Politics » Politics Feature

Getting in Gear

Candidates -- most of them, anyhow -- begin shifting into overdrive.

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Maybe the certifiably underdog congressional campaign of former Mayor Willie Herenton is getting off the ground too late and maybe not. But Herenton does at last seem to be campaigning for real.

With less than six weeks to go before all the votes are counted in his Democratic primary contest with incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, Herenton addressed attendees at Saturday's annual picnic of his major political ally, Shelby County commissioner and former Teamster leader Sidney Chism.

Herenton even seemed to be undertaking ancillary political acts of a pragmatic sort. He sought out Republican sheriff's candidate Bill Oldham on the grounds of the Horn Lake Road venue, and, in the presence of the media, made a point of praising Oldham, the current chief deputy in the Sheriff's Department and someone who had served for the better part of 1999 as interim police director while he was mayor.

The former mayor extolled Oldham's integrity, ability, and dedication, and, while stating for the record that he would not be getting involved in the sheriff's race, wished the former director well.

Lest this be seen only as a casual act of ordinary graciousness, it needs to be remembered that Oldham's opponent on August 5th is Randy Wade, a former deputy whose most recent employment was as Cohen's district director and who is basically running in tandem with Cohen.

Earlier this past week, in a League of Women Voters debate with Oldham at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, Wade had made several charges — including one that Oldham had once abused a city credit card — that had the effect of impugning his opponent's record. (At the debate and later, Oldham vehemently denied any impropriety, saying that he had followed protocol in transporting himself and his family to a professional conference and immediately reimbursing the city.)

• Interim Shelby County mayor Joe Ford, as previously reported, is either even-Steven with mayoral foe Mark Luttrell (Yacoubian poll) or trailing the Republican (John Bakke, Ethridge & Associates poll). He is, in any case, busily building bridges to the Democratic hotbed of Midtown.

"I'm going to be working hard on my base," Ford confided privately as last week got under way. Then, he went on to prove the point by picnicking with members of the Sierra Club and turning up as a guest at the Tennessee Equality Project's ice cream social, thereby cementing ties with two of the Democratic Party's core constituencies.

Though Ford continues to make appearances at suburban events (some observers credit the interim mayor, a declared foe of city/county consolidation, with having a "white strategy"), he is aware of the possibility that he could lose some Democratic voters — particularly upscale ones — to the studiously middle-of-the-road Luttrell. Hence his redoubled effort in Democratic strongholds, one which some observers see as paying off in a race that is now regarded as too close to call.

• His slogan (well, one of them, anyhow) is "Vote Greg, not Marsha, Marsha, Marsha," and he insists that he's got a chance to be elected on the basis of what he sees as "an anti-incumbent fever," along with what he hopes is revulsion in the 7th Congressional District against the positions of the well-entrenched incumbent, Marsha Blackburn.

That's Greg Rabidoux, a professor of politics and law at Clarksville's Austin Peay University and the latest Democrat to hazard the forbidding task of challenging U.S. Representative Blackburn.

Rabidoux basically spent the weekend in Shelby County, making the rounds of actual and potential supporters and turning up on Saturday at the Chism picnic.

Speaking to a group of hard-core Democrats on Friday night at the Germantown home of Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, Rabidoux tried to inspire his listeners with examples ranging from Barack Obama ("He started with just a small core of believers") to last week's marathon, record-setting Wimbledon match that took parts of three days to complete ("There's a first time for everything").

Allegiance to special interests and indifference to Social Security, Medicare, and other staples of contemporary American life are some of the derelictions Rabidoux charges his Republican opponent with.

However long on enthusiasm, Rabidoux is admittedly short on resources, making it prohibitive just now to get mass-media circulation for a crisply edited video spot linking Blackburn to alleged Big Oil sponsors that's playing right now on the Internet.

But, like underdog challengers before him, Rabidoux is making virtue of necessity. Not for him the "thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raisers or the $2,500 'spa day' at a fancy Washington hotel" that he attributes to Blackburn, an assistant GOP whip in the House of Representatives and a fixture on the TV-talk circuit.

"She's more celebrity than public servant," argues Rabidoux, the author of a highly readable and comprehensive study, published just last year, entitled Hollywood Politicos, Then and Now.

"There's a disconnect there that they feel now more than ever before," Rabidoux says regarding the constituents of the sprawling 15-county 7th Congressional District, which stretches, literally, from the suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville.

Whether that's wishful thinking or not remains to be seen.

• One of Rabidoux's core supporters, Dave Cambron of Germantown, the co-chair (with Gale Jones Carson) of the current effort on behalf of the countywide Democratic ticket for the August 5th general election, made an appeal last week for the party's gubernatorial candidate, Mike McWherter of Jackson.

Speaking to a meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club, Cambron advised his listeners to disregard the Republican gubernatorial candidates — chiefly Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, though Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville is also an occasional visitor — who have been spending more and more time in Shelby County.

"They keep saying what they'll do for Memphis, but after the election they won't. So vote for McWherter," was Cambron's message to his fellow partisans.

The problem is that many of those same partisans are getting antsy about the fact that McWherter's presence in Shelby County has been a rare thing. The Germantown Democratic Club itself was slated to be the venue of a McWherter appearance a month ago but his appearance was canceled. Even Cambron concedes privately a sense of urgency about the Jackson businessman's lack of presence on the ground here.

McWherter's curious reticence has attracted the notice of observers ranging from WREG-TV reporter Mike Matthews, who has authored several eyebrow-raising tweets on the subject to blogger Steve Ross, who commented on the subject last week in the "Speaking to Power" blog, well-read among local Democrats.

To be sure, McWherter appeared at the local Democrats' Kennedy Day Dinner in May, and he toured the grounds of the barbecue festival the same month. But these were essentially cameo appearances.

• It was a modest ceremony but a star-studded one. A largish crowd of attendees across the span of the lives of Bill and Jimmie Farris showed up Monday afternoon for the dedication of a Farris Room in the campus administrative building of Southwest Tennessee Community College.

The building itself already bears the name of the Farris Building in honor of Bill Farris, the late philanthropist, patriarch, and ultimate mover and shaker who dominated local politics for at least two generations and had enormous influence on state and national government and politics, as well. What the Farris Room does is house some of the extensive memorabilia that attached to the lives of Farris and his immediate and extended family, who still make a difference in what goes on.

That Southwest exists today as a thriving multi-campus entity is largely the work of Bill Farris, who did so much to endow it and to unite the former institutions of Shelby State Community College and State Technical Institute so as to create it.

Bill — and Jimmie Farris, a community activist and political power in her own right — will be remembered for many things, most of them on evidence in the artifacts of the Farris Room, but the institution itself is an enormous part of their legacy.

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