It Ain't Beanbag

The bare-knuckled politics of 2003 could yield to more of the same in 2004.



Believe it or not, local politics may be morphing into something less partisan -- if no less bitter.

Take the Shelby County Commission, for example: The commission that came in on the heels of the 2002 countywide election differed substantially from its several immediate predecessors -- characterized as they were by 7-6 majorities, with white Republicans outvoting black democrats on key issues.

This latest version proved more diverse from the start. Of the five new commissioners, the most conventional was suburban Republican Joyce Avery, but even she could break ranks with her GOP lodge members on health-related issues, voting with the Democrats on keeping Oakville Sanatorium up and running and on providing birth control programs for high-schoolers.

Two of the new Republicans -- David Lillard and Bruce Thompson -- were cut-to-the-bone types, desirous of new rules and a zero-based budget protocol. Go-along-to-get-along? Fahgidaboutit! They got off-and-on support from fledgling Democrat Deidre Malone, especially on votes relating to new development. That was an issue at which by-the-ledger-book conservatism intersected with environmentalism, and the three newcomers mounted several they-shall-not-pass stands -- a number of which were subsequently bypassed when less steadfast allies defected on votes to reconsider.

Then there was John Willingham, a versatile if eccentric presence whose persona was somewhat crazy quilt. The restaurateur/inventor/watchdog/muckraker was difficult to classify politically. He made terms like "liberal" and "conservative" seem beside the point, since he could be alternately, or even simultaneously, both, and there was always something Quixotic about his crusades, which included a race for city mayor which he lost by some 50,000 votes to incumbent Willie Herenton. In typical Willingham fashion, he promptly filed a lawsuit claiming vote fraud and brought a voting-machine expert to town to challenge the touch-screen machines used in local elections.

If previous experience is any guide, Willingham's suit will generate A) a wholesale exasperation and rolling of the eyes on the part of his governmental peers, followed, at some prolonged interval, by B) necessary reforms. That was the case with his carping about the Arlington high school to be built with rural school bonds and his harping on the question of what to do with the Great White Elephant er, The Pyramid, the would-be epochal edifice built a decade ago that Shelby Countians are still paying for and which seems likely to be forsaken by the University of Memphis Tigers for the soon-to-be FedExForum.

A funny thing happened on the way to dealing with that latter matter: Late in the year the commission -- and, thereby, the rest of us -- discovered that Shelby County didn't have the final say on disposal of The Pyramid. A codicil of The Agreement between HOOPS (the entity representing the National Basketball Association Grizzlies) and our two local governments seemed to give Griz owner Michael Heisley absolute authority over the attractions that could go into that venue. Eyes stopped rolling and started focusing on the dilemma -- and nags like Willingham and Walter Bailey -- whose skepticism concerning the new FedExForum antedated even Willingham's -- seemed vindicated after all.

Memphians and most Shelby Countians can expect reasonably important elections three years out of every four. (The next "off year" is 2005.) The past year saw the ritual reelection of Memphis mayor Herenton over the pro forma protest vote embodied in the Willingham candidacy, as well as the advent of two new City Council members.

One was Scott McCormick, who succeeded in his third try for public office with a dignified low-key challenge to long-term incumbent Pat Vander Schaaf. (Interesting discovery: The defeated council member confides that she joins the two halves of her last name when running for election, separates them with a space for all other times and occasions. As was the case with Clair Vander Schaaf, the ex-husband whose long tenure on the county commission was discontinued by the voters in 2002 and who, like her, still maintains many public friendships, Pat Vander Schaaf (note the space) may now keep to a single typographical standard.

The other new member was Carol Chumney, who claimed the Midtown/East Memphis seat vacated by the famously independent-minded John Vergos. Chumney, who resigned her District 89 state representative's seat in mid-campaign, had several public opponents for the council seat -- notably lawyer Jim Strickland and physician/businessman George Flinn -- and a few quasi-public ones. The latter included council colleagues-to-be Myron Lowery and Rickey Peete and, most prominently, Mayor Herenton, who did his behind-the-scenes best on Flinn's behalf during a runoff between the good doctor, who had the local Republican endorsement, and Democrat Chumney.

One explanation commonly advanced for this unusual behavior was that it was a quid pro quo to the local GOP leadership for its neutrality in the mayor's race. Another theory posited the notion that Chumney's diligence and determination might potentially escalate into the kind of iron-willed behavior that would be a caveat for other city government figures.

A case in point was the retiring state representative's fervent lobbying of the county commission on behalf of her campaign manager, Jay Sparks, as a potential replacement for her, pending the formal electon of a successor on February 10th.

Ultimately, the commission took what seemed the commonsensical course of appointing Beverly Marrero, the victor over Jeff Sullivan in the December 16th Democratic primary held as part of the special election to replace Chumney. There was no Republican candidate, making Marrero's formal election on February 10th a certitude.

If that Marrero-Sullivan race was any kind of guide to the kind of intensity that we can expect in 2004's other legislative races -- in which Republicans and Democrats will be competing on more or less equal terms for domination of the General assembly, then, folks, we are in for it.

The tone of the District 89 special election was dictated -- and its outcome assured -- by state Senator Steve Cohen, who represents much of the same territory and is a power broker to be reckoned with. As in 1990, when he threw his full weight and ingenuity behind Chumney, Cohen was a veritable pit-bull presence -- accusing Sullivan of living outside the district and of feloniously casting an early vote for himself and thereby shifting the entire dialectic of the campaign onto the residency issue.

As has been said, politics ain't beanbag; it's power, and the pursuit of it, as well as the exercise of it, can be unpretty indeed. The coming year promises more electoral fireworks -- some of them right away.

In the hope that the volunteer state might have more impact than usual in the 2004 presidential election, the legislature acted last year to move Tennessee's preferential primary up to February 10th. Coming along with it will be local races. Two burgeoning local countywide races could turn out to be spirited -- or worse.

One is for Shelby County assessor, and there are contests in both the Democratic and the Republican primaries on February 10th. Democratic incumbent Rita Clark will attempt to hold the fort against multiple challenges, from fellow Democrat Michael Hooks, a former assessor, as well as a Republican field that includes yet another former assessor, Harold Sterling. (Hooks once lost to Sterling, who subsequently lost to Clark; so there are several potential grudge-match combinations.)

Then there's a race for General Sessions court clerk, with Republican incumbent Chris Turner preparing for a Democratic challenge from either state Senator Roscoe Dixon, who lost to Turner in 2000, or former assistant clerk Becky Clark.

Local political folks will also be looking beyond the off-year of 2005 to the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections of 2006. Several worthies in both parties, including Democratic 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., as well as current 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn and her GOP partymate Ed Bryant, who preceded her in Congress and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2002, are looking at the latter.

Not much interest has so far been generated in either party for the honor of taking on incumbent Governor Phil Bredesen, who barely squeaked into office in 2002 but has gratified fellow Democrats with his efficiency and placated the opposition Republicans with his hard-nosed budget-cutting.

But politics abhors a vacuum even more than nature does, and partisanship will continue. Count on it.

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