How Chumney Won

Bipartisan support overcame behind-the-scenes opposition from Herenton and others.

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State Representative Carol Chumney's victory last week in the District 5 City Council runoff over Republican George Flinn -- 6,524 votes (55.1 percent) to Flinn's 5,314 votes (44.9 percent) -- was made possible by her unexpected strength in East Memphis Republican areas.

Those precincts voted disproportionately in early voting, won by Chumney, 54 percent to 46 percent. Analysis indicated that the Democratic state representative got as much as a third of the East Memphis vote on Election Day as well.

And Chumney did well, as expected, in the Midtown areas that overlapped with the District 89 legislative district she represented for 13 years.

Caught in the undertow of Flinn's defeat were such public figures as council members Rickey Peete and Myron Lowery, two Democrats whose names were used in late advertisements for Flinn, and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who made strenuous efforts to suppress Chumney's vote and to boost GOP endorsee Flinn.

It was learned that the mayor, shortly after the initial round of voting on October 9th, had telephoned third-place finisher Jim Strickland and asked him not to endorse fellow Democrat Chumney (something that Strickland was unlikely to do in any case).
There were reports of similar mayoral calls to others -- like Rev. Herman Powell of Early Grove Baptist Church, who was telling everyone at Chumney's victory celebration Thursday night that Herenton, offering to "bury the hatchet" concerning past disagreements, had contacted him.

(Gales Jones Carson, the mayor's spokesperson, denied this week that Herenton had made such a call to Powell.)
Asked about Herenton's efforts on Flinn's behalf, local Republican chairman Kemp Conrad joked that it all dated back to "a meeting on the grassy knoll." That was his way of acknowledging (and belittling) a theory advanced by Shelby County commissioner John Willingham and others alleging a comprehensive political deal.

In Willingham's telling, Herenton's support of Flinn was part of an elaborate arrangement, brokered by Conrad, that began with the mayor's support of Republican Lamar Alexander in last year's U.S. Senate race. As part of the deal, argued Willingham, the incumbent mayor got tacit support from Conrad.

The District 1 school-board runoff between Willie Brooks and J. Bailey was won by Brooks, 1,257 (59 percent) to 873 (41 percent). Brooks parlayed an endorsement from The Commercial Appeal and various influential office-holders into a larger-than-expected victory over Bailey, who had a modest lead during first-round balloting and made efforts to buttress his position by an alliance with Cordova community leaders -- promising them he would attempt to freeze existing district lines for schools.

*Then There Were Two: Next month's special election to determine a successor to Chumney in House District 89 will be a showdown between two contestants -- veteran activists Beverly Robinson Marrero and Jeff Sullivan -- and indirectly between their political patrons, state senators Steve Cohen and Jim Kyle, respectively.

The Democratic primary pairing (no Republicans filed for the special election) resulted from last week's withdrawal of two other candidates, Jay Sparks, Chumney's campaign manager, and Kevin Gallagher, an aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.

At Chumney's victory celebration last Thursday night, Cohen remarked with raised eyebrows on meetings held earlier in the week between Sullivan, Gallagher, and Sparks. "It looks like the three male candidates were trying to pool their forces against the one woman running," said Cohen, who is giving staunch backing to Marrero. Sullivan is a close aide of Kyle, Cohen's Senate colleague.
Though both Cohen and Kyle are veteran Democrats, their relations have always been uneasy, and they have clashed on a number of issues. As recently as Wednesday night, Kyle made a thinly veiled reference to the fact at a Frayser event in his honor.

Kyle noted that his wife, Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, was able to accompany him for one of the very first times since special legislation was enacted to permit her involvement in his campaigns. Cohen had long opposed such a law, regarding it as conferring special favors on an individual.

Another political difference between the two senators was highlighted on Saturday, when both District 89 candidates addressed a luncheon of the Shelby County Democratic Women. Marrero and Sullivan took similar positions on most issues, but Cohen took issue with Sullivan's offhanded remark that budget-cutting Governor Phil Bredesen had "righted the ship" of Tennessee government. It was "the legislature" that had done so, Cohen corrected.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, Sen. Kyle is recognized as the governor's closest collaborator in the Senate, while Cohen had public differences with Bredesen during the last session -- especially over issues of organizing the state lottery.

E-mail: baker@memphisflyer.com

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