POLITICS: Watching the Bear

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WATCHING THE REAR One part of conventional wisdom has it that Democrat A C Wharton is a shoo-in for Shelby County mayor because of (a) his likeability; (b) his expertise; and (c) perhaps most importantly, his demographic edge as an African-American.

A counter argument goes that Republican nominee George Flinn could end up the winner on the strength of his personal resources coupled with the huge GOP primary vote expected in two major state-ballot races -- that for U.S. senator involving Lamar Alexander and Ed Bryant and the 7th District congressional contest in which three of the five candidates have local bases.

Both of these either/or scenarios may have to be revised in accordance with circumstances that could undermine the candidates’ expected party support.

In Wharton’s case, the problem has a famous surname: Ford. Sir Isaac Ford, the youngest son of former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr. and the brother of the current congressman, is making his maiden race for public office as an independent candidate in the mayor’s race, and, while no one -- perhaps not even young Ford -- can imagine him as the winner, many are wondering if he can upset Wharton’s apple cart.

Flinn’s concern is the tenuous state of Republican unity. Not only are some longtime Republicans close to his recent primary opponent, state Rep. Larry Scroggs, still aggrieved at what they see as having been unfair attacks upon their man, but the party’s nominal leader, incumbent Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, seems to have his own reservations about Flinn.

Several Republican regulars report recent conversations in which either Rout or another member of his family has expressed sympathy for Wharton’s mayoral ambitions. Asked about this on Tuesday, the mayor merely repeated what he has said for public consumption -- that he is “heavily involved” with four other races and will “play no active role” in the mayor’s race.

For the record, the beneficiaries of Rout’s support (and fund-raising help) are GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry, senatorial candidate Alexander, 7th District congressional candidate David Kustoff, and Republican sheriff’s nominee Mark Luttrell.

Several members of the Republican Party’s moderate faction have talked out loud lately about forming a consensus with like-minded Democrats to endorse, or at least openly support, a tandem of Wharton and Luttrell.

Rout, however, says, “I am a Republican and plan to support the ticket.” That statement echoes the one which is being urged upon other party members these days by local party chairman Alan Crone, who personally has no reservations about rendering stout and specific public support for Flinn by name. “I’m excited by George’s vision,” says Crone, who has cited the candidate’s pledge of “accountability” as one of the reasons for that excitement.

But the same word had proved troubling to Rout, who wondered if Flinn had intended it as an ex post facto rebuke to the Republican incumbent’s own administration, which has been targeted in some quarters for the county’s current $1.3 billion in public debt.

Flinn sat down with the mayor last week and attempted to reassure him on that score, and virtually the first words out of the Republican nominee’s mouth at a subsequent Chamber of Commerce-sponsored mayoral forum were expressions of support for Rout’s conduct in office.

At the same forum, Sir Isaac Ford made what was for most observers his debut in the race. In one sense, Ford formed a triad with two other candidates whom no one gives a chance -- newcomer Johnny Kelly and Libertarian Bruce Young -- while most eyes and ears were on Flinn and Wharton, both of whom, stressing education and fiscal solvency, held their own.

In another sense, though, Ford clearly set himself apart from his fellow also-rans. Some of his points seemed hazy or were set forth in rambling fashion -- maybe a good thing for this audience, since the position papers released so far by the self-declared “hip-hop” candidate contain some strikingly radical ideas. (Notable among them is a proposal to spend “billions” on reparations for slavery.)

But the young candidate obviously possesses an attitude -- compounded of self-belief, confidence, and personal assertiveness -- that runs through his highly political family and, in its fully developed form, can even be called charisma. Right now, though, most people, even Ford-family familiars, see Sir Isaac more as a case of pointless chutzpah.

But maybe, some are beginning to wonder, there’s method to the madness. Despite the overt support being given Wharton’s candidacy by the Fords and their allies, might not Sir Isaac’s candidacy be something of a hedge? Or a reminder to Wharton about who his long-term friends are (or should be)?

In any case, the name Ford commands considerable loyalty among Memphis’ inner-city Democrats (a non-relative named Barry Ford upset a party regular for a position on the Democratic executive committee some years back), and all by itself could drain away enough votes from Wharton to give him serious worries.

For this reason, several Wharton supporters have begun to urge the former congressman and his son, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., to erase all doubt by making themselves both visible and vocal for the Democratic nominee.

It remains to be seen. Indeed, as we look ahead to the traditionally volatile month of July, much still remains to be seen in the case of both major mayoral candidates.

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