With less than a month to go before the May 7th primary date and with early voting only days away, candidates for countywide offices seem impatient for the warm weather; they're turning up the heat on their own.
Both parties have some intense and even bitter intramural contests going, and the last few days have made it clear that neither the county's Democrats nor its Republicans will nominate a candidate for Shelby County mayor without a full measure of fratricidal strife.
The Democrats, first: Although their chances in this year's major statewide races for governor and U.S. senator are arguably improving all the time, they have plainly run into snags at the local level.
Part of the problem is a spillover from the relative good fortune that finds the Democrats with virtual nominees in place statewide. Fifth District U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville is a bona fide consensus candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by the GOP's Fred Thompson, and ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen's two Democratic primary opponents for the governorship -- veteran educational administrator Charles Smith and Knoxville district attorney Randy Nichols -- are so far just blips on his radar screen, both revenue-wise and poll-wise.
The Republicans, meanwhile, increasingly have what looks like a governor's race -- with challenger Jim Henry of Kingston running hard enough to cast doubt on the ultimate suitability of 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, if not yet on his likely victory in the GOP primary. And unless President Bush explicitly insists on 7th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant's withdrawal during his visit to East Tennessee this week (and maybe not even then), Bryant seems likely to take former Governor Lamar Alexander down to the wire in the Republicans' Senate primary.
There is also a spirited contest for the GOP nomination to succeed Bryant in the 7th District, with Shelby Countians Mark Norris, David Kustoff, and Brent Taylor vying with the likes of Middle Tennessee conservative firebrand Marsha Blackburn (who paid an extended visit to the county last week).
How is that bad news for Shelby County Democrats? It ensures that the county's Republicans will be out in force on August 1st for the simultaneous statewide primary and local general election. Meanwhile, the Democrats, lacking dramatic statewide contests, will have to work harder to get voters to turn out for the nominees they will have selected in next month's primary for countywide offices.
The situation is complicated for the Democrats by the bad feeling being generated in party ranks during the increasingly acrimonious race for Shelby County mayor. At Sunday's third of four officially scheduled Democratic forums for mayor, only one of the three candidates present -- presumed favorite AC Wharton -- answered enthusiastically in the positive when each was asked by an audience member for a pledge of support to the party's eventual nominee.
Rev. C.C. Buchanan, whose curious campaign -- invisible everywhere else but at the forums -- has so far alternated between jokes at his own expense and attacks upon Wharton, said he could not support the Shelby County public defender because of Wharton's alleged Republican ties and lack of identification with "working people." And state Representative Carol Chumney, a more credible adversary, managed to sound as perfunctory as humanly possible while uttering the words, "I will support the Democratic nominee."
The thermostat is being turned up by the candidates' rank-and-file supporters, too. Two women partial to Wharton's campaign complained about Chumney to audience members in the aftermath of Sunday's debate in the Botanic Garden auditorium in Audubon Park.
One, activist Sue Jackson, amplified on a question she had asked during the forum, the thrust of which was to allege that Rep. Chumney had legislated to give private developers exploitation rights on public property. Chumney would say later that Jackson had misrepresented a bill co-sponsored by herself and state Senator Steve Cohen years ago that enabled new residences -- most of them "affordable housing," said Chumney -- to be constructed on the cleared land appropriated for a reconstructed portion of Sam Cooper Boulevard.
The other interlocutor, teacher Jerry Cocke, escalated from a supercharged defense of a Wharton remark concerning Chumney's law firm to a heated claim that Chumney had gone so far as to undermine American principles of legal representation.
Chumney, who sponsored reform legislation on daycare, had criticized Wharton, without naming him, for representing daycare brokers accused of violations; Wharton had rejoindered -- merely to show that all law firms had presumptively imperfect clients, said Cocke -- that Chumney's firm represented persons charged with Medicare fraud. Chumney had the last thrust, an ironically two-edged one: "If my firm [Glankler, Brown] is so bad," she asked, why had two of the partners contributed to Wharton's campaign? And she continued to insist that Wharton's experience "on one side" of the daycare issue ill-suited him for office.
More or less from the time that Bartlett banker Harold Byrd withdrew from the mayor's race and she became the last obstacle to what most observers considered an inevitable Wharton victory, Chumney has been hitting her opponent hard at every opportunity -- for taking developers' money, for enjoying too much Republican support, and for not taking stands on hot-button issues like consolidation (which she favors).
Increasingly, Wharton has been hitting back, and -- rhetorically, at least -- the Democratic race for mayor has become a real contest.
The Republicans, meanwhile, had been spared anything so personal or potentially divisive until Monday, when State Rep. Larry Scroggs -- in anticipation of an advertising blitz by well-heeled opponent George Flinn, scheduled to begin this week -- called a press conference at the Holiday Inn on I-240 to attack Flinn on several grounds: his motives, his preparation for office, his party affiliation, and a "conflict of interest" stemming from physician/broadcasting magnate Flinn's ownership of the local radio station that carries the Memphis Grizzlies' games.
Noting that the question of financing a new arena for the Grizzlies is still an issue in county government, Scroggs said that Flinn "makes money" every time the Grizzlies play and contended, "He has a financial interest in keeping them here. And that means it serves his own interests to make sure the arena gets built ... no matter what the cost."
Scroggs also said that, unlike himself, a lifelong "committed" Republican, Flinn had not "paid his dues" and had adopted the GOP label for purposes of running for office despite having "voted as a Democrat in 1990, 1992, 1996, and 2000." Nor, Scroggs insisted, did Flinn's broadcast management of "mostly low-budget" stations prepare him for running Shelby County government. "You can't wake up in the morning as mayor, look at the ratings, and suddenly decide to change the format."
Predicting that Flinn's TV commercials would contain "plenty of flash, but you won't see any substance," Scroggs said that the office of mayor "should not be bought by the candidate with the deepest pockets."
The salvo surprised some observers in that party veteran Scroggs is still regarded as the favorite in a primary race in which political newcomer Flinn has not yet made his presence felt. In a response released through campaign spokesperson Cary Rodgers, Flinn called the attack "negative, Nashville-style rhetoric" and a "desperate and negative campaign tactic," adding, "This is what you'd expect from a career politician who thinks the voters owe him this office." According to the Flinn statement: "Our positive issue-based campaign is about getting Shelby County back on track. The issue in this race is who is best qualified to bring back leadership and accountability to Shelby County government."
And the mayor's race is not the only Republican contest in which bad blood has begun to flow.
Commission challengers John Willingham, Jim Bomprezzi, and Joyce Avery are all mounting vigorous and, at times, hostile campaigns against incumbents Morris Fair, Tom Moss, and Clair Vander Schaaf, respectively, while Willingham's daughter Karla Templeton is pursuing a less confrontational challenge to another incumbent, Linda Rendtorff. And a grudge match of sorts exists in a contest for an open seat in which lawyer David Lillard and real estate broker David Shirley have exchanged insults while a third candidate, ex-Secret Service man Mundy Quinn, proclaims, "It's time for a change."
The sense of a generalized challenge to a perceived long-term controlling element in the Republican Party is what unifies these challenges, though each has separate roots as well. Avery and Bomprezzi allege that opponents Vander Schaaf and Moss conspired with commission Democrats two years in a "vote-swapping" incident which resulted in, among other consequences, Moss' appointment to the commission and the naming of then Commissioner Shep Wilbun, a Democrat, as Juvenile Court clerk.
For all the obvious animosity in some of the Republican contests, however, there is a mounting hope among the party faithful -- based largely on interest in the statewide and 7th District races -- that voter sentiment might gravitate again to the GOP, as it did in 1994, when there was a virtual Republican sweep in county and statewide races, as well as nationally. n
One feature of the current county election which has so far gone unreported and almost unnoticed (though, like the "Purloined Letter" in the Poe tale, it is right before the eye) is this: Whichever major party holds dominance on the Shelby County Commission after the August 1st general election, one fact will not change: Whites will hold a 7-6 majority of the membership.
This is despite the demographic changes which, as reflected in the 2000 census and subsequent population estimates, suggest that African Americans have become a majority of county residents.
As several candidates have noted and as John Ryder, a Republican candidate to represent the 5th commission district (East Memphis), keeps pointing out: Districts 1 through 4 are certain to produce an even balance of Democrats (black) and Republicans (white), six of each. The 5th District, which is unique in that it contains only one position, will break the party stalemate, depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican wins it.
But, although the ballot contains the names of an obscure black candidate or two, the only fully active contestants with realistic chances of winning the seat are white, whether Democratic or Republican in their party affiliation. For the GOP, there are Ryder, Bruce Thompson, and Jerry Cobb. The two major Democratic candidates are Guthrie Castle and Joe Cooper. Both nominees and the eventual winner are sure to come from this list of five men, all white.
Only if one of the Democrats wins, however, will the virtually synonymous nature of the terms black and Democratic, on the one hand, and white and Republican, on the other, be suspended as descriptors for commission members and, for that matter, for Shelby County officeholders in general.-- J.B.
County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, the only commission incumbent to be unopposed on the 2002 county ballot: "My daughter and I prayed that, with her wedding coming up this year, I wouldn't have an opponent. The Lord granted our wish."
District 4 (Outer Shelby) county commission candidate D'Andre Forney, one of only two African Americans to seek the Republican nomination this year, as he faced an overwhelmingly white audience at a Shelby County Republican Women's luncheon Monday: "I know what you're thinking. [Pause] 'He's so young -- and good-looking!'" -- J.B.