Flying High

It's August 2002. Do you know who your candidates are? Now the two parties do.



It is a familiar ritual. Candidates who have vilified each other nonstop for months and led everyone else to believe that their opponents are unfit for public service suddenly appear on the stump in the immediate aftermath of an election to bestow beatitudes and blessings on each other. So it hath been with the state's Democrats and Republicans during the last several days.

Lamar Alexander's metaphor for the phenomenon, as he expressed it in Memphis at the end of a six-stop state fly-around of GOP winners and losers Monday, had to do with friendly football rivalries. A boxing match, during which the brawlers do their best to kill each other but after which they embrace, might be a better description of what happened between former Governor Alexander, the winner, and 7th District U.S. Representative Ed Bryant, the loser, in the state Republicans' U.S. Senate primary that ended last Thursday.

"I am solidly behind Lamar Alexander," said Bryant at the Signature Air Terminal gathering Monday afternoon. The sentence was an ironic echo of a campaign in which Bryant contrasted the "solid" nature of his take-no-prisoners conservatism with what he suggested was the moderate "plaid" variety represented by Alexander, whose characteristic plaid shirt was a symbol of his 1978 gubernatorial campaign and of his two presidential campaigns in 1995/1996 and 1999.

For his part, Alexander complimented the "great" congressman who had, just a few days before, been his "mean-spirited" opponent and promised Bryant his support for any future political venture. ("I don't know what I'm going to do," joked Bryant,who will leave office at the end of the year, "but one thing I'm not going to do, I'm not going to grow a beard!")

Similar obsequies were exchanged between 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, and his erstwhile foe, former state Representative Jim Henry of Kingston. This race too had been bitterly contested, but Henry dismissed what he called "this little family argument" and said of the man whose credentials he had so recently and so publicly doubted, "Van Hilleary is going to be a great governor of this state." Responded Hilleary, "This is sincere, folks." The GOP gubernatorial nominee went on to decry the state's educational deficiencies and promised to remedy them -- without, however, the kind of "cradle-to-grave" governmental activism favored by the Democrats.

The occasion was also a farewell appearance of sorts for retiring Senator Fred Thompson, whose announcement of noncandidacy in March set up the Alexander-Bryant race. (Various observers had theorized that Thompson's belated announcement left the relatively unknown Bryant insufficient time to establish a statewide identity to compete with the well-known Alexander. But the congressman himself confided last week, on the eve of the election, that he disagreed. "I doubt that I could have kept this up for much longer than four months," Bryant said of the grueling campaign ordeal.)

Thompson heaped praise on all the combatants, referring to "four really good men, two really good races," and making the expected declaration that the future of the state and the nation depended on their election. He was less forthcoming about his own future, though the erstwhile movie actor had earlier mused privately, "I may have time now to go looking for a good western to do."

Conspicuously missing from the fly-around, both in Memphis and in the other five venues (the tour had begun in the Tri-Cities area of northeast Tennessee) had been Governor Don Sundquist, a circumstance which had led state Democratic chairman Bill Farmer to issue a press release charging the Republicans with an "out and out snub-fest." Said Farmer: "How on earth the Republicans can claim they're unified in Tennessee is beyond me."

· Democrats too were on the move. After a well-attended party unity rally in Nashville on Friday morning (presided over by 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis), the party's two main nominees, senatorial candidate Bob Clement and gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen, launched their own independent forays into Tennessee's nooks and corners.

Clement arrived bright and early on a steamy Saturday morning for a photo-op with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), a former astronaut; state chairman Farmer; local Democrats; and assorted veterans at the Memphis Belle on Mud Island. Reason for the tableau was to underscore Clement's former Army service as a response to criticism of the 5th District Nashville congressman's military-preparedness stands by Alexander, who -- as Clement wasted no time pointing out -- had never performed military service.

Styling himself "a liberator, not a liberal," Clement took out after greedy corporate CEOs and promised to safeguard "security" for Tennesseans: "Social Security, Homeland Security, and health security." He promised to hit "all the Ed Bryant corners" of Tennessee and to capitalize on whatever discontent with Alexander still lingered with the 7th District congressman's supporters.

The same, perhaps overly wishful note had been struck by Bredesen, who had begun his own crisscross across the state on Friday from Henry's home town of Kingston in East Tennessee, where he solicited support from supporters of the defeated Republican moderate.

Meeting with fellow Democrats and the media at the Plaza Club in Memphis Saturday afternoon, Bredesen, the ex-mayor of Nashville, blew verbal kisses at Memphis, which he described as "a vigorous bigger, more brawling" city than his own, and spoke of ongoing negotiations between himself and Hilleary on the format for an extended series of debates.

One issue he and Hilleary had agreed on during their respective primaries was the matter of a state income tax, which both opposed. After making his prepared remarks Saturday, Bredesen noted the defeat of several pro-income-tax incumbents in legislative contests and said that fact, plus the opting out of reelection races by other pro-income-tax legislators and the defeat of income-tax legislation by the General Assembly in July, amounted to a "referendum by stages" against the income tax.

· Last week's local Shelby County election was a roller-coaster ride, with the expectations of all sides rising and falling through the day and most of the evening. When the ride finally ended late Thursday night, the ones bearing the grins were the ones who had been expected to way back before early voting had started.

Democrat A C Wharton's victory over Republican George Flinn, with 62 percent of the vote, was what many observers had anticipated from the beginning of the post-primary campaign in May, as was a sweep of contested countywide offices by Republican candidates.

First totals, which seemed to come mainly from inner-city Memphis, had made it appear that Wharton might head a ticket sweep by the Democrats, most of whose candidates took an early lead that was consistent with a measurably stronger Democratic showing during the two weeks of early voting.

During the heady early evening period for Democrats, when the disproportionate reporting of inner-city votes put all of them ahead of their GOP opponents, victory seemed more than possible for Shep Wilbun, the Juvenile Court clerk whose campaign had seemed to bog down amid an investigation of office irregularities by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"That's a relief," confided county commission clerk Calvin Williams at mid-evening, when Wilbun looked to be a winner. Williams had partly brokered the deal whereby Wilbun, then a commissioner, was appointed clerk in late 2000, with Williams pal Darrell Catron, a fellow black Republican activist whose alleged misdeeds as an aide to Wilbun account for much of the current trouble, coming along as a throw-in.

Republican Steve Stamson, the former deputy clerk who was aced out in that deal, won vindication over Wilbun when all the votes were counted, and the other GOP candidates for countywide office defeated their Democratic opponents as well.

· To no one's surprise except, perhaps, that of the principals themselves, the three major Shelby County candidates canceled each other out in the Republicans' 7th District congressional primary -- giving state Senator Marsha Blackburn of suburban Nashville a 17,000-vote margin over her nearest competitor, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff.

Kustoff, Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor, and state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville, had engaged in acrimonious disputes with each other, often over issues which seemed to observers to be so much hairsplitting. An examination of the vote totals indicates that if even one of the Shelby Countians had not been a candidate, the race might have been competitive. In any case, it was clear that all three underestimated the districtwide popularity of anti-tax activist Blackburn.

Some observers also detected a disproportionately lower Republican turnout in the 7th District portions of Shelby County -- one which might be attributable to the negative campaigning and could, at least marginally, have affected Bryant adversely in his race against Alexander.

Since legislative reapportionment last year, the 7th District, already regarded as staunchly Republican, saw the estimated GOP component of the total district vote rise to the level of 60 percent, and for this reason the Democratic primary attracted neither name-brand candidates nor much media interest. But Democratic primary winner Tim Barron of Collierville vows to raise $250,000 and wage an energetic campaign against Blackburn, who, however, will be heavily favored. ·

Sign Of the Times

Make of this one -- which appeared mysteriously Monday on the south side of Stage Road, just west of Covington Pike -- what you will. It went up four days after the Shelby County mayor's race ended, three months after the mayoral primaries, and five months after Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, at the time a leading candidate, withdrew from the mayor's race.

Quote Of the Week

"I lost $16,000 in Enron stock. I'd have been better off if I could have purchased 16,000 lottery tickets. The return would have been higher." -- State Senator Steve Cohen, principal sponsor of the lottery referendum on the November state ballot.

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