Shelby County Democrats, who couldn’t scare up a candidate for county mayor in 1998, apparently are going to have a frightwig of a contest for 2002. At least two prominent state legislators are now involved in serious commitments to a Democratic primary race for mayor, and a third may not be far behind.

State Representative Carol Chumney, who has hankered for a higher office for some time, held a meeting of supporters Saturday evening at Garibaldi’s restaurant in the University of Memphis area and has already filed the required papers with the state Election Registry to form an exploratory committee. And State Senator Jim Kyle -- who, as the Flyer has reported, is actively seeking the nomination and hired a staff for the purpose several weeks ago -- insisted Sunday that he would not be deterred by Chumney’s entry.

“I think it bodes well for us as a party to have a spirited contest for county mayor,” Kyle said, in words similar to those used by Chumney, who also said a contested primary would benefit county Democrats.

Meanwhile, a third legislator, State Senator Steve Cohen, noted that his name has received some mention as a possible candidate and would not rule out seeking the office of county mayor himself.

As all three Democratic legislators pointed out, the political strength of incumbent Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, a Republican, has waned considerably since his uncontested reelection to a second term three years ago. Well-publicized problems with the county jail and with a burgeoning financial deficit are at least partly responsible for that.

Chumney,who said she intended to have another meeting with supporters “in about three weeks,” pointed to three bills she has introduced -- dealing with mental health, jail conditions, and debt policy -- as evidence of her commitment to county issues. “I don’t fool around,” Chumney said about her commitment to the race.

Potential opponent Kyle professed some bemusement at the idea of Chumney’s having formed an exploratory committee. “It’s not legal for us [legislators] to raise money while we’re still in session,” he pointed out, referring to laws passed in the ‘90s restricting state lawmakers’ ability to hold fundraisers during a session of the General Assembly.

Although she characterized the fact as a concidence unrelated to her race, Chumney noted that a longtime ally, State Representative Mike Kernell, has introduced legislation in the current session that would permit modest in-session fundraising efforts by legislators in their home districts. Kernell was in the group that met with Chumney at Garibaldi’s.

Chumney also acknowledged that she had also given some thought to running in 2002 for sheriff -- a position that at least one of her Shelby County legislative colleagues had been talking her up for in in Nashville last week. But she said she had settled on a county mayor’s race instead.

Kyle, who has something of a head start organizationally, in that he has hired two aides -- Jeff Sullivan and Bob Kellett --to assist him in researching both county and state issues -- and he has kept open the campaign headquarters he used in his Senate reelection race last year, said he would be preoccupied during the session with his legislative duties, which include his supervision of patients’ rights legislation.

Though he has not formalized his 2002 plans to the extent that Chumney and Kyle have and shied away from any commitment to a race, Cohen indicated that he was still considering running for county mayor. And he, too, said that the reawakening of interest among several potential candidates was a good sign for the Democratic Party.

Several observers, meanwhile, have pointed out the obvious -- that, while no specific names have yet surfaced, it is a given that a strong black candidate will probably emerge to contest for the nomination, too.

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