Gloves Off

With the October 9th election approaching, candidates begin to get a bit frisky.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Wed, Sep 24, 2003 at 4:00 AM

With early voting now under way, some of the candidates for city office are not making nice. Some of them are throwing punches, and a few are even throwing bombs.

The best example of the latter has come from candidate James Robinson, who hopes to depose Rickey Peete in City Council Super-District 8, Position 2, and who has not shied away from describing the incumbent, who once served time for extorting a bribe from a developer, as a "crook" and a "felon."

Robinson, who goes on to decry (and, no doubt, envy) Peete's fund-raising prowess this time around, is not without sin, despite his penchant for throwing stones. He was bounced from his role as head of the Memphis Housing Authority residents' council a few years back after pleading guilty to charges of misappropriating funds. (Presumably, his current housing is not made of glass.)

Runner-up for aggressive language against an opponent may be Arnold Weiner, the indefatigable Republican activist who is one of five candidates hoping to unseat Pat Vander Schaaf in Super-District 9, Position 1. Not unskilled as a speaker, though a bit shrill in his delivery, Weiner normally laments the incidence of crime and the decline in educational excellence in these parts, then, none too subtly, goes on to say that "with her image and with her record" the incumbent needs to go.

This is usually enough to remind an audience that Vander Schaaf, who has served on the council for nearly three decades, indeed has a "record," having copped to a misdemeanor plea for shoplifting a few years ago, and may also have something of an image problem.

It should be said that on the one occasion when he found himself sitting next to Vander Schaaf at a forum, Weiner played the gentleman and declined to attack her so directly. Indirection is also the tack of businessman Scott McCormick, who cites some of the same problems as does Weiner and characterizes Vander Schaaf as "part of the problem -- not the solution."

That's as far as McCormick goes in a flier he's mailed out too, but Vander Schaaf brandished one irately at a weekend forum, apparently outraged by an unflattering photograph of her over the words, "Are you going to reelect Pat Vander Schaaf?"

In a wholly different category from Weiner or McCormick is another candidate in the same race, businessman Lester Lit, a mild-mannered man whose incendiary rhetoric is not directed at Vander Schaaf (or any other opponent) but at a more impersonal kind of icon: "We should blow up The Pyramid," he declared at a recent forum after trying the line out in private a few times. Lit, who has made some serious headway with yard signs and vigorous personal campaigning, proposes a shopping development instead, noting that downtown residents have very few such venues to choose from.

Then there are the elbow-throwers, candidates whose attacks on each other run more to sly digs and innuendo. A championship thrust of this kind was delivered at a forum for District 5 council candidates this week by lawyer Jim Strickland, who noted the seating arrangement for two of his opponents and informed the audience, "This is the first time I have ever seen George Flinn to the left of Carol Chumney."

That, of course, was Strickland's way of trying to stigmatize both opponents as creatures of ideological extremes -- Democrat Chumney on the liberal end and Republican Flinn on the conservative right. (In fairness, both -- like Strickland himself -- are seeking votes throughout the spectrum.)

Chumney was not without her arsenal of responses, noting that she had been in "public service" for 13 years (as a state representative), not having served as a "paid lawyer" (dig, dig) for petitioners before the council, as, presumably, had Strickland. And she noted for the record that she and Strickland had once worked at the same local law firm (Glankler, Brown) but that only she had ever risen to the rank of partner.

Chumney and Strickland may be unique in actually having exchanged words over a bona fide issue -- that of a proposed children's-services office in city government, which Chumney favors and Strickland disparages as a needless replication of services available elsewhere.

Seemingly averse to expressing any form of antagonism this year is another 5th District council candidate, George Flinn, who picked up more than his share of criticism for allegedly negative tactics employed by his handlers in his campaign last year for Shelby County mayor.

Flinn seemed pained to be reminded at this week's forum of one of the controversies of that 2002 campaign -- the issue of whatever machinations went into the making and selling of a new arena for the NBA Grizzlies. Noting that the arena, now well under construction and scheduled to open next year as the FedExForum, has long since been a done deal (and was so even during the mayor's race), Flinn said, "We make our points and we move on."

He is at pains to present himself as an agreeable man who believes, on the basis of his success as a physician and broadcast executive, that he can do something for the city and the 5th District. Though some of the solutions he proposes -- education-boosting videotapes for the mothers who visit medical clinics; broken-down police cars left parked in problem areas as disincentives to criminals -- seem homespun to the point of quaintness, their modest scale is arguably a welcome contrast to the sometimes grandiose-seeming proposals of others, who often seem to be offering elaborate dossiers qualifying them for executive positions.

The fact is that members of the City Council are limited in their powers and have mainly an advise-and-consent role in the scheme of things. Their chief role is to review expenditures and approve or reject zoning proposals -- that and serving as mediators for constituent requests. It is a mundane calling, something like being an associate pastor, the one who visits the sick and counsels the unhappy, while someone else -- in this case, the mayor -- does the preaching and gets the glory.

A fourth 5th District candidate, Mark Follis, an arborist and political newcomer, is an interesting case -- scrappy and increasingly self-confident in his presentations and equipped with some crowd-pleasing one-liners. Two are especially effective -- one in which he notes, accurately, that City Council candidates always call for improved education, enhanced crime control, lower taxes, and the like, "but then what do we end up with? Two downtown arenas within a mile of each other!"

The other is a bit of aw-shucksing which, ironically, serves as a boast: "I'm the David among three Goliaths," he says by way of summing up. That line never fails to draw a smile from his opponents, who are clearly flattered by it and who regard Follis as harmless.

He probably is, and it would truly be surprising if he finished higher than fourth. He has made a virtue of soliciting no campaign contributions -- not just from the developers whom he never misses an opportunity to disparage but from anyone at all. There are two problems with that approach: One is the obvious disadvantage of trying to run a competitive race without resources; the other is that in a representative system of government, the candidate who has no visible connections to identifiable groups of supporters risks irrelevance.

Phil Bredesen, the Nashville mayor and health-care billionaire who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994, using his own hefty holdings to pay for virtually everything, did things differently last year -- making a point of forming networks and raising money from as many disparate sources as possible. The result? Citizen Bredesen is now Governor Bredesen. Flinn seems to have applied something of the same lesson, husbanding his own considerable resources much more than he did in his mayor's race of last year and engaging in more open fund-raisers as such. n

Early Voting Locations

Early voting for the 2003 Memphis city election began last Friday and will be conducted at 15 locations through Saturday, October 4th. Hours of operation at all the sites will be from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

The locations are:

• Downtown, 157 Poplar Avenue

• Agricenter, 7777 Walnut Grove Rd.

• Anointed Temple of Praise, 3939 Riverdale

• Berclair Church of Christ, 4536 Summer

• Bishop Byrne High School, 1475 E. Shelby Drive

• Dave Wells Community Center, 915 Chelsea Avenue

• Ed Rice Community Center, 2907 N. Watkins

n Greater Middle Baptist Church, 4982 Knight Arnold

• Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church, 70 North Bellevue

• New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, 2231 S. Parkway E.

• Pyramid Recovery Center, 1833 S. Third

• Raleigh United Methodist Church, 3295 Powers Rd.

• St. Stephen Baptist Church, 3045 Chelsea Avenue

• Westwood High School, 4480 Westmont St.

• White Station Church of Christ, 1006 Colonial Rd.

Voting at 262 polling locations throughout the city will take place from

7 am. to 7 p.m. on Election Day itself, Thursday, October 9th.

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