"I loved Ophelia forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up thy sum." -- Hamlet
There once was a popular superstition that the Ford family of Memphis had a monolithic hold on Democratic politics in the inner city.
Despite some isolated election results that might have disproved this, some Memphians still believe it. The fact is, as the recent mayoral filing by 27-year-old Isaac Ford suggested, there is not even a single party line within the family itself. That fact was newly demonstrated at the Election Commission Wednesday by the picking up of a petition for the County Commission by Ophelia Ford.
Ophelia Ford is the sister of Harold Ford Sr., the family patriarch, and of several other Ford brothers who have been active politically -- including former city councilman Joe Ford and current Councilman Edmund Ford. In 1999, she was beat to the punch by brother Edmund, who filed to succeed brother Joe, who would run an unsuccessful race for mayor. For a while, they were both candidates, but eventually Ophelia yielded to her brother and withdrew.
Not this trip. Since the death last month of Dr. James Ford, a member of the Shelby County Commission, the supposition in the family -- and in the political community at large -- has been that Joe Ford would run to succeed his brother. Indeed, Commissioner Michael Hooks Sr. made a moving speech at the next commission meeting in which he said in effect that it had been one of Dr. Ford's dying wishes that brother Joe Ford succeed him on the commission.
Sister Ophelia scoffs at that. "It was extremely poor judgment for Michael to go public talking about our deceased brother's wishes. We don't need Michael to tell our family what our wishes are." So she picked up a petition to run for brother James' District 3, Position 1 seat as soon as the commission had resolved all district boundaries and it was legal to do so. She thereby beat brother Joe to the punch this time, and that was no accident.
"I'm borrowing the style of my younger brothers," explained the 51-year-old Ophelia, who said she had been trying to get into government since at least 1984 but had found herself -- a jilted soul like her namesake in Shakespeare's Hamlet -- in the position of deferring to one brother after another, sometimes being taken by surprise after she had confided her ambitions. Brother Joe, for example, had picked up and filed his council petition in 1995 after she had first expressed interest, she said.
"This time they can read in the paper," said Ophelia, who quoted Joe as having informed her of his unexpected filing back then by saying, "Oh, you must not have read the paper!"
Reasoning that it was better to sandbag a sibling than to be sandbagged, Ophelia explained Wednesday, "I didn't tell any of my family members I was going to pick up a petition." She maintained, however, that "I had told most of my family members that I was going to go for the next thing available, especially after [Joe] messed up his stuff with the mayor's situation. I'll be interested to see what reaction is."
(Joe Ford might indeed have been taken by surprise; he was doubtless looking in the other direction, for a threatened primary challenge from family political rival Sidney Chism.)
Ophelia Ford's decision to go for the commission seat followed several months of waiting for another brother, state Senator John Ford, to abandon his own seat. Ophelia maintains that brother John had expressed a sense of weariness with continued service in the state Senate.
"If I don't get in this time, I'll probably relocate," said Ophelia, who -- ironically or not -- had expressed chagrin at the recent decision of nephew Isaac, a son of Harold Ford Sr. and brother of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., to run as an independent for mayor, thereby breaking an emerging family consensus for Democratic mayoral candidate A C Wharton.
Ophelia Ford has worked in the fields of public relations, communications, and product development with a variety of enterprises. She is a veteran of service with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, radio station WLOK, the Memphis Board of Education, Memphis Area Legal Services (where she was an aide to Wharton); and the family business, N.J. Ford Funeral Parlor, where she is an accredited undertaker and recently developed a company-related insurance plan.
District 2 Shelby County Commissioner Bridget Chisholm, who was named to fill a commission vacancy roughly a year ago and served during a stormy period of debate on the NBA Grizzlies and other volatile issues, may be ready to take her leave without seeking reelection.
"I've thought about it, but I haven't concluded anything definite," Chisholm said last week.
Elected by the commission in early 2000 to fill the position vacated by Shep Wilbun, who, in a close and contentious vote, had been named by his mates to the position of Juvenile Court Clerk, Chisholm ran afoul of controversy herself, being charged in a Chancery Court suit (later dismissed) with conflict of interest after a business partner had sought the transplanted Grizzlies' broadcasting rights.
Chisholm is a co-founder and partner of Mosaic Group, which helps develop business franchises in the Memphis area for such enterprises as Church's Fried Chicken and Applebee's Grill & Bar.
A relative unknown to the public at large, Chisholm enjoyed a sudden burst of favorable publicity in late 1999 and was boosted for the Wilbun seat by an ad hoc coalition including the Ford political organization and influential members of the development community.
Deidre Malone, a longtime political activist who heads up public relations for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and is close to Democratic political broker Sidney Chism, is determinedly seeking election to Chisholm's Division 2, Position 3 seat. Already running with a head of steam, she will be an overwhelming favorite if Chisholm drops out.
A mid-December poll taken under the supervision of veteran political consultant John Bakke shows that Public Defender Wharton, with whom Bakke is working, commanded a majority of the likely Democratic primary voters asked for a preference among party candidates for Shelby County mayor.
Wharton's standing in the poll of 606 voters, surveyed between December 10th and 14th, was at 51 percent, as against 13 percent for Bartlett banker Harold Byrd and 11 percent for Midtown state Representative Carol Chumney.
The poll also showed that, when matched in the general election against Republican Larry Scroggs, the only Republican to have announced for county mayor so far, Wharton would enjoy a ratio in his favor of two to one, Bakke said. Scroggs, a state representative from Germantown, is the only Republican to have announced for county mayor so far and the only one tested.
Bakke added that county commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf, who talked about running as a Republican but decided this week that the press of business prevented that, would have been a figure to reckon with also. Isaac Ford was not included in the survey, nor was radiologist/radio-station owner George Flinn, who filed as a Republican then withdrew his petition and is considering re-filing as an independent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wharton's Democratic opponents were skeptical of Bakke's results. Chumney called the poll "an attempt to trick the voters into believing that a winner has been anointed" and said her own soundings, done by pollster Berge Yacoubian, have yielded "very different" results.
Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who many suggest could be Mayor for Life, indicated on New Year's Day that he might harbor some such notion as well, unveiling the general outlines of a "five-year plan," adding as a sort of modest footnote, "If I am reelected in 2003 -- I don't want to be presumptuous."
The de facto announcement of reelection plans was but one highlight of Herenton's annual speech at The Peabody to participants at city councilman Myron Lowery's New Year's Prayer Breakfast. The mayor also hinted that he might choose to intervene in the forthcoming Shelby County mayor's race and reiterated his determination to push for city-county consolidation, with the important exception of city and county schools.
Consolidation was, in fact, the key component of the five-year plan (along with a stated intent to shore up education and the criminal justice system) and, Herenton seemed to suggest, the possible determinant in deciding whom he might support for county mayor.
The mayor proposed to begin immediate -- but unspecified -- measures to bring about consolidation in the realm of law enforcement but said he intended to "say no to the consolidation of city and county schools." He proposed instead to "freeze school system boundaries" for the existing Memphis and Shelby County systems and to institute "single-source" funding for the two systems.
As an apparent response to continued complaints from county officials and suburbanites about the current method of routing state funding to the two systems through an average-daily-attendance (ADA) formula favoring the city schools by a three to one ratio, Herenton proposed "equalized expenditures," so long as special provision was made for "at-risk youngsters."
After his public remarks, the mayor would condemn as "divisive" a recent proposal for separate special school districts made to a state legislative committee in Nashville recently by county school board chairman David Pickler.
Though he did not target specific individuals in his speech, Herenton also professed to be outraged by the inability of officials at the state and county levels to solve looming financial problems and at the weaknesses in the Memphis school system revealed by the city system's disproportionately poor showing in recent state testing.
After the mayor's speech, various members of his audience, ranging from members of his own circle to participants in this or that mayoral campaign, indicated they thought Herenton's prospective intervention in the 2002 county mayor's race would not occur before the end of the primary process.
Herenton said he would make no endorsement "at this time," adding that, aside from his judging candidates on their integrity, experience, and ability -- and on their commitment to consolidation -- he would not be bound, in deciding on an ultimate endorsement, by restrictions of gender, race, or party.
Insisting that, a recent news report to the contrary notwithstanding, he was aware of a looming state budget crisis and had no intention of denying it, U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary (R-4th) said in Memphis last week that TennCare was the major cause of the shortfall, and, without naming incumbent Governor Don Sundquist directly, indicated strongly that the current administration was also to blame.
Addressing a small group of supporters at a meet-and-greet at the Lulu Grille in East Memphis, GOP gubernatorial candidate Hilleary said that state revenues had run ahead of inflation every year except the last one and that a "restructuring" of TennCare, the state-run insurance system for the indigent and uninsured, would do much to fix the problem.
"With TennCare, the state has been offering open-ended supply to go with open-ended demand. We can't raise enough in taxes to keep up with that," Hilleary said. He promised, if elected, to institute "two-way dialogue" and go beyond the "my way or the highway attitude" which he said had prevailed in recent years. Hilleary said the state had been hurt by the unchanging focus on an income tax during the last three years and added, "There's been a certain amount of disgruntlement across the state in the last few years." He said that he and the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, had run "neck-and-neck" in polls "even after I've absorbed the disgruntlement."