Under Challenge

Legislative behemoths Naifeh and Wilder face determined opposition.

Posted Fri, Sep 24, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Though a legislative race or two taking place in Shelby County could have important consequences on the balance of power in Nashville, two contests happening just on the fringes of the county are drawing most attention statewide.

Those are: the race for state House District 81, which pits House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, a Democrat, against Dr. Jesse Cannon, his Republican opponent; and the race for state Senate District 26, in which Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Somerville, the Senate speaker, is under challenge from Ron Stallings, a CPA.

An upset of either Naifeh or Wilder would have important consequences for the future political direction of state government, not just because the legislative chain of command would be drastically altered but also because the small arithmetical lead which legislative Democrats now hold over Republicans -- 18-15 in the Senate; 54-45 in the House -- could be affected.

Though early estimates by observers in both major political parties suggested victories by the two incumbents, their challengers are running hard and may be gaining some steam.

At a reception for Naifeh and Wilder in Brownsville two weekends ago, impassioned appeals were made to voters by House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry and state representative Ulysses Jones, among others, not to forsake the two speakers.

"Why would you want to get rid of the power?" asked Jones bluntly.

DeBerry agreed and elaborated: "How in the world can we give up the most powerful men, who can do virtually anything for somebody who's going to be low on the totem pole? It's not about whether you like somebody or dislike somebody. It's what they can bring to make life better for the people in Haywood County and Tipton County. Some of these issues that folks raise are not going to put food on your table."

Those issues have ranged from what Cannon, at a forum in Brownsville later that day, called "the specter of the income tax" (though neither Naifeh nor Wilder is currently advocating one) to the age-old challenger's theme of it's-time-for-a-change.

Complicating the issue for Naifeh is the fact that he and challenger Cannon were once close. "I consider Jesse a friend of mine. Obviously, he didn't consider me one," said the House Speaker in Brownsville, pointing out that Cannon had cared for both his parents and that he had nominated the physician to two state boards.

State representative Johnny Shaw of Brownsville, like Cannon an African American, struck a similar note. "I give him [Cannon] credit for saving my life, [but] he needs to remain in the doctor's office," Shaw said. "He's not just running against Speaker Naifeh, he's running against all of us."

Both Naifeh and Wilder have far larger war chests, but their opponents have upped the ante of late, with Cannon having brought on new consultants and Stallings holding high-profile fund-raisers -- like the big-ticket one in Bolivar last week presided over by former Governor Winfield Dunn.

• Who will be appointed by the Shelby County Commission to succeed Linda Rendtorff, Mayor A C Wharton's new director of community services?

It depends on whom you talk to, but the consensus is that the race is wide open.

Tom Moss, the commission's newly elected vice chairman, said last week that he expects a protracted process as the body moves to name a successor to Rendtorff, whose resignation became effective last Wednesday at a specially called meeting.

That allowed the commission to advertise the vacancy formally, and the body voted last week to hold a special meeting on October 4th to name one of the dozen or so aspirants whose names have so far surfaced.

"I keep thinking that we may not have even seen all the names," cautioned Moss, who notes that both Rendtorff herself and the late Morris Fair were originally voted onto the commission as late-ballot choices to fill vacancies.

Like most other commissioners, Moss said he wasn't yet committed to a candidate, but he acknowledged leaning to developer Billy Orgel, who by consensus is one of the two leading candidates -- the other being former county school board member Wyatt Bunker. "I think we need someone, maybe a businessman, whose experience goes beyond partisan politics," Moss said. "And, since Linda was known as a moderate, I think we'll need to appoint a moderate to succeed her."

A somewhat different view was advanced by Commissioner John Willingham, whose daughter, teacher Karla Templeton, is a professed candidate for the position. In Willingham's view, Rendtorff's constituents would prefer the continuity that would result from the appointment of another woman.

"And I'll tell you one thing, whoever is appointed, if it isn't Karla, they should get ready for the race in 2006, because she'll definitely be a candidate then. And she's a bona fide Republican," said Willingham, who noted that Templeton had run a close race against Rendtorff in 2002.

Willingham is taking the unusual step of combining a forum for would-be candidates and fellow commissioners with an open house he's holding at his new East Memphis home on Sunday. "I've sent out invitations to everybody who's been mentioned, " said the commissioner. "It wouldn't be fair just to do something like that for Karla alone."

At the moment, Templeton is regarded as one of several potential fallback choices if neither Orgel nor Bunker amasses enough votes on an early ballot. Joining her in that category are Mike Carpenter, president of the West Tennessee chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors; retired banking executive Mike Ritz; and Dr. George Flinn, the radiologist/businessman who in recent years has made high-profile races for county mayor and the Memphis City Council.

Others whose names have been previously mentioned include lawyer and Democratic activist Jim Strickland, activist Mary Harvey Gurley, former county school board member Karen Hill, and Democratic activist Jay Sparks. Of late, two new names have surfaced -- those of former city school board member Barbara Prescott and Mike Tooley Jr., son of the late former commissioner whom Rendtorff was named to succeed 10 years ago.

Commission chairman Michael Hooks has said he will arrange commission interviews with aspirants for the Rendtorff seat on Wednesday, September 29.

• Meanwhile, Chairman Hooks has a decision to make regarding another pending vacancy -- that of state senator from District 33 to succeed Roscoe Dixon, another new Wharton appointee.

Dixon is slated to become an assistant administrative aide to the mayor in January, at which time he will resign his Senate seat. Hooks, who became chairman earlier this month, has indicated he is interested in succeeding Dixon and is reportedly mulling over the wisdom of asking his fellow commissioners to appoint him to the position in January.

In that instance, Hooks would be the odds-on favorite to be appointed by his colleagues. The downside for him would be that, as the new senator, he would be prevented by state law from doing any active fund-raising while the legislature was in session.

That would put him on even terms with three other potential candidates, Henri Brooks, Kathryn Bowers, and Joe Towns, all now House members. Governor Bredesen is expected to call for a special election to fill the seat within the first three months of next year, a time when the General Assembly will be meeting.

Alternatively, Hooks might seek to prevail on his colleagues to name an interim senator who would pledge not to run in the special election.

He would then run in the special election himself and, since he would be entitled to raise money, would possess an advantage over his potential rivals in the legislature.

Wrong Irony: Duh! While it is true that -- as was reported here last week -- it was somewhat "ironic" for Commissioner David Lillard to have nominated Moss as the commission's vice chairman last week, since Lillard's close friend Bruce Thompson had also harbored an ambition for the seat, that was the true reason why Lillard chose to use the adjective to describe his action.

What Lillard had in mind, of course, was that Moss had, back in December 2000, been the upset winner over him in a commission vote to fill a then pending vacancy. That vote involved a series of complicated trade-offs among commissioners, one of the most controversial of which was the naming of then Commissioner Shep Wilbun as juvenile court clerk. Lillard would go on to win his seat in the regularly called election of 2002.

At the time, all of that was chronicled at length and detail in this space. What is it they say? "Homer nods." •

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