Shelby County Public Defender AC Wharton will meet with supporters this week to discuss an imminent announcement of his candidacy for county mayor as a Democrat.
Wharton confirmed the fact of the meeting but did not disclose his intentions about the date and place of a formal announcement. A source close to the developing Wharton campaign said categorically, however, "He's ready to go."
Wharton, who is regarded by most observers as a serious contender, has been mulling over his decision for several weeks. He has been urged to run by a coalition including Reginald French, a sometime aide to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton; Jackie Welch, a developer with ties to incumbent Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout; and Bobby Lanier, chief administrative aide to Rout.
The presence of Rout allies in Wharton's support group is a clear indication that the Republican county executive is backing Wharton's move, allege various other Democrats -- notably Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who has already announced for the Democratic nomination for county mayor and begun campaigning. The mayor himself has so far declined comment on any aspect of the race to succeed him.
Clearly, Wharton, an African American, has good potential among the county's black voters, and he is well regarded among whites as well.
Byrd, however, has raised a good deal of money and, though white, has built a coalition that includes several influential African Americans -- including former county commissioner Vasco Smith and his wife Maxine Smith, former head of the local NAACP chapter and an ex-member of the Memphis school board.
The Smiths -- who, ironically, are next-door neighbors of Wharton -- are scheduled to host a fund-raiser for Byrd on Friday, October 5th. The co-hosts for that affair include other prominent blacks, like Rev. Bill Adkins and Rev. Billy Samuel Kyles.
Byrd was also endorsed last weekby Charlie and Alma Morris, longtime proprietors ofthe Kennedy Democratic Clubin North Memphis.
Other Democratic candidates are state Senator Jim Kyle, an experienced campaigner, and state Rep. Carol Chumney, who hopes to generate a significant women's vote on her behalf.
All of the above, however, will be forced to regard Wharton as their most serious competitor.
A number of Republicans are considering running, and the most viable possibilities are regarded as District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, city councilman Jack Sammons, and attorney and former councilman John Bobango. All of these are moderate, middle-of-the-road Republicans, and it is believed that only one of them -- more or less by prior arrangement with the others -- will end up with his hat in the ring.
The presence of French in Wharton's support group represents something of a split in the Herenton camp. Former Teamster leader Sidney Chism, the mayor's chief political arm, was an early Byrd supporter, and he has cautioned that Wharton, if nominated, stands a good chance of losing to one of the moderate Republicans mentioned.
Prospective Democratic candidates for the Thompson seat had included U.S. Reps. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis, Bart Gordon, Bob Clement, John Tanner, and former National Transportation and Safety Board chief Jim Hall of Chattanooga.
The congressmen all said Monday they planned to run for re-election rather than pursue a contest against Thompson. Hall declined to comment, saying, in the statesmanlike idiom adopted by almost all politicians since September 11th, that "now is not the time to discuss politics."
Among those ready to go for the Bryant seat were, among Republicans, Memphis attorney David Kustoff, who ran the Bush campaign in Tennessee last year; Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor; former Shelby County Republican chairman Phil Langsdon, a facial plastic surgeon; and state Rep. Larry Scroggs.
Kustoff and Taylor, especially, had been gearing up for a congressional race in recent weeks, relatively certain that Thompson, who had raised very little money for a re-election bid and who had seemed indifferent to the prospect, would be vacating his seat, clearing the way for Bryant -- who made no secret of his ambitions, either -- to move up.
What happened to scuttle all that, of course, was the catastrophe inflicted on New York and Washington two weeks ago by the kamikaze-like raids of terrorists in hijacked airliners. Like many other national politicians, Thompson responded with fury to the raids, and his interest in government and its processes, particularly the national-security aspects that had always concerned him, seemed to have been newly aroused. He promptly began a stepped-up round of appearances, both statewide and in Washington.
Just before the events of September 11th, for that matter, Thompson had confided to David McCullough, the author of a current biography of John Adams, that the book had revived his interest in public service.
The new sense of crisis seems to have completed the turnabout for Thompson, who would say on the PBS program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer Monday, "I just didn't feel that even though I thought seriously about going back into the private sector -- and I had always planned to do that before very long -- that now was clearly not the time to do it. I think that there are an awful lot of Americans out there right now looking for ways to help out, and I had a pretty obvious one right here staring me in the face. So I think this was what I needed to do."
The brief statement Thompson read in Nashville Monday included an almost wistful reference to "a private life and another career." But the senator's reference to "what is happening in our nation" needed no elaboration, nor did his stated intention to get speculation about his intentions "into the background."
Thompson's home-state colleague, Sen. Bill Frist, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which recruits GOP candidates and raises money, said he was "happy to remain Tennessee's junior senator," while state Democratic Party chairman Bill Farmer of Lebanon acknowledged that finding a credible Democratic opponent for Thompson would be difficult and observed wanly, "Sen. Thompson is a well-known figure and, of course, he has his Hollywood image that still sticks with him."
Since then, Gore had relapsed into the virtual silence which had governed his actions after the turbulent Florida vote recount and his concession to Republican George W. Bush in early December.
Gore returned to public consciousness in Nashville Saturday, making appearances at several meetings during a weekend of state Democratic Party events. Still bearded, he told his fellow Tennessee Democrats that he backed the president unreservedly and urged that they do the same.
Bush had put a call in to Gore in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, but, in the swirl of events, the two never made their connection. Gore dismissed that fact as unimportant, treating the president's call as a political courtesy.
Gore, who was a month or two into his reemergence as a political figure, had been scheduled to address the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, next weekend, and, although some Democrats in that key caucus state called for a postponement of the affair under the circumstances, it will presumably go ahead, with Gore as keynoter.
But the crisis -- and the rise in Bush's popularity that accompanied it -- has transformed the event, as they have transformed the future prospects for Gore and every other Democratic presidential hopeful. No longer will the dinner be billed as a showcase for the "rightfully elected president" (as some advance publicity had heralded it); it will now be restructured as a call for national unity.
The panelists at the meeting, all of whom had come to Memphis on behalf of the McCain-Feingold bill, were illustrious members of Congress -- Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin himself, Rep. Marty Mehan of Massachusetts, Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of hometown Memphis, et al., et al. Pritt had lined up in order to balance and, if possible, refute the highly organized claque of College Republicans who had gotten in the Q-and-A line to ask leading, unfriendly questions of the panelists.
That was then, this is now. Pritt will shortly be lining up with other Republicans and Democrats and independents -- not to ask questions at all but to follow orders. As soon as he heard of the atrocities perpetrated in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11th, Pritt, a member of the inactive Army reserve, began to petition his local Memphis reserve unit to go on active service. He now has his wish, having been shifted to the active reserves and subsequently called up. He'll be leaving within two weeks to be attached to a unit destined for parts unknown.
"I come from a family with a military tradition," said Pritt, both of whose brothers are also in military units that will likely see duty in whatever kind of military conflict ultimately develops. (Brother David is a master sergeant with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, already deployed; brother Paul is a captain in the Army reserves and is also seeking activation.) Drew Pritt's father, an Episcopal clergyman, is also a military veteran. "Plus," says the bespectacled, buzz-cut Pritt earnestly, "I intend to have a political career, and I can't see voting for anybody to do military service if I'm not willing to do it myself."
Pritt, a specialist holding the pay grade of E-4, counts himself a liberal Democrat and is aware that, by various stereotypes and standards, he's a statistical freak. By way of accounting for his place in the scheme of things, he likes to quote a mantra which he picked up -- believe it or not -- from his first drill sergeant but which he thinks derives from Socrates: "Democracy is a hungry beast that must constantly be fed."
Interestingly enough, Pritt is just one of the reservists who had been serving on the campaign staff of mayoral candidate Chumney. (The other is Chumney's press secretary, Bert Kelly, an officer in the Naval reserve who spent a recent weekend on official duty in New York.)
You can e-mail Jackson Baker at email@example.com.