This election year could turn out to be something like last year's hurricane season -- extended, unpredictable, and conceivably stormier than anybody expected. Or maybe the correct comparison is to one of those contestant-elimination shows on TV like American Idol -- superficially bland but challenging enough if you lend yourself to it and get interested enough to start picking favorites.
In any case, one thing is guaranteed. Of the 13 positions on the County Commission, Shelby County's chief legislative body, at least seven will be in new hands after the general election on August 3rd. And most of that change will be accomplished in one fell swoop -- on Tuesday, May 2nd, when voters in Shelby County have the option of going to the polls and casting votes for the 13 commission positions either as Democrats or as Republicans.
The party nominees they select on Tuesday will compete with a few independents on the August ballot -- which, as it happens, will also be the primary round for candidates running for state and federal positions in November. Also being decided on August 3rd will be a full complement of nonpartisan judicial races.
Before it winds its way to a close in November, Election Year 2006 will have asked Shelby County voters to make their way through a veritable blizzard of election offices -- city, county, state, and federal. On May 2nd, 23 positions will be on the ballot. In August, there will be a staggering 144 offices at stake. By the November 7th general election, that number will be winnowed to 38.
And by the time it's all over, those voters will have availed themselves of new machines and new technologies for voting.
But Tuesday's first-round primaries for countywide office will still use the same-old/same-old Shuptronic machines. By August, newly acquired Diebold machines will be in place -- along with VPAT (verified paper audit trail) attachments if the legislature acts in the next few weeks to authorize them. (VPAT has already been approved by the county Election Commission.)
As is usually the case, various groups, for varying reasons, self-interested or otherwise, have conferred endorsements on certain candidates. Some of these are mentioned here.
The Commission Races
Delays in new technology aside, there will be some interesting innovations. As one example: In two of Tuesday's races -- for positions on the Shelby County Commission -- candidates are running who are prohibited by law from serving if elected. Quirky as that may seem, it's somewhat less irregular than the still unresolved matter of those two voters who rose from the dead to vote in last year's special election for state Senate District 29. (See Politics, page 16.)
But there they are: commission incumbents Walter Bailey and Cleo Kirk, on the ballot for Democratic primary voters in District 2, Position 1 and District 3, Position 2, respectively.
The situation is partly understandable, in that Bailey and Kirk were two of the commission veterans (the other was Julian Bolton, now a congressional candidate) who sued to keep from being term-limited according to the terms of a 1994 countywide referendum. The terms of that referendum limit commissioners (and the county mayor) to two elective four-year terms after that point.
Trouble was, by the time the state Supreme Court got around to upholding the referendum (which had the approval of four out of five Shelby County voters 12 years ago), the May 2nd primary ballots had already been made, and they bore the names of both Bailey and Kirk.
What's odd is that both Bailey and Kirk are actively campaigning. Kirk is "running" against Sidney Chism, who has been a Teamster leader, local Democratic chairman, and an interim state senator and who, as one might expect, is something of a political broker in local party ranks.
Bailey is one of three candidates in his race. One of the others, J.W. Gibson, who has a lengthy recent record of Republican political activity, saw his bona fides as a Democrat formally denied by an ex post facto vote of the Shelby County Democratic committee. But he, like Bailey and Kirk, remains on the primary ballot. The other candidate in that primary race, Darrick Harris, is a party activist.
If either Bailey or Kirk should "win," the local party executive committee would have the opportunity to name an eligible nominee of the committee's own choosing.
No telling who that might be in Kirk's case. In that of Bailey, it would evidently be the commissioner's son Jay, who doubles as his father's lawyer and campaign manager. Though under-financed, Harris has done a fair job of making himself acceptable to the party faithful and could end up foiling the Bailey-family plan by winning for real on May 2nd.
Here's the outlook for the 13 County Commission races:
DISTRICT 1, POSITION 1: This heavily white and Republican district comprises Cordova and a good hunk of East Memphis. For the last eight years, Position 1 has been held by Marilyn Loeffel, the onetime leader of the conservative Christian organization FLARE who, like Bailey, Kirk, Bolton, and Michael Hooks, was term-limited out this year.
With no Democrats running for Position 1, the three Republicans in the race span the breadth of the district's concerns.
Retired bank executive and former county planning official Mike Ritz has probably been running the longest. For almost two years, he has been in attendance at virtually every meeting of the commission. Ritz once served as director of the joint city/county Office of Planning and Development, and his chief claim to office rests on his experience with the zoning and fiscal issues that are the commission's chief stock-in-trade. He has proposed a sweeping new ethics policy.
Mike Rude, a portfolio manager at FedEx, has styled himself as a new broom and made a point of spurning all campaign contributions from developers and arguing for strict limitations on PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-tax) incentives. Rude's appeal to right-of-center conservatives was balanced late in the campaign with an endorsement from New Path, a predominantly African-American (and Democratic) youth group.
Charles Fineberg, a process server who ran for General Sessions clerk two years ago has, like the others, proclaimed a resistance to new taxes and a revision of the current ADA (average daily attendance) formula which requires a 1:3 share with city schools of all capital construction funding for schools. He has also emphasized crime control.
LIKELY WINNER: Most observers see the main race as between Ritz and Rude, with the former given the edge on the basis of the aforesaid experience and his impressive across-the-board backing.
DISTRICT 1, POSITION 2: The unopposed incumbent is broadcast executive/physician George Flinn, the appointed successor in 2004 to Linda Rendtorff, who left to become county human services director.
DISTRICT 1, POSITION 3: Held for the last four years by the commission's outstanding maverick John Willingham, now a candidate for county mayor, the position is being fought over by the incumbent's daughter, Karla Willingham Templeton, an educator who almost upset Rendtorff in Position 2 four years ago, and Mike Carpenter, the executive director of the West Tennessee Associated Builders and Contractors.
Carpenter is a strict opponent of the several alternative tax proposals made in recent years that would impact the homebuilding and development communities, arguing that the expense of them would be passed directly onto consumers. He is also open to privatization of county corrections facilities and other cost-cutting measures. In advocating a variety of ethics reforms, Carpenter has taken several swipes at what he has called the nepotism involved in Templeton's candidacy.
Like her father, Templeton advocates comprehensive tax reform, the linchpin of which could be the payroll tax option favored by the senior Willingham. (At one recent forum, however, she declared herself flexible on tax options.) Also like her father, Templeton appeals to conservative populists and is outspoken about what she sees as the sins and derelictions of the current county administration.
LIKELY WINNER: The smart money is on Carpenter, but Templeton has legitimate hopes for an upset on the scale of her father's four years ago against the late Morris Fair, a pillar of traditionalism on the commission.
DISTRICT 2, POSITION 1: In many ways, the concerns of District 2, which hugs the river line, are the obverse of those in District 1. As one example, Bailey was the commission's foremost advocate for the interests of city schools as opposed to those in the outlying county. He has also been a steadfast advocate of social-services spending and opponent of privatizing corrections facilities.
J.W. Gibson, a proponent of "smart growth" initiatives to control sprawl, proposes to bring "the perspectives of a businessman" to the commission. The charge against him in the recent Democratic committee meeting which declared him not to be a "bona fide" Democrat was led by the current commissioner's son Jay Bailey, a potential successor. But activist Darrick Harris is making headway among voters and has the endorsement of Mid-South Democrats for Action (MSDIA), one of the two new groups that came to power in party circles last summer.
LIKELY WINNER: This one looks like a possible three-way tossup, with Gibson's best chances hinging on a split between the other two.
DISTRICT 2, POSITION 2: Uniquely among the predominantly Democratic, inner-city races, this one actually features a well-known Republican, Novella Smith Arnold, a former broadcaster and record executive whose activities on behalf of prisoners and AIDS patients are locally legendary. She is unopposed in her primary.
Chief interest is in the Democratic race, however, which features several candidates with legitimate claims (and constituencies). Among them are: state representative Henri Brooks, city school administrator Melvin Burgess II, educator Reginald Fentress, and grocer Teddy King.
LIKELY WINNER: Sheer name recognition would favor Brooks, but Fentress has gained a foothold with endorsements from both MSDIA and Democracy for Memphis, the other newly influential Democratic group, while Burgess has strong name recognition from his father's former service as police director. King, for that matter, has the backing of activist Jerry Hall, no small matter. All the principals on this electoral roulette wheel are advocates for economic development programs and education funding.
DISTRICT 2, POSITION 3: Incumbent Deidre Malone, owner of a public relations agency and something of a swing vote on the commission, is unopposed. (She is also endorsed by MSDIA.)
DISTRICT 3, POSITION 1: This race is a smorgasbord of promising new faces. The would-be successors, all Democrats, to outgoing Commissioner Hooks, are Dell Gill, James Harvey, Johnny Hatcher, Bob Hatton, Adrian Killebrew, Georgia Malone, and Paul Springer.
Like Gibson, accountant Hatcher has something of a Republican background, but he passed muster with the Democratic committee as a returning prodigal son. Consultant Gill is, well, famous as an outspoken advocate of numerous internal Democratic issues, including, most recently, party fidelity. Businessman Hatton is a likeable longtime activist campaigning on the slogan "Yesirree Bob." His advocacy of staggered commission terms has been picked up by various other candidates.
Mortgage banker Harvey, a well-known performer in local Gridiron shows, brings fiscal perspectives and name recognition from his second-place finish to Kathryn Bowers in last year's state Senate special election in District 33. Social worker Georgia Malone and attorney Paul Springer have each articulated developed perspectives at forums, and Killebrew, too, has done some serious campaigning.
LIKELY WINNER: Harvey may have an edge, but several of the others are within striking distance. Springer has the MSDIA nod.
DISTRICT 3, POSITION 2: Longtime political broker Sidney Chism has enough Get-Out-the-Vote experience on behalf of other candidates. He should be able to muster it for himself -- especially running, as he put it at a weekend forum, against a "ghost," even a revered one like Kirk. And the MSDIA backs him.
DISTRICT 3, POSITION 3: Incumbent Joe Ford, operator of the family funeral home, is unopposed.
DISTRICT 4, POSITION 1: GOP incumbent Joyce Avery is unopposed in this sprawling outer-county district, which includes all of Shelby County's "other" municipalities and some unincorporated turf as well. We're talking serious conservatism in these parts, by the way -- though opinions are not as monolithic as echt Memphians might assume.
DISTRICT 4, POSITION 2: A case in point is this hotly contested race, pitting incumbent Tom Moss against challengers Jim Bomprezzi and Wyatt Bunker. Homebuilder Moss survived a similar three-way in 2002, largely because former Lakeland mayor Bomprezzi, who ran then as well, was beset with a fellow townsman and archenemy, one Mark Hartz, whose stated purpose was the limited one of foiling Bomprezzi's effort but who got The Commercial Appeal's endorsement anyhow!
This year the third party is archconservative county school board member Bunker, whose main pitch is that Moss represents the county establishment. Meanwhile, Bomprezzi, assisted by economist Linda Witherspoon, is concentrating on spreading the gospel (articulated by several others, notably including county trustee Bob Patterson) that the county's real debt is $2.1 billion, not the $1.7 billion claimed by the administration of county mayor A C Wharton.
LIKELY WINNER: The race is considered touch-and-go, anybody's race. Moss has earned credit with former critics for his evenhanded conduct as commission chairman this year and has even facilitated some significant compromises between pro-development and anti-sprawl factions. But the evidence of yard signs is that Bomprezzi and Bunker have been campaigning hard, and there's not a lot of catch-up time left.
DISTRICT 4, POSITION 3: Incumbent David Lillard, an attorney and one of the commission's fiscal mavens, is unopposed.
DISTRICT 5: This one-seat-only urban district, located on the seam of city and county, is the commission's swing district and was frankly designed as such -- with a rough balance of Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites. Of course, it, like the county as a whole, has tilted somewhat black and Democratic in the last four years -- one reason why incumbent Republican Bruce Thompson may have thought better of a second try this year.
Alone of all the commission districts, therefore, District 5 is the arena for pitched battles in both parties. On the Democratic side, the contenders are the perennial veteran Joe Cooper, now a consultant; newcomer Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor with multiple involvements in issues of the day; and travel agent Sherman Perkins Kilimanjaro, another perennial whose newly adopted last name makes him, well, old wine in a new bottle.
The real showdown is between Cooper, who has made an effort to back off from his disastrous proposal of four years ago to sell off portions of Shelby Farms to developers, and Mulroy, an advocate of voting-machine reform and of saving Libertyland, among other causes, who has become a symbol of sorts for the new Democratic groups, DFM and MSDIA. Cooper is a political oddity, a lone wolf with support, sometimes unacknowledged, in various high places. Mulroy has backing from a colloidal mix of the two new Democratic groups and one old one, the Ford organization (which owes him for his stout performance in court on behalf of Ophelia Ford's efforts to maintain her District 29 seat).
Both major Democrats, arguably, have handicaps. Cooper's is his reputation, for better and for worse, as an experienced wheeler-dealer. Mulroy's is the more limited one of a late change of address into District 5, one which Cooper continues to challenge in court.
Among Republicans, the race is between entrepreneur Jane Pierotti and lawyer Joe Townsend. Both are political newcomers, but Pierotti has the imprimatur of the GOP establishment, plus the benefits of a famous local last name.
LIKELY WINNER: It's touch-and-go among the Democrats, with Mulroy counting on the effect of some additional high-powered late endorsements and Cooper trusting to name recognition. Among Republicans, Pierotti should prevail.
Whoever wins in either party, this district will have the only real contest in the August general election, and whichever party wins it will dominate the commission for the next four years.
And regardless of whoever wins that race or whichever major party ends up with a technical majority on the commission, the majority of the commission is guaranteed to be brand-new as of late this year, with consequences that are hard to foresee.
Except for this? The vexing problems of the recent past -- urban/suburban sprawl, school funding, new revenue sources, capital construction, the PILOT program, the won't-go-away issue of privatizing various public facilities -- plus some new ones yet to be imagined will get a new look. Guaranteed.
And maybe the benefit of a new broom as well.
ELSEWHERE ON THE MAY 2ND PRIMARY BALLOT
In addition to the Shelby County Commission races, there are contests on the primary ballots for several other offices.
SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR:
On the Democratic side, incumbent mayor A C Wharton is heavily favored
over county jailers' advocate Jeffrey Woodard, who is running a protest
campaign against what he sees as Wharton's cautiousness.
As it happens, Woodard is also giving verbal support to the campaign of outgoing county commissioner John Willingham, a longtime Wharton antagonist, who is pushing an ambitious program of reforms, including a proposed payroll tax. Opposing both the tax and Willingham in the Republican primary is political newcomer Brent Todd.
SHERIFF: Incumbent Mark Luttrell had the Republican ballot all to himself after Roland ally John Harvey thought better of a race, but several Democrats are vying for the right to challenge him on August 3rd. The field includes businessman and Alcohol Commission head Reginald French, educator Jesse Jeff, sheriff's deputy Bennie Cobb, and police captain Elton Hyman. French is favored.
CIRCUIT COURT CLERK: Democrats Roderic Ford
and Johnnie Ruth Williams are vying for the right to oppose incumbent
Jimmy Moore in August. Both Democrats are relative unknowns;
CRIMINAL COURT CLERK: Democrats Kevin Gallagher and Vernon Johnson compete for the right to take on incumbent Bill Key of the GOP. Gallagher, a former aide to county mayor Wharton, has campaigned aggressively and has support from key Democrats of both races who covet diversity on what is otherwise a predominantly African-American ticket; bail bondsman Johnson is a veteran activist;
JUVENILE COURT CLERK: In the Democratic primary,
school board member Wanda Halbert and former clerk Shep Wilbun are
competing for the seat now held by unopposed Republican incumbent Steve
Stamson. The showdown is regarded as a tossup, though some regard Wilbun as
the favorite because of a general feeling that his former tenure as clerk was
unfairly maligned in the media and in the courts (where a misconduct charge
against him was dismissed). The hard-working Halbert's tenacious campaigning is
PROBATE COURT CLERK: On the Democratic side Sondra Becton takes on Leon Dishmon. GOP incumbent Chris Thomas is unopposed. Becton, a consistent antagonist of former boss Thomas over the years, is favored in her primary race.
SHELBY COUNTY CLERK: This clerkship, vacated this
year by outgoing Republican incumbent Jayne Creson, has races going on in
both parties. On the Democratic side, the contestants are Charlotte Draper,
Otis Jackson, Zoltan T. Scales, and Joe Young.
Draper and Scales are currently employed in the clerk's office, while Jackson, a FedEx employee, and Young, a mental health administrator and former state Democratic official, have more political experience per se. This race, like that between Republicans Debbie Stamson and Marilyn Loeffel, is considered too close to call.
Stamson, currently an administrator in the clerk's office and wife of Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson, has been endorsed by Creson and has considerable support among party regulars, while two-term county commissioner Loeffel has a strong base in her home base of Cordova and among social conservatives.
There are no primary races for DISTRICT ATTORNEY GENERAL, where GOP incumbent Bill Gibbons and Democrat Gail Mates are unopposed; for TRUSTEE, where incumbent Republican Bob Patterson and Democrat Becky Clark lack opposition; and REGISTER, where the August candidates will be GOP incumbent Tom Leatherwood and Democrat Coleman Thompson.