A large number of politically and socially active Shelby Countians got invitations in the mail over the weekend from a group calling itself "Shelby County Young Professionals." Recipients were invited to a reception next Monday night at the Plaza Club, to be highlighted by two "special guests": Memphis mayor Willie W. Herenton, a Democrat, and former Governor Lamar Alexander, now the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Consider that the RSVP number on the invitation connects directly to Alexander's campaign headquarters, that most of the names on the host list are those of well-known local Republicans (one of whom frankly described the group as an ad hoc support group for the Alexander campaign), and that Alexander has an active Democratic opponent for the Senate, 5th District Democratic congressman Bob Clement of Nashville.
All of that should add up to an inadvertent involvement and an embarrassment for Mayor Herenton, who, along with several members of his inner circle, is from time to time quite active in Democratic ranks. Right?
Wrong. Apprised of the close -- indeed, seamless -- connections between Monday night's event and the Alexander campaign, Herenton, who was active on behalf of the 2000 presidential candidacy of Al Gore and calls himself the "point man" in Shelby County this year for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen, said he had no intention of reconsidering his participation alongside Alexander, whom he called "a very good friend, one I've known for 20 years, and who supported educational reform when I was superintendent [of Memphis schools]."
On Monday, Gale Jones Carson, the mayoral press secretary who doubles as Shelby County Democratic chairperson, commented that the invitation had surprised her, in that she had thought the group sponsoring the reception was Mpact, a nonpartisan group with a diverse membership, ethnically and politically, and one which, she said, encourages participation in public affairs by young people. The host members listed on the invitation would seem to be members of both Mpact and Shelby County Young Professionals, an organization described by one of its principals as "designed to promote Lamar to as many different people as possible."
David Upton, a local Democratic activist, was one of several Democrats who got the invitation and said it appeared evident to him that the ad hoc GOP group used Mpact's normal mailing list.
Herenton himself was untroubled by the nature of the sponsorship. "I never did think it was an Mpact event," he said, noting that his son, Rodney Herenton, was an Mpact member. The younger Herenton is also listed prominently, with his wife Andrea, as a member of the host group for Shelby County Young Professionals.
During the recent Shelby County mayoral contest, when it was strongly rumored that then-county mayor Jim Rout, a Republican, was supporting Democrat A C Wharton, the ultimate winner, and not GOP nominee George Flinn, Rout availed himself of the circumlocution that he was a Republican and supported "the ticket." Democrat Herenton declined to express himself in analogous terms and, while he denied that he would formally "endorse" Alexander, he would not disavow the word "support."
"As the mayor of Memphis, I hold a nonpartisan position," Herenton noted, and he recalled that prominent Democrats, like members of the politically influential Farris family, had, in 1991, supported his mayoral opponent, then-incumbent Dick Hackett, who was presumed to be a Republican. "And you have the fact that the local Democratic Party has always been controlled by the Ford family," said Herenton, thereby invoking the once-intense rivalry between himself and the local political organization led by former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr.
As it happens, the former congressman, who was succeeded in Congress by his son, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., was in Memphis this week to host a Wednesday-night event on behalf of the campaigns of both Clement and Bredesen. At some point, the involvement of the senior and junior Fords in the 2002 campaign, coupled with Herenton's tacit support of Alexander, may well reignite a political feud that has been smoldering quietly since Herenton's overwhelming defeat of the then-city councilman. Herenton acknowledged that "several state Democrats" had complained to him of his involvement with Alexander, and several local Democrats seem discontented by Herenton's position in the Senate race, especially when he is simultaneously attempting to exercise a local leadership role on behalf of the gubernatorial campaign of Bredesen, a former mayor of Nashville. Ironically, Herenton withheld support from Bredesen's 1994 gubernatorial race, giving tacit support to then-Congressman Don Sundquist, a Republican. Herenton noted Tuesday that a majority of his financial support has traditionally been Republican.
"We're glad to get crossover support for Bredesen," cracked lawyer David Cocke, a former Democratic county chairman and Ford ally who has often been at odds with the mayor's party surrogates -- notably Carson and erstwhile party chairman and former Teamster leader Sidney Chism. Both Carson and Chism are key members of the local Democratic coordinating committee, whose membership is currently under challenge from several local elected officials.
Meanwhile, Carol Andrews, a spokesperson for the Clement campaign in Nashville, declined Tuesday to be critical of Mayor Herenton, saying only that she expected the Democratic nominee to be supported "by a broad array of people in Shelby County" and that the Clement campaign would "welcome with open arms" anybody who was keeping a distance right now but might come aboard later on.