A CROSSROADS ELECTION
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.
HEAD OF THE CLASS: SCHOOL BOARD RACES
City school board races this year have unusual prominence
Ordinarily Memphis school board elections are little noted. This year's races for five of the board's nine positions are a different story, and there are several reasons why.
First is a panoply of high-profile issues, notably the substandard showing of too many schools on state and federal rating lists in recent years. Second is the simple fact that after the top-of-the-ballot presidential contest, there are relatively few races, other than those for the school board, to engage voter attention.
All of the school board races on this year's ballot are contested, and almost all of them have generated some degree of heat.
Position 1, At-Large: Incumbent Wanda Halbert is standing off a field of five challengers, at least two of whom former city attorney Robert Spence and Pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr. have substantial support. Also in the race are Menelik Fombi, Mary Taylor Shelby, and Chuck Thompson.
Halbert's middle name is "Outspoken." She has engaged in running criticism of various school officials, including former Superintendent Johnnie Watson, and initially opposed the appointment of current Superintendent Carol Johnson. She has been a strong voice for vetting the school system's programs but opposed this year's significant budget cuts a position that critics underlined when figures showed she led the board in travel expenses. Her major theme is "parental involvement" befitting her own status as a single parent.
Spence, whose stump style has evolved from an awkward beginning, was initially presumed to have support from Mayor Willie Herenton, who has chosen, however, not to get involved. He also boasts of several other establishment supporters ranging from Sheriff Mark Luttrell to several past and present City Council members to University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari. He argues that his connections will enable him to create "strong working relationships between parents and educators, among government agencies, and with corporate and community leaders."
Under considerable fire from Halbert and others because his children attend private schools, Spence faltered at first, then began answering that he was not the custodial parent. His listed priorities include "early childhood education, fiscal accountability, parental responsibility, and community partnerships."
Whalum, the unconventional pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church who bills himself as the "keeping-it-real preacher," has campaigned with the same volatility and panache that characterize his pulpit style. While his major competitors are reticent about school closings, Whalum calls forthrightly for the sale of moribund school properties, on the condition that the "manufacturing businesses" that buy them employ local residents.
"Responsibility, Revenue, and Realism": That's how Whalum sums up his major themes.
Candidate Thompson, the only non-African American in this group, has proposed some radical revisions in how the school system operates from "boot camps" to raise problem students' grades to a dismantling of the district's transportation system to the introduction of computer-based "I-books" for general student use.
Says Thompson of these and other proposals: "These measures, if instituted, would make the schools better yet cut the budget by millions of dollars! Any other candidate on the ticket is headed for financial crisis. They all want more money."
Another candidate is Menelik Fombi, who likes to tell audiences that he is a son of the late civil rights leader A.W. Willis and who boasts diverse educational experience as an instructor in the Ohio prison system. He is a forthright advocate of consolidation but only if it encompasses all governmental operations at the city and county levels. Fombi, who was one of the first elementary school students to integrate the Memphis City Schools in 1961, also talks up health and nutrition issues, as well as courses in African-American history and women's history.
Then there is Mary Taylor Shelby, a perennial candidate who has long operated something called "Students, Mothers, and Concerned Citizens" as a vehicle to further her political and social interests. A steadfast opponent of school closures and an advocate of lowered standards for lottery scholarships, Taylor Shelby has in recent years attempted an informal alliance with dissident Republicans. Says she: "I will not view our educational system as a problem that cannot be solved."
District 1: Incumbent Willie Brooks and challenger Stephanie Gatewood have had a relatively good-natured contest. Both ran for the position last year, when Brooks, a FedEx human resources administrator, defeated lawyer J. Bailey in a runoff for the right to succeed the late Dr. Lee Brown.
Gatewood, who is involved with mentoring programs, takes a firm position against the federal No Child Left Behind program. Brooks is just as firmly for it. Beyond that and the issue of paddling, which Gatewood opposes and Brooks supports, shades of gray distinguish the two candidates' positions on most issues.
Controversy of sorts emerged late in the game with last-minute charges from Gatewood supporters that several notable names appearing on Brooks' campaign literature as endorsers were questionable, either carryovers from last year's race or used without authorization. But there is no question that Brooks has good support from establishment types.
District 3: Incumbent and current board president Patrice Jordan Robinson has seen her race with two articulate challengers Juanita Clark Stevenson and Anabell Hernandez-Rodriguez Turner turn into something of a free-for-all, with Robinson's opponents taking her to task for her involvement in last year's abortive effort to fund expensive new chairs for board members. The incumbent has also been one of the board's high-end spenders on travel.
She faces the election's only Hispanic candidate in Turner, who is PTSA president at Overton High School and a member of the parent group at Wooddale High School. She is an advocate of strengthened language instruction. Newcomer Stevenson, a "family specialist" who bills her candidacy as the opportunity for a "fresh start," is parent liaison for Winchester Elementary and the mother of four children.
District 5: The Rev. Herman Powell Sr. is one contender for this seat, vacated by one of the board's most influential members, Lora Jobe. Dr. Jeff Warren, who is backed by Jobe, is the other.
Warren had been one of the few candidates to take a staunch position against corporal punishment, an issue which Jobe has done much to get on the front burner. He also emphasizes "strong principals" as the basic means to improving education and has proposed advancing the role of physical education in the curriculum.
Powell has not advanced a detailed litany of proposed changes but emphasizes his history as a lifelong Memphian and promises to be thoughtful and balanced in his approaches.
District 7: Incumbent Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge Jr., one of the current board's most controversial members and the center of several ongoing dust-ups, is opposed by challengers Terry L. Becton and Tomeka R. Hart.
Though Sandridge has been front and center on a number of issues in his determined opposition to any closings of traditional inner-city schools, for instance he has gotten more attention of late for his on-again, off-again status as an employee of county government. Sandridge was fired from his county job last week.
Sandridge was already facing determined opposition from Hart, an attorney and former teacher, who has the backing of the "New Path" reform group. "Dealing with the community and communicating are the real issues," she says. In defense of his 17-year tenure, Sandridge has put on something of an advertising blitz and is counting on what is, for better or worse, abundant name recognition.
Though Becton has participated in forums, she has largely been overshadowed by the other two candidates. She promises a "fresh start," with an emphasis "on academics rather than attitudes and social agendas."
--J.B. & J.D.