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Showdown Time

Democrats prepare to choose a chairman, while the pecking order shifts among legislative hopefuls.

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As the Shelby County Commission voted Monday to hold interviews with potential candidates for interim state representative in House District 89 on Monday, April 2, with a vote on the interim member scheduled on April 9, contests were developing on the Democratic side of the aisle -- both for the interim position and for the right to serve as permanent member via a subsequent special election.

Two Democrats were being talked up, as of Monday, to serve as interim state representative -- activists David Holt and Mary Wilder. Holt was the subject of something of a draft movement among local progressive bloggers, while Wilder was being pushed by longtime activist/broker David Upton.

The real surprise is that, in the looming special election primary, Democrat Kevin Gallagher is losing ground among erstwhile supporters. Gallagher had been considered a tacit consensus choice and a virtual shoo-in after yielding to former District 89 representative Beverly Marrero in the District 30 state Senate special election, which she won.

Since that understanding was reached, however, Gallagher, who served most recently as campaign manager for 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, has alienated many of his former backers -- both through acts of omission (some considered him too remote a presence during Marrero's special election race with Republican Larry Parrish) and acts of commission (he has had a series of awkward personal encounters with members of his support base).

Rapidly gaining support for the permanent seat among Democrats is another longtime activist, Jeannie Richardson -- who has picked up backing (some of it silent for now) with both Upton, her original sponsor, and with members of the blogging community who don't normally see eye to eye with Upton.

All of this was occurring on the eve of another important vote among Democrats -- that for local Democratic chairman, to take place next Saturday during a party convention. The two leading candidates are lawyer Jay Bailey and minister Keith Norman.

What amounted to the first one-on-one encounter between Bailey and Norman took place Monday night at the Pickering Center in Germantown through the auspices of the Germantown Democratic Club.

GALLAGHER PHOTO: JACKSON BAKER
  • Gallagher Photo: Jackson Baker

Both candidates acquitted themselves well overall, and each made a point of bestowing praise -- or at least friendship and respect -- on the other. But each wielded a rhetorical two-edged sword in the process.

Norman, for example, was able tacitly to benefit from discussion of an anti-Bailey campaign mailer, even while deploring it. The mailer -- a hefty collection of photocopied court records concerning disciplinary actions taken (or initiated) against lawyer Bailey -- had, as everybody present knew, been sent at considerable expense to each voting delegate at Saturday's forthcoming party convention.

In his opening remarks, Bailey had left no mystery as to who the sender of the packets had been.

"I'm proud of being a professional. I'm proud of being one of the people in this community who went through some things but was able to stand up and see my way through it ... . I will not allow my character to be assassinated by innuendo by someone sending out an anonymous packet who was too afraid to put their name to it. I'll tell you who it was. It was Richard Fields."

Fields, a frequent adversary, had failed to explain that most of the actions against him had been dismissed, said Bailey. He acknowledged having had a drug problem a decade ago that was at the heart of a suspension imposed on him at the time, but denounced Fields' packet as the kind of "mudslinging" that had cost other Democrats elections in the past -- "eight judicial races and four clerk's races."

The reference was to Fields' practice, begun last year, of distributing open letters making the case against various candidates for office.

During his own remarks, Norman expressed solidarity with Bailey on the point, wondering "where the money came from" for Fields' mailer. "If you haven't won lawsuits, you don't have that kind of money."

Norman and Bailey made nice (sort of) Monday night. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Norman and Bailey made nice (sort of) Monday night.

In an apparent reference to Fields' first campaign letter, sent out last year concerning the backgrounds of several judicial candidates, Norman said he knew "the party was in trouble" when he saw it, and he cited the fact as one of the inspirations for his ultimate decision to seek the chairmanship.

"I knew nothing about this stuff," Norman said about the current mailer. "I don't care what Jay Bailey did 10 years ago." Without mentioning Fields by name, he criticized "someone who had the audacity and nerve" to put it out, "maybe trying to make me look bad."

In the course of disclaiming any intention of being judgmental about opponent Bailey, Norman, pastor of First Baptist Church on Broad, went so far as to lament the recent firing of an assistant minister at Bellevue Baptist Church for an act of child molestation -- "something that was done 34 years ago."

Of Fields' mailer, Norman said, "I won't stand for it" and noted that he and Bailey had discussed preparing a formal joint response, but he added pointedly, "Because it was against Jay, I wanted him to address the issues. That hasn't happened yet."

The two candidates agreed that unity across factional lines was a high priority for the party and that the high incidence of corruption among elected officials, many of them Democrats, was a major problem, but they seemed to differ about the degree of loyalty owed by the party chairman or the party as a whole to candidates running as Democrats.

"There are times that we have to make difficult decisions about whether to support particular Democrats," Norman said, speaking of those with ethics issues. "We can't go around co-signing everybody's loan. We're tearing our credibility down."

While agreeing that candidates with conflicted personal situations ought to be counseled "either to work their way through it or to work themselves out of the race," Bailey laid greater stress on unconditional loyalty to a formal Democratic ticket, once selected by the electorate in a primary. He also urged strong support of issues important to organized labor, a traditional Democratic constituency.

As evidence of his ability to cross factional lines and improve the fortunes of the Democratic Party, Norman cited both his pastoral history and his former career in the business world doing "turnarounds" of sagging commercial properties.

He noted the examples of East St. Louis, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana -- two municipalities blighted by economic distress and civic corruption. "Memphis is about 25 light years away from that," Norman warned somberly.

Democrats will choose between the two candidates on Saturday at Airways Junior High, site of the preliminary party caucus four weeks ago.

It remains to be seen whether the field of candidates is complete for the Memphis mayoral election. Various names are still being talked up, and one of them, despite his conditional disclaimer of last week, is Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who backhandedly acknowledged this week that he is still being hot-boxed to run for city mayor by members of the business community, according to reports.

"I won't kiss and tell" was Wharton's somewhat cryptic response. The county mayor has said he won't run against incumbent mayor Willie Herenton. The implication was that if Herenton ceased being a candidate for any reason, Wharton himself might very well take the plunge.

Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., insiders' publication, published an article last week about Representative Steve Cohen's relatively high-profile tenure in office so far and speculated on the kind of opposition he might face in a 2008 reelection bid.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the article mentioned as likely opponents several of the leading candidates against Cohen in last year's election -- Jake Ford, Julian Bolton, Ron Redwing, Ed Stanton, and others.

Perhaps the most frequently mentioned of likely adversaries, also cited in the Roll Call piece, is Nikki Tinker, the Pinnacle Airlines lawyer who was runner-up to Cohen in last year's Democratic primary. Tinker is making the political rounds and was one of the attendees at Monday night's forum for Democratic chairmanship candidates.

Tinker declined to comment "right now" on her intentions.

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