Drawing a Crowd

The 2006 Senate field begins to expand.

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Enlarged and refocused, the projected 2006 U.S. Senate race picture in Tennessee may prove something more of a crowd scene than seemed the case a year ago. Both the Democratic and Republican primaries for the seat now occupied by GOP Majority Leader Bill Frist promise to be hotly contested affairs, clogged with bigfoot entrants.

No longer is Memphis' 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. considered a sure Democratic nominee for the seat, which Frist will likely vacate in order to prepare for his projected 2008 presidential run. Persistent reports indicate that Nashville mayor Bill Purcell is determined to compete for the Democratic Senate nomination -- a circumstance that would fan the always smoldering Nashville-Memphis political rivalry.

And Republican competition is likely to be even more intense, with former congressman Van Hilleary, the 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee and his party's newly elected national committeeman, considered likely to make a run. Also thinking long and hard about the race is Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, whose long-standing designs on the governorship are presumably blocked by incumbent Democratic governor Phil Bredesen's current high approval ratings.

Other Republican Senate hopefuls include Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp (who might, however, defer to Corker), former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, and, possibly, current 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, whose statewide vote-getting potential is considered formidable.

n Governor Phil Bredesen achieved one of his hardest-fought legislative victories in the last week of this year's session of the General Assembly, when he prevailed on reluctant fellow Democrats to join Republicans in passing a cost-cutting workers' compensation reform bill, reducing the "multiplier" (the number determining the ceiling of benefits and awards) from 2.5 to 1.5.

Some Democrats remain discontented -- notably Bill Farmer of Lebanon, immediate past chairman of the state Democratic Party and also a pillar of state trial lawyers' organizations, which bitterly opposed the legislation.

Farmer got his revenge last week when he responded to a fund-raising letter from Bredesen on behalf of Democratic members of the legislature. Suggested donations ranged from $100 to $500, with a blank on the invitation form titled "Other."

"Thank you for your kind invitation," wrote Farmer, who continued, "I have enclosed my reply card and check for One Point Five Dollars ($1.50) for my contribution" [Farmer's boldface].

n Assessor candidates tangle: To judge by the sometimes congenial, sometimes edgy, and always spirited discussion held by the two major-party nominees for Shelby County assessor before an audience of real estate investors last Thursday night, the race between Democrat Rita Clark, the incumbent, and Republican Harold Sterling, a former assessor, will not lack for issues.

The two candidates, making their first joint appearance at a meeting of the Memphis Investors Group at the Home Builders headquarters on Germantown Parkway, also took some shots at each other during an evening where they each made prepared statements, followed by a joint Q-and-A session.

Clark -- who upset Sterling's reelection bid in 1996 -- reminded the audience that, during Sterling's term, the taxpayers had been hit for a judgment in a discrimination suit. (The two differed over the amount; Clark said it amounted to $600,000; Sterling said it was settled for far less.) The allegation was her comeback to Sterling's suggestion that her staff was larger than it should be and that her office was thereby "spending too much money."

Said Clark: "A lot of times men don't understand how women manage. Women manage through a relationship." And, she said, through an emphasis on administration and diversity.

Sterling critiqued the incumbent's conduct of property-owners' appeals thusly: "Very few people came through that process happy. You need to work with people." And he said his 44 years' real estate experience equipped him better than the incumbent to deal with the issues of property assessment.

The issue of who should get credit for an innovation called G.I.S. -- for Geographic Information Systems -- got some argument. The G.I.S., a digitized, layered method of mapping (and visualizing) property from specialized aerial photographs, isn't online at the assessor's office yet but will be within two months' time, said Clark. Sterling had taken credit for getting the program started in his term and chided Clark for not completing it during the next eight years. She responded that Sterling's predecessor, Michael Hooks, had actually laid the groundwork for implementing G.I.S.

Clark's upset of Sterling in 1996 owed much to her charge that he had hired a personal fitness trainer at taxpayer expense. Should the accusation resurface this year, he will likely contend, as he did last week, that his fitness program was for all employees and that he reduced absenteeism and saved the taxpayers money.

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