Politics » Politics Feature

POLITICS: Bad Moon Rising

The outlook worsens for Willie Herenton as union forces coalesce and a recall movement gathers steam.



A short while ago, a good deal of attention was being focused on what perils might await Mayor Willie Herenton in Atlanta, where he was - and is -- subject to a subpoena in the corruption trial of that city's former mayor, Herenton's erstwhile friend Bill Campbell.

As the current week got under way, Herenton's troubles were closer to home. For one thing, the various unions that work under contract with the city were holding regular meetings to discuss how to hold de facto negotiations with city council members and do end-runs around an administration that, in the words of one union official, is "pissing on us."

That was some of the rhetoric that got vented at a "Union Summit" meeting last week at the Memphis Police Association headquarters on Jefferson. Present were representatives of the MPA, Firefighters, ASCME, IBEW, and other unions that have also been holding a series of sitdown discussions with council members, two at a time.

More ominously for the mayor, former radio talk show host Thaddeus Matthews, whom Herenton dismissed as a "societal misfit" back in January, had gained provisional ballot access for his recall-Herenton movement and was visibly gathering steam in putting together an organization to that end.

Last week the Shelby County Election Commission formally approved Matthews' initiative for the August 3rd general election ballot, provided he made some minor changes in the wording of it and, more to the point, proved able to collect nearly 70,000 bona fide signatures from registered voters living in Memphis.

Faced with a deadline of June 3rd, Matthews went right to work. On Monday night of this week, he announced to an enthusiastic crowd of a hundred or so supporters at the Marriott Hotel on Thousand Oaks Drive that he'd already gathered "close to a thousand signatures in just two days." He then solicited volunteers to do petition work at a variety of intersections, mainly at Southeast Memphis and East Memphis locations.

There were somewhat more whites than blacks in the crowd, and when Samuel Lofton, an African-American attendee, pointed this out, Matthews responded heatedly, ""I don't give a damn about a man's color. If you got a problem with white folks, you're in the wrong place. You need to go someplace else."

Monday night's group of supporters was politically as well as racially diverse - ranging from conservatives like David Fentress of the Dutch Treat Luncheon to political mavericks like Shelby County Commissioner and county mayoral candidate John Willingham to Karen Shea, long active in women's causes, to Brad Watkins, leader of Democracy for Memphis, one of the two local Democratic reform organizations that gained effective control of the party last summer.

"White and black, he's pissed off a lot of both kinds of folks," Matthews said about Mayor Herenton, to the crowd's vocal assent.

(Matthews, who has dropped his intention of running for a county commission seat this year, may have other political plans; he is one of four people, including current incumbent Dedrick Brittenum, to have picked up petitions for the District 4 city council seat vacated last year by Janet Hooks and up again for special election on the August ballot. Others are Janis Fullilove and Hazel Longstreet.)

Thaddeus Matthews at recall meeting. - J.B.
  • J.B.
  • Thaddeus Matthews at recall meeting.

Though she says she is getting the same kind of freeze-out from the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that forced Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett out of a Senate race in Ohio, Tennessee Senatorial candidate Rosalind Kurita proclaimed in Memphis last week that she was in the race to stay.

"I'm the only Democrat in the race," Kurita insisted at both a Friday press conference and a fundraiser later in the evening at the home of Southwest Tennessee Community College professor Steve Haley.

At the press conference, held in front of the federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Memphis, Kurita took her Democratic primary opponent, 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., to task for his vote in favor of last year's Republican-sponsored bankruptcy bill and challenged Ford to a series of debates on that and other issues.

"Memphis has the highest number of bankruptcy filings in the nation -- and Congressman Ford is out helping credit card companies. He needs to explain that vote," Kurita said.

Referring to the widely ballyhooed joint appearance in Memphis this week of Ford and Illinois U.S. Senator Barack Obama, Kurita, a state senator from Clarksville, took note of the fact that Obama had used the line, "I believe we are our brother's keeper," in defining the mission of the Democratic Party.

Kurita herself has featured the line on the stump in explaining her candidacy, usually adding, as she did in Memphis on Friday, "We're a nation of souls, not a multinational corporation focused on the bottom line." She said that, in contrast to her own emphasis on traditional Democratic principles, Ford seemed intent on sounding as Republican as possible.

Addressing several score local supporters at the fundraiser, Kurita restated and elaborated on these views and called for rethinking the nation's responses to the Iraq War and health care. She stated her opposition to free-trade proposals, and when one attendee said that job loss to foreign countries hosting multi-national corporations was "in the nature of capitalism," she rejoindered, "Well, that's why I'm a Democrat."

Kurita said afterward that, though ("to my knowledge") national Democratic officials have not called her potential donors asking them to hold off (something that was done in Hackett's case), she has never been listed on the DSCC Web site as a candidate, along with Ford.

Meanwhile, Mid-South Democrats in Action, the other major reform group to emerge in last year's party organization, announced that it had invited "all Senate candidates," including both Kurita and Ford to a forum, co-sponsored by the University of Memphis College Democrats, that will be held in early June.

Don Sandberg, a spokesman for MSDIA, said that Kurita had accepted. As for Ford: "Over a week ago, the congressman's staff person responsible for campaign scheduling indicated she would have to discuss this with the congressman and get back with me.  To date, I have heard nothing."

Thaddeus Matthews at recall meeting. - J.B.
  • J.B.
  • Thaddeus Matthews at recall meeting.

The local political landscape was convulsed somewhat last Thursday, the withdrawal date for primary candidates in countywide races. The unexpected withdrawal of District 5 commissioner Bruce Thompson, a Republican, led to a weeklong extension of the filing deadline for that race under the terms of the 1991 state "anti-skullduggery" law. The new deadline is this Thursday at noon.

Democratic candidate Joe Cooper's hopes were raised high momentarily, but quickly came down to earth under the realization that not only would other Republican candidates (the names of John Ryder and Jerry Cobb got mentioned) have a chance to file, his residency-based suit against opponent Steve Mulroy would become moot, since Mulroy's new District 5 residence was established well before the new filing deadline.

As longtime party activist and Ford-organization apparatchik David Upton noted, law professor Mulroy, one of challenged state Senator Ophelia Ford's legal defenders, seemed to enjoy support from both the local Ford organization and some of its influential challengers from last summer's party caucuses.

Spike Mike

In a statement to the Flyer, Memphis Shelby Crime Commission head Mike Heidingsfield, who had been courted by various local Democrats as a prospective party candidate for Congress in the 7th District, has apparently closed the door on such a possibility - at least for the immediate future.

The statement said in part: "I am flattered by the earnest and genuine nature of the overtures made to me by the leadership of the Democratic Party both within and outside of Shelby County, and I am humbled that many have suggested that I am qualified to serve in the U.S. Congress...However, it is clear that my service to the Crime Commission and the community could not be sustained during a political campaign and my overriding commitment is to the former."

Besides a "fundamental obligation to renew my commitment to the Crime Commission and the people of this community," Heidingsfield, a former Air Force officer who has just returned from a 13-month stint training the Iraqi national police force, also pointedly cited the matter of "political affiliations that I do not have."

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