It depends on whom you ask as to particular identities, but even if you don't ask, leaks and rumors are rife in Shelby County Republican circles just now about the likelihood of some imminent (and eminent) local Democratic defectors to the presidential campaign of the GOP's main man, President George W. Bush.
Nobody is naming names just yet (read: counting eggs before they hatch), but hints and indirect suggestions from a variety of sources led me straightaway to one prospect -- state representative John DeBerry, an African-American businessman/minister who has a constituency he describes as racially and politically diverse. DeBerry represents state House District 90, an oddly shaped area that snakes longitudinally from a portion of Midtown through South Memphis to the Mississippi state line.
"I'm considering it," DeBerry said about the possibility of endorsing Bush. "I'm a Democrat, but I'll be quite honest. I've thought a lot about the candidates and platforms of both parties." DeBerry, a relatively conservative Democrat who professes a serious concern about "values" issues like abortion, prayer, and gay marriage, said he hasn't made up his mind yet but will shortly. There are those in the GOP camp, though, who talk as though he's already on the dotted line.
But a defection by DeBerry, though newsworthy, would be as nothing compared to the Big Kahuna -- Mayor Willie Herenton, whose name escapes the lips of several Republicans. Nobody's claiming the Memphis mayor for the Bush campaign yet, but one local Republican source maintains mysteriously that "conversations have occurred" at the level of Karl Rove, the celebrated chief political aide to Bush.
It is a fact that Herenton has been a no-show so far at any of the several local occasions at which he might have put his authority behind the Kerry-Edwards campaign. The mayor was absent from last week's Beale Street rally featuring Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democrats' recently nominated candidate for vice president.
Herenton, who was incorrectly announced by Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who introduced Edwards at the rally, as having been involved at some point of the North Carolinian's time here, was in fact out of town on Wednesday, the day of the Edwards visit, said his spokesperson, Gale Jones Carson, who added that the mayor considered himself friendly to Edwards.
The mayor returned to Memphis on Thursday. Asked to comment then on reports that he might endorse Bush, Herenton passed word through Carson that he would not comment on his "political plans for the current year."
The mayor made a stir among both Democrats and Republicans locally when, in 2002, he endorsed the U.S. Senate candidacy of Republican Lamar Alexander, the ultimate winner, and not that of Democratic nominee Bob Clement, then a congressman representing Nashville.
That stir attained statewide dimensions when the Memphis mayor traveled to Nashville to share a stage with Alexander.
It should be said that two ranking local Republicans, both with strong connections to the GOP's national establishment, poured cold water on the prospect of a Herenton/Bush axis this year. "I'm not aware of anything like that," said one. "That's unlikely," said the other.
Even so, one of the few Shelby County Republicans willing to put his name on the line, party executive secretary Don Johnson, confirms that an official announcement about prominent local Democrats for Bush is forthcoming, though it probably won't be made until the return to Memphis of the local Republican chairman Kemp Conrad, who is traveling in China as part of a program sponsored by the National Council for Young Political Leaders.
Conrad, a sometime confidante of Herenton's who helped broker the mayor's support for Alexander two years ago and who has made a point of launching various "outreach" campaigns to minorities and other groups not usually identified with Republicanism, will be back in Memphis on or about the 14th, Johnson said.