Enter Bill Gibbons

The D.A.'s entry into the mayor's race intensifies the battle for the center.



District Attorney General Bill Gibbons stirred the pot and thickened the plot of the forthcoming Shelby County Mayor's race Monday by announcing the formation of an exploratory committee, headed by Attorney David Kustoff, to look into the race.

Up to this point, Gibbons has been one of three mainline moderate Republicans considering making a race for the GOP nomination -- the others being former Memphis city councilman John Bobango and current councilman Jack Sammons. (Arguably, outgoing Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford was a fourth.)

Since each member of this group had, in effect, pledged not to compete against any of the others, even this semi-official step by Gibbons will presumably be sufficient to keep the others at bay.

The D.A.'s timing may have been dictated by the well-publicized emergence last week of Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton as a probable candidate for the Democratic nomination. Both Wharton and another Democratic candidate already in the field, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, have a certain claim on middle-of-the-road donors and supporters who may consider party affiliation a relatively unimportant matter.

Gibbons is in that category as well; so Wharton's statement last week to an informal meeting of supporters that he would be going "all the way" may have served to prod the D.A. into acting now before too many commitments had been made to one of the other candidates.

Other Republicans, most of a more conservative stripe, have talked about running for county mayor, but one by one -- most recently, Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas and Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore -- they have thought better of it.

It is always possible that someone else may come in at a later date, but the Democratic field, which, besides Wharton and Byrd, includes State Representative Carol Chumney and State Senator Jim Kyle, seems set. And again, now that Gibbons has virtually declared, there is no one in sight to deny him the GOP nomination.

What that means is that the next county mayor will be a centrist, since all of the foregoing are of that persuasion.

Kyle has indicated, however, that he is focusing his campaign on Democratic voters, looking to the short haul first -- on the plausible theory that whoever wins in the general election will have to be nominated first. He has reportedly been raising money as far away as Nashville -- a reminder that being a sitting public official has its advantages. This applies to Chumney, too -- who, insofar as she she looks to a constituency beyond her Democratic base, hopes to attract women at large to her standard.

Both the state legislators have a free shot a the race. Kyle won't be up for reelection to the state Senate until 2004 and Chumney, even if she loses the Democratic primary for mayor, will have ample opportunity to meet the filing deadline for reelection to her House seat. For all of these reasons, neither Kyle nor Chumney can safely be overlooked by the others.

Much of the early attention, however, has been on Byrd, who got off to an energetic, well-financed start months ago and has begun a series of forays -- both fund raisers and other events -- that he intends to extend into every corner of Shelby County before the mayor's race is over.

Early on, he sewed up the allegiance of a number of influential black leaders, who are among the listed co-sponsors for a Byrd fund raiser scheduled this coming weekend at the home of former county commissioner Vasco Smith and former NAACP head and city school board member Maxine Smith. As a barometer for the future, the event now takes on added significance.

Some observers anticipate that Byrd may lose some of his black support to Wharton, an African American. Byrd himself expresses a mixture of confidence and fatalism. "Everybody I've talked to has been newly energized for the campaign," he insists. "If somebody ends up going elsewhere, so be it. But I don't expect that to happen much, if at all."

Outwardly anyhow, Byrd expresses optimism about the coming contest with Wharton and the others, though he surely can do the math as well as anybody else. Three white candidates plus one black candidate in the Democratic primary is an ominous ratio for Byrd -- especially considering that Wharton is considered to have broad crossover appeal and -- as a onetime college roommate of former congressman Harold Ford Sr. and a two-time campaign chairman for Mayor Willie Herenton -- straddles the political dividing lines in Memphis' black community.

Moreover, prominent Democrats like State Senator Steve Cohen and former party chairman David Cocke have gravitated into Wharton's fold.

The Byrd camp prefers to ignore this and to emphasize the fact that Wharton is supported by some of the some movers and shakers who have always congregated around outgoing Republican mayor Jim Rout. Among them: Rout aide Bobby Lanier, developer Jackie Welch, and former county commissioner Charles Perkins. Byrd's chief campaign guru, Sidney Chism, suggests a business-as-usual, Good Ole Boy cast to the Wharton campaign -- particularly in the case of Perkins, involved as a petitioner in the "toy town" battles of 1997.

It may be, however, that the presence of Rout backers in Wharton's orbit means only that they regard Rout's decision not to run as having released them from any obligations to the incumbent and that they are merely looking to Wharton as a likely winner.

In any case, Byrd resolves to soldier on, pointing out that he was willing to put himself on the line back when Rout was assumed ready to run again in 2002 and implicitly suggesting opportunism on the part of Wharton. "He advised me to run some months ago when I talked to him about the race," Byrd says with a certain measure of grimness.

If nothing else, Byrd intends to run hard, and Wharton can look forward to no coronation. Unless unforeseen events intervene on the Republican side, Gibbons can afford to look on this battle from the sideline, waiting his turn.

· An interrupted political comeback -- just resumed -- found its way into Memphis Thursday, when Al Gore was the guest of honor at an evening gathering at the Morningside Place home of Jim and Lucia Gilliland, both longtime Gore friends who served in the Clinton-Gore administration and who remain dedicated to the idea of a Gore presidency.

Some 25 Memphis Democrats were on hand for the affair, which was co-hosted by Gore's former aide Greg Duckett and Duckett's wife Brenda. It came on the eve of what has for some time been regarded as a crucial event for the former vice president, who went on to be the keynote speaker at last weekend's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa. Gore's appearance in the key caucus state of Iowa was set up weeks ago, when Gore began what amounted to a carefully staged reemergence in the public eye.

Like so much else in American life, however, that return to political life went on the shelf as the nation reacted to the cataclysmic events of September 11th and their aftermath. And Gore's reemergence of his suspended itinerary, which began in earnest with a surprise look-in on state Democratic events in Nashville last weekend, happened to come at a time when the man he ran against in 2000 and presumably had hoped to compete against again, George W. Bush, has been transformed by the crisis into a national icon. (Accordingly, instead of the partisan rhetoric he had undoubtedly planned for his Iowa speech, the former vice president would end up giving what amounted to an appeal for national unity behind Bush.)

Gore had little to say about the president Thursday night, as he greeted the small group of friends, supporters, and longtime Democrats. He talked about his family and of how he was in Europe when he heard of the catastrophic events in New York and Washington. He related the details of a reconciliation of sorts between himself and the president he served, Bill Clinton, at whose house he stayed overnight on the eve of the subsequent National Cathedral service in Washington after the disaster. He quipped at one point about last year's race and the extended Florida vote-count which followed it: "Some you win, some you lose, and then there's that third category."

Among the guests at the reception for Gore: Tandy Gilliland; Harold Byrd; Bob Byrd; AC and Ruby Wharton; Ben and Frances Hooks; Margaret Box; Evelyn Stell; Janice Lucas; David Cocke; Henry and Lynne Turley; Gayle Rose; Pat Kerr Tigrett; Gale Jones Carson; Steve Earhardt; Mary Nell Sasser; Karl Schledwitz; Jim Strickland; Dawn LaFon; and Guthrie Castle. ·

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