A Pax Herentonia

Master of the Democratic landscape, the mayor plans to field a ticket in 2002.



The cadres of the Ford political organization, once upon a time the diehard Democratic adversaries of the now-dominant Herenton-Chism camp, remain in the conciliatory mode with which they had awaited Saturday's inevitable coronation at East High School of the mayor's press secretary, Gale Jones Carson, as new chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

Ever since the mayor's race of 1999 in which Herenton won a third term resoundingly against city council member Joe Ford and several other opponents, these Democrats -- most of them loyal to the Ford family political organization or at least close to it -- have backed away from the sort of direct contest with the Herenton camp that they were long-used to winning.

After all, the 2000 political season, a presidential one, demanded Democratic unity -- meaning that the Fordites and the Herentonites were constrained to work in harmony, as for the most part they did. Sidney Chism, the former Teamster leader and onetime Democratic chairman who had been a chief aide to Willie Herenton since the then-challenger's first run for the mayoralty, cooperated with the get-out-the-vote efforts of former congressman Harold Ford Sr., with the result that the Gore-Lieberman national ticket carried Shelby County with a handy 40,000-vote majority.

If Democrats in the rest of the state had done as well, Al Gore would have won Tennessee and the nation's pundits would probably be pondering the prospects of some Gore-backed environmental-protection measure just now instead of wondering how much of George W. Bush's tax-cut legislation will make it through Congress.

Except for the bizarre scare whipped up by some of the mayor's cadres concerning an alleged plot by outgoing chairman David Cocke, a Ford ally, to stack the party caucuses and convention with a horde of teenage voters, there was little friction between the two camps in advance of this year's selection of a new executive committee and new chairman.

"We're tired of trying to keep Gale Jones Carson from being chairman," said one Ford cadre, a veteran of at least three prior (successful) efforts to do just that. "We don't have a candidate of our own," said another Fordite (a fact which, when communicated to City Court Clerk Thomas Long, who had hoped for the Ford camp's endorsement, meant the end of Long's candidacy).

The current star of the Ford dynasty -- U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who has national ambitions and considerable clout with the Democratic Party brass and the media within the Washington beltway -- had long been distancing himself from the trench warfare of local politics and let it be known that he had no interest in the outcome of Saturday's convention.

As if to provide a symmetry of sorts, Mayor Herenton said at a Democratic meeting or two that he, too, would stay out of the convention picture.

Right, and Don Corleone was an above-the-battle olive-oil importer with no connection whatsoever to the nitty-gritty operations carried out by his soldiers.

The Herenton-Chism Game Plan

The fact is that there was no contest last Saturday because the outcome was certain. Last month's caucuses had elected a majority of convention delegates in some measure hand-picked by Chism and certainly responsive to his wishes.

The Fords and their supporters, rather than risking their still-formidable political clout in pointless resistance, will live to fight another day. For the time being, they have had to yield the field to the mayor's men (and women), and they're making the best of that bargain.

But make no mistake about it. Willie Herenton, about to embark on a fourth-term re-election effort which looks like the proverbial lead-pipe cinch, is not only the chief political figure of Memphis politics, he and his cadres dominate the Democratic Party as well. Consider:

(a) The delegation sent to last year's National Democratic Convention was almost exclusively composed of Herenton allies. Selected in a steamroller convention overseen by the indefatigable Chism, it included, besides the ex-party chief himself, mayoral spokesperson Carson, mayoral bodyguard Mike Graves, and a plethora of others whose only -- or primary -- political loyalty was to the mayor.

(b) In the aftermath of that process, Herenton made it clear what his next move would be -- the domination of this year's caucuses and convention and the installation of spokesperson Carson as party chair. None of this was a matter of conjecture; it was attested to by the mayor himself, in a taped interview.

(c) Then there was the fourth-term announcement, made at least a year early so as to be "pre-emptive," as Herenton put it. The mayor cited "unfinished" business -- as if anything in government or politics is ever "finished" -- and, at Herenton's formal announcement ceremony at the Adam's Mark last week, there was no shortage of talk amongst the Who's-Who types on hand about the possibility of the city's having a mayor-for-life.

(d) There remained only one area of political possibility which Herenton had not yet proved his prowess at -- the ability to elect other public officials who were bona fide members of a slate backed by -- and loyal to -- him. Citing failed former campaigns by such Herentonians as Harold Collins and Rickey Wilkins, and the third-place finish of the Herenton-backed Rufus Jones in the 1996 9th District congressional race, members of the Ford faction would often say, "Herenton has no coattails."

A Test of "Coattails" in 2002

That thesis is about to be tested, big-time, in the forthcoming 2002 election cycle.

The mayor himself will profess once again to be neutral in Democratic primary situations, as will (for the most obvious of reasons) new party chairperson Carson. Chism, who is Herenton's chief strategist and who makes, you may be sure, no political move that has not been squared with the mayor, is crystal-clear about his two major choices for 2002.

Harold Byrd
They are:

* FOR COUNTY MAYOR: Harold Byrd, the Bartlett banker and two-time Democratic congressional candidate in the Republican-dominated 7th District. Byrd and members of his extended family and work force were prominent in the now-concluded Democratic caucuses and convention, as they had been in the Gore-Lieberman campaign of 2000.

Opposing Byrd in next year's Democratic primary will be state Representative Carol Chumney, who is affiliated with neither of the party's major factions but has her own constituency of Midtown residents and Democratic women; state Senator Jim Kyle, who owns a blue-collar constituency in the Frayser-Raleigh area and has proposed a controversial referendum on public financing of a proposed new arena for a transplanted National Basketball Association team; and possibly also state Senator Steve Cohen, who made an appearance on stage at Saturday's convention, during which he indirectly tweaked longtime rival Kyle, citing his own quite different positions on such issues as the referendum and a Kyle-sponsored bill that would penalize vendors of discount gasoline.

* FOR SHERIFF: Randy Wade, currently a deputy administrator in the Sheriff's Department and an outspoken antagonist of Chief Deputy Don Wright (who will seek the Republican nomination for sheriff along with several others, including deputy administrator Bobby Simmons and possibly including current Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore). Wade has no declared Democratic opposition at present, although there continues to be talk about (and from) former Memphis police director Melvin Burgess, currently chief of security at Horseshoe Casino in Tunica.

Beyond Burgess, Wade may have another major problem in former Secret Service agent Henry Hooper, who is talking up an independent candidacy. As an African American with some name recognition, Hooper could drain votes from Wade in a general election race.

Other races there will be, for this or that clerk's position, and do not be surprised if the Herenton-Chism forces field a full slate. If they do, and they are successful in a goodly portion of them, Willie Herenton will be master of the Memphis political battlefield in ways that only people with names like Crump and Ford have been before.

No matter how many times he solemnly swears he's above the battle.

* Outgoing state Republican chairman John "Chip" Saltsman, who last weekend yielded the party reins to State Rep. Beth Halteman Harwell of Nashville and is expected to take a job with the Bush administration soon, marked his leavetaking with a missive sent this week to Tennessee political reporters, which said in part:

"You are the champions of the people, waging battle against wrong. Your sword of truth conquers injustice from Mountain City to Memphis. Your pens bring peace. Your cameras bring prosperity. Your words inspire hope and admiration. I write you, Tennessean sentinels of free press and commercial appeal, to bid farewell ... I am sure you will grieve my absence... ."

* The Memphis "NBA Now" team's financial proposal, announced with much fanfare at a press conference/luncheon last week, is in trouble on almost all political fronts.

City councilman Myron Lowery insisted that the bonding obligations of city and county governments, ostensibly equal, be adjusted to ease the burden on doubly taxed Memphis residents; Pat VanderSchaaf and Brent Taylor argued, respectively, for more private money and more funding alternatives as part of the arena-construction package. Tom Marshall pointedly (and skeptically) requested of "NBA Now" spokesperson Gayle Rose a cost-accounting for retrofitting The Pyramid.

County commission members, especially those representing suburban districts, have been, by and large, non-committal.

And in Nashville, where fully half of the bonding liability for the proposed $250 million NBA-worthy arena lies, members of the Shelby County delegation have been put on notice by both the administration of Governor Don Sundquist and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh that they have little to no chance for approval of the proposed state funding package (which is considerably in excess of that granted Nashville to construct Adelphia Coliseum for the NFL Titans) unless they toe the line for significant broad-based tax reform.

That could mean, of course, a state income tax, anathema to suburban Republican legislators. It is in the suburbs, too, that enthusiasm for the NBA and an expensive new arena is most lacking. Not a good recipe for unanimity.

You can e-mail Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com.

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