POLITICS: Local Colors

Election 2002 demonstrated anew the importance of Memphis in statewide elections.


LOCAL COLORS MEMPHIS -- Bill Gibbons, the District Attorney General in these parts and a man prominent in this year’s Republican political races, especially that of Lamar Alexander’s for the U.S. Senate, had a secret to confide Monday night, as Alexander, accompanied by outgoing Senator Fred Thompson, staged his last rally before the local GOP faithful at the new Holiday Inn on Central Avenue. The secret was this: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a nominal Democrat who was supporting his party’s candidate for governor, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, but had been lending serious indirect support to Alexander in his campaign against Democratic Senate candidate Bob Clement, would be playing a major role on Alexander’s behalf Monday night. Our city’s African-American mayor had agreed, said Gibbons, to introduce Alexander at his expected victory celebration in Nashville.

Not only might Herenton’s emergence as an open and declared ally of the Republican conceivably transform partisan politics in Tennessee, it also was one more factor illustrating the unusual prominence of Memphis and Shelby County in shaping this year’s election results. In fact, the political year 2002 saw all the major statewide campaigns converge on Memphis as election day drew near, a reminder to those with long memories of days of yore, when the city and its environs loomed disproportionately large on the state scene. That was the time, during the long rule of Edward Hull Crump over the political affairs of Memphis and Shelby County from the late --20s through the mid-Ô50s, that statewide elections might be conducted across the breadth and length of Tennessee but they were decided right here, on the banks of the Mississippi. “Boss Crump” and “Big Shelby” were virtually synonymous terms indicating the extent of the domination of the rest of Tennessee by its southwest corner. With rare exceptions, governors and senators were designated by Memphis’ long-term political machine. As one example, Gordon Browning, a native of the West Tennessee town of Huntington, had been an intimate of Crump’s and was first elected governor, with the Great Man’s say-so, in the late ‘30s. Browning had an independent streak, however, and he kept bristling at the idea of being considered Boss Crump’s puppet; so he kept falling in and out of favor with Crump, and the last time he won election, in 1948, it was in direct opposition to Crump’s handpicked man, Jim McCord. That was a time of post-war reform sentiment, late in the reign of Boss Crump, however, and Browning was able to win an upset. (A Tennessee presidential contender -- first of a long series to come -- was voted in the same year and the same; in a three-cornered race, Estes Kefauver defeated Crump’s man for the Senate, John A. Mitchell.) That seemed to be that, except that Boss Crump, not quite in his dotage, was determined not to be bested, and had discovered an ambitious young war veteran in Dickson named Frank Clement, and, more or less as his last piece of power brokering in this life, boosted Clement against the man he considered a renegade and won handily. Crump was able to see Clement relected one more time, in 1954, the year he died. And, though there were various free-lance efforts by various of his former associates to re-tool the machine and maintain its dominance, E.H. Crump had named his last state leader, and, so, it would seem, had any force emanating from Memphis and Shelby County. To be sure, a Shelby Countian, Dr. Winfield Dunn, a Republican, was elected governor in 1970, over Democrat John Jay Hooker of Nashville, but that victory arose not so much out of a local power base as it did from the tide of Southern Republicanism, which had begun in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, finally washing into Tennessee. (All previous statewide elections, at least in the 20th century, had been decided in the Democratic primaries.) And the then young and dynamic Hooker happened also to have suffered some embarrassing business losses which tarnished his reputation and made voters look to an unknown. And even Dunn decided to tarry in Nashville, the state capital, after leaving office in 1975. He is virtually an unknown figure in Memphis today, though the U-T college of medicine here is named for him, and that fact symbolizes Memphis’ exclusion from the political center as much as anything else in the post-Crump era.

When Nashville congressman Bob Clement, this year’s Democratic nominee, was struggling this fall to rise in the polls against former governor Alexander, he lamented, “If only we had the same kind of name recognitionÉ” For a scion of the family which had once dominated state politics after that initial boost from Boss Crump, it was an ironic confession and a sign of different times. But the return of Clement, a frequent visitor, to Memphis this past weekend was another sign -- one perhaps indicating the the Bluff City is, once again, where statewide leaders are confirmed.

“Shelby County is where it’s at,” said Clement Sunday night by way of explaining his presence here for much of the last weekend and for the last whole day before Tuesday’s statewide election which would, of course, decide his personal and political fate. Clement, the Democratic congressman from Nashville’s 5th District, was well aware that the smart money and the pollsters had made Republican opponent Lamar Alexander a prohibitive favorite to win the Senate seat being vacated by the GOP’s Fred Thompson, and he had to have noticed that none of the network political talk shows had his race on their boards for discussion on Sunday.

But he soldiered on, showing up for a packed party in his honor at the Midtown home of activist David Upton , and his good-nature and dogged determinination shone through. Acknowledging the presence of his party’s 7th District nominee, Tim Barron, Clement told the crowd, “He’ll be around awhile,” and the crowd’s brisk applause for the prospect of Barron’s enduring as a political presence past the likely worst-case-scenario barely concealed a pang for veteran Clement, who was not likely to be so fortunate in the case of defeat. “We’re going to win!” said one of his volunteer aides, Debbie Johnson, when asked to estimate the outcome, and her eyes shone with conviction, and Clement himself would nod sagely later on when reminded that the ultimate science might not reside with the pollsters, who have showed Clement anywhere from 6 to 12 point behind Alexander in the last week, but with the spirit of Werner Heisenberg, whose Uncertainty Principle established the preeminence of the observer, mayhap even the participant, in wrenching fate out of its seemingly predetermined paths.

And Shelby County, with its mass of black (i.e.,Democratic) voters and, for that matter, with its teeming suburban white (i.e, Republican) blocs, had become a special target for the major candidates in both parties in this last week of campaigning. The bottom line was this: Democratic candidates were dependent on Memphis’ large inner-city black vote; Republican office-seekers needed to whet up the equally huge suburban white vote. Either bloc could be crucial to a candidate’s hopes for success. They had all been here over and over of late. Van Hilleary, the GOP candidate for governor, made a brief stopover Saturday night at the Republicans’ East Memphis “Victory 2000” headquarters with Sen. Bill Frist, and he asserted, “This is my fifth trip here in the last week, and I’m coming back Monday.” (Actually, he came only so near as Covington, where he did his best to rouse the distant suburban expatriates who in recent years have made south Tipton County a Republican bailiwick and whom state House Speaker made sure to cut loose from his district during the most recent reapportionment..)

GOP Senate candidate Alexander had been much in evidence the previous weekend, doing a two- or three-day stopover and making much the same point as would Clement, that Shelby County has the votes that would make the difference in this election. He was back again Monday night for a last rally at the Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, appearing with outgoing Senator Fred Thompson and making sure his listeners among the local Republican faithful were aware that he had chosen Memphis as his final venue on purpose. As Clement -- who made his last visit here Monday at an airport rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen, prepared by Memphis’ other major Democratic force, the Ford family -- had done earlier, Alexander noted that Memphis had perhaps not received enough stroking from government, and promised to help remedy that.

And so, of course, did Bredesen, who has been back-and-forth to the Bluff City enough times -- always praising its “vibrance,” even at the expense of Nashville, the city he led in recent years -- to claim honorary citizenship.

The same could be said, even more firmly, for Marsha Blackburn, the GOP’s 7th District nominee and so confident of a victory over Democrat Tim Barron that she spent much of her time campaigning for local Republican nominees for other offices. Blackburn had, in fact, taken a residence on Highway 64 in Cordova for the duration. And then there was the one exponent of a major statewide campaign who lived here.. That was Steve Cohen, Memphis’ midtown state senator, who, though not a candidate himself this year, was virtually synonymous with the cause of the lottery referendum. He, too, was heard from locally in these last day. Flanked by Shelby County Democratic chairman Gale Jones Carson, who added her straightforward endorsement of the lottery referendum on Tuesday’s ballot, Cohen, father of that initiative and its nurturer for 16 long years, warned Monday at a press conference at his Midtown residence that lottery opponents were up to skullduggery as the vote neared.

As a flashing sign in his front window behind him kept cycling from “EDUCATION LOTTERY” to “VOTE” and back again, Cohen charged that Gambling Free Tennessee, the group responsible for a well-funded campaign against the lottery this year, had been operating under the radar of the state’s election code through a shadow corporation known as GFT,Inc., which, he said, was obligated to file financial disclosures and had not done so. The organization, he said, could be a means of cloaking “illegal contributions or some they don’t want to divulge.” Casino interests he named as the most likely possibilities in the latter category, and he brandished a publication put out by Baptist opponents of the lottery which acknowledged that “gambling proponents” were also in opposition to it. Whether tongue in cheek or not, Cohen said, “It was through divine intervention that we learned of this today [Monday] and not tomorrow.”

On Tuesday, as rains threatened to hold down voter turnout, Cohen was still on the case, gong from polling place to polling place and reporting, to his consternation, that Sycamore View Church of Christ, had a flashing sign, too, saying “VOTE NO ON LOTTERY” across the church’s marquee. “It’s digital. It works off a computer” a church secretary noted proudly, and in that sense the opposition had something of a lead on Cohen, whose own flashing sign at home had a homespun, neon look. All the same, Cohen’s neon sign was a throwback to a former time, one in which Memphis personalities, Memphis interests, and Memphis constituencies loomed large in state affairs, and a time, in fact, which may have returned.

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