Note: This is an expanded version of the Election Preview in the current print issue of the Flyer. It will be updated, both grapically and textually, up until Election Day.
SHELBY COUNTY MAYORS RACE: No getting around it. The favorite, both in Tuesdays Democratic primary and in the ultimate August showdown, is Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton., a personable, respected longtime public figure who has served in positions of authority on boards and commissions dealing with mental health, education, and criminal justice. He is, moreover, an African American at a time when demographics arguably favor blacks in Shelby County voting, but one who is uncommonly unthreatening to whites. Add the fact that he has substantial support, financial and otherwise, across party as well as racial lines. Skeptics criticize Whartons reticence in this campaign to take specific positions, but his reluctance to spell out a credo or a program goes beyond any penchant for waffling. The fact is, he has always maintained a sturdy independence from causes, even when fully saddled up to them in an institutional way A case in point was his service as Shelby County chairman of former 4th District congressman Jim Coopers 1994 race for the U.S. Senate. As the race between Cooper, the Democratic nominee and early leader, and Republican nominee Fred Thompson, heated up, Wharton was asked about his candidate on the then widely watched WKNO-TV talk show, Informed Sources. With the wry grin that he assumes when he is telling a home truth, Wharton said about his mild-mannered candidate, Hes not the most exciting fellow. Observing Cooper in action, he said, was kind of like watching a man eat a mashed-potato sandwich. His fellow panelists guffawed in astonishment. How many votes could that have been worth for good ole Jim? Yet the remark merely articulated what many friends of the relatively bashful Cooper had long believed. And there was his summing-up, on another installment of the same program, of the reason for Senator Jim Sassers defeat by Nashville doctor Bill Frist in the 1994 election. I didnt see him much in recent years, Wharton said drily of the influential Sasser, who had been promised the position of Majority Leader if the Democrats held on in the Senate (they -- and he -- did not). Oh, I would see his name in the New York Times and read about him in Time, but I never [brief , almost imperceptible pause for effect] got to touch the hem of his garment. Among the qualifications boasted in the Shelby County Public Defenders campaign literature was his chairmanship of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). True enough, but it omitted reference to a bizarre occasion from several years back when Whartons fellow commission members had first elected him chairman, only to see Wharton, who had not been at the meeting, publicly repudiate his election and decline to serve. Not enough available time, he explained plausibly, but it was the independence, even brashness, of his gesture that stood out. Wharton has certain things in common with another consensus Democratic favorite, ex-Nashville mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen, whose desertion of a key element of his partymates credo --- notably, their conviction that a state income tax is called for by the present fiscal crisis --- has frustrated many of them and enraged others. The main party shibboleth being spurned by Wharton is the belief in city-county consolidation which is taken for granted by many -- perhaps most --- local Democrats. It is certainly a major article of belief for Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, the man whose reelection campaigns Wharton has served twice as campaign chairman. The reality is that the joint task force on consolidation which Herenton created and which has just issued its first report -- on "single-source" funding for city and county schools -- is a procedural cover for the mayors unrelenting support of consolidation, a support he has urged unremittingly since his first election as the citys mayor in 1991. For Wharton, however, the task force has been cover of another sort -- the excuse, some would maintain, for avoiding having to take a position on the controversial issue. When asked about consolidation, the Public Defender always carefully explains that he supports, not it, but the task force study of it. And he goes on to explain that there are several different models of consolidation and enough complexities associated with all of them to merit a good deal of study indeed. A C Wharton is a patient and cautious man, one who is not about to be moved until he sees that a goal is attainable and knows precisely how to advance to it. In 1995, word was getting out that longtime Memphis congressman/power broker Harold Ford Sr. (the patronymic suffix is something we have learned to add in retrospect) intended to vacate his seat, and to bequeath it, more or less, to his oldest son and namesake, long since celebrated but then an untried 25-year-old law school graduate Whether being prescient of just being careful, Wharton declined some persistent entreaties to become an establishment-supported alternative. A number of Old School Memphians saw their opportunity to put an end to the Ford dominion, and, at Mayor Herentons annual Christmas part at The Peabody, one of them, National Bank of Commerce executive Gus Denton relentlessly hotboxed Wharton to run as a rival candidate Through it all, Wharton kept smiling, but you could almost see the common-sense mantra of No Way running through the mind behind those mild but calculating eyes of his. Contrast that with his reaction in July of last year when Bobby Lanier, the right-hand man of county mayor Jim Rout (as of Mayor Bill Morris before him), confided to Wharton that Rout would not be running again. Though for proprietys sake Wharton let a little time pass before announcing his intentions, he in effect had already made his mind up: He would run. It made sense, especially since Whartons first round would be fought in the Democratic primary, where two-thirds of the electorate would be black, and where race-consciousness would not be a decisive factor among the rest of the population. It was hard to see how Wharton could lose, and the well-credentialed Harold Byrd -- former legislator, Bartlett banker, and civic booster nonpareil -- found out as much from his pollster in early March, and, after more than a year of intensive preparation and fundraising, had to --painfully, reluctantly, but realistically -- fold his hand. A C (the unpunctuated initials which were his entire given name and which, instead of his last name, he would run by) had other primary opponents -- the black contractor C.J. Cochran, who wore a cowboy hat to forums and proposed some intriguing (if impractical) ideas, like a countywide light rail system; and C.C. Buchanan, an African-American minister who spoke for the people and who deprecated both himself (lightly) and (with suspicious regularity) Wharton, whom he denounced as a tool of Republicans and special interests. A C'S LAST REMAINING SERIOUS OPPONENT IN DEMOCRATIC RANKS, State Representative Carol Chumney, took up these latter themes systematically and with surprising effectiveness. Especially at candidate forums, where she could sometimes do a virtual one-on-one with Wharton (with an assist from Buchanan), Chumney pumped for her major themes -- consolidation, a curb on reckless development, and a two-year freeze on the property tax -- and scourged Wharton for his Republican support (generally from moderates like County Commissioner Buck Wellford), for being too partial to the developers, for refusing to commit himself on consolidation, and even for the clients he had taken on in his private law practice, notably the Madisons, proprietors of one of the more troubled day-care operations.
Chumney had made a name for herself as the author of legislation that attempted to reform the day care operations (many of the fly-by-night variety) which had proliferated in the wake of TennCare and state and federal welfare reform measures. It was characteristic of a career which had seen her alternate between poles of outsider and insider She had also served as chairperson of the legislatures joint special committee on children and, for a spell, had been a ranking member of the state House Democratic leadership. She was voted out of her leadership post a couple of sessions back, and the consensus was that she was ultimately not the species of team player that was called for in that role, that -- for better or for worse -- she had more than her share of personal independence. Once she had set her sight on a goal, Chumney seemed driven and highly focused, as even apparently trivial incidents from her career would indicate. A former University of Memphis student body president, who was also editor of the law review at the universitys Law School, Chumney faced down a raft of opponents in 1990 (including then Mayor Dick Hacketts main man, Paul Gurley) and won election with relative ease. A day or so after her victory, she rewarded herself with an ice cream cone and was concentrating on enjoying it when she took an awkward step off a curb, taking a pratfall and breaking an arm. Her main thought going down -- one which contributed to her misfortune -- was,I must not drop this cone. The same single-mindedness has showed up throughout her subsequent career. In 1994 Chumney lost a devoted ally, Memphis feminist Paula Casey, when she attempted to wrest control from Casey (who had supplied the idea and much of the organizing energy) of a newly created state Suffragist Commission. In the ensuing fight, which ended with a compromise -- Casey and an ad hoc legislative ally of Chumneys, Nashville state Senator Thelma Harper, sharing power -- Chumney would alienate her erstwhile friend Casey, who believes to this day she was slandered and who this year emailed her network of allies in the womens movement messages detailing her determined opposition to Chumneys candidacy. Not that Chumney is an iron-willed curmudgeon. While her determination to stay on message has vexed many an interviewer (especially TV reporters looking for something beyond a canned sound bite), she also owns an infectious giggle and some pop-culture enthusiasms which give her, like Wharton, a rounded personality. And, in the judgment of a growing number of observers, the case she has made against Wharton as a codependent of special interests, notably developers, has gathered some resonance. WHATEVER THE JUSTICE OF HER CHARGE AGAINST Wharton -- who, in this instance, as in others, would prefer to appear the thoughtful surveyor of multiple options -- Chumney makes a plausible case that pell-mell development has forced Shelby County government to hasten after it and create the widely dispersed new schools and utility infrastructure that are major factors in the countys current $1.4 billion-dollar debt. An especially complicating factor is the state-mandated formula, based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA), which distributes capital construction funds to city and county in a 3 to 1 ratio which is a hot-button issue for all candidates running this year for commission posts outside the city and which was a target for eradication by Mayor Herentons special task force on school funding. (Ironically enough, the ADA formula has, because of the very disproportion which so alarms its critics, resulted in finally getting even some of the more dilapidated city schools air-conditioned and otherwise up to snuff.) Opponents of the impact fee on developers which Chumney says she favors (and which Wharton, typically, is reserving judgment on) point out that some 60 percent of new development is outside Shelby County and that such fees might increasingly drive developers into adjoining counties Representatives of the very suburbs which were created by developers working overtime during the last couple of decades have now developed their own aversions to more-of-the same. They particularly fear the kind of cookie-cutter projects which locate relatively low-income houses in the vicinity of newly established mid- to upper-scale residences There are two bottom lines to the suburbanites' reaction: -- anxiety about declining property values, and, in the case of those motivated by white-flight considerations, a sense that the troubling diversities of Memphis might be catching up with them. Mayoral candidate Larry Scroggs emerged late last year as a consensus candidate for a Republican Party whose better-known public figures (including outgoing incumbent Mayor Jim Rout himself) seemed to doubt the partys chances in the new demographics of Shelby County. District Attorney General Bill Gibbons (who seems legitimately to have not wanted the job) said No, then respected former city councilman John Bobango, then businessman/sports figure Allie Prescott. Along the way, County Trustee Bob Patterson, Probate court clerk Chris Thomas, and various others also demurred. A bid for party support had been made by radiologist/radio mogul George Flinn, politically inexperienced but personally ambitious and, after significant success in two widely divergent fields, confident of his ability to handle the job of running Shelby County. But party luminaries kept looking for someone already versed in the arcana of politics and government (or, as Dr. Flinn and various GOP dissidents saw it, someone from the partys established Good Ole Boy network, who -- among other real and imagined sins -- had been hand-in-hand with the more rapacious of the developers). Though no particular friend of the development community, Scroggs, who had already deliberated on possible races for Congress and the governorship, otherwise fit the bill. Polite, studious, and disciplined, he was a fiscal conservative and reliable party man who could also work amicably with Democrats. (Ironically, Scroggs had seemed most inconvenienced in recent years by a long-term association with Governor Don Sundquist, who had helped him in two bitter primary struggles with Democratic-turned-Republican David Shirley and who for years employed Scroggs wife Pat as his field representative in Memphis.) Eventually, late last year, Scroggs got the party regulars nod, and Flinn was left on the outside, but not for long. After simmering for a while, first filing for the mayors race as a Republican, then withdrawing to consider running as an independent, Flinn eventually took the leap and filed a second time in the GOP primary, this time for keeps. The two men are more contrasting even than the two main Democrats -- the chief difference being that Scroggs is an insider, Flinn an outsider, in both cases for better and for worse. Scroggs knows the ropes; sometimes his display of knowledge is impressive, at other times, he treads on the edge of pedantry. For his part, Flinn often seems confused and uncertain about some of the issues of the mayoral debate, but he makes a plausible case that his background equips him to bring innovative thinking into the task of resolving them. While Scroggs more or less has a monopoly on support from other key Republicans (he was unanimously endorsed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature, and he also got the backing of suburban Shelby Countys mayors), Flinn -- made wealthy by his ultrasound patents and business success -- has a huge advantage in financial resources. Consequently, the two men have waged the war their means have equipped them for -- Flinn spending prodigiously on radio and TV spots (so far focusing on his own positive attributes) and on mailouts (at least one of which nails Scroggs for his purported -- and, in some cases, clearly exaggerated --support of various tax measures). Scroggs, hoping to husband his comparatively meager resources for a summer campaign, has responded with press conferences in a frank bid for free media.
At bottom, though, there is not much ideological difference between the two GOP candidates. Both are opposed to consolidation and express doubt that it would actually offer either savings or efficiency to taxpayers. Both are for fiscally strict policies that would assign highest priority to education spending. And both stress the pre-eminent importance of job development. Whichever one of them wins the Republican primary may not be the doomed loser that appeared, some months ago, to be the inevitable fate of the GOP standard-bearer. Since then, the likelihood of a disproportionately high Republican turnout for the August general election has been raised by hard-fought contests for the U.S. Senate and the 7th District congressional seat. Democrats have no such races to drive their vote. Speaking of turnout, most observers reckon that next weeks will be moderately light -- somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 percent of eligible voters. Early voting has gone slightly higher than in the county-primary season of four years ago, according to sources at the Election Commission. Beyond the mayoral level, this may be what Democratic activist David Upton calls a mailout election, one in which the voting precincts can be carefully targeted. And, indeed, mailboxes are beginning to fill up with flyers. AMONG THE STANDOUT RACES: County Commission, District 1, Position 2 (Republican): Incumbent Linda Rendtorff faces a challenge from winsome but untested newcomer Karla Templeton, who stresses the tax issue and that of public funding for the proposed NBA arena. (The commission has voted -- most recently in a special meeting last week-- to hold off final voting on bonds for the arena project until May 8th, the morning after the election). Verdict: Rendtorff should be safe. County Commission, District 1, Position 3 (Republican): Current commission chairman Morris Fair faces the same sort of challenge as does Rendtorff, and from Templetons father, restaurateur John Willingham, a lynchpin of the internal GOP opposition. Verdict: Fair has better-than-fair prospects. County Commission, District 2, Position 3 (Democratic): One of the more deserving political activists around is youngish veteran Deidre Malone, an established public relations adept and activist who bridges several of the local Democratic Party factions. She already looked strong when when appointed incumbent Bridget Chisholm was stillin the field but became the prohibitive favorite when Chisholm dropped out. Opponent Reginal Fentress is fighting a stout and somewhat impressive campaign of his own, but he may end up, like Malone before him, going through several different enactments before his own show gets to center stage. Renita R. Scott-Pickens is also in the race. Verdict: Malone. County Commission, District 3 Position 3 (Democratic): In a race which, like the independent candidacy of Isaac Ford for mayor, signifies that the political Fords no longer constitute a monolith, two siblings, former city councilman Joe Ford, the interim appointee, and his sister Ophelia Ford vie for the seat their late brother, Dr. James Ford. formerly held] Verdict: Its so, Joe. County Commission, District 4, Position 1 (Republican): Longterm incumbent Clair VanderSchaaf, pilloried for purported sins that include collaboration with Democrats and wrong votes on taxes and the arena, faces a stout challenge from conservative activist Joyce Avery. Verdict: Who knows? County Commission, District 4, Position 2 (Republican): Appointed incumbent Tom Moss, who calls himself a homebuilders and is called a developer by challenger Jim Bomprezzi, is under the same kind of attack as VanderSchaaf, especially as he was the beneficiary of some of the intraparty collaboration, but he has the advantage that former Lakeland mayor Bomprezzi has a nemesis n the field, erstwhile Lakeland alderman Mark Hartz. Newcomer Deandre Forney is impressive, but much too young (and African American) to have a realistic chance. (An ironic feature of Moss' race: he is guided by the same consultant, Lane Provine, who is also steering the fortunes of nsurgent candidate Avery.) Verdict: Moss may get lucky. County Commission, District 4, Position 3 (Republican): David Lillard, the lawyer and election commissioner who was aced out by the aforesaid collaboration, tries again for a seat vacated by Tommy Hart. He faces maverick David Shirley and newcomer Mundy Quinn. Verdict: Lillards long party background wins for him. County Commission, District 5 (Republican): Lawyer and veteran party activist John Ryder carries into this contest for the seat vacated by Buck Wellford prestige, political IOUs, and recognized ability. He is being given a run, however, by Bruce Thompson, a well-financed, impressive young financial manager. The GOPs Grand Old Maverick, contractor Jerry Cobb Jerry, is also in the race. Verdict: Ryder, but by not as much as hed like. County Commission, District 5 (Democratic): Zelda Hill is the cipher in this showdown between party regular Guthrie Castle, a two-time loser for Congress, and veteran political figure Joe Cooper, who has lost more often than that but who used to be a County Squire. Verdict: a tossup. NON-COMMISSION RACES: Probate Court Clerk (Democratic): Vying for the right to challenge GOP incumbent Chris Thomas are Sondra Becton, Boris Combest, Jim Brown, and Cheyenne Johnson. Verdict: hard to figure, but former School Board member Brown may have a slight edge. County Clerk: After Republican Jayne Cresons job are Janis Fullilove, Jennings Bernard, and Michael Williamson. Verdict: Former media personality Fullilove should win on name-recognition. Register (Democratic): A grudge match between 2000 nominee John Freeman and Otis Jackson, whose independent candidacy foiled Freemans bid against the GOPs Tom Leatherwood two years ago. Verdict: Jackson, as an African American, may have a demographic edge over former Ford lieutenant Freeman, who, however, has all the endorsements that count. SHERIFFS RACE: (Democratic): Insurance man Henry Hooper, a former Secret Service agent and ex-Marine, has an impressive background but an unimpressive prior record as a candidate. Departmental deputy administrator Randy Wade has better and more long-term connections overall. Verdict: Wade, but things could hinge on who has the best last-minute mailouts. (Republican). County corrections commissioner Mark Luttrell has waged an impressive outsiders race with insiders support against Chief deputy Don Wright, who is well-financed and supported but has to carry the baggage of a troubled current administration. The sleeper here is Field Commander Bobby Simmons, whose money and careful cultivation of voters give him a chance to split the difference. Verdict: a three-way, too close to call.