Jim Kyle, the Democrats' leader in the state Senate and a longtime Shelby County legislator, says he woke up Tuesday morning of last week without a thought about running for another office, but he started getting phone calls urging him to consider a race for district attorney general next year.
"I hadn't thought about it at all, but I had to respect the people who were talking to me about it, and I am thinking about it seriously," Kyle said.
Blogger Steve Steffens (leftwingcracker.blogspot.com) was the first person to float the idea in public, but Steffens said he was responding to some of the same people who had contacted Kyle about the ideas. He, like them, thought the idea made perfect sense.
For one thing, it is the most open of secrets that the now dominant Republicans intend to redistrict Kyle out of his Senate seat. And even if he should win in a freshly gerrymandered district and survive, he'd be mired in minority-party status for years to come.
Meanwhile, Shelby County, like Davidson County (Nashville), is one of the few areas with enough of a Democratic core for a Democrat to make a serious race for a major position — like, say, district attorney general.
Amy Weirich, a respected longtime deputy to former district attorney, now state Safety and Homeland Security commissioner Bill Gibbons, and currently the district attorney herself, will be the Republican candidate, and Shelby County Democrats had been casting about for an opponent. Former judicial candidate Glen Wright, they thought, or maybe Carol Chumney, the onetime legislator and Memphis City Council member who ran for mayor twice (or actually thrice — two times for city mayor, once for county mayor).
Neither of those balloons seemed to be flying, however. But Kyle? As Steffens said on his blog, "There are, at this point, only three people in Shelby County who have the name recognition, legal background and ability to raise money to beat Amy Weirich in the District Attorney General's race. A.C. Wharton is staying mayor of Memphis, and Steve Cohen is quite happy being our congressman. That leaves Senator Jim Kyle."
Just last month, Kyle was offering himself as a candidate for the new unified Shelby County School Board. Coordinated Republican opposition on the Shelby County Commission deprived him of that, but the senator had given a clear signal that he hankered for new opportunities.
Kyle will mull things over for a while yet. But he's clearly interested. He has enough fund-raising contacts both locally and statewide and enough organizational experience to put together a serious effort. And as far as the job itself goes: "You know, the thought struck me: I have personally written a lot of those laws I'd be enforcing!"
Stay tuned. Things could develop quickly here.
It should be said that Chumney hasn't cashed in her chips. She greeted the news of Kyle's interest in running for district attorney with this statement: "Due to the importance of the position of district attorney general to protect and serve the citizens, I am glad to see your blog dated November 2, 2011, that there are several possible good candidates, also including attorney Glen Wright, and Senator Jim Kyle. I agree with you fund-raising is essential to a strong candidacy. I am proud to say that in 2007, I raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for a city-wide election, and believe I can do it again countywide."
And Kyle may have other fish to fry. Some Democrats still hanker for him to run for Shelby County mayor, presumably against incumbent Republican mayor Mark Luttrell in 2014, when Luttrell has the opportunity to run for reelection.
A race for county mayor is something Kyle has considered before — notably in the run-up to the 2002 election, when the senator went to the trouble of commissioning a poll showing him to have decent prospects of success. He had second thoughts when then Public Defender A C Wharton, long regarded as a surefire countywide candidate, decided to make the race.
Two other Democrats had been planning to run that year: Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who had gained some serious support early on, dropped out reluctantly; Chumney made a primary run but finished well behind Wharton, who went on to defeat Republican nominee George Flinn in the 2002 general election and was reelected in 2006, leaving office in 2009 after winning a special election for Memphis mayor.
The interests of Kyle — whose wife, Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, hails from the influential Clement family of Middle Tennessee — had always tended toward state government and to the idea of running for governor, in particular. He mounted a race in 2009 but suspended it in early 2010 when he discovered firsthand what other Democrats running that year would find out the hard way — that support for Democrats had largely dried up at the grass-roots level. "People who used to be yellow-dog Democrats are now yellow-dog Republicans," a chagrined Kyle observed.
Meanwhile, another door had effectively closed for the senator. Kyle, who began serving as Democratic Senate leader during the last years of the venerable John Wilder's speakership, had nursed hopes of eventually becoming speaker himself. But the GOP electoral landslide of 2010 installed prohibitive Republican majorities in both Senate and House, and even the most optimistic Democrats privately confide that it may take a generation for their party to regain its former position of strength statewide.
After a year spent presiding over rearguard actions in the Senate and facing the certainty of unfavorable redistricting under Republican auspices, Kyle, a lawyer who has been faced with the task of reorganizing his firm following the death of a partner, is perhaps understandably intrigued by the idea of being district attorney general.
Besides the prospect of a primary challenge from Chumney or whomever, though, Kyle must deal with the reality that Weirich has considerable support on both sides of the political aisle. That fact was amply attested by the turnout at a $500-a-head fund-raiser in her honor held last week at the Oaksedge office complex of entrepreneur Brad Martin, a former state legislator and influential Republican leader.
Included were such eminent Republicans as Governor Bill Haslam, Bill Gibbons (Weirich's former mentor and boss), and state GOP chairman Chris Devaney. But on hand also were mega-lawyer John Farris and City Council member Jim Strickland, both former Shelby County Democratic chairmen, and another significant local Democrat, Councilman Shea Flinn.
Flinn made no secret of his preference that Kyle should look again to the idea of running for county mayor. But that race won't take place until 2014, and Kyle meanwhile has to decide what to do about the election year 2012, when his Senate seat, however newly configured, will be up for grabs. It is no wonder that a race for district attorney general, even a long-odds one, might appear to be an attractive alternative.
Kyle, Chumney, or whoever have only until December 6th to decide, however. That's the deadline for filing for county offices on the 2012 ballot. "I'll make a decision sometime after Thanksgiving" is the word from Kyle.