Politics » Politics Feature

Bare Knuckles

The candidates for mayor and sheriff get in some hard — and low — blows.


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Not to disillusion anybody, but a requirement for public office (probably) and for an effective candidacy for office (certainly) is the ability to get down and dirty. To put that into a trial maxim: No cause and no person, however noble, has ever succeeded without the possession of a mean streak.

That's a fact of life that showed up big time in debates between the candidates for county mayor and sheriff.

Does Sheriff Mark Luttrell really believe, for example, that interim mayor Joe Ford, his opponent for Shelby County mayor, a professed foe of city/county consolidation, has been wishy-washy or two-faced on the subject of consolidation? Probably not, though Luttrell has certainly implied as much in debates between the two — both last week in Bartlett and this week in Cordova.

Does sheriff candidate Randy Wade truly think that his opponent Bill Oldham has an unethical streak? Again, probably not, though Wade left ample room for such an interpretation by suggesting that, as a Memphis police official in the late 1990s, Oldham used a city credit card for private purposes.

Nor have Ford and Oldham been simon-pure on the accusation front. Each has also levied a questionable charge or two in their two contests for public office, each of which promises to be close and hard-fought.

For example, Oldham, the Republican candidate for sheriff, actually levied the first charge against Democrat Wade in the initial debate between the two, in a League of Women Voters-sponsored event on Monday night at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

Oldham, who has served both as interim Memphis police director and as chief deputy of the Sheriff's Department, his current job, boasted his own participation in reform efforts at the county jail that have resulted in the jail's coming out from under federal jurisdiction and regaining accreditation. And he suggested to Wade that "you were there" at a time of prisoner excesses called, collectively, "Thunderdome."

Wade, a Vietnam veteran who logged time as a ranking deputy and administrator under three sheriffs, promptly called such an accusation "disingenuous" and pointed out that he was working elsewhere in the department when the events indicated by Oldham had taken place.

And he countered Oldham's prior charge with one of his own, late in the debate, asking Oldham "to explain to this audience why would you use a credit card to buy family members' airlines tickets in 1999." He added, "I didn't forget it. Maybe the media forgot it." Oldham would indicate later on that the charge related to transportation expenses to a law-enforcement conference.

Responding with a visible anger that would linger through the end of the event, Oldham said, "Mr. Wade, you need to get your facts straight." After maintaining that he was never indicted or charged with impropriety, Oldham said, "That check was paid as soon as the bill came in and was taken care of. ... I have a record of honest hard work my entire life. I challenge anyone to say differently."

In his formal close, Wade tried to make amends to the still simmering Oldham. "I love Bill Oldham. I just ask that you don't vote for Bill Oldham," he said to laughter.

As for Republican Luttrell and Democrat Ford in the county mayor's race, their contentiousness level seemed up as well. It was a real stretch for Luttrell to intimate that by voting, while still a member of the County Commission, to endow the Metro Charter Commission with financing and staff, Ford was endorsing consolidation by the back door. But the suggestion may have succeeded in sowing some doubt in the public mind as well as throwing off balance Ford, whose adamant opposition to consolidation has been a consistent feature of his campaign.

In addition to defending himself on the issue, Ford charged Luttrell with obscuring his own position on consolidation, both at their debate last week, sponsored by the Bartlett Civic Association and at Cordova, held under the auspices of the Cordova Leadership Council at Advent Presbyterian Church on Germantown Parkway.

At both sites and on both occasions, Luttrell said he had "never been a proponent" of consolidation and "was not convinced" it would work to the benefit of city and county but would reserve final judgment until the Charter Commission concluded its work.

The two mayoral candidates also clashed on the status of the Med, Ford making the familiar argument that his efforts had secured some $57 million in new, renewable funding from county, city, state, and federal sources for the institution, thereby "saving" it, and Luttrell insisting that, on the contrary, the Med had merely survived "to fight another day" and needed a "business plan" instead of a "patchwork arrangement."

And another source of disagreement was, per usual, the question of Ford's change of mind about running for mayor after accepting the commission's appointment to interim mayor on the premise that he would not. Ford said it was a simple matter of changing his mind after being urged to do so by constituents and compared it to a recent decision of his to buy a Lincoln instead of the Cadillac he had first intended to purchase.

Leo Awgowhat, an independent candidate for mayor, intervened in this discussion, saying, before he walked out, "Blah, blah, blah, just a lot of words. Both of you are lying. No difference."

• It is hazardous to repeat second-hand stories, but this one comes from a source of the kind that one calls "reliable," especially when the subject is Republican politics.

To wit: If former Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi is quoting current House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio accurately, then George Flinn must be doing something right in his bid for the Republican nomination in Tennessee's 8th congressional district.

As Lott put it last Friday at a fund-raiser for Flinn (a former Ole Miss classmate) at the East Memphis home of Jack and Jennifer Sammons, he ran into Boehner at Reagan National Airport in D.C. Friday morning and told the current House leader where he was headed — to Oxford and to Memphis for the Flinn fund-raiser.

"He said, 'You know what? I hear that guy's gonna win!'"

Flinn, who was hearing this piece of news for the first time, seemed stunned but managed to respond, "That's good. That's really good!"

"Oh, it's good," Lott said.

Flinn has two opponents for the GOP nomination, farmer/gospel singer Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump and Ron Kirkland of Jackson. Kirkland, like radiologist/broadcast executive Flinn, is a physician. The primary winner will face Democrat Roy Herron in November.

• Former mayor Willie Herenton, addressing a "voice of Raleigh and Frayser" meeting last week, was brandishing, as always, his composite photograph of an all-white Tennessee congressional delegation and making his usual pitch that he, as a black, and not incumbent congressman Steve Cohen should represent the predominantly African-American 9th District.

Rhetorically, he asked if anyone disagreed with his general sentiments about "diversity." Surprisingly, someone did — Lexie Carter, an African American who serves as chief information officer for the Shelby County Democratic Party.

"Okay, our Supreme Court is diversified. We have Clarence Thomas on there. He does not represent me, but he's black. [Former congressman] Harold Ford Jr. did not represent my views, and he was black. You supported [U.S. senator] Lamar Alexander, correct? He fights everything that the president comes out with. He's a poster boy for that here in Tennessee. So I can't kind of picture that in my head how you would represent me. I'm a Democrat. I'm a Yellow Dog Democrat."

Herenton, who was clearly taken aback, responded in part, "I want you to look at me broader than that. I don't deny that I supported Lamar Alexander, and [Senator] Bob Corker, and [former] Senator Bill Frist. They're friends of mine, okay? I'm that type of Democrat. I can cross party lines. Having friends that are Republican, being friends with Republicans can help us with some problems."

At his opening of a satellite headquarters in Whitehaven on Saturday, fellow Democrat Cohen would note that he, too, had good relations with Republicans representing the state in Washington. He also made a point of stressing, to an audience that included civil rights legends Maxine Smith and Russell Sugarmon, that he had the support this year of his two Democratic predecessors in office, Harold Ford and Harold Ford Jr.

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