A Crossroads Election

Which way would Mr. Crump go? Which way will his descendants (that's us) go?

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At last Saturday's formal opening of the E.H. Crump Collection at the Central Library, a number of historians -- including the eminent Kenneth Jackson of Columbia University -- spoke, as did several local descendants of the legendary Memphis political boss.

Betty Crump McGeorge, a granddaughter, concluded her remarks with a highly topical invocation of "Mr. Crump," as even she referred to him: "Being the Democrat that I'm sure he still is, I'm sure he would say, 'Go vote for Kerry.'" This from a lady who -- gracing her bouquet with inadvertent irony --- was using a walker festooned with NASCAR emblems.

During a break in the program, Robert Smithwick III, who had also spoken sentiments in praise of his great grandfather, mused to a visitor concerning his aunt's declaration, "I'm not so sure Mr. Crump would have said that!"

Nor was Dr. Marius Carriere of Christian Brothers University, one of a quartet of local historians who followed in Jackson's wake. Carriere chose to remind the audience that Crump had broken with the national Democrats for the 1948 election and had supported States' Rights Party candidate Strom Thurmond, whose views were famously segregationist.

Who indeed knows in what direction that famous wide-brimmed hat would have nodded this year? The man who was Memphis' most influential political figure ever, and, almost by definition, the city's most important Democrat ever as well, is most certainly keeping his peace.

His descendants -- and that includes all of us, not just the family members on hand for Saturday's event -- have been at political cross purposes in recent years. As George W. Bush, a Republican president seeking a second term, squares off Tuesday against Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, it is certain that Kerry will prevail in Shelby County -- even if the outcome in Tennessee at large, where Boss Crump's fiat also ran, is more problematical.

In a year in which many of the major polls have been at odds with each other, Kerry trails Bush by two points (Zogby), is behind by several points in other polls, and is ahead in the latest Rasmussen and Washington Post polls. One thing is certain: The state that was visited several times in 2000 by both Bush, who won its 11 electoral votes, and his Democratic rival, then Vice President Al Gore, had been largely ignored this year, not only by the contending candidates, but by their major political surrogates.

It should be noted that a late Get-Out-the-Vote rally was led in Memphis this week by 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., heir to both the office and the organization of his namesake father, the closest thing we've had to a Crump figure in modern times, though Representative Ford Sr.'s electoral clout was confined to Memphis' inner-city precincts. For that matter, the younger Ford, whose future political designs are statewide and national, had himself spent most of the election season going up and down the country.

And Memphis' other major political force, Mayor Willie Herenton, a sometime Democrat who had gone on the line in the past for candidates Bill Clinton and Gore, as well as for assorted local office-seekers, had not yet been heard from -- even as the current election season entered its final week.

This is not to say that local political cadres were not as determined as ever -- perhaps even more so. Democrats, led by their chairman, state representative Kathryn Bowers, and Republicans, headed by Chairman Kemp Conrad, were goading their troops to intensive G.O.T.V. efforts -- the Democrats so as to match or exceed the 50,000-odd Democratic majority in Shelby County that won the state for Clinton-Gore in 1996 (and held things relatively close four years ago), the Republicans to cut that local majority in half.

This is a year in which in which Tip O'Neill's famous phrase, "All politics is local," may apply -- but with a difference.

Much of the attention of Memphians was focused on five city school board races (see story on page 14), but stepped-up voter-registration figures and higher-than-normal early-vote totals gave indication that, in both city and county -- as well as in neighboring West Tennessee counties -- citizens were taking their franchise very seriously indeed.

To begin with the periphery: In Tipton County, voters were girding to decide whether longtime Democratic state House speaker Jimmy Naifeh would keep his job or whether he would be replaced by Dr. Jesse Cannon, a popular African-American internist whose campaign was pivotal to the hopes of area -- and statewide -- Republicans. And to the east, Lauderdale County's venerable John Wilder, the state's even longer-time lieutenant governor, was in danger, some said, of losing his state Senate seat to GOP challenger Ron Stallings of Bolivar.

Either outcome would produce seismic reverberations in the state government of Tennessee, whose Democratic chief executive, Phil Bredesen, was lending his efforts and his prestige (gained from a middle-of-the-road governing style which many said had, in effect, enacted the Republican platform) to these and other beleaguered Democrats in tight legislative races.

Republicans, who own both U.S. Senate seats and are hoping this year to recapture a majority in the state's nine-member U.S. House delegation, are intent upon gaining control of at least one chamber of the legislature, and potentially both. The Democrats' current majority is three in the state Senate, nine in the House.

In Shelby County, this has resulted in the GOP's targeting of Mike Kernell, the veteran (if still boyish) state representative in District 93. The Republicans' candidate in that race is businessman John Pellicciotti, an earnest and photogenic exemplar who came close to unseating Kernell two years ago on the income-tax issue.

Another contested race is that in District 89 (Midtown, Binghamton) between first-term state representative Beverly Marrero, a winner in last year's special election to succeed current City Council member Carol Chumney, and Republican challenger Jim Jamieson, who earlier made two determined, if unsuccessful, races against Chumney. Jamieson is trying hard again, though it's hard to see how he can succeed in a district that, historically, has tilted heavily Democratic -- at least in local elections.

But Jamieson is at least theoretically in play. The same cannot be said for Republican Johnny Hatcher, who -- along with the perennial school board candidate Mary Taylor Shelby, running as an independent -- is challenging District 30 state senator Steve Cohen, whose ability to broker the way for candidates like Marrero is dependent on his unshakeable hold on his own Midtown and East Memphis bailiwick.

In House District 92 (central Memphis), former legislator (and former Democrat) D. Jack Smith, is carrying the Republican standard against incumbent Democrat Henri Brooks, whose refusal to stand for recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance has no doubt infuriated many voters -- just not enough of them in her district. And in state House District 86, another forlorn Republican challenge is under way by Republican George T. Edwards III against reigning Democrat Barbara Cooper.

But Republicans are not the only ones attempting the im- possible against entrenched incumbents. Several Democrats are trying to do just that too. For example, there's the long-odds challenge of Democrat Susan Slyfield, a political newcomer, against state representative Tre Hargett, the House Republican leader, in District 97 (Bartlett). An only slightly better bet is the race of Democrat Julian Prewitt, a businessman/teacher, against heavily favored lawyer Brian Kelsey, the GOP nominee in House District 83, an open seat vacated this year by long-time Republican incumbent Joe Kent.

And the attempt by Democrat Joe Pete Parker to unseat GOP state senator Mark Norris in District 32, encompassing staunchly Republican areas in outer Shelby and adjoining counties, can be regarded as a pro forma effort -- especially since Norris, a former congressional candidate, is widely regarded as one of his party's coming stars.

At the congressional level there are races too -- sort of.

U.S. representative Ford has two challengers in District 9 -- Republican Ruben Fort (who may be going for the homonym voter) and Jim Maynard, a write-in gay activist who was offended both by the incumbent's support for the federal Marriage Amendment and by what Maynard perceived as Ford's creeping conservatism in other areas. Neither challenge has a prayer of deflecting the congressman from reelection and his planned Senate run in 2006.

Another futile race, in the 8th congressional district, is one of James L. Hart against popular Democratic incumbent John Tanner. Hart is an unredeemed racist, and every Republican organization in sight has officially repudiated him.

Two of Memphis' suburban neighbors are having municipal elections, and some races are hotly contested.

In Germantown, Mike Palazzolo and Kevin Snider are seeking Alderman's Position 3, while four others -- Rick Bennett, Mark Billingsley, Ernest Chism, and Greg Marcom -- vie for Position 5. In Bartlett, Alderman's Position 4 is being contested by Eddie Cody, Terry W. Fondren, Phil Inman, Paula C. (McGehee) Montgomery, and Bobby Simmons, while Position 6 is sought by Rick Faith and Jim "Hoppy" Hopkinson.

One more race of note: On the ballot in Memphis precincts is a "privilege" (read: payroll) tax that is a proposed answer of sorts to the revenue crisis besetting all local governments. City council member Janet Hooks is the chief sponsor of a measure which has collected a formidable array of opponents but, up or down, may become something of a perennial on the ballot in one or another form.

Clarification: The name of state representative Beverly Marrero (D-89) was inadvertently omitted from two recent articles -- one listing those legislators who complied with an issue questionnaire from Project VoteSmart and another naming the speakers at a local Democratic rally two weekends ago. Marrero was present and accounted for in both circumstances.

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