Politics » Politics Feature

A C's In It!

A fund-raiser next week will formalize Wharton's long-anticipated bid for city mayor; PLUS: GOP Takes Over Legislature. How'd That Happen?



Not that it's any longer a big bad secret that Shelby County mayor A C Wharton intends to run for mayor of Memphis. Not that it ever was.

But, as first reported on the Flyer's online edition this week, selected folks around Memphis and Shelby County have now been informed by mail that Wharton will be the beneficiary of a $500-a-head fund-raiser next week, Wednesday, November 19th, at the Racquet Club, with proceeds explicitly designated to a race for city mayor.

This follows upon recent news that the Shelby County mayor had met with confidants to inform them he would be running for mayor of Memphis and that he intended to appoint a campaign treasurer for that purpose.

And that news had followed upon revelations earlier this year that Shelby County's two most prominent mayors, Wharton and the man he would succeed, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, had actively collaborated on Herenton's since-aborted bid to regain control of the city school system as superintendent.

Increasingly, the two mayors have partnered in what has sometimes seemed a tag-team effort (or a bad cop-good cop duo) to facilitate a transition to some form of actual city/county consolidation.

Wharton's plans, therefore, have to be considered in the context of what Herenton intends to do. From almost the time of Herenton's reelection last year, rumors have swirled concerning his early departure from office.

The Shelby County mayor's decision to launch his campaign for city mayor this early — three full years before the next regularly scheduled municipal election — suggests that an announcement could be coming from City Hall sometime soon, signaling a possible change of status for the city mayor.

Even if this should turn out not to be the case, Wharton's early moves to secure campaign cash and supporters will serve to dissuade any number of potential competitors, whenever the race takes place.

They will not, however, daunt the mayoral ambitions of Carol Chumney, the former state legislator and City Council member who finished second to Herenton in the 2007 mayor's race with 32 percent of the vote. Chumney has made it clear ever since that she will try again at the earliest opportunity.

Chumney has challenged the conventional wisdom concerning Wharton's inevitability, to the point of insisting she would have held her own against the county mayor had he responded favorably to the "Draft A C" movement that flared up on the eve of the 2007 election.

That movement famously came to naught when the two mayors dined together at Le Chardonnay, after which Wharton punctured the draft balloon by opting out of the idea of running.

Although neither mayor has chosen to reveal the contents of their discussion that night, it has long been presumed that the final course of their meal consisted of an entente cordiale, whereby Herenton promised his Shelby County counterpart, a longtime confidant and sometime campaign manager for the Memphis mayor's own efforts, that something of a handoff could be arranged — and perhaps one in the very near future.

• Herenton himself was the central figure at Saturday morning's "retreat" at the University of Memphis Technology Center — one at which the mayor and members of the city administration and City Council made a preliminary effort to confront a looming era of severe austerity. Given that background, the mood of the retreat was somewhat upbeat.

"I think he and his staff appeared to be addressing the financial crisis in a realistic way," said council member Jim Strickland afterward.

Strickland added that he thought he and his colleagues would be prepared to make cuts and even approve layoffs, provided, Strickland said, "that they aren't in the public safety arena."

Herenton unveiled a six-point agenda of "initiatives to control costs."

These were: 1) proposed reductions in personnel, through buy-outs and severance packages; 2) reduction in capital expenditures; 3) "outsourcing opportunities"; 4) "consolidating opportunities"; 5) amendments in the city's long-term liabilities with respect to pensions and health-care obligations; and 6) "fiscal prudence" in an effort to maintain a financial surplus. No details were provided, but Herenton promised them within the next 90 days.

Several council members and administration employees were heard from, in an atmosphere that was free from the rancor that has sometimes plagued mayor-council relations.

In his own remarks, the mayor called for a spirit of cooperation and challenged past criticism from council and media sources regarding alleged absenteeism on his part. "I've been on the job every day. When have any of you needed to see me and couldn't find me?" he asked, without being contradicted.

tennessee goes against the flow

• For all the enthusiasm which enveloped so many local Democrats — both of the lower-case and upper-case variety — in the wake of Barack Obama's smashing presidential victory last week, there were clear and obvious reasons not to feel so giddy.

One was macro-political: However effective a straw boss Rahm Emanuel, the newly named chief of staff for President-elect Obama, turns out to be (and word is he's a martinet and brass-knuckler), the fact is that Emanuel was, and probably still is, opposed to the vaunted "50-state strategy" pursued for the last four years by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

In 2006, Emanuel, who represents a northside Chicago district in the House of Representatives, headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A believer in traditional blue-chip fund-raising and targeted campaigning, Emanuel clashed repeatedly on strategy with Dean, who had developed and funded a party network in red states as well as blue.

Emanuel was also less interested in populist politics per se than was Dean, though the latter's Internet-based fund-raising techniques stressing small change and high volume — which had led the former Vermont governor to the brink of a presidential nomination in early 2004 — became the basis for Obama's own phenomenally successful fund-raising. Inasmuch as all of Dean's state organizers — some 200 of them — have already been sacked, the auguries for anything resembling attentiveness to red states like Tennessee are minimal. In fact, zippo.

Tennessee Democrats must surely realize they've already seen the prototype of this attitude in the way the Obama-Biden campaign utterly ignored this once famously bellwether border state, deigning not to make an appearance or even a feint in the direction of Tennessee and refusing it nickels, dimes, dollars, and yard signs. Which leads to a micro-political fact of life that for the faithful of the Tennessee Democratic Party is as dismal as it is exciting, even intoxicating, for their Republican opposite numbers.

Start with the simple fact that, when all the votes were counted in election year 2008, Tennessee as a whole had gone in the opposite political direction altogether from the Obama-smitten nation.

Not only did the McCain-Palin ticket win the state, and by a bigger majority than Bush-Cheney had four years earlier, but the GOP took over the legislature. Lock, stock, and barrel. Republicans, who had held on to a tenuous de facto tie with the Democrats beforehand, emerged post-election with a five-member edge in the state Senate. And they swung enough seats to go from a five-vote deficit in the state House to a one-vote edge.

That means the leadership of the General Assembly will be in Republican hands for at least the next two years — and probably longer. It also means that such crucial constitutional offices as secretary of state, comptroller, and treasurer will be held, for the first time ever, by Republicans and not by Democrats. It means that tort reform — of the sort that would restrict "non-economic" malpractice awards to $200,000 over a lifetime — will advance and that measures to restrict abortion will safely skirt the black holes and dead-ends of the legislative committee process. It means either no new taxes at all or more state sales tax. It probably also means greater transparency in the conduct of state government. Republicans — especially during the reign of former House minority leader Tre Hargett of Memphis — have pressed in recent years to make state records and proceedings publicly available.

What it doesn't mean is much hope for the Democrats to stage a comeback. Give credit to state party chairman Gray Sasser (son of the former senator) for being a gentleman. A nice guy. Fair-minded. Sweet-tempered. All that.

But many party-mates, especially in the blogosphere, don't give him credit for showing much strategic sense. His critics allege that, insofar as there was a coherent statewide approach to the election of 2008, it avoided the kind of grand sweep and public commitment to party ideals that characterized the Obama campaign nationwide, focusing instead on dubious and highly questionable campaign charges — like the misleading accusation, seen ad infinitum in television ads, that District 26 Republican state Senate candidate Dolores Gresham had voted X number of times, while in the state House, to "raise her own pay." (Meaning that she had voted for the same routine bookkeeping resolutions that everyone else had.)

Even more off the mark was a straight-faced charge that, because former GOP governor Don Sundquist, now living in retirement in East Tennessee, had contributed money to several state Republican campaigns, or that one or another of his former aides had, that meant that the state Republican Party had somehow adopted the cause of a state income tax, like the one which Sundquist had advocated almost a decade ago.

The accusation rang particularly false, given that it had also been leveled at state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, a write-in candidate in the general election whose previous 19-vote primary victory over Democratic challenger Tim Barnes had been struck down by formal vote of state and county party committees. To most disinterested observers, those tribunals seemed less interested in equity than in penalizing Kurita for having broken party ranks last year by voting for Republican Ron Ramsey of Blountville as state Senate speaker.

Blountville, as it happened, was the location where the final coup de grâce was applied to a century and a half of Democratic legislative dominance. That was where Republican presidential candidate John McCain, on election eve, had touched down for a last-minute rally aimed more at the media market across the border in hotly contested Virginia than at Tennessee per se.

As of that late-in-the-game date, Nathan Vaughn, the Democratic incumbent in state House District 2, was polling a comfortable six points ahead of Republican challenger Tony Shipley. So confident was Vaughn that he left unspent nearly $100,000 in his campaign war chest.

No less an observer than state Republican chairperson Robin Smith would attribute a deluge of late-breaking votes in the northeast Tennessee area to McCain's rah-rah visit to Tennessee turf and the enhanced get-out-the-vote effort it engendered.

In the case of District 2, what happened was an unexpected flip of the vote there, whereby the GOP's Shipley, so seriously trailing only days before, got his unexpected narrow win over Democrat Vaughn. That gave the Tennessee Republicans their first majority in the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction — by the bare majority of 50-49.

Small as that margin is, it precludes any real prospects of desperate maneuvers by longtime Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington to keep his speakership. The next speaker, it would seem, is going to be Jason Mumpower, the intensely conservative GOP House leader from that same northeast corner of the state.

Not just that: The Republicans, who picked up enough seats in the state Senate to give them a commanding 19-14 edge, will be enabled, as mentioned, to pick the state's constitutional officers (one of whom could very likely turn out to be Rosalind Kurita). Two other advantages are even more significant.

First, the composition of the 95 county election commissions in Tennessee — mandated by state law to be 3-2 in favor of the majority party — will now be Republican-dominated, not Democratic-dominated. That switch in domination could affect literally hundreds of borderline procedural matters across the state.

More importantly: If the current numbers hold when the next legislative election in 2010 is concluded, the Republicans -- greatly assisted by Republican national committeeman John Ryder of Memphis, a gifted lawyer and one of the GOP's arbiters on reapportionment issues -- will handle post-census redistricting, both for the state legislature and for Tennessee's nine congressional districts.

Reportedly, the Republicans have in mind to alter boundaries so as to enhance Republican prospects in Middle Tennessee congressional districts currently held by Democrats Lincoln Davis and Bart Gordon. Closer to home, modifications in Democrat John Tanner's District 8 could swap out some of Tanner's working-class vote in the northern Memphis suburbs for posher East Memphis precincts now held by 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

But who knows? Maybe at some point between now and then, President Obama can be induced to make a visit or two to Tennessee, giving Democratic cadres the same boost that a gallantly flailing-away McCain did on the GOP's behalf on November 3, 2008.

• Meanwhile, discontent continues to rage in Shelby County Democratic ranks over the still unexplained release of a pre-election party sample ballot containing an authorized injunction to vote against all 10 proposed city, county, and city charter commission referenda.

As it happened, all 10 amendments passed by comfortable 3-1 margins.

Under fire are Democratic power broker Sidney Chism, who denies responsibility for the mystery ballot (though he acknowledged agreeing with its premises); local party chairman Keith Norman, faulted for frequent absenteeism; and the party’s steering committee, which party critics charge was remarkably indifferent to the problem.•

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