Tennessee's Got Game

The state's presidential primary could end up making a difference for 2004.


NASHVILLE -- Events of the past several days have greatly improved the outlook -- at least in Tennessee -- for two of the Democratic contenders vying for the right to challenge President Bush in next year's presidential election.

Those two are Florida senator Bob Graham, who was in Nashville Saturday night to deliver the keynote address at Tennessee Democrats' annual Jackson Day dinner; and ex-Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose recent rise in the polls has been accompanied by a surprisingly strong fund-raising surge.

The state's two leading Democratic spokesmen -- party chairman Randy Button and Democratic state executive director Jim Hester -- agreed, after Graham's generally well-received address, on a pecking order of viables that would rank the Floridian with four other "top tier" names: John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman.

Missing from this list was Dean, but Hester hedged with an important proviso: "His viability depends on whether he can get a grassroots movement going, and what his receipts are for the quarter just ending."

"Grassroots" can be defined any of several different ways. If it means neighborhood meetings, like an earnest but spottily attended one in Memphis recently, Dean's outlook in Tennessee might be seen as marginal. If, however, it means bottom-line responses like last week's MoveOn.org Internet poll that supposedly vaulted him to the top of the pack among the kinds of yellow-dog Democrats who respond to such things, Dean has been doing very well indeed.

And speaking of bottom lines, Dean's second quarter fund-raising of $6 million is up there with any of his better-known rivals. At that rate, Dean could be a match for anybody save Tim Russert, the host of NBC's Meet the Press, who skewered Dean Sunday before last with prosecutorial zeal on his positions and met several of his answers with unmasked scorn.

The general consensus was that Russert had gone over the top, but organization Democrats, especially in Southern states like Tennessee, are made nervous by such facts -- all probed by Russert -- as Dean's 1-Y draft status during Vietnam, his unfamiliarity with current enlistment numbers, and his legal recognition, while governor, of civil unions involving gays and lesbians.

In the game of political scrabble, Tennessee Democrats want to spell "govern," not "McGovern." Still, Dean has summoned up some real hot-bloodedness in a growing number of supporters from what he calls the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- which is less interested in coming to terms with the positions of the current president than in coming to grips with them, and with him.

Seen in that light, the previously unheralded Graham acquires a new luster -- one that he reflected, however modestly, Saturday night. Though he came off as somewhat stiff, even staid, even a bit stuffy, Graham was no pussyfooter on such key positions as George W. Bush's tax cuts -- "catastrophic," he called them -- and the late war with Iraq, which Graham noted that he had voted against on the solidly patriotic grounds that it was a red herring undermining the War Against Terror.

Though, on the evidence of his speech Saturday night, Graham is not an exciting presence, his stolid manner (yet another "st--" word) is in line both with his party's traditions and with its present need to pose a difference. He is also, as he reminded the audience, undefeated in several elections in the state of Florida, and, as everybody remembers, that Republican-leaning state is where the last Democratic presidential nominee, fairly or not, met his Waterloo. Aside from all else, Graham is on everybody's list for vice president -- the hangover from that fateful 2000 Florida countdown being one good reason.

Moreover, Graham has recruited a Tennessee staff containing several veterans of political combat in the state. So have the other contenders. The outcome in Tennessee could be close -- and complicated by the apparent rise of Dean.

Button, Hester, and other Democrats in the state can barely conceal their excitement at the prospect that Tennessee, which moved its presidential primary up to February 10th, in the immediate wake of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, could play a decisive role in determining the nominee.

One fly in the ointment: South Carolina, which has moved its presidential-preference event to February 3rd, just after New Hampshire, giving it a chance to become the barometric Southern state instead of Tennessee.

But, Button says, "For them to have a primary would cost $3 million, and South Carolina can't afford that. Nor would a caucus be nearly as significant." Hester concurs, and adds, "South Carolina's a Republican state, not like Tennessee, which has always been evenly divided. People will be watching the results in Tennessee a lot closer."

Maybe so. In any case, key Democrats in the Volunteer State are convinced that Tennessee's got game -- unless the Palmetto State manages somehow to muck things up.

Political Snapshot

Here's some of what's been going on.


City Elections

With the July 17th qualifying deadline for candidates approaching, the most closely watched race continues to be that for the District 5 (Midtown, East Memphis) City Council seat being vacated by incumbent John Vergos. Various all-candidate forums are in the offing, including one set for the July 12th Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Piccadilly cafeteria on Mt. Moriah.

Conventional wisdom remains that Republican endorsee George Flinn is guaranteed a spot in a likely runoff election by virtue of his personal resources (physician/broadcaster Flinn spent roughly $1 million of his own money in a losing race for county mayor last year) and his endorsement by the Shelby County Republican Party. In that scenario, Flinn's runoff opponent would be either lawyer Jim Strickland or state Representative Carol Chumney, with frequent candidate Joe Cooper relegated to a spoiler's role and newcomer Mark Follis considered to lack enough financing and name recognition to make a difference. There is a countersentiment emerging, however, that the real race is between Strickland and Chumney.

The rivalry between the two Democrats in this nonpartisan race is likely to be hotly contested. Supporters of Strickland, a former local Democratic chairman with numerous personal connections to independents and Republicans (one of whom, former GOP chair David Kustoff, is his law partner) stress their man's broad political appeal and his fund-raising ability.

Strickland has already raised more than $50,000 of the $100,000 goal he set for himself -- thanks largely to a well-attended River Oaks fund-raiser last month.

Chumney's backers cite the superior name recognition she has earned through several terms in the legislature and in her losing bid for the Democratic nomination for county mayor last year. They also point to the presence in her campaign of some seasoned political hands -- like pollster/consultant John Bakke, who wasted no time in releasing a poll last month showing Chumney to be well ahead of the competition.

Bakke's mid-June survey of some 300 likely voters showed Chumney with 43 percent, Flinn at 20, and the others trailing behind. Her "favorable" rating was at 62 percent, with 12 percent unfavorable; Flinn's equivalent numbers were 32 and 31, Cooper's 22 and 42, and Strickland's 14 and 1.

The sounding, which Strickland's camp promptly denounced as a "push poll," also indicated the extent to which Chumney intends to campaign as the anti-Flinn candidate -- an impression underscored by repeated references to Flinn in her speaking appearances.

Chumney suffered a measure of embarrassment last month when it was revealed that she had consulted with U.S. Attorney Terry Harris regarding the Memphis City Council's pending decision on final district lines. Council chairman Brent Taylor, a Republican and presumed Flinn supporter, called that an effort to intimidate the council and influence its decision, though Chumney responded that her intentions had been merely to gather information.

State Lottery Board

Just as both men had insisted, that compact between Governor Phil Bredesen and state Senator Steve Cohen on the composition of the new lottery board seems not to have involved any private codicils, though other local politicians left their fingerprints on the process.

Former Shelby County commissioner Morris Fair, one of two Memphis appointees, said Monday that House Republican leader Tre Hargett of Bartlett had sounded him out about serving and apparently passed his name to the governor.

Another Memphis appointee, Marvell Mitchell, has ties to the Ford political organization but may also have received sponsorship from Democratic state Representative Larry Miller.

Both men, however, have administrative backgrounds that would seemingly justify their selection on merit alone.

County Commission

The complicated budget process involving Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, county department heads, and members of the Shelby County Commission continues this week, with no agreement likely until August. The county will be forced to implement a continuation budget in the meantime.

Much of the testimony at last week's budget committee meeting featured misgivings from county officials about the effect of massive cuts. County Trustee Bob Patterson, in effect the county's tax collector, warned that deep cuts in his budget would prevent him from raising the funds to properly run county government. "You cut my staff, you cut your own money," Patterson said.

Much of the dialogue concerned a reluctant willingness of the department heads to consider 10 percent cuts in their budgets while insisting that cuts of the magnitude of 16 or 17 percent -- the figure associated with a no-tax-increase budget -- would be impossible.

Budget chairman Cleo Kirk indicated after the meeting that he foresaw a compromise based on the 10 percent figure, accompanied by a property tax increase that could run as high as 30 cents and possible concessions on issues such as rural school bonds.


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