Anybody who thought the ongoing Shelby County mayor's race was going to be a cut-and-dried affair can think again. But accept this fair warning: To even think about what comes next could induce a psychedelic episode.
There are three new prospective candidates, for one thing, and one of them is named Ford. Sir Isaac Ford! Yes, that's his real name, and yes, this is yet another son of former congressman, now political consultant Harold Ford Sr. Sir Isaac (who will answer to just plain Isaac) is not to be confused with brother Harold Ford Jr., the current 9th District congressman, or with brother Jake Ford (though he often is mistaken for the latter).
Isaac Ford is all of 27 years old, works for his dad, and has never really figured in politics before. For those with medium-sized memories, yes, it was middle son Jake who first talked up the idea of running for mayor a month or so ago. Youngest son Isaac vented the idea during the series of events connected with the funeral, weekend before last, of his uncle, County Commissioner James Ford, who received extraordinary (and well-deserved) homage across the political boards.
"Dad thought it was a great idea," young Isaac said at the time. "He bought me five new suits when I told him about it."
It was possible to imagine that Isaac was joking. But the fact is: He pulled a petition at the Election Commission Monday to run as an independent in the mayor's race.
Much still remains before Isaac Ford can become a bona fide candidate for mayor. His gesture may or may not (bet on the latter) be consummated. Meanwhile, what method is there in what appears to be madness?
The answer can best be divined from the fact that supporters of Shelby County public defender AC Wharton seem the most concerned about this latest turn of events (as they had previously seemed most worried about Jake Ford's thinking out loud).
Wharton, one of three active Democratic candidates (the others are Bartlett banker Harold Byrd and state Representative Carol Chumney), is a former roommate of Harold Ford Sr.'s at Tennessee State University, and he has always been friendly with the former congressman/power broker (as indeed he is with most people). But he was campaign manager twice for Ford's on-again, off-again political rival, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, and conjecture has it that "the son also rises" ploy involving Isaac Ford is a signal from the Ford camp to the Wharton camp, the message being: 'Before you start thinking you'll have a free run (assuming Wharton gets the Democratic nomination and the Republicans nominate a less-than-major candidate), be careful you don't do to us what Willie did.
What the Ford people think Herenton did was cut them out of the loop as soon as they had helped him win the 1991 mayor's race with a razor-thin majority.
No one can seriously think that Isaac Ford could be elected mayor as an independent or as anything else. But the Fords still maintain a formidable corps of supporters in city politics, and the mere existence of a family member on the ballot might mean enough of a split vote as to defeat Wharton in a three-way general-election race.
In other words, one interpretation of what would otherwise be inexplicable is that the political Fords desire certain reassurances (perhaps they would want them of Byrd and Chumney, too).
Be certain: Conversations will be had in inner-city political circles this week.
· And now, your attention to another ring of the circus, ladies and gentleman: It begins to look like Shelby County is updating the old (1975-vintage) Saturday Night Live running joke which featured ever more outrageous weekly updates on the condition of a Generalissimo Francisco Franco who lay in his sickbed and took forever to die.
Our local version has to do with the county Republican Party's struggle to find a mainstream candidate willing to run for Shelby County mayor.
As reported last week, some Republicans have been courting former Whitewater assistant prosecutor (and former U.S. Attorney) Hickman Ewing Jr. to fill the GOP's place on the ballot. Latest word is that the initiative, which began in the party's conservative wing, has floated by now into the Republican mainstream, and that major GOP officeholders are actively trying to persuade Ewing to make the race. He hasn't said yes yet, but he hasn't said no, either.
Now, ready for the newest GOP name? Clair VanderSchaaf! So at first you smiled, then as you thought about it, it got more and more serious, right? Join the club.
The long-term Shelby County Commissioner, who is somewhere around the age of 60 but looks maybe 15 years younger (check out that new spiked hairdo of his), has name recognition, for one thing. And never mind if some of it has to do with some madcap interludes. (We all remember that endlessly run Channel 24 video of VanderSchaaf standing by a roadside while a sheriff's deputy checked him for intoxication. A DUI charge was the result.)
VanderSchaaf, a megadeveloper, has had his serious moments of the positive sort, too. And owns the kind of charm that makes it difficult to stay mad at him. Just ask his ex-wife, Memphis city council member Pat VanderSchaaf, a consistent supporter. (And vice versa, thank you.) Don't necessarily ask outgoing county mayor Jim Rout, though, who's had X number of policy run-ins with VanderSchaaf. And especially don't ask the mainstream GOP faction which is supporting former deputy Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson against incumbent Democrat Shep Wilbun next year.
There are a lot of Republicans in Shelby County who hold it against VanderSchaaf bigtime that he voted with the commission's Democrats at the tag end of 2000 to elect fellow developer Tom Moss (instead of lawyer David Lillard) to fill a commission vacancy. Immediately thereafter Moss joined with the Democrats to put Wilbun over to fill another vacancy, that for Juvenile Court clerk.
VanderSchaaf himself voted with the rest of the Republicans for Stamson, who finished one vote short. Stamson's supporters were not mollified by the gesture, and Lillard's backers many of whom were the same people as Stamson's --were even less pleased. Hence, the current candidacy of Republican activist Joyce Avery in the GOP primary to oppose VanderSchaaf for reelection to his commission seat.
Of course, if he runs for mayor, he won't be defending the commission seat. And, perversely enough, he might even have the support of some of the folks who may be mad at him now but who are such true-blue Republicans that they'd be grateful to VanderSchaaf for making the party look at least nominally competitive against whichever candidate -- Byrd, Wharton, or Chumney -- emerges from the Democratic primary.
"The numbers are there," insists VanderSchaaf, who gives himself until the end of the year to make a decision about running. He knows, presumably, that there is a streak in humankind that warms to the regenerated self in public affairs. Call it the Henry IV Syndrome, after the redoubtable English monarch who transformed himself from the wastrel Prince Hal, who -- as Shakespeare demonstrated dramatically -- chose to "redeem time when men least think I will."
Meanwhile, two other Republicans, state Representative Larry Scroggs of Germantown and Memphis radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn haven't formally renounced a mayor's race.
So for a little while anyway, the GOP can pretend it has an embarrassment of riches as the party, which called itself the county's majority party after an electoral landslide in 1994, tries to decide if it's even up to competing with the Democrats in the demographically altered 21st century.
· Before Wharton gets into the possible general-election quandary indicated above, by the way, he must still wage what is likely to be an intense and highly competitive campaign to get the nomination. And there's a challenge confronting him even before that takes place.
Last week, the executive committee of the Shelby County Democratic Party once again tabled a resolution from member Bill Larsha that would have the effect of forcing Wharton out of the primary. Larsha, a Byrd partisan, proposes that the committee reserve for itself the right to consider the credentials of possible primary contestants, based upon their involvement with Republican causes.
The Byrd camp (which is taking no active role per se in pushing the resolution) has long insisted that Wharton's Democratic persona is sullied by the fact that a generous number of allies of GOP incumbent Mayor Rout are supporting the public defender's candidacy. And they cite a Wharton statement made some months ago praising Rout's performance and professing himself open to the mayor's support. (For the record, Rout is directly involved in the ongoing hunt for a GOP candidate.)
Byrd partisans Larsha and Jerry Hall spoke for the resolution at last Thursday night's meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Hall on Madison. Wharton advocate Percy Harvey countered that the party, by formally requesting a primary, has implicitly agreed to resolve questions of party legitimacy that way, at the ballot box.
In the end, no vote was taken, but another try will be made in January. Meanwhile, Larsha has been named chairman of a credentials committee. "They just put the fox in charge of the chicken coop," he said after last week's meeting, wearing a wicked grin. ·