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POLITICS: Reform in the Air

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It was last Sunday, a bright, sunny, and preternaturally humid day at the Arlington home of Shelby County Commissioner Joyce Avery, who – this year as ever during an election year – played hostess to any and all Republican candidates who wanted to come by and orate a bit in the hot sun. “GOP Victory 2006,” this picnic party was called.                

But at a certain point Avery looked around at the smattering of a crowd that had gathered on her expansive front yard, most of them hanging out in the vicinity of the buffet tables, checked out the two or three solitary eaters seated amid the rows of folding chairs under a largish spreading tent and said, “Look at this. This is pathetic!           

The turnout would actually improve somewhat as the afternoon shadows steepened, and more goodies arrived, and the air cooled off a bit, and as local GOP chairman Bill Giannini got to hitting licks on his electric guitar, but the normally good-natured Avery’s outburst had been largely a product of calculation in any case.          

“Where are they? What are they thinking about?” she had asked about the absent crowds, but that had merely been her way of sounding the alarm, which had already been raised by a previous speaker, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas, who warned that many Republican office-holders were in danger of being ousted. And after Thomas’ and Avery’s would come yet another jeremiad, from Juvenile Court Clerk Steve Stamson, who gave the malaise a name: “Apathy!”          

It was apathy, Stamson warned, that would give his predecessor as clerk and current rival, Democrat Shep Wilbun, a chance to get back into power. “And you remember the last time he was clerk, don’t you?” – an opening which gave Stamson the opportunity to drop names like Tim Willis and Barry Myers and Calvin Williams – all famously associated these days with various indictable offenses that occurred in the clerk’s office during the tenure of Wilbun (who himself was charged with misconduct – though those charges were later dropped).           

In other words, scandal – the dread but fascinating essence that has kept percolating non-stop through these warm-weather weeks – might be alchemized into a tonic that would drive voters wide-eyed and energized into the polling booths to cast salvific votes despite the obstacle of those unfamiliar newfangled electronic voting machines purchased for this year’s mammoth ballots.           

Consider what had happened in just the week or two preceding the Republican Party picnic:          

County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney - JB
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  • County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney

A Memphis school board member, Michael Hooks Jr., had been indicted for participation in those vintage Juvenile Court illegalities, joining in vulnerability his father, a county commissioner caught in the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz sting,         

County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney - JB
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  • County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney

Six individuals had been indicted for felonies committed in the 2005 special state Senate election in Memphis’ District 29; 

County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney - JB
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  • County mayor A C Wharton with American Idol contestant Gedeon McKinney

Three city council members (supported rhetorically by a U.S. congressman) had called upon U.S. Attorney David Kustoff to investigate what appeared to have been a further corrupting of the city’s and county’s FedEx Forum contract (widely considered a giveaway deal anyway) with the NBA’s Grizzlies;

And, just as the weekend was getting started, the county commission’s respected budget chairman, Dr. Cleo Kirk, had been hit with a sexual harassment suit from one of the commission secretaries, herself something of a veteran. 

And there was the feeling things were just getting started. With one local Tennessee Waltz trial in the can, former state Senator RoscoeDixon’s, and with Dixon having three months to think about his sentencing, you had to wonder how many more names might get added to the scandal sheet 

For a change, things weren’t necessarily conforming to racial or political lines.  It was mainly white Republicans who – privately, for the most part – confided skepticism to the media concerning the charges against Kirk, a black Democrat. On the other hand, at a weekend gathering attended mainly by African-American supporters of a Democratic candidate for clerk, the same kind of skepticism was voiced concerning the incumbent commissioner. 

After his remarks to the Republican faithful at Sunday’s event, clerk Thomas kept on saying in private conversation, maybe a bit wishfully, that he’d heard the Democrats, too, might be having trouble motivating their cadres. 

Actually, the plethora of races on the county’s August 3 ballot – 141, including high-profile races for Congress and the U.S. Senate – indicate that a higher-than-usual turnout should be expected on August 3rd, and most recent political events have been fairly well attended. In the past week, the two mayoral candidates, Democratic incumbent A C Wharton and Republican challenger John Willingham held headquarters openings, as did Republican Jane Pierotti and Democrat Steve Mulroy, opponents in the pivotal District 5 county commission race. 

That’s the same county commission, by the way, which will see eight new members, out of 15, following the August 3rd election – a change-over that symbolizes both the public yearning for something different and an unusual readiness on the part of those in power to look elsewhere in the system for a chance to do their thing. 

Of course, the term-limits referendum of 1994 had much to do with some of these career changes, and that’s a reminder that the people do have some additional resources at their command.

A NEW CITY CHARTER?    

There is, in fact, a sense of reform in the air, and there has been no better example of it than the Standing-Room-Only turnout at the Main Library Monday night to hear candidates for the Charter Commission at a forum sponsored by the indefatigable League of Women Voters, a nose-to-the-grindstone group if there ever was one. 

This election was called into being through the efforts over the last few years of one John Lunt (ironically enough, a resident of Germantown) and the ad hoc group he helped put together, Concerned Citizens of Memphis. Several circumstances helped foster the effort – notably, public exposure of a cushy city pension arrangement that required only 12 years’ service to reap full benefits.   

Anyhow, enough signatures got put on a petition back in 2004 to authorize this election, for seven (count ‘em, 7) ad hoc commissioners. Each will represent a specific district, but all qualified Memphis voters may vote for each of the positions across district lines.  The seven persons chosen will make recommendations for charter revision that ultimately will confront the citizens of Memphis in referendum form. It’s democracy the way the civics texts tell it. 

There were cynics amongst us who initially feared the charter commission election would draw out of host of cranks and zealots. On the strength of Monday night’s forum, which featured most of the 44 candidates, those fears are not to be realized.   

Instead, the candidates for each of the positions run the gamut of political persuasion, and many – perhaps most – of them own no particular partisan affiliation. Yet they all sounded serious as can be Monday night, concerned with a variety of issues --ranging from term limits to eminent domain to conflict-of-interest to consolidation to taxes to the possible creation of a none-of-the-above line on city election ballots 

Among those seeking election to the Charter Commission are ministers, current and former public officials, journalists, and active and retired business people. In their brief two-minute statements Monday night, most of them sounded fully up to the job.

To the degree that space permits, we’ll try to provide brief profiles of the Charter Commission candidates in our pre-election issue prior to the August 3rd vote. For the time being, here are their names, many of them recognizable already:

Position 1Willie Brooks, Felicia Corbin-Johnson, Joseph Fox,Horace B. Jones, Charles Walker.

            Position 2Bill Boyd, Silvia Cox, Dean Deyo, Jack Eaton, John Malmo, Michael Sadler.

            Position 3Marsha Campbell, James Daugherty, Sherman Perkins Kilamanjaro, Charles Strong, Darrell K. Thomas, Keith Williams, Andrew Withers.

`            Position 4: Fred Davis, Janis Fullilove,Johnny Hatcher Jr., Howard Richardson, Stanley Tyler, Buckner Wellford.

            Position 5: John Branston, George Brown Jr.,Russell Hensley, Larry Henson, Robert Wayne West, Mary Wilder.

            Position 6: Debra Grundy-Chalmers, Rodney Jeffery, William Mims, Frank Palumbo, Paul Shaffer, Perry Steele, Reginald Tate, Patsy Turner, Sharon A. Webb, Mondell B. Williams.

            Position 7: Jeff Johnston, Myron Lowery, Anthony Milton, Jenny Robertson.

DISTRICT 9 CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES (CONT’D)

The large storefront justrented by Joseph Kyles on Elvis Presley Boulevard symbolizes this young candidate’s ambition and scope and perhaps even his potential. But the new headquarters’ current state of emptiness (as of the weekend, anyhow) may also suggest the incomplete nature of Kyles’ campaign.       

An eloquent speaker and imposing physical presence, Kyles, a former athlete who survived a potentially crippling football injury, is a member of a distinguished local family and has been an instrumental member of the local Rainbow/PUSH organization. The latter fact led many of his rivals to believe that he was the intended beneficiary of a recent series of congressional forums, sponsored by the Black Ministers Association and presided over by the Rev. La Simba Gray, another PUSH luminary. Kyles did well at those events, as he had way back in January when the first gathering of potential candidates was held at the IBEW Union Hall.

Few were as eloquent as Kyles in talking up both the visionary and the nuts-and-bolts aspects of populist Democratic issues – minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, opposition to the war in Iraq. Kyles also made it clear that his own entrance into the congressional race had not depended on the decision of incumbent congressman Harold Ford Jr. to run for the U.S. Senate and that he would have run for Congress even against Ford himself, whose cautious or conservative approach to the issues was not to Kyles’ liking. 

Even so, Kyles, a more or less full-time activist who also has real estate interests, is relatively late getting both his organization and his sources of funding together, and he’ll have a hard time catching up with his rivals 

Another candidate who has generally made good showings in various public forums is Marvell Mitchell, who has the mix of success in both public and private endeavors that is often the basis for a successful congressional race. A former track star at both Booker T. Washington High School and the University of Memphis, Mitchell has also done well with his business, Mitchell Technology Group, a computer networking and distributing firm. 

Well enough, in fact, that, as of the last financial disclosure deadline, Mitchell was one of the leaders in funds on hand – though much of that, $100,000 or so, was a loan to himself.  He has also had a distinguished public career and has served most recently as one of Governor Phil Bredesen’s first appointees to the state Lottery Board. Mitchell has also served as president of the Black Business Association. One measure of his professional background is that, when all candidates were asked at two of the public forums whether they could pass an FBI background check and a drug test, Mitchell volunteered a third category – a credit check.

On the stump, however, Mitchell makes no effort to put distance between himself and his often economically humble listeners. On the contrary, he addresses their everyday concerns about such issues as Medicare and the rising price of gasoline and promises to try to involve the government more directly in offsetting the costs of education and health care. He also favors economic incentives for small businesses.

Like Kyles, Mitchell has the personal characteristics and the resume to make a good race and to serve well, if elected. But, also like Kyles, his problem is to offset the current impression that he’s not in the first tier of active candidates.

(To be continued. And yes, Virginia, there are Republicans in this race. More about them next.)

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