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The August Election: Part 2

Final Judgement

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Voters confronted with what is in essence two different and simultaneous elections, a countywide general election and a primary election for state and federal candidates, could easily become confused.

A case in point: Republican voters wishing to cast crossover votes in the Democratic primary for Congress in the 9th District might fear to do so, thinking they would then be deprived of the opportunity to vote for, say, Mark Luttrell, the Republican nominee for county mayor.

Conversely, a Democrat living in Germantown (and yes, there are some) might want to cast a ballot in the hotly contested Republican primary for governor but worry that they could not then vote for Democrat Joe Ford for mayor.

Not to worry. The primaries for county races, held in May, are over with, and anybody can now vote for anybody in those contests. To vote for governor or for Congress in one of the legislative races, you have to choose between a Democratic or a Republican ballot. But, whichever way you choose, you can still vote for anybody running for a county office, be they Republican or Democrat.

Here: We'll make it easy for you, dividing our rundowns into two sections — the first being the countywide races, the second being primary races for governor and federal offices.

Note: Races for judgeships (open to all Shelby County voters), county school board races (open only to the affected county districts), and contested legislative primaries are dealt with in Political Beat, here.

The Countywide General Election

SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR — Nothing has troubled the forces working for the election to a regular term of interim county mayor Joe Ford like the statistics reported 10 days after the onset of early voting in Shelby County. To be sure, more voters have opted for Democratic primary ballots than for Republican ones, by margins that change from day to day but have hovered in the 55 percent-45 percent range.

Superficially, that would appear to be a godsend for Ford, the Democratic nominee, who is in a tight race with Sheriff Mark Luttrell, the Republican nominee. But Democrats who understand the nuances of voting in Shelby County are aware of two facts: A) the percentage of Democratic primary voters this year is substantially less than it was in 2006 and 2008, when it rose above 60 percent; and B) the percentage of Democrats voting who are African-American appears to be lower than has been the case in recent years.

The fact is, there are relatively few contested races in either primary. The major ones are, for the Democrats, the 9th District congressional race pitting former Mayor Willie Herenton against incumbent Steve Cohen, and, for the Republicans, the three-way gubernatorial battle between Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

(Both these races were discussed last week in part one of the Flyer's August 5th election preview and are briefly reviewed in recaps below.)

The bottom line seems to be that Herenton's failure to make a compelling case to his historic African-American base that he should replace Cohen has diminished the expected black vote. Another factor in the lower-than-expected African-American turnout was attributed by one veteran Democratic observer, a legislator, to what he called "confusion" among black voters. "They aren't sure who to vote for, though those who are sure seem to like the job Cohen is doing. Herenton has to take it away, and he hasn't made the case for that."

The relative narrowness between Democratic and Republican primary figures may also owe something to what has been reported, more or less anecdotally, as Republicans crossing over to vote against Herenton. The aforesaid legislator disputes that, however, citing figures which indicate that most of the voters in both primaries have been traditional voters in the party primaries of their choice this year.

In any case, primary voting totals are not an altogether reliable guide as to how voters will make selections in non-primary races like those appearing on the county general election portion of the August 5th ballot. Ford and his backers know well that Luttrell has always commanded reasonably high votes from crossover voters — an estimated 15 percent or more of the Democratic vote in his previous two races for sheriff. That much in the race for county mayor could be fatal for Ford's chances, especially under circumstances of a lower than expected Democratic turnout.

Luttrell is, almost by definition, the Shelby County Republican Party's ticket-leader, and party officials, from county chairman Lang Wiseman on down, have treated him as that — on the theory that a tide of crossover votes for him would be a boat-raiser for the candidacies of down-ballot nominees of the GOP, now clearly the minority party in Shelby County.

The way in which the two candidates have handled the potentially hot-button issue of consolidation has been an indication of their respective strategies. From day one of his campaign, Ford has made a point of insisting at every opportunity that he has opposed city/county consolidation since 1994. Paradoxically and alternatively, he has made the case that formal consolidation is unnecessary, since the county government he manages is already comprehensive enough in its scope to qualify as consolidated. "You're looking at your metro mayor," he boasted in a televised mayoral debate on WMC-TV, Action News 5.

Ford's views, though doubtless sincere, have a political thrust as well. He is under no delusion that his opposition to consolidation will gain him significant numbers of votes from white suburbanites and residents of the outer-county municipalities, where consolidation is regarded as unpopular. But by stressing his opposition to the process, he may well succeed in neutralizing or suppressing a single-issue vote that could hurt him at the polls.

Luttrell's original strategy had something similar in mind. Whenever he was queried, early on, about the issue of consolidation, he would say that, in deference to the Metro Charter Commission which had been authorized by city and county governments, he would await the results of their deliberations before committing himself. He would add, if pressed, that he had "never been a proponent" of consolidation.

Politically, such a response kept the sheriff's avenues open to the Midtown Democrats, many of them consolidation proponents, who had traditionally given him crossover support. And Luttrell seems to have hoped that county voters did not require his explicit rejection of consolidation. He found out otherwise when the Charter Commission's recommendations were made public in late June. He was reportedly hotboxed by a group of suburban mayors, who insisted that he take an adverse position and make it public.

Whether or not he was under such pressure, Luttrell promptly did just that on the occasion of his televised Channel 5 debate with Ford on July 8th. The Ford camp privately rejoiced, inasmuch as this seemed to enhance the interim mayor's chances to nail down the Midtown Democratic constituency for himself. Ford had already mounted a systematic campaign to touch all the Democratic bases, including environmentalists, with whom he scheduled several meetings, and the gay and lesbian constituency, whose meetings he attended and whose concerns he addressed sympathetically (though stopping short of endorsing such desiderata of theirs as an ordinance banning discrimination in the workplace).

Above all, Ford was hoping that undecided voters would opt for him on the basis of "the great job" he persistently maintained he had done — "saving" the Med (he had unquestionably been vigorous in seeking out financial help for the institution from local, state, and federal sources, though Luttrell maintained the solutions were merely stopgap) and bringing in a well-balanced budget without tax increases or employee layoffs, among other accomplishments.

Luttrell, likewise, boasted his eight-year history of redeeming a Sheriff's Department which had been in a shambles and gaining reaccreditation for the county jail.

Both candidates were girding for a photo finish as Election Day approached — Ford taking solace from a fly-in endorsement visit by nephew Harold Ford Jr., now a New York resident but a well-remembered presence in Memphis politics, and Luttrell from the apparent proportions of the early-voting turnout.

And, oh, for voters who can't deal with either mayoral alternative, there's independent Leo Awgowhat, whose campaign has consisted of periodic heckling of both Ford and Luttrell as "liars."

SHELBY COUNTY SHERIFF — Though he, too, was concerned about the distribution of early voting, Democratic Randy Wade had a few things going for him in the race for sheriff that he hoped would surmount any late Republican surge.

For one, the former district director for Representative Cohen was running in tandem with his former employer — the two of them appearing at rallies together, each describing the other as "my brother from another mother." To the extent that the congressman seemed to be putting distance between himself and challenger Herenton, Wade had reason to believe that some of that aura of success would rub off on him. His association with Cohen had been invaluable in another way, as well.

As the face of the office in the 9th District while Cohen was in Washington — "the man to see" — and as an ever-ready companion while the congressman was in the district, Wade had made himself a familiar figure and impressed many, both in the community and among political observers at large. Wade, a Vietnam War veteran, also had ample credentials in law enforcement, including several years as a ranking administrator in the Sheriff's Department.

The Republican nominee, Bill Oldham, was also well credentialed — having served as an interim Memphis police director during Willie Herenton's second term and, more recently, as chief deputy to Luttrell. When Oldham became a candidate for sheriff, he took an unpaid leave of absence from the position, as members of the department running for sheriff had done in the past, notably in the election of 2002, when several deputies were candidates.

All well and good, until a complaint was filed against Oldham's continued presence on the department roll in light of two opinions by state attorney general Robert Cooper, in 2008 and 2009. Cooper had advised that deputy sheriffs seeking the office of sheriff in Tennessee could not make such a race without first resigning from the department outright. His reasoning was based on the federal Hatch Act, which sets limits on political conduct by elected officials and government employees during election periods. Cooper said sheriff's departments, which receive some of their funding from federal sources, come under the Hatch Act. In Tennessee, opinions by the state attorney general do not have the force of law but are merely advisory. Even so, Oldham felt compelled to offer his resignation so as to make the issue moot, he said.

Oldham had already been confronted by another complaint — this one informal and coming from opponent Wade, who said, during a League of Women Voters-moderated debate, that Oldham had charged personal transportation expenses to a city credit card during his service as police director. Oldham denied any impropriety and pointed out that he had never been charged with such. He himself, in the course of that debate, linked Wade to a period of inmate unrest in the county jail referred to as "Thunderdome," but Wade insisted had had no connection with jail oversight during that time.

The "Thunderdome" issue flared up again during a televised debate on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, with the same difference of opinion persisting.

Oldham got an unexpected boost when his ex-boss, Willie Herenton, went out of his way, at the annual political picnic of Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, to praise the former police director's ability and integrity. Wade indicated he saw that as a plus for his own campaign.

On the scale of policy matters, there have been few large disagreements between the contenders, each of them opposing consolidation of city and county law enforcement units and each also opposing construction of a new jail or outsourcing responsibility for incarcerating inmates. Wade has also made an issue of billboards that threaten offenders with jail time, advocating various intervention techniques as alternative approaches to crime control.

From time to time, there have been reports of conflict within the department between factions loyal to either Oldham or Wade, a reminder of the department's politically charged history. It was Wade, however, who got the endorsement of the Shelby County Sheriff's Deputies Association.

COUNTY COMMISSIONER, DISTRICT 5 — This is the only remaining contested race of the 13 commission seats, the others having been disposed of in single-party primaries in May. As it happens, District 5 is the only single-member district and was designed expressly to be a swing district, politically. It has been occupied, successively, by Republican Bruce Thompson and Democrat Steve Mulroy, the current incumbent.

Mulroy's Republican opponent is Rolando Toyos, an ophthalmologist with a nationally known practice and the son of a Cuban émigré. His Hispanic background and impressive professional pedigree enhance his credibility in the highly diverse district, which spans much of East and Southeast Memphis.

Mulroy, however, has made himself a familiar figure on the Memphis political landscape through his leading role in several causes, from voting-machine reform to living-wage proposals to reclamation of the Zippin Pippin roller coaster and brokering its sale to Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was also instrumental in the passage of a precedent-setting antidiscrimination resolution and the election-eve securing of a pay raise for sheriff's deputies designed to give them parity with Memphis police.

An indefatigable campaigner and energetic fund-raiser, Mulroy has set a difficult pace for challenger Toyos, who, however, could make it close with a significant Republican tilt in the voting.

SHELBY COUNTY TRUSTEE — On the surface, incumbent Regina Morrison Newman should have nothing to worry about. She is a female Democratic incumbent in a county with voting patterns that should reward all those categories. She is, moreover, highly sociable and, to judge by an achievement award presented to her by the National Association of Counties, capable.

But in addition to the turnout issue that has other Democrats concerned, Newman has Republican opponent David Lenoir to worry about. A consultant in financial management, ex-Alabama footballer Lenoir talks about cultural outreach and proposes various innovations, including a plan to use the trustee's office ("the county's bank") to mount an assault on predatory lenders.

Asked at a recent forum at a retirement home to "say something nice" about their opponents, Newman described Lenoir as "handsome," and he reciprocated by calling her "attractive." Behind the scenes, their support groups are not nearly so flattering.

Democrats have noted Lenoir's youthful conviction of disorderly conduct on a Beale Street evening, as well as over-the-limit contributions from supporters. They also challenge the management record of one of his prior companies. The GOP has returned fire with allegations that Newman forced an expensive new telephone system on the county without getting bids. (She counters that plans for the system preceded her taking office and that it will save the county money in the long run.) The presence on the ballot of independent Derrick Bennett, who has attempted previous political races as both a Republican and a Democrat, won't alter the basic equation much.

CIRCUIT COURT CLERK — Republican incumbent Jimmy Moore, a former auto dealer and longtime pol with numerous friendships across all sorts of lines, including political ones, should be ensconced enough to withstand a challenge from the Democratic nominee, police officer Ricky Dixon, brother of former state senator Roscoe Dixon, who was convicted of Tennessee Waltz charges.

CRIMINAL COURT CLERK — Kevin Key, son of outgoing GOP incumbent Bill Key and a veteran county hand himself, is matched against Minerva Johnican, a once-famous political name in Shelby County who was the incumbent clerk before the senior Key beat her in the local Republican landslide of 1994. "Return Minerva Johnican," her signs say, and she has a fair chance of exactly that happening — particularly with the independent candidacy of Jerry Stamson, the brother and brother-in-law of retiring GOP clerks Steve Stamson (Juvenile Court) and Debbie Stamson (Shelby County clerk).

JUVENILE COURT CLERK — Democrat Shep Wilbun, a onetime clerk who lost his bid for reelection in 2002 after being investigated for misconduct, is favored to get back in, with wind in his sails from supporters who note he was never indicted and contend he was wholly blameless. Joy Touliatos, the current second-in-command, is the Republican nominee, and there's an independent here, too — Julia Robinson Wiseman.

PROBATE COURT CLERK — Sondra Becton is a familiar name, long associated with the office and an unsuccessful candidate for the top job in it several times. This time appears to be her moment, in that her underfunded Republican opponent, Paul Boyd, a plucky fellow who has worked in various county offices, has little name recognition and can't match her on-the-job training.

SHELBY COUNTY CLERK — Republican nominee Wayne Mashburn works for the office and is the son of the late "Sonny" Mashburn, a longtime former clerk. As such, he has name recognition and a built-in edge over Democrat Corey Maclin, who has been running hard for the office for almost two years.

The likable Maclin has come a serious cropper, though, with recent revelations that he owes court judgments, totaling $171,203.36, and back taxes on three businesses, totaling nearly $35,000. Maclin also is subject to an IRS lien of nearly $6,000.

Maclin blames the exposure of his problems on the forever resilient Joe Cooper, who has assisted pro wrestling legend Jerry Lawler in filing legal actions against Maclin, a former wrestling promoter and onetime Lawler associate. Lawler and Maclin, who has counter-sued, are involved in a dispute over the rights to videos and other Lawler memorabilia which Maclin has sold to other vendors for resale.

Maclin has noted that Cooper, a veteran pol and behind-the-scenes operator, is a convicted felon, having recently served a brief term for money laundering after assisting the government in corruption stings against Memphis politicians. Cooper, who professes to be a full-time foe of corruption now, points out that Bret Thompson, Maclin's campaign manager and a disbarred lawyer, is also a convicted felon. Mashburn has reasons for optimism.

REGISTER OF DEEDS — Another case where a bit of tarnish has adversely affected a candidate's chances is in the race for county register, where Democratic nominee Coleman Thompson had acquired some good name recognition and a modicum of sympathy after earlier near misses in seeking the office. But all that has likely been offset by publicity about the pending eviction of the financially distressed Thompson and his business, Pyramid Recovery Center, from a site on South Third, which, ironically, serves as an early-voting site.

Republican incumbent Tom Leatherwood was favored, anyhow, on the strength of what amounts to a fair degree of bipartisan approval of his job performance.

State and Federal Primary Races

(Voters choose between a Republican or Democratic ballot.)

GOVERNOR — Nothing much has happened to change the perspective on this race since we dealt with it at length in last week's issue — except that Bill Haslam, the presumed Republican frontrunner then has to be reckoned as even more so now, on the strength of a new poll showing him with a double-digit lead on Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey. Democrat Mike McWherter, unopposed, is still watching and waiting, having done little campaigning of any kind.

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 7th DISTRICT — Incumbent Republican Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood is unopposed, as is Democratic challenger Greg Rabidoux of Clarksville. Blackburn is the overwhelming favorite in the general.

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 8th DISTRICT — State senator Roy Herron of Dresden has a nominal opponent in the Democratic primary, Kimberlee L. Smith, but he is widely considered the nominee-in-waiting and a formidable test for whichever Republican finally emerges from an increasingly bitter struggle in the Republican primary: Stephen Fincher, Ron Kirkland, and George Flinn of Memphis. Fincher appeared to be holding a narrow lead in the stretch, but the other two were pouring enough money and resources into their campaigns to make the conclusion problematic.

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 9th DISTRICT — Although its superficial black-vs.-white thematics have gained it some interest in the national media, the 9th District Democratic primary may more accurately be viewed as one between a highly active incumbent, two-termer Cohen, and an on-again, off-again challenger, former Memphis mayor Herenton.

The underfunded, underbacked Herenton still hopes to confound the skeptics with a late rush and a big turnout from the masses who supported him for almost two decades, but almost none of the factors that aided him in his upset 1991 mayoral victory are at work for him now.

Charlotte Bergmann, an African-American entry on the Republican side, has a billboard proclaiming "Charlotte Bergmann Can Whip Willie Herenton." But Bergmann not only has overlooked the likelihood of facing Cohen, she now has to confront a late surge in signage from Jim Harrell, a GOP activist, and Kevin Millen.

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