Making Believe

Chumney's mayoral campaign was presented as a virtual reality in the Gridiron Show.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Fri, Apr 8, 2005 at 4:00 AM

One of the clichés of our time is that life imitates art -- a variation on the even older cliché that art imitates life. Whatever the order of precedence, the two realms certainly are related symbiotically -- a fact indicated rather glaringly in last weekend's annual Gridiron Show at the Al Chymia Shrine Temple in East Memphis.

Time was when the Gridiron Show was an unending five- or six-hour affair, put on at The Peabody and attracting a Who's Who of political attendees. Various circumstances -- including the audience's patience and capacity for attention -- have caused the show to be contracted in recent years, and the change has been, for the most part, welcomed.

One of the consequences of the shorter format is that the multiplicity of subjects covered satirically in the show's song-and-dance routines has been largely reduced to a single dominating theme, focused on through several changes of scene.

This year's theme was "Where's Willie?" -- but the subtext, which was major enough to figure in a majority of the skits, was the burgeoning mayoral candidacy of City Council member Carol Chumney.

Chief writer Blake Fontenay was reportedly concerned that Chumney might take offense at some of the references. In one of the skits, an actor playing District Attorney Bill Gibbons (represented as coveting the office of governor) suggested that he and Chumney, as partners in "political ambition," should run away together. She was portrayed as replying, "Aw heck, let's go somewhere big enough for both of our egos." To which "Gibbons" replied: "I hear Jupiter is nice this time of year!"

Chumney's love of the camera and of headlines, as well as the possibility that she just might be, in one unadmiring character's estimation, a "nerd," were all duly noted. But still, she was portrayed -- no small compliment! -- by the admirably talented and presentable Dare Pugh. And Chumney's more or less omnipresent character was sung to -- or, as the ancients would have said, sung -- by mass choruses via show-stopping melodies such as "Nothing Like a Dame" and "Hello, Dolly."

Most significantly, Chumney was represented in just the way she no doubt sees herself -- not just as a persistent scold to Mayor Willie Herenton, but as his most likely challenger and even as the heir apparent to his office.

All in all, the show had the effect of being Chumney's unofficial campaign launch.

Ironically, her stage foil, singer-actor James Harvey, who portrayed Herenton, is ambitious in his own right. Harvey, a mortgage broker, recently finished a surprising second, ahead of Shelby County Commission chairman Michael Hooks, in the special Democratic primary for state Senate District 33, won by state representative Kathryn Bowers.

Harvey said after the show that he intends to follow through on that moral victory by running for the County Commission's District 5 seat next year. That race, in the Democratic primary, would no doubt pit Harvey against veteran pol Joe Cooper, who has served notice that he intends to run again for the seat, as he did in 2002. The winner would go on to oppose Republican incumbent Bruce Thompson.

And, after the commission race, win or lose, "I might be interested in running for city mayor myself," Harvey declared.

One other mayoral wannabe, city councilman Rickey Peete, was the featured luncheon speaker of the downtown Rotary Club last week and, in the judgment of many of those who attended, came off as a solid probability to make a race in 2007.

n Playing himself in the Gridiron Show, incidentally, was Commissioner John Willingham, who faces a challenge in 2002, from fellow Republican Mike Carpenter.

But first things first: Willingham, who has long been at odds with Kemp Conrad, the immediate past chairman of the local Republican Party, had the pleasure of telling off a Conrad surrogate on stage with the line, "Why don't you just get your sorry butt out of here!"

Willingham then nuzzled up with an actor playing new GOP chairman Bill Giannini -- something of an irony in that Giannini was Conrad's designated choice to succeed him.

n The Ford Watch: The "will-he-or-won't-he?" saga of Harold Ford Jr. as a potential U.S. Senate candidate wends its way on, in ways suggestive of one of those endlessly deferred outcomes on a daytime television drama -- or of the running watch kept in 1975 by Saturday Night Live over Generalissimo Francisco Franco's ever-diminishing mortality.

Even those with shorter memories can recall Representative Ford's prolonged and highly public indecision in 1999/2000 concerning a possible run against incumbent Senator Bill Frist.

Family matters -- in that case the 9th District congressman's loyal participation in Uncle Joe Ford's losing 1999 race against Mayor Willie Herenton -- helped put a crimp in that prospect, just as the current one may have been undermined by Uncle John Ford's imperiled circumstances in the state Senate and various other arenas.

Not to worry, says the congressman, who appeared Tuesday morning on Teddy Bart's Roundtable, a much-listened-to Nashville talk show. Ford told that politically oriented audience that he will so be a candidate. "I'll run on my terms. I won't let others dictate," he insisted.

The congressman had been reported by various media sources as having been active in Middle and East Tennessee last week, appearing on Knoxville talk radio, touring Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and chatting up in a Middle Tennessee State University political science class, along with other appearances. Ford told the Associated Press after last week's tour that no one had mentioned state senator Ford's predicament to him.

Representative Ford also announced the results of a poll done on his behalf which shows him, as the prospective Democratic nominee, with a five-point lead over Republican candidate Bob Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga, and in a dead heat with two former GOP congressmen, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary.

Ford recently declared in Memphis that he believed both Bryant and Hilleary were more likely Republican nominees than Corker. (Yet another declared Republican candidate is Nashville state representative Beth Harwell.)

The Memphis congressman's declarations on Tuesday were made amidst a growing crescendo of doubt in party circles as to his intentions and resolve. Only the day before, on the same radio program, veteran lobbyist and former Democratic legislator Tommy Burnett, told the Teddy Bart audience: "The tag-along game doesn't work forever . At some point he [Ford] has got to put the hammer down and run."

Meanwhile, the only declared Democratic candidate remains state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. Her finance director, Kimberly Wood, said last week that it was "irresponsible" of Ford to delay making a formal announcement. "It's going to be a very big race. We cannot afford for a Democratic candidate to wait so long to get in."

If Ford happens not to run, other Democrats who have expressed interest include Nashville attorney and party activist Bob Tuke, state senator Doug Jackson of Dickson, and former Nashville congressman Bob Clement, who made an unsuccessful Senate run against Republican Lamar Alexander in 2002.

n Like Ford, another area congressman, John Tanner of West Tennessee's 8th District, has long been regarded as potentially open to President Bush's proposals to privatize Social Security.

Until last week, Tanner had been one of three Democratic congressmen remaining on the "Faint-hearted Faction" list posted by influential blogger Joshua Mica Marshall. This is the same list from which Ford was purged some weeks ago, largely on the strength of his explicit statements to the Flyer opposing the president's plan.

And the morning after Tanner's appearance at a Social Security forum in Jackson last week, he too was off the list.

"I don't know how he got that idea," Tanner said, after taking the stage and stating his categorical opposition to privatization in general and to Bush's plans for private investment accounts in particular. Tanner further proclaimed support of the traditional function of Social Security as an insurance program -- a "floor," as he put it -- for the American populace.

Like various other Democrats, Tanner professed himself open to the concept of "add-on" private accounts, not financed by the Social Security tax. But, even on that point, he issued a caveat: "Don't play the stock market with money you can't afford to lose."

The only point on which Tanner might be said to have parted company with the staunchest defenders of traditional Social Security was his relatively pessimistic projection that the system, due to the progressive weakening of the dollar vis-à-vis other international currencies, could face a true fiscal crisis later in the century.

"This country's budget deficit is the big burden," Tanner said. "You can't have a good Social Security dollar and a bad Treasury dollar.'' n

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