bidder for construction of very upscale residential development."

It was the last alternative that Cooper pumped for, insisting that such an outcome would result in $750 million in proceeds, which, coupled with another $300 million or so for the sale of "naming rights" to the reduced conservancy area, would go far toward the retiring of the county debt.

The plan is far in excess of anything yet proposed by Cooper's allies on the commission (of whom Michael Hooks, Walter Bailey, and Julian Bolton, all Democrats, are the most prominent). And it poses the issue of development vs. conservation about as starkly as could be imagined.

Not all Democrats by any means favor Cooper's ideas (some are frankly appalled). Nor is Republican opposition to it uniform, despite the GOP's official emphasis on Shelby Farms of late and the fact that the administration of Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, the outgoing Republican incumbent, was thoroughly committed to Terry's conservancy plan.

But the central controversy evokes enough ancillary themes -- the polarity of private vs. public, the issue of elitist planning, the question of urban sprawl, and the pervasive problem of public debt -- as to make the race for the 5th District commission seat even more of a watershed for the countywide general election than it already was.

The root political consideration is this: If Cooper wins, Democrats will hold the balance of power by an expected majority of 7-6 ; if Thompson wins, Republicans would prevail, by the same probable ratio.

Entrepreneur/financial manager Thompson, a political newcomer who upset party eminence John Ryder in the Republican primary, saw his political coffers swell in the last couple of weeks, and not just from GOP sources. He has called the hard-working, self-starting Cooper's ideas both "comical" and dangerous and has made the future of Shelby Farms the centerpice of his campaign.

"In my race with Prince Mongo, er, Joe Cooper " began Thompson in a brief address to members of the East Shelby County Republican Club Monday night. That tongue-in-cheek simulation of a Freudian slip drew the expected amused reaction, but it remains to be seen who will have the last laugh in a race which may be the most serious, in every sense of the term, on the August 1st ballot.

· When Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor addressed the Southeast Shelby County Republican Club, he made a point of being lavishly complimentary and courteous to Chris Norris, the wife of state Senator Mark Norris, one of his opponents in the hotly contested Republican primary for the 7th District congressional seat. And Norris, substituting for her husband at the event, returned the compliments.

It was not ever thus. Only a week earlier the two had appeared, along with other 7th District GOP candidates, at the monthly luncheon of the Shelby County Republican Women, and, at that event, Chris Norris had been speaking her husband's name as well -- but none too flatteringly of Taylor.

Though she did not identify the councilman by name, she referred with obvious intensity to a candidate who had been circulating "lies" about Sen. Norris during the current campaign. That, as everyone knew, was Taylor, who, as reported in the Flyer last week, had circulated a mailout making some highly tendentious and somewhat questionable comparisons between his own anti-tax voting record as a councilman and Norris' as a county commissioner and state senator.

As recently as Monday morning, Sen. Norris himself was referring to Taylor's "lies" on "Teddy Bart's Roundtable," a Nashville-area radio broadcast, and calling his opponent a "character."

The different tone struck by Taylor and Chris Norris Monday night was befitting a new turn in the campaign, which could make moot Taylor's calculated PR assault on Norris, one of two major rivals for the Shelby County component of the 7th District vote.

As reported in the Nashville Tennessean and elsewhere Monday, a new poll by the respected Mason-Dixon organization showed the leader of the Republican field to be state Senator Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, a posh Nashville suburb, with 25 percent of the vote. In second place, with 17 percent, was Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, who ran -- and pulled off a win for -- George W. Bush's campaign in Tennessee two years ago.

Taylor was in third place with 14 percent, with Norris following at 11 percent, and several others, including lawyer Forrest Shoaf of Nashville, who has spent much on media of late and impressed many, bringing up the rear with single-digit totals.

Only the Shelby Countians in the race, each of whom has been at pains to demonstrate mathematically that Blackburn cannot win (in the same way, presumably, that a bumblebee cannot fly), should have been surprised by the Williamson County archconservative senator's showing. But Kustoff's second-place percentage was an eye-opener to everyone and a shot in the arm to the Memphian's campaign.

Said campaign manager Stephanie Shackleford in a series of press releases Monday: "The results show this race is between David Kustoff and Marsha Blackburn to win the Republican nomination. The Mason-Dixon poll matches our own survey information and confirms that David's support in Shelby County and West Tennessee is strong and growing. [S]upport for his campaign [is] growing while the other candidates have remained flat."

In a press release of its own, Taylor's campaign immediately disputed the Mason-Dixon poll's accuracy. Said Taylor's campaign manager, Lane Provine: "The Mason-Dixon poll does not match the results found in the Taylor campaign's recent poll of Republican voters in the 7th District [which] shows Brent Taylor and Marsha Blackburn in a statistical dead-heat for the lead. In Shelby County, the poll shows Taylor and David Kustoff in a dead-heat. In the 13 counties outside of Shelby and Williamson, Taylor's poll shows a 10-point lead for him over his nearest competitor, Blackburn."

Chimed in Taylor's pollster, the well-regarded Steve Etheridge: "Since at least as far back as 1986, when the Mason-Dixon poll showed Winfield Dunn leading Ned McWherter by five points one week before McWherter won the election by eight, national political consultants have generally had no interest whatsoever in the Mason-Dixon poll as an instrument of knowing anything about what's really going on in a campaign."

Whatever the facts are, both Kustoff and Taylor were revealed to be stronger players than some observers had imagined, while Norris, who began the race as many people's odd-son pick, seemed to be straggling.

All that could change, since the number of undecided voters remained high and much campaign money remained unspent -- particularly by Norris, who had not yet committed some $350,000 in newly raised funds. Meanwhile, the results were enough to prompt Taylor to suggest Monday night that his future mailouts and press releases may focus less on Norris, his presumed main local opponent, and aim in other directions.

· Succeeding the departing Alexia Levison as Governor Don Sundquist's press secretary is former Memphian Kristi Goad, who has been the governor's main speechwriter for the last two and a half years.

Goad, who had also logged time with the now defunct Nashville Banner, was The Commercial Appeal's main political writer for several years in the late '90s. Levison is moving to Washington to become spokesperson for first lady Laura Bush. ·

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