Politics » Politics Feature

No Fooling

Political wit Tom Guleff is serious about running for county mayor and stopping consolidation.


Tom "Joe Citizen" Guleff - JB
  • JB
  • Tom "Joe Citizen" Guleff

Yes, Tom Guleff is a funny guy. Yes, the videos and various cyber-pranks he's put on line over the years on behalf of his "Joe Citizen" initiative have possessed both bite and wit.

But former West Pointer and U.S. Army Ranger Guleff, now an administrator for a plastics company, is a serious guy, too (the humor of his Joe Citizen blog has always been in the service of legitimate governmental reform), and that seriousness just now is taking two new forms.

Number One: Guleff is a candidate for Shelby County mayor. He's pulled a petition to run for the office and intends to file as a Republican before the February 18th deadline, thereby providing an answer to one of the most frequently asked questions in local politics. A dual question, actually: Do the Republicans intend to contest the office of county mayor in 2010, and do they have a candidate?

Many local Republicans had been hoping and wishing that they could talk either Sheriff Mark Luttrell or District Attorney Bill Gibbons into switching out of their existing races — Luttrell's for reelection as sheriff and Gibbons' for governor of Tennessee — to a race for county mayor.

But these efforts seem to have failed, and few other Republicans have appeared willing even to think about throwing a hat in the ring. Indeed, demographic change seemed finally to have worked a permanent change in the balance of power after the 2008 election cycle which saw Otis Jackson, Cheyenne Johnson, and the late Paul Mattila, all Democrats, defeat Republican opponents for general sessions clerk, assessor, and trustee, respectively.

Since then, more Republican incumbents than not have declared themselves non-candidates for reelection to their countywide offices in 2010. It's a reversal of the state of affairs in the rest of the state and, to some degree, in the nation, where a Republican tide seems to have forced more Democrats than Republicans to have stepped down from a reelection challenge.

But Guleff has got both game and issue — anti-consolidation — which leads us to ...

Number Two: Guleff is one of two founders of a fledgling organization called Save Shelby County, meant to compete with "Rebuild Government," a grass-roots informational group recently formed as an adjunct of sorts to the newly formed Metro Charter Commission. "We think it ought to be called 'Rebuild Memphis,'" scoffs Guleff, who set out some weeks back to form his own grass-roots group to counter the efforts of "Rebuild Government."

Guleff was aware of the nonpartisan composition of the pro-consolidation group. There are roughly 50 "co-chairs" of "Rebuild Government," all activist individuals crossing partisan, political, geographic, and vocational lines. Chairman of the group is Darrell Cobbins; executive director is Brian Stephens; and the group's newly hired communications director is Zack McMillin, until recently a reporter on government and politics for The Commercial Appeal.

Aspiring to the same kind of diversity for "Save Shelby County," Guleff teamed up with another consolidation foe: Ron Williams, a resident of the Millington area who does private contracting work for the Navy. Williams is best known in Memphis political circles as a dyed-in-the-wool Democratic activist who, with his wife Barbara, is one of the mainstays of the Germantown Democratic Club.

Barbara Williams, her husband emphasizes, is not involved with Save Shelby County, though she accompanied him to an organizational meeting of the group on Saturday. At that first meeting, several suburban mayors were also in attendance, along with anti-consolidation activists.

At the meeting, Guleff showed a Power-Point presentation he and Williams have developed, and the two of them outlined plans for a website and other informational efforts to combat consolidation.

"Anti-consolidation is not a partisan issue," Williams said this week. "Democrats and Republicans are equally concerned about the impact it would have on Shelby County. Whatever would take place would seem irreversible. It's not the right thing to do, to throw everything away and start over. There are lots of other things we could do first, including inter-local or functional consolidation. This consolidation effort is a solution without a problem."

The new anti-consolidation group plans to hold community meetings in the manner of the "listening tour" conducted over the last year by the county's preeminent consolidation advocate, A C Wharton, who transitioned from Shelby County mayor to mayor of Memphis in the process.

• The surprise announcement last week by Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd that he would not be a candidate for county mayor leaves two main prospects on the Democratic side.

They are outgoing Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone, who became the first major official candidate Monday when she filed her signed petition at the Election Commission, and interim mayor Joe Ford, whose intent to run had been generally supposed for some time and became virtually a sure thing in recent weeks when he acknowledged he was seriously considering a race. (Or, in the accepted idiom of politics, that he was being "urged" to run by numerous would-be supporters.)

On the Republican side, only Guleff has so far drawn a petition, though there still exists the possibility of a mayoral candidacy by Shelby County commissioner George Flinn, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for the office against Democrat Wharton in 2002.

Flinn, though, has recently seemed to be more interested in becoming the Republican nominee to serve in Congress for Tennessee's 8th District. That race became an open one late last year, when longtime Democratic incumbent John Tanner announced he would not run for reelection.

John Farmer, whose "Blue Collar Republican" blog has a strong local following, already has declared as a Republican candidate in the 8th. State senator Roy Herron of Dresden continues to be the Democratic favorite in the congressional race.

• Political ecumenism of a sort was featured Monday night at a League of Women Voters forum featuring Van Turner and Lang Wiseman, the chairmen of the Shelby County Democratic Party and the Shelby County Republican Party, respectively.

The two participants minimized their partisan differences at the forum, held at the Benjamin Hooks Main Library on Poplar. They agreed that the main issue for both parties was, in Wiseman's words, "how to get people involved."

Both owned up to some doubt as to the influence of what Turner called "kingpins" in this year's races, and both were open-minded on the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision authorizing corporations and unions to spend freely in support of political candidates and causes.

The decision by the high court's justices was "not final because they're infallible," Wiseman said. "They're infallible because they're final."

Interestingly, in brief discussions after the forum, each chairman acknowledged a lack of immediate personal control over some key developments in their respective partiers.

Wiseman, who has strongly advocated doing away with partisan political primaries for local elections, conceded that his party could not act to do away with them unless the Democrats concurred. And Turner, who has preached a doctrine of expanding his party's base, was careful to say that he was required to be neutral on the recent issue of two would-be Democratic primary candidates, Michael McCusker and Derek Bennett, who were recently denied the party imprimatur to run under the Democratic label this year because of past Republican associations.

Turner said the final decision on such matters rests with the state Democratic executive committee, which, in the course of weekend meetings in Nashville, formulated new criteria for judging the authenticity of primary candidates, to be announced this week.

Ford for Dummies (cont.): Since former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. announced some weeks ago what appears to be his serious interest in becoming a U.S. senator from New York, the 2006 candidate for the Senate from Tennessee has found himself fairly roundly accused of trying to change his spots, politically speaking.

A prominent statewide observer, blogger-aggregator A.C. Kleinheider weighs in on the subject in our pages this week (see Viewpoint, "Chamelon"), and TV's Stephen Colbert satirized Ford as his "Alpha Dog of the Week" on The Colbert Report.

Both treatments concentrate on what they see as Ford's flip-flops on such issues as same-sex marriage, abortion, and illegal immigrants.

Some (including ourselves, from time to time) have questioned, too, whether Ford's 2010 views on economic and fiscal matters have undergone the same kind of dramatic transformation since the candidate ran for Tennessee in 2006 as a Blue Dog conservative or, for that matter, since he was elected to Congress in 1996 as successor to his indisputably left-populist father, Harold Ford Sr.

Our provisional judgment, outlined in detail in "Political Beat," is that Ford's conservative tendencies were well established long before his 2006 race. It remains to be seen how they evolve in New York this year.

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