Shelby Countys political constellation has shifted measurably in the last two days, with credible word going out among insiders that one major potential candidate, A C Wharton, had decided against running for county mayor while another, Mark Luttrell, had made a firm decision to run for sheriff.
A leading supporter of Whartons dismissed talk of his mans departure from the race, however, and insisted late Thursday that the Shelby County Public Defender was still in the race and would shortly announce for the office, as had previously been indicated. I talked to him today, and hes running, said this source. Wharton himself was not available for comment.
If Wharton should indeed make a declaration of non-candidacy, his action would abort a considerable momentum that has been working in his favor in political circles, not only in the Democratic Party (whose primary he has been expected to run in) but among many of the countys Republicans and independents as well.
Conversely, some of Whartons potential Democratic opponents -- notably Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who has already announced for county mayor and begun a well-heeled campaign -- have made the most of Whartons GOP connections, mainly people close to outgoing Mayor Jim Rout (a Republican who has distanced himself from his erstwhile supporters pro-Wharton effort). City council member Ta Juan Stout-Mitchell was among several blacks at a Byrd fund-raiser last week who expressed unease at the degree of support for Wharton in the traditional Shelby County business/government establishment.
Even so, Wharton has had good support among key Democrats as well -- two examples being former party chairman David Cocke and State Senator Steve Cohen -- and has been reckoned by most observers as being the man to beat if he pursued a race.
Byrd has continued to campaign vigorously and is apparently geared up for a lengthy one-on-one struggle, if Wharton decides to stay in.
Among other Democrats, State Senator Jim Kyle has polls which show him in a strong, competitive situation in the party primary, while State Representative Carol Chumney is beginning to intensify her efforts among party cadres and has several forthcoming events planned.
Among Republicans, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons has formed an exploratory committee, while lawyer and former Memphis city councilman John Bobango continues to express interest in running. Both are considered strong potential contenders, but only one of them (by prior agreement between the two) will end up running. Meanwhile, the two are enacting a complicated ritual whereby each says beatific things about the other while (perhaps) trying to out-maneuver him for party support.
The director of Shelby County's Division of Corrections has, friends say, made a firm decision to seek the office of sheriff in next year's Republican primary.
The 54-year-old Luttrell worked almost a quarter century as an administrator in the federal corrections system, and served as warden of three penal institutions.
After years of turmoil and scandal involving Sheriff's Department personnel and policies, Luttrell came to the fore as the result, more or less, of key Republicans' search for someone who was both a new face -- at least to the county's voters -- and yet had ample experience in law enforcement.
Other Republicans seeking the office are Chief Deputy Don Wright and two other Sheriffs Department administrators, Bobby Simmons and Mike Jewell. Assistant Chief Randy Wade is so far the only major declared Democratic candidate and has mounted a strong campaign with support from elements of Memphis Mayor Willie Herentons organization.