Two for the Road

With months yet to go, council hopefuls Strickland and McCormick are on the move.

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John Vergos is still telling people he's uncertain about running for reelection to his District 5 (Midtown) city council seat, and at least one solid contender -- Memphis lawyer Jim Strickland -- is lining up for the race, just in case. A former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, Strickland is a law partner of former Shelby Republican chairman David Kustoff and maintains the right kind of crossover connections for a nonpartisan city council race.

In Democratic circles, Strickland is not a member of any particular faction but maintains reasonably good relations all around. He was the main man for Bartlett banker Harold Byrd last year in the latter's campaign for county mayor -- one aborted when too much mainstream force got attached to the cause of ultimate winner A C Wharton.

Strickland became Democratic chairman in 1995 in the wake of the party's disasters -- local, statewide, and national -- of the 1994 campaign season. In the run-up to the 1996 campaign, he was privately asked to step down -- or, more accurately, told he was stepping down -- by then 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., who was preparing to hand the congressional baton to his son and namesake, Harold Ford Jr. and had prevailed on longtime party eminence and legendary fund-raiser Bill Farris to take over the helm. Dutifully, Strickland played the role of good soldier and relinquished the post without a fuss.

Another candidate who, like Strickland, was an early starter politically but endured a setback or two to his ambitions, is Scott McCormick, already campaigning for the District 9, Position 1 superdistrict seat (central and East Memphis) now held by long-term incumbent Pat VanderSchaaf, who has already indicated she will run again.

McCormick, owner of a printing company, first entered the candidates' ranks in 1995 when District 2 council member Mary Rose McCormick (no relation) made a surprise withdrawal from her reelection campaign and endorsed her partial namesake.

After the incumbent's withdrawal, the four-man race came down to three real contenders -- McCormick, Beale St. impresario John Elkington, and funeral-home administrator Brent Taylor. The well-known Elkington was the early tout but discovered what many a political newcomer has found out -- that grunt-level experience in politics is virtually indispensable to a candidate. Without a bank of loyal cadres to draw on, Elkington faded, and the resultant dead heat between McCormick and Taylor required a runoff, which Taylor won by just 400 votes.

Still, McCormick came off well and made a run for Pete Sisson's suburban District 1 Shelby County Commission seat when the incumbent decided not to run again. Other challengers in the Republican primary field were lobbyist Paul Stanley (now a state representative) and activist Marilyn Loeffel. No runoff was necessary in that one, as Loeffel's standing army of social conservatives helped her sweep Cordova and capture the nomination.

McCormick's name comes up virtually every time there's a local election with an open seat in his neck of the woods. He is no perennial, however, and will proceed into the campaign with the backing of such established political types as Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas, his campaign chairman.

VanderSchaaf, of course, is no slouch. She has already served 28 years on the council -- a record -- and, while that fact might be a provocation to voters of the turn-the-rascals-out variety (as it was for the voters who turned out her ex-husband, Clair VanderSchaaf, in his bid for reelection to the county commission last year), her longevity in office also attests to an undeniable long-term popularity.

VanderSchaaf's vulnerabilities include an arrest for shoplifting some years back that will undoubtedly serve to encourage other candidates, and that would be good news for the incumbent, since superdistrict races -- unlike those for regular districts -- have no runoff provisions and go to whoever has a plurality.

• The Shelby County Commission, which has developed the habit of deferring certain key votes, may actually end up resolving two such when it meets again Monday. And it may give new life to a third, which actually got voted on last week and went down by a single vote.

This is the proposition sanctioning the efforts of a private company, the Lakes Corporation, to investigate the conversion of The Pyramid into a casino operated by Native Americans. The brainchild of Commissioner John Willingham, it went down by a single vote last week but may be up for reconsideration as part of a tradeoff in which the languishing issue of rural school bonds will come up for a vote.

The bond-issue proposal would fund a new school in Arlington and improvements elsewhere in the county system by raising the county property-tax rate while circumventing the current funding ratio requiring that three dollars be spent on Memphis City Schools construction for every dollar spent in the county. The commissioners to watch for possible switches are Willingham and Tom Moss, who has been dubious about a downtown casino.

The other deferred issue to be voted on Monday is a resolution calling for additional vacation pay for former commissioner administrator Calvin Williams, whose involvement in potential conflict-of-interest situations forced him out of his job in January. Though former commission chairmen Buck Wellford and Tommy Hart spoke on Williams' behalf last week, his chances of prevailing are rated as highly problematic.

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