Ever since the names of state senator Jim Kyle and county commissioner Steve Mulroy were mentioned in a recent column as possible Democratic candidates for county mayor in 2014, numerous plugged-in sorts have made a point of reminding me that former county commissioner Deidre Malone is almost certain to be a candidate.
Malone, who was edged out in a bid for county mayor by then provisional mayor Joe Ford in 2010, confirms that she's likely to run. And she has experience and relationships that would enable her to run seriously. A longtime Democratic Party activist, Malone served two terms on the commission, from 2002 to 2010. She subsequently ran Memphis mayor A C Wharton's successful 2009 reelection campaign. She served two five-year terms on the Shelby County Housing Authority and is currently a member of the city/county EDGE board and the Memphis-Shelby County Port Commission. And she runs the Carter-Malone public relations firm.
• While we're speculating on names of possible future candidates, an interesting email came through the transom this week from a well-informed friend who suggests that Wharton is almost certain to run for reelection in 2015 and wonders who might be wanting to succeed him in 2019.
Sez he: "The general consensus seems that people need to be positioning themselves now for a run at the big chair when that time comes ... but nobody really is. There are a few usual suspects that pop up in conversation (Darrell Cobbins, Tomeka [Hart], Mike Carpenter, [Jim] Strickland, [Harold] Collins, Paul Morris, and Keith Norman)."
All of the aforementioned seem credible and credentialed enough. Cobbins is a longtime activist and former MLGW chairman; Hart has served as local Urban League head and on the MSC and Unified school boards and ran for Congress in the 9th District last year; Carpenter, currently an aide to Wharton, served two terms on the county commission and, until recently, represented the StudentsFirst organization in Nashville.
Strickland and Collins are both city council members who have been prominent as budget chairman and council chairman, respectively; Morris is head of the Downtown Memphis Commission; and Norman is a local Baptist minister who has been Shelby County Democratic chairman and was recently cited by the White House for his efforts to stem youth violence.
Of course, 2019 is a long way off.
• NOTES FROM NASHVILLE — Shelby County Democrats voted overwhelmingly for the winner in last Saturday's election contest for a new state party chairman.
The winner, by a 32-27 vote of state executive committee members, was former legislator Roy Herron of Dresden, who as a late entry overcame what had earlier appeared to be a consensus in favor of Dave Garrison of Nashville, who had been serving as party treasurer.
The vote by Shelby Countians was nine for Herron, a fellow West Tennessean, and three for Garrison.
• Governor Bill Haslam, ever adept at walking political tightropes, managed several versions of the feat during his 2013 State of the State address before a joint legislative session in the House chamber and before whatever political junkies might have tuned in to a statewide multimedia simulcast.
On several key issues, the governor expressed himself with studious ambiguity — notably on the still pending matter of Medicaid expansion under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. "Most of us in this room don't like the Affordable Care Act, but the decision to expand Medicaid isn't as basic as saying, 'No ObamaCare, No expansion,'" he said. In other words, he was carefully weighing the issue.
On the one hand, "The federal government is famous for creating a program and then withdrawing the funds years later, which leaves state governments on the hook." That was apropos conservative opponents' expressed fears — embodied in new prohibitive legislation sponsored by state senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
But on the other hand, "There are hospitals across this state, many of them in rural communities, that are going to struggle, if not close, under the health-care law without expansion." For "hospitals," read: sources of serious lobbying efforts for expansion.
And, regarding proposed legislation to enable state vouchers for use in private schools (including a far-reaching variant by the self-same Kelsey), Haslam was able to thread his way through the controversial issue without ever even using the word "voucher" at all. Still, the governor left no doubt that he would be pushing a "school choice" proposal, one that focused on low-income students, and he balanced that with boasts that he had greatly increased financial support — $47 million, over and above annual funding — for the struggling schools that might lose students through a voucher program.
What was interesting about the SOTS address from the standpoint of audience reaction in the chamber was that every time Governor Haslam mentioned this or that new expenditure — $51 million for "technology transition upgrades in schools across the state"; $16.5 million for workforce development programs; $45 million for a new community health facility at the University of Memphis; $58 million for new jails and prisons, etc., etc. — he got substantial applause from the supermajority of supposed GOP tightwads.
True, too, however, that the governor stressed whenever possible anything he could refer to as a tax cut — in levies on groceries, for example; or in the state inheritance tax (which he, admirably, declines to call a "death tax)"; or on gift taxes; or on the Hall income tax — and he got the same prolonged applause.
Haslam briefly boasted about his educational reforms and improved student performance on standardized tests. He touted a variety of public-private partnerships in the marketplace and an increase in the number of state jobs. He circled around a couple of problem areas — issues within the department of children's services, for example, concerning which he spoke mainly of "upgrading nearly 200 case manager positions" and "guns and schools," which he morphed into a call for "a larger conversation about mental health issues, identifying warning signs, and getting people the help they need."
One of Haslam's strongest stands concerned his support for stability in the state's procedures for making judicial appointments. He noted that a pending 2014 referendum calls for modest changes and said, "I ... believe that it makes sense to preserve the current process until the people have a chance to vote. ... Making changes in the meantime does nothing but confuse the situation further."
At the very onset of his speech, Haslam hit one inescapable issue head-on: "I believe we have to begin this evening by addressing the elephant in the room — or I guess I should say the elephants in the room. There are a lot of expectations and preconceived notions about how our Republican supermajority is going to govern. ... As we go through this legislative session, I ask everyone in this chamber this evening to keep in mind what Senator [Howard] Baker said: 'The other fellow may be right.'"
And in the spirit of that suggested bipartisanship, the only significant modification made by Haslam in his prepared text was an ad-libbed recognition of Memphis state representative and former House speaker pro tem Lois DeBerry for her 40 years of service in the legislature. That drew a standing ovation, as did several other tributes to various state employees whom he recognized for their superior performance.
In one sense, Haslam's State of the State message left a lot of blanks to be filled. But in another sense, he filled as many as he could with what seemed to be encouraging data and honest feel-good sentiments.
• Several of the established lobbyists on Capitol Hill in Nashville have jumped at the chance to apply for the new position of lobbyist for the Shelby County Commission — one whose very existence attests to the continued strain between the county administration of Mayor Mark Luttrell and the commission as a whole.
Indeed, suspicion regarding the administration's motives is one of the few circumstances which can unify the members of an oft-fractionated commission.
A solid commission front emerged recently when, as commissioners saw it, Luttrell unilaterally signed a provisional accord with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding Juvenile Court reforms, which members felt could obligate the commission financially.
In any case, the deadline was this week for applicants seeking to become commission lobbyist, and interviews could begin as soon as Wednesday of next week.