Politics » Politics Feature

Raising the Bar

Present crises and future elections are altering politicians' behavior.

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It's only been a scant few months since the conclusion of the 2007 Memphis mayor's race and only two months since Mayor Willie Herenton took the oath of office for a fifth term. But already maneuvering is going on for the mayor's race of 2011.

There is general agreement among political observers that Shelby County mayor A C Wharton will be a candidate and that his recent stepped-up assertiveness is related to that ambition. He won't be getting the job by acclamation, however.

Freshman county commissioner James Harvey, one of three representatives of District 3 (Whitehaven, Southeast Memphis), served notice this past week that he intends to run for city mayor in three years. "You can depend on it," says Harvey, who professes to be unconcerned about Wharton's favored position, as of now, with the oddsmakers.

Another likely candidate, depending on the outcome of the 2010 county mayor's race, is former council member Carol Chumney, who was runner-up to Herenton in last year's race for city mayor. In a recent conversation, Chumney, who sees herself as representing both a reform constituency and the political aspirations of her gender, made it clear that she will try again, and, like Harvey, is unfazed by the likelihood of Wharton's candidacy.

Chumney, who ran against Wharton for county mayor in 2002, may also take another shot at the county mayoralty two years from now. If so, she will almost certainly have to contend in the Democratic primary with county commissioner Deidre Malone, whose ambitions in that regard are taken for granted.

The Republican race in 2010 is likely to be contested, as well, though everyone counts on Sheriff Mark Luttrell as a likely — and favored — entry.

• Whether it's a forthcoming race or merely a response to what he recently described as a "lame duck" situation in his current job, there's no doubt that something is motivating Wharton to be more outspoken than had earlier been his wont, especially during his first term.

A clear indication of the sea change came during the first County Commission meeting of the year, back in January, when Wharton pointedly forecast a serious financial shortfall and boldly called for city/county consolidation as a remedy. Another sign of greater activism came in his remarks last week when, in a speech to the Memphis Rotary Club, he suggested criminal penalties as a remedy for parental neglect of education.

And the customarily genial county mayor has been much more willing of late to let his temper show. During Monday's commission meeting, he cut short a desultory debate concerning alternatives to his proposed Poplar Avenue site for a new forensics center.

Professing to be "exasperated" at the thought of the "irreparable harm" that could come from further delay, Wharton said, "Sometimes it's been said that I don't take positions on things, but this building ought to be built, forthwith, on property that we own, with money that we now have in hand, that's not going to cost the taxpayers of Shelby County one red cent."

A short spell later, he extracted a unanimous vote in his favor from the commission.

That was but a warm-up for his controlled but firm response minutes later to a statement by Commissioner Mike Ritz, who, in opposing a construction project, suggested that county public works director Ted Fox and county engineer Michael Oates had "lost their minds."

After noting that for six years he had insisted that "every member of my staff that comes before this body" behave with scrupulous decorum, he insisted on equivalent treatment of members of his administration by the commission. "Most bodies do have [such] rules," he said, noting that earlier in the meeting schoolchildren had been present and may have been adversely affected by Ritz's invective.

Wharton isn't the only county official whose rhetoric has grown more direct. Besides Ritz, there is the distinctly non-bashful Henri Brooks who, in calling Monday for greater vigilance in the detection of slumlords bidding for county property, said, "It may take a little extra work. I know this is a bad word around here."

And during last week's committee session about future use of The Pyramid, Commissioner Wyatt Bunker seemed to be accusing advocates for converting the facility to a mega-Bass Pro Shop of outright lying, while Commissioner Sidney Chism hinted out loud at a conspiratorial "agenda" being pursued by proponents of the theme park proposed by Greg Ericson.

• The now-you-see-them-now-you-don't list of possible Democratic opponents to U.S. senator Lamar Alexander expanded over the weekend, as former state party chairman Bob Tuke of Nashville reentered this year's race. But Republican Alexander was riding high on a wave of endorsements from prominent Democrats, including local mayors Herenton and Wharton.

Lawyer Tuke's reversal of an earlier decision not to run increased the number of Democratic hopefuls to four — the other candidates being former Knox County clerk Mike Padgett, ex-Nashville mayoral candidate Kenneth Eaton, and former Green Party candidate Chris Lugo.

But Alexander, who has previously reported healthy fund-raising totals, seems to be rich in crossover support, as well. He has been able to claim an impressive list of Democratic and independent state endorsees, including former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris; state representative John DeBerry of Memphis; former state attorney general Paul Summers; and Jim Hall of Chattanooga, who was an aide to former governor Ned McWherter and chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in the Clinton administration.

As recently as the weekend, when Hall was in Memphis for the UT/University of Memphis basketball game, he explained his decision this way: "We don't have a candidate." Hall's statement reflects what has been a widespread sentiment among state Democrats. It remains to be seen how Tuke's entry will affect such thinking.

Mayors Herenton and Wharton had been included on a previous list of Alexander supporters, as had influential Democratic state senator Doug Henry of Nashville.

• A comment on the "Rant" page of the WREG-TV website by the station's online editor, George Brown, has suggested to many respondents that school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. has made a blanket statement concerning the need for public officials to be of the same race as the constituencies they serve.

Brown confirmed in a conversation Tuesday that he did not mean to suggest anything so far-reaching, nor did he impute such comments to Whalum. What he did, in an item headed "Whalum's controversial comments," was to paraphrase alleged remarks by the outspoken school board member on the desirability of having a "black male" serve as school superintendent. Brown then added some thoughts of his own:

"That comment is raising some eyebrows because many think it is sexist and racist. ... If a white male had said the superintendent should be a WHITE MALE there would be protests and endless news reports. Also on the subject of reflecting the community they serve, that would mean a white male or female should be the county mayor and Congressman Steve Cohen should be out of a job, since much of his district is heavily black."

As Brown acknowledged, that last sentence in his own summing-up did not reflect anything said by Whalum but was merely intended as a goad to reader comment. In that respect, it seems to have succeeded, having fetched up some 91 comments as of mid-morning Tuesday, most of them on the theme of Whalum's alleged racism or sexism.

One problem with both the responses and the interpretation is that board member Whalum said something precisely opposite to Brown's generalized rendering only last week.

That came in the course of remarks Whalum made at the City Hall ceremony on Friday which dedicated the main post office as "The Kenneth T. Whalum Sr. Post Office Building" in honor of his late father — the pastor emeritus of Olivet Baptist Church, a former city councilman, and a longtime official of the U.S. Postal Service.

Whalum, who is pastor at New Olivet Baptist Church, threw a verbal bouquet at Cohen for his sponsorship of the dedication and renaming. He called Cohen "the embodiment of the word 'representative'" and announced his support for the congressman as "my man" in the 2008 congressional race. He went on to say explicitly that being of the same race as the majority of one's constituents was unnecessary if an elected official could represent them as well as Cohen had represented the African-American citizens of the 9th District.

Whalum went on to say that Cohen had so far represented those citizens better than any of his predecessors, "regardless of race."

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