It's Time -- Again

So who's surprised? There's another Joe Cooper candidacy to kick around this year.

It was perhaps inevitable: This is an election year, is it not? And what is an election year without the name Joe Cooper on a local ballot? Cooper candidacies and rumors of Cooper candidacies are part of the very fabric of local politics -- its warp and woof, as it were (and you can make your own puns involving those terms, thank you; it's not brain surgery).

Cooper picked up a petition at the election commission Monday to run for the District 5 city council seat about to be vacated by two-termer John Vergos, who has announced that at some point he will endorse one of his would-be successors, specifying so far only that the endorsee would not be last year's Republican nominee for county mayor, George Flinn. Lawyer Jim Strickland and community activist Mary Wilder, Democrats like Vergos, are real possibilities.

Cooper has run as a Democrat in recent years, but he isn't holding his breath in anticipation of getting the nod from Vergos, an environmentalist who was probably scandalized, as so many were, by Cooper's proposal to commercialize a hunk of Shelby Farms during his race for the county commission last year.

"Nah, all I'm looking to John for is some more of those world-famous ribs that he and his family [at the Rendezvous restaurant] are so noted for," Cooper says modestly.

As for his ill-fated Shelby Farms proposal, Cooper says, "I've learned my lesson. The people in this district made their opinions known loud and clear. They want Shelby Farms to remain like it is." That's actually a plank in his newest platform (or is it a message tied to his finger by a string?): Leave Shelby Farms Alone.

Another plank may cancel out the effect of that one for some voters, however. Cooper wants to fire the top administrators at the Office of Planning and Development and "reform" the structure of that agency generally. That typifies the point of view of several disgruntled members of the development community with whom Cooper has been close in recent years.

As usual in one of Cooper's races, he proposes a 24-hour action line for seniors, and this year he adds to that a call for a new police precinct to focus on the area covered by District 5, whose center of balance is Midtown.

"I'm the most experienced candidate in this race. That's the bottom line," says Cooper, who is without doubt the most experienced at being a candidate, as well.

Cooper's slogan is the same as it has been since 1995 when he coined it for a race for city court clerk (which he almost won): "It's Time -- Now." That has been preceded by his name and, sometimes, by the office he seeks. "What I think I'll do is take last year's yard signs and paste "city council" over the words "county commission," he muses. Under the circumstances, not a bad idea.

n Shelby County Republicans last week did the expected by endorsing the 5th District city-council hopes of Flinn, the radiologist/broadcast mogul whose mayoral candidacy was tarnished by acrimony but who promises a positive approach in his council race this year.

About his well-funded but ultimately unsuccessful political experience last year, Flinn joked, "I'm older, wiser, and poorer. This will be a grassroots campaign." Flinn, who later confided that out-of-state consultants may have done him a disservice in last year's race -- his first -- by advocating "slash-and-burn" tactics, promised that he would work only with local consultants this year and would keep his expenditures more or less in line with what is customary for a city council race.

A press release put out last week by consultant Lane Provine indicates that Flinn will focus on the twin issues of improving education and holding the tax line.

Next, the GOP steering committee, which gave its unanimous nod to Flinn at a meeting at the home of activist Annabel Woodall, is likely also to endorse county school board member Wyatt Bunker for the District 1 council race against longtime incumbent EC Jones.

"We think Jones is vulnerable, and we think Bunker has good support against him," said party chairman Kemp Conrad. Cordova resident Bunker, arguably the county board's most conservative member, filed his petition for the seat last week.

The party will withhold any official action on the race pending formal interviews of the sort held with District 5 candidates, but Bunker's entry was actively sought by the party's candidate-recruitment committee -- a fact which makes him almost certain to be endorsed.

Bunker is a resident of Countrywood, a portion of Cordova annexed by the city of Memphis since he was last elected to the county school board. Ineligible to run for reelection to the board next year, he is in a unique position as a county officeholder running for citywide office this year.

Another race in which the party may endorse, said Conrad, is the race for the Super-District 9, Position 1 council seat now held by long-term incumbent Pat Vander Schaaf. Numerous candidates -- Republican, Democratic, and independent -- are expected to try their luck in that one -- with local businessmen Scott McCormick and Lester Lit running most actively at the moment.

Newly elected Democratic chair Kathryn Bowers has gone on record against official party endorsements in this year's city election -- a decision counter to that which the former chairperson, Gale Jones Carson, indicated she would have advised. Carson, press secretary to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, was narrowly defeated for the chairmanship by state Rep. Bowers in an extended and hotly contested election process.

A C 's Purgatory

The county's mellow chief executive struggles to get the bad news down to 25 cents.

One of the sights to be had on Friday night, whose torrential rains and persistent tornado threats curtailed a session of the barbecue festival, was that of A C Wharton, dressed to the nines and paying a ceremonial visit to the tent of which he and 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. were the titular impresarios.

Even in that environment, shortly to become pandemonium, the Shelby County mayor looked immaculate and unflappable as he bestowed some gracious banter on a group of visiting German tourists, who became instant admirers. And on the evening before, at a big-ticket East Memphis fund-raiser for his governmental counterpart, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Wharton had pulled off an equally impressive trick.

Asked what the current state of his budget was, Wharton looked upward reflectively and became an instant abacus. "Let's see, there was a debt trade-off here ." He calculated it as worth $4 million. "And reductions worth such-and-such here ." He gave the actual number. "And applying a 5-percent spending cut here ." He paused and toted. "All that puts the deficit at $29 million, down from $44 million, which means ..." He paused and toted again. "... as of right now we're looking at a 25-cent property-tax increase."

Only a day or two before, the morning newspaper had put the number at 41 cents, but that was before the county mayor and his team went back to what these days is the constant task of number crunching. The 25-cent figure, Wharton indicated, was hot off his own interior press, and the result of a good deal of jawboning and other effort.

One is tempted to say "arm-twisting," except that the dapper, almost dainty Shelby County mayor is clearly no bully boy and works almost exclusively through charm and good manners and gentle persuasion. Not to omit the aura of good faith he communicates.

It was clear he was disappointed that a predictably well-orchestrated pressure campaign by local homebuilders and developers had forced him -- and the Shelby County Commission -- to put off for a year any real consideration of his proposed "Adequate Facilities Tax," a de facto impact fee. "But we're not going to lose any potential revenue as a result of that," Wharton said philosophically. "And it's important to set up something recurrent that we can depend on that everybody can agree on."

His own use of the word "recurrent" made him wince a bit as he recalled the deluge of complaints that he, like the several previous Shelby County mayors, had received about the notorious "wheel tax," first passed during the Bill Morris administration to cover the costs of upgrading public education -- then as now the squeaky wheel of county government.

"I never stop hearing about that damn thing!" Wharton exclaimed, his game smile hardly masking the genuine pain of recollection.

The task now, especially since the Adequate Facilities Tax has been put on hold, is to find another "damn thing" that will pass muster with enough of the contentious pressure groups in Shelby County to get by a perpetually divided and squeamish commission.

One possibility is a payroll tax, and, after the homebuilders and developers pumped for it as an alternative to the AFT, he carefully began to drop it into his public discourse and to seed the idea with friendly members of the commission -- like Deidre Malone, a newly elected Democrat (like Wharton) who brings it up every chance she gets.

Participants in the public weal as diverse as megadeveloper Ron Belz and Commissioner John Willingham, an unorthodox Republican also elected just last year, are talking the idea up in tandem with the idea of a proportionately discounted property tax -- a sop which they hope will appeal to big employers like FedEx's Fred Smith, widely credited with killing the payroll tax the last time it reared itself.

Wharton is optimistic that a solution will be found. Like Governor Phil Bredesen, another moderate Democrat and yet another reigning public official birthed in the fiscal desert of 2002, he is skilled enough to sell the idea of across-the-board cuts. His 5-percent variety is close kin to the governor's 9-percent version, and, like it, may be subject to a modicum of negotiation before it or something like it gets into the law books.

"We gotta find something," says Wharton, looking both determined and patient, knowing that anybody less trusted or less mellow would have hell to pay. And so may he, if the current purgatory which, for better or worse, constitutes his moment extends too long and too far.

• State Representative Carol Chumney of Memphis, selected by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council as one of 110 up-and-coming national Democrats, attended a DLC conference last week in Washington, where her activities included conference time with a former leading light of the DLC, one William Jefferson Clinton.

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