Politics » Politics Feature

Ford's Out — and In

No governor's race for the former congressman, who'll keynote annual Democratic dinner.

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Monday saw Harold Ford Jr. take one step back from active involvement in Tennessee politics and one step forward.

The former Memphis congressman formally removed himself from the Tennessee gubernatorial sweepstakes for 2010, urging his supporters "to align with one of the other Democrats running." On the same day, Tennessee Democratic chairman Chip Forrester announced that Ford will be the keynote speaker at the party's annual Jackson Day Dinner on May 30th in Franklin.

Ford's announcement of noncandidacy ends several months of uncertainty in Democratic ranks about his intentions and, as his statement indicated, freed up the prospects for other potential candidates and for the donors and supporters who had so far held back from committing to a candidate.

The Democrats who have thus far indicated their intention to run are state senator Roy Herron of Dresden, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, and former state House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville. Among those still considering their options are businessman Mike McWherter of Jackson, the son of former Gov. Ned McWherter; state senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga; and state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

Republicans so far in the race include District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis; Mayor Bill Haslam of Knoxville; 3rd District congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga; and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

In his statement of noncandidacy, made via an e-mail to a network of potential supporters, Ford said pointedly, "There will be another race and time to ask for your support." And he offered this rebuff to the rival GOP: "Our Republican friends running for Governor will run predictably narrow campaigns that are out of sync with the time we live in and the challenges we face. They will ignore the economic hardship and uncertainty confronting an overwhelming number of Tennessee businesses and families in favor of focusing on issues like attacking President Obama and other national Democrats."  

That drew a quick response from state GOP publicist Bill Hobbs, who characterized Ford's statement as "a bitter and false attack," took note of Republican victories in last fall's legislative races in Tennessee, and maintained that it was Ford and the Democrats who were "out of touch."

Ford's scheduled address at the Jackson Day Dinner gives him an opportunity to reaffirm his presence as a force in state politics. He concluded his statement, "I will continue teaching at Vanderbilt University, speaking and writing on major issues, and serving as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council."

The former congressman made no mention of his involvement with Bank of America, which last year bought and incorporated another Ford employer, the Merrill Lynch brokerage, for which Ford had served as a speaker and rainmaker, but presumably that relationship, too, continues.

• Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, whose campaign has a major "unity breakfast" scheduled for early next month, is still the odds-on favorite for the 2011 city mayor's race, but the number of his potential opponents, declared and undeclared, seems to be growing.

In the "certain-to-run" category is former City Council member Carol Chumney, who hasn't really stopped running since the end of her last mayoral race in 2007. Among the maybes are City Council chairman Myron Lowery and city court clerk Thomas Long.

And there's yet another officeholder, Shelby County commissioner James Harvey, a Democrat who insists he's serious about running for city mayor against Wharton in 2011. "He's a good friend, but I'm going to send his ass home," joked Harvey after a commission committee session last week.

Harvey, of course, is less interested in defeating Wharton or any other potential candidate than in getting himself elected. But his jesting remark is an indication that all is not necessarily hunky-dory for the mayor on the county's legislative body. Here and there one picks up signs of discontent that could inconvenience Wharton in 2011.

Another commissioner, Republican Mike Ritz, explored the matter in a conversation last week: "He [Wharton] has less in the way of a working relationship with the commission than any mayor in memory."

As Ritz sees it: "Bill Morris could get people together and make them come up with solutions, regardless of political differences. He was hands-on. Jim Rout had been a commissioner himself, and, though he wasn't as apt as Morris was in shaping a consensus, he could put together a working coalition. But A C is different. He can make speeches, but he doesn't do any of the behind-the-scenes work, the one-on-one stuff that could get people to agree or come together on policy."

• The Shelby County Commission's resolve to prod the General Assembly's Republicans into action on the county's agenda started out with a bang at last Wednesday's meeting of the commission's legislative committee but concluded in something of a whimper.

Commission chair Deidre Malone had asked commission members to contact members of the Shelby delegation for action to counter what she and others, mainly Democrats but including Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter, had termed willful obstructionism by GOP legislators angry at the commission's recent appointment of Democrat Matt Kuhn to fill a vacancy for a District 4 commissom seat that has historically been Republican.

Several commissioners, notably J.W. Gibson and Steve Mulroy, said they had been told explicitly by Republican members of the Shelby delegation that inaction on the county's legislative agenda was a direct response to the Kuhn appointment. Republican commissioner Ritz offered the notion that in the past a Democrat-controlled legislature had stymied the agenda of a GOP-dominated commission. "Now the shoe is kicking the other way," he said, proposing to "let the situation take care of itself."

That was a minority sentiment, however. After various commissioners made strong statements of resolve to "go public" about the impasse in an effort to end it ("by any means necessary," said legislative committee chair Henri Brooks), Malone proposed that the commission organize a campaign of e-mails, phone calls, and other communications by members of the public.

All that was headed off at the pass, however, by city lobbyist Dottie Jones, who noted that one of the county's bills had begun to move out of committee and that, as she saw it, the situation was improving: "It may be time for us to calm a little bit and see if what we've done today is actually working."

Jones' testimony effectively braked further action. Malone agreed to hold up on her proposed campaign but said the committee should continue to monitor the situation and be prepared to step up the pressure again if need be.

• The commission coalition which has consistently opposed a variety of measures that would either have facilitated Bass Pro's takeover of the Pyramid or surrendered the county's financial interest in the facility to the city is still alive. Five commissioners said no Monday to a resolution which would have accepted $3.5 million from the city for its total control of the Pyramid and another $5 million in previously withheld funds as the city's share of Health Department support.

The measure required a two-thirds majority and failed when Commissioner Joyce Avery, expressing misgivings about the arrangement, joined an opposition group of four other commissioners — Mike Ritz, Steve Mulroy, Wyatt Bunker, and George Flinn.

• U.S. senator Bob Corker is concerned about what he sees as increasing government intervention in the economy. That was a major theme of his in the course of an extended visit to Memphis on Monday and Tuesday.

As Corker expressed it Tuesday to a breakfast meeting of the Shelby County Chambers of Commerce Alliance at the Homebuilders headquarters, the trend was evident even in the last days of the Bush administration but had accelerated "in the last 60 to 90 days," as the Obama administration's stimulus program took shape.

In a brief interview session with reporters after his remarks, Corker remained critical of the administration's recent series of actions in relation to the automobile industry, including the de facto firing of General Motors' CEO. "It's all politics," he said. But he defended his own efforts to protect the interests of the GM plant at Spring Hill in Tennessee in preference to maintenance of the corporation's plants elsewhere.

"If these decisions are made based on the plants that are the best assets for General Motors, then I'm convinced that Spring Hill will survive," Corker said. "So what I've continued to do is just try to say, please, let the company make decisions that are in the best interest of the company. Let's don't let politics enter into this decision."

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