Politics » Politics Feature

Taking Names

A C Wharton looks over a candidate list, and so do the two major parties.

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Former Tiger and Grizzlies player Antonio Burks (right), a recent gunshot victim, appeared with his mother, Connie, at her North Memphis rental home Monday to solicit county commission support for builder Harold Buehler's efforts to develop new lots. - RICK MAYNARD
  • Rick Maynard
  • Former Tiger and Grizzlies player Antonio Burks (right), a recent gunshot victim, appeared with his mother, Connie, at her North Memphis rental home Monday to solicit county commission support for builder Harold Buehler's efforts to develop new lots.

So who will mayor-elect A C Wharton bring with him to City Hall? So far Wharton is playing it very close to the vest.

Mayoral assistants Bobby White and Kelly Rayne, among others, are almost certain to go there in some or another role. Dottie Jones, who was cityside once and came over to county, may head back the other way. Elder statesman Bobby Lanier will be close by the new mayor's elbow, whether officially or unofficially.

County CAO Jim Huntzicker may come over, though he is said to be contemplating retirement. County finance director Mike Swift might have a role. Mike Carpenter, the Shelby County commissioner who was named by Wharton to co-chair his transitional team (along with Cato Johnson), is a serious possibility for a serious position.

And then there is Jack Sammons, the former longtime city councilman who has served Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery for the last two months and has been the subject of nonstop rumors about continuing in that capacity under Wharton.

All of that still remains to be seen. But another job prospect may be looming on the horizon for Smilin' Jack, and it's an electoral one.

Shelby County Republicans, who for a generation had prevailed in elections for countywide office but have now clearly lost their demographic edge, are desperate to find a candidate to run for Shelby County mayor.

Ironically enough, given that Sammons once bucked the party brass with an independent candidacy for county mayor in 1994, he now finds himself the object of semi-public longing from mainstream Republicans who would like him to consider running for the job in 2010 under the party label.

Therein hangs a tale of how political winds have shifted the power balance. Back in 1994, when Jim Rout was the official GOP nominee for county mayor, Sammons, then a city councilman, not only ran as an independent, he did so with the formal support of then 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr., a Democrat and a political broker with enormous control over inner-city voters.

When Rout prevailed anyhow, the GOP powers-that-be levied retribution on nominal Republican Sammons, finding a respectable opponent for him in lawyer John Bobango, who went on to defeat Sammons.

Instead of sulking, Sammons did his best over the years to mend fences with his estranged party-mates and succeeded so well that he would become the Shelby County Republicans' finance chair. And, with considerable support from Republicans as well as Democrats and independents, he was able to regain his council seat.

Meanwhile, enough demographic change occurred that Democrats now predominate among county voters as well as in the city, and a political crossover type like Sammons, particularly now that his star is again in the ascendant, could give the GOP a fighting chance.

• Another possible Republican candidate for county mayor is George Flinn, who currently sits on the county commission. Flinn was the Republican nominee for the office in 2002, the year Wharton, running as the Democratic nominee, first won the county mayor's job.

The wealthy radiologist/broadcasting magnate was a political novice that year, and he, like Sammons eight years earlier, bucked the GOP party brass, who had already settled on well-liked attorney Larry Scroggs, then a state representative, as the rightful party nominee. Flinn went all-out in the Republican primary, pouring his resources into a campaign that became bitter and divisive enough that, when he won the primary, it left him saddled with a fractured party base.

Handicapped by a split in GOP ranks, by a relative lack of political and governmental background compared to Democratic nominee Wharton, and by population shifts that were beginning to loosen the Republican hold on the county at large, Flinn lost.

Again like Sammons, Flinn promptly began to pull his oar in Republican causes, and by the time he was named to the commission to fill a vacancy in 2004, he already had paid his dues — in more than one way, since he had meanwhile become a major donor to GOP candidates.

Moreover, as a sitting commissioner, Flinn began to acquire the expertise he had conspicuously lacked in 2002. He was unopposed when he ran for reelection in 2006.

Flinn is a declared candidate for interim county mayor after current commission chair Joyce Avery finishes a 45-day term as interim mayor. He has been somewhat vague about his intentions beyond that, but an interesting rumor keeps surfacing in county government circles.

According to this tale, Flinn is indeed considering relinquishing his commission seat, which is up next year, in order to make a formal run for county mayor.

In the event that he does, goes the story, he will support his current all-purpose assistant, Heidi Shafer, a fixture at every commission meeting, as the successor to his seat.

That scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Before she settled into her role as an aide to Flinn, Shafer had attracted considerable public notice as the activist who galvanized public opposition to the then pending Grizzlies-FedExForum deal in 2001.

Asked about the rumor this week, Shafer said merely that she had "heard it" herself, acknowledged that she still was an "ideologue" with acute interest in public issues, but, in the accepted idiom of political circumlocution, disclaimed having any "plans" to run for office.

• Meanwhile, there is no change on the Democratic side of the ledger, where Commissioner Deidre Malone and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd remain the only declared candidates for county mayor in 2010.

At the time Malone formally announced her candidacy for county mayor last month, she predicted that other candidates would emerge from among the losers in the just concluded city mayor's race. And they could come from other parts of the woodwork as well. A dark-horse possibility is Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who is also a potential compromise choice for interim county mayor should current main contenders Joe Ford and J.W. Gibson deadlock.

As of this week, too, Mulroy was still being courted by local Democrats as a potential party candidate to fill the District 83 state House seat vacated by Republican Brian Kelsey, now his party's nominee for the District 31 state Senate seat.

Given the fact that the District 83 seat has been Republican for decades, Democrat Mulroy would be a long shot for it, but, with filing deadline for the race beckoning this week, he was still considering the prospect at press time.

• The two declared Republican candidates for the District 83 seat are Mark White, who was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser last week, and John Pellicciotti, who is the latest candidate to mount a full-fledged presence via Twitter. Both White and Pellicciotti are former legislative candidates, though Pellicciotti's prior efforts were in nearby District 93, represented for more than a generation by Democrat Mike Kernell.

The party primaries in District 83 will be held on December 1st, with a general election to be conducted on January 12th, one day before the next legislative session convenes.

• Fed Ex founder Fred Smith is much sought after these days by candidates and causes in need of a financial boost. Smith reportedly played host two weeks ago at the Hunt and Polo Club to George W. Bush, who came into town quietly to enlist Smith's aid in funding the former president's official library.

And Smith played host to U.S. senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) last week in a big-ticket fund-raiser at Owen Brennan's Restaurant on Poplar Avenue.

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