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Counting the Wounded

There was fallout from the Malone-Avery showdown — but it could have been worse.


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There are various theories as to how aware Shelby County Commission chair Deidre Malone was before Monday's commission meeting of her pending defeat for a second straight chairmanship bid, but the weight of the evidence is that she knew the vote was slated to go against her.

Two key players — Democrats Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy — had each informed Malone explicitly in advance that they could not support her desire to buck the tradition of annually alternating the chairmanship by party and by person. In the mode of any number of political, civic, and business organizations, the vice chair for a given year on the commission has been expected to accede to the chairmanship.

That usually happens routinely and without incident. It did so a year ago, when Malone, a Democrat who was then serving as vice chair, took over the commission reins from David Lillard, the outgoing Republican chairman. And Joyce Avery, this year's Republican vice chair, had every expectation of a similarly seamless accession.

For whatever reason — prodding from Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner, as some maintained, or from Democratic commissioner Matt Kuhn (who nominated Malone on Monday) or her own ambition or even (as she put it Monday) her desire to follow through on initiatives under way on the commission — Malone allowed her name to be put up against that of Avery for a one-on-one showdown.

It was a non-starter for reasons outlined by the Flyer online before the vote took place.

Chism had been explicit, both publicly and to Malone in private: He could not support what he saw as her bid to put herself in line to become mayor should current county mayor A C Wharton win this year's special election for Memphis mayor. Inasmuch as a victorious Wharton would have to resign to become the city mayor, whoever happened to be serving as commission chairman would automatically accede to the mayoralty for 45 days.

Longtime political broker Chism is a committed supporter of Harold Byrd, the Bartlett banker who has indicated that he, too, like Malone, will seek the Democratic nomination for Shelby County mayor in 2010.

Mulroy's position was somewhat more complicated but similar: He too was disinclined, as he said, to create a situation favoring one Democrat over another in next year's county mayor race. And, having voted in February with the other Democrats to replace Republican Lillard (who had become Tennessee secretary of state) with Democrat Kuhn, Mulroy was loath to breach commission tradition a second time — especially since there would be no immediate alteration of the commission's current 8-5 partisan lineup favoring the Democrats.

Importantly, he too had let Malone know in advance that she could not count on his vote. Both he and Chism would be casting their votes for Avery, a Republican who had several times proved herself amenable to making common cause with Democrats and, as a term-limited commissioner, had only one year left to experience the chairmanship of the body.

Given the fact that Avery could depend on the votes of all five commission Republicans (including her own), those two Democratic crossover votes doomed Malone's bid in advance. Speculation afterward was that she must have believed that either Chism or Mulroy would change their plans if she, a fellow Democrat, came within a single vote of winning on the first ballot. That, or she was following through on a commitment to the Democratic Party at large to make the effort.

In any case, Malone didn't come close on the first ballot, which made her defeat so obvious that those Democrats who had pledged to her decided to pass — giving Avery a de facto vote of acclamation.

The upshot of all this was not as dramatic as another casting aside of bipartisan tradition might have been, though, as both Malone and Mulroy pointed out, that tradition — of alternating chairmanships and seating same-party members in commission vacancies — dates back only about 15 years to the time when commission elections became partisan affairs, involving party primaries followed by a general election.

But some hard feelings will endure. Chairman-to-be Avery made it clear on Monday that she was incensed at what she regarded as patronizing comments made about her in discussion before the vote by Malone and by Henri Brooks, a Malone supporter.

For that matter, Brooks may nurse resentment against those fellow Democrats — including Joe Ford and Mulroy — who opted for Chism rather than herself in a second key vote, that for vice chairman, which narrowly ended in Chism's favor, 7-6. (By contrast, she bestowed a public hug on Mike Carpenter, who broke ranks with fellow Republicans to cast his vote for her.)

And Chism, who as newly elected vice chair stands in line to become commisson chairman a year from now, may face repercussions from his fellow Democrats, most of whom also voted for Brooks, and some of whom privately raised an eyebrow about what they saw as his deal-making with the commission's Republicans to get their vote.

• These are the most obvious lessons from last Thursday's first encounter of rival mayoral candidates at a forum sponsored by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

1) Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, the odds-on favorite going into what is still expected to be a fall special election, will play hard-to-get. He declined an invitation to the ABC's luncheon affair, held at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, averring that it was "inconsistent" with his election strategy to appear.

In other words, Wharton had no intention of conferring a semblance of equality on his opponents or giving them so direct a chance to score points on him and catch up.

2) By contrast, the status and strategy of City Council chairman Myron Lowery, another name candidate absent from the forum, were more puzzling, unless one accepted at face value Lowery's contention that he had a prior commitment to attend a National League of Cities event in Denver on Thursday.

3) Charles Carpenter, the municipal-finance lawyer and five-time director of Herenton's mayoral campaigns, used the forum — which followed close upon Carpenter's official announcement event Thursday morning — to stress that he had hands-on experience with city projects (notably, FedExForum) and was independent of Herenton, despite their long professional and personal association.

He told the ABC audience: "My role was that of an adviser. He [Herenton] was CEO, and he made the decisions. I could tell him 'go right,' and he'd say, 'Thank you. I'm going left.' It will be different with a Carpenter administration. I'll be making the decisions."

4) Carol Chumney, the former council member and state representative who ran second to Herenton in 2007, signaled at Thursday's forum that she would attempt a reprise of her strategy of two years ago — emphasizing her 17 years of experience in public office and her commitment to general "change" as an overriding goal.

Chumney promised, "I won't give lip service to ethics. I'll apply it to myself," and asserted she had the "brains, heart, and guts" to do the job for the city of Memphis.

5) Kemp Conrad, the entrepreneur and first-term councilman who served a term as chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, made sure his presumably conservative audience was aware of his credentials, speaking a lingo (condemning the city's "bureaucracy" and proclaiming "God bless the free market") that he might have assumed would resound with builders and contractors.

Noting the high incidence of crime (as had Chumney), Conrad named public safety as a major concern.

6) Jim Strickland, the (conspicuously willing) subject of a mayoral draft movement, sounded what he clearly intends to be a major theme in an energized but uphill campaign against presumed leader Wharton and the long-established Lowery. "We cannot change Memphis for the next generation with leaders from the last generation."

Strickland gained traction two months ago after issuing his own budget proposal, with cuts in administrative salaries and a modest tax decrease.

7) Last but not least, as they say, was the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and a firebrand member of the city school board. Whalum might have trouble getting the votes of the predominantly conservative ABC members, but there was no doubt that he had them enraptured with his performer's brio and uninhibited observations.

Whalum, who reminded the audience early and often that he had polled 83,939 votes "citywide" in getting elected to the school board, got his most animated reaction from the crowd when he did an impression of Lowery as an intense, nervous, arm-waving mayor pro tem — "excited, almost uncontrollably" at the prospect of becoming mayor.

8) Jerry Lawler, the wrestler-commentator who announced his second race for mayor during the week, was absent and apparently had not been on the guest list — his status in host-moderator Mike Carpenter's eyes indicated by Carpenter's assertion to the audience that only "serious" candidates had been invited.

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