POLITICS: Acting Commissioners

Two jailers’ advocates played a part in killing off prison privatization – and maybe more.

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Though the public at large has been largely unaware of their impact, two spokesmen for Shelby County jailers, Jeffrey Woodard and Warren Cole, played a major role in the resolution of the ongoing prison-privatization controversy – reached, at least temporarily, last week when both Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton and Sheriff Mark Luttrell distanced themselves from the proposal.

Visitors to the Shelby County Commission’s bi-weekly public meetings had, over the last two years, become used to the presence of Woodard and Cole, who would come to the commission dock at the end of each meeting with strenuous and (usually) reasoned protests against the pending proposal to privatize the administration of both the county’s Corrections Center and the downtown county jail.

So familiar had the two become that when Woodard appeared on cue at a recent meeting, Commission chairman Tom Moss referred to him jokingly as “the 14th commissioner.” And when neither Woodard nor Cole were in the audience at last week’s committee hearing of the privatization issue, featuring testimony by both county financial officer Jim Huntzicker and sheriff’s aide Harvey Kennedy, commissioners agreed both to notify the two jailers’ advocates of the discussion and to postpone any recommendation on the issue until Monday’s meeting.

In the interval between the two meetings, Luttrell doomed the privatization proposal by taking a definitive stand against it -- to the consternation of commission proponent Bruce Thompson, who saw election-year politics as the sheriff’s motivation. That was on top of Huntzicker’s conclusion, announced at last week’s committee hearing, that a changeover to a private system would not be cost-effective – at least for the Corrections Center.

Politics may well have played a part in the resolution of the issue, but so did the unrelenting opposition of Woodard and Cole, who kept the commission’s attention focused on the issue and on potential jailers’ grievances. More than that, however, the two became versed in a variety of other issues before the commission – ranging from school construction to budgetary problems in general – and began addressing those matters as well.

The influence of the pair grew correspondingly – among commissioners in both parties and on both sides of the privatization issue. In announcing her reluctance to approve add-on charges submitted Monday by a private company that provides medical services to inmates, Republican commissioner Marilyn Loeffel cited research on the matter done by Woodard and Cole.

Though the company’s services will continue for the time being and the charges will be paid, the company was put on notice by the commission that the future of its contract is in doubt.

If so, that’s another one that can be chalked up to the 14th and 15th commissioners.

The annual round of politically tinged Christmas parties – er, make that “holiday gatherings” – crested Monday night with a party hosted by 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. at Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant on Monroe.

Ford’s event followed a series of other seasonal gatherings by prominent politicians, and it coincided with a fresh burst of national media publicity – this time from The New Republic, which, in its latest edition, touted Ford’s Senate prospects and simultaneously wrote off the presidential ambitions of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Republican whose seat Ford hopes to win next year.

Rep. Ford has run into one fund-raising snafu of late and one fund-raising bonanza. On balance, he’s come out ahead.

The setback came late last month when a major fund-raising event scheduled for San Francisco had to be canceled because of the discovery by Mayor Gavin Newsom, a co-sponsor, of Ford’s vote last year for a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to heterosexuals.

Ford’s vote was a red flag to gay activists in San Francisco and a potential embarrassment to Newsom because of constituent concerns by the mayor, who personally conducted a number of gay marriages last year before court rulings foreclosed that option.

Last week, however, the Memphis congressman had some high-profile help on the other coast. Former president Bill Clinton was the headliner in a fund-raising event for Ford in New York, raising $300,000 for Ford’s Senate campaign.

Ford’s penchant for out-of-state fund-raisers became a campaign issue last week when one of three Republican contenders for the Senate, former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, attacked the congressman for obtaining what Corker said was too high a percentage of his campaign funds from non-Tennessee sources.

(Coincidentally or not, Corker leads all contenders in funds on hand, including Ford, fellow Democrat Rosalind Kurita, a state senator from Clarksville; and two other Republicans, former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary.)

Ford also made one other piece of significant news of his own – as distinguished from news made by other family members, including aunt Ophelia Ford, whose election to state Senate District 29 to succeed uncle John Ford is now under serious contest by her former Republican opponent, Terry Roland. (The congressman’s father and predecessor, Harold Ford Sr., now a resident of Florida, also was heard from last week, via a still perplexing charge that Republicans, not Democrats, might somehow be at fault in the discovery of fraudulent voting in a District 29 precinct.)

The congressman’s other major contribution to the political news week was the revelation, unaccompanied by explanation, that he had switched campaign consultants, from Global Strategy Group’s Harrison Hickman and Penczner Media to Pete Brodnitz and Jim Margolis of Benenson Strategy Group
In a sideshow of sorts to Ford’s New York event, one of the congressman’s would-be successors for the 9th District seat, one Tyson Pratcher, got some serendipitous ink in the New York Post, which noted his attendance at the Ford fundraiser in a separate headline, reading “Young and Restless.”

The Post story noted that Pratcher is now a deputy state director for New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the former president’s spouse and currently a presidential aspirant in her own right. Pratcher, a native of Memphis, will apparently take leave of his duties with Senator Clinton to campaign for the congressional seat.

Pratcher’s boost in a Big Apple news outlet mirrors the launch some months back of the campaign of one of his competitors, former Ford aide Nikki Tinker, whose congressional campaign began to all intents and purposes with a item boosting her in the Washington, D.C., insider publication The Hill.

Meanwhile, lawyer Ed Stanton formally announced his candidacy for the 9th District seat, joining previously declared entries Ron Redwing and Ralph White. Other candidates are expected to materialize after the New Year.


 

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