Politics » Politics Feature

Checking the Variables

Luttrell's role is one factor; the Herenton-Cohen race is another.



It is understandable — if a tad abrupt — that a spokesperson for one of the two major parties in Shelby County should dismiss the other party's freshly minted nominees for county offices as "duds."

That's what Shelby County Republican chairman Lang Wiseman, extolling his own "great candidates," had to say at a post-election GOP rally concerning the Democratic victors in the May 4th primary voting.

What is less customary is that such a spokesperson's opposite number — in this case, Gale Jones Carson, one of two campaign co-chairs (the other is Dave Cambron) for the August 5th general election — should be advising Democratic cadres at a post-election rally to "hold your nose" and vote for all her party's nominees "whether you like them or not."

The contrast may not be so glaring as it seems. As Carson observed, the Republicans have their internal schisms, too. But: "They walk in there, and they pull that lever. That's all that's important, that their party win. We must have the same attitude about our party and about our candidates. The goal is to win and put personal feelings aside."

Carson, a former Democratic chair who, from time to time, had taken her share of hits from party rivals, underscored the point: "Y'all know all the people that stepped on me over the years? I just walked in there and pulled that lever for them."

Wiseman made his remarks to a gathering of the GOP faithful Thursday evening at the Eastgate campaign headquarters of Sheriff Mark Luttrell, now a candidate for Shelby County mayor. The well-respected sheriff, who has always gotten a fair share of African-American and Democratic votes, was presented by Wiseman as what he is now — the head of the Republican ticket and its de facto leader. Ironically, both parties accept that designation of Luttrell; it serves both their purposes.

Carson spoke her piece two days later to assembled Democrats at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Like the Republican affair, the Democratic gathering, presided over by party chairman Van Turner, was chock-full of kumbaya — with primary losers like Deidre Malone (mayor) and Larry Hill (sheriff) making a point, quite literally, of embracing their victorious opponents, interim Mayor Joe Ford and Democratic nominee for sheriff Randy Wade, respectively.

Even as the first speaker at the Republican rally, Chief Deputy Bill Oldham, who won the nomination for sheriff, had set the tone by congratulating his primary opponents for the quality of their races and asking for inclusiveness, so did the rest of the Republicans do likewise.

And so would the Democrats at Metropolitan. Wade designated Hill, in effect, as his possible successor down the line, while Ford, thanking Malone for her "clean, great race," even professed to have "loved your [TV] commercial," one which had taken an indirect swipe at the Ford clan's political legacy.

Still, Carson's surprising candor lingered in the aura of the Democratic rally, and several of the party nominees addressed it. Coleman Thompson, nominee for register, protested that he wanted no nose-holding support but votes that acknowledged his ability, while renominated District 5 county commissioner Steve Mulroy tried to aw-shucks the whole deal.

"I'm not proud," he said, with a smile of mock self-deprecation. "If you have to hold your nose and vote for me, vote for me anyhow."

And the defeated Malone hearkened back to Carson's message: "Most people would think I'd be in bed this morning, but I'm not. I thought it was important that I come out this morning to let you know I'm a proud Democrat. It's important to stand together." And once again: "For some of these you may have to hold your nose, but if you're a Democrat, you will hold your nose and push that button bcause it's the right thing to do!"

On the other hand, nominee Shep Wilbun, making a comeback attempt to regain the Juvenile Court clerkship he lost in 2002 (and warning of possible hanky-panky in vote-counting for the August general election), suggested that his party's candidates should stress their positive plans on behalf of the county and should be elected "not just because we're Democrats, but because we are the hope, and we are the help."

A similar note was struck by Luttrell Thursday night as he stood on a modest tarp-covered dais at Eastgate, with his fellow GOP nominees arrayed behind him, and, for their benefit, pondered out loud "how to overcome the fact that you're outnumbered by Democrats."

Like Wilbun, the high sheriff took the high road. "This county's looking for leadership," he said. "Regardless of party, we can have effective campaigns. Preach your message and talk your talk. We've got superior credentials. ... If we promote what's good about us as individual candidates, we will prevail."

Thus were the contrasting motifs of the current election cycle laid out at both party gatherings for all to reflect on — the theme of party loyalty vs. that of transcending partisan difference. If the first idea predominated at the Democratic rally and the second at the GOP affair, the difference — such as there was — lay in the numbers.

Pure and simply, there are more Democratic voters in Shelby County now than Republican ones.

It is not only in his party's interest but in Luttrell's own that he should emphasize the "individual" qualities of candidates and speak, as he did, of "diversity." And it is part and parcel of the Democratic game plan to brand the sheriff, first and foremost, as a Republican loyalist.

The outcome of the August general election will depend in large part on which of the two images of Luttrell becomes the definitive one.

• The other major factor influencing what happens on August 4th, perhaps the decisive one, is the way in which the Herenton-Cohen 9th District congressional race — if there is one to speak of — develops.

As of now, Representative Steve Cohen is letting his incumbency speak for him — and it speaks frequently. Just in the past week, Cohen has: chaired a judiciary subcommittee hearing on state taxation; introduced a bill to help fund the oft-touted Memphis aerotropolis transportation system; held a "town hall" meeting in Whitehaven; and toured flood-damaged areas of Shelby County with ranking local and federal officials.

This coming Saturday, Cohen, who has raised upwards of $1 million, will formally open his campaign headquarters at 1460 Union Avenue. He is also in the process of filling out what was already a substantial campaign staff.

The congressman's increasing support from members of the Congressional Black Caucus was illustrated two weeks ago at the Shelby County Democratic Party's annual Kennedy Dinner, when the keynote speaker, New York congressman Edolphus (Ed) Towns, volunteered his enthusiasm for the incumbent.

Meanwhile, former Mayor Willie Herenton is raising no money, having no events, distributing no paraphernalia, and surfacing only sporadically. He was, for example, not one of the attendees at the recent funeral of the nationally revered Rev. Ben Hooks.

Associates of the ex-mayor profess to be untroubled, some of the more long-memoried ones noting that Herenton was a slow starter in his 1991 challenge to incumbent Mayor Dick Hackett and ultimately successful. "Watch this space" is their watchword.

A heated contest would vastly increase the Democratic turnout and provide an electoral cushion for Democratic candidates. A lackluster or pro forma congressional race would still leave the Democrats with an edge in voter registration but not enough of one to keep Republicans from challenging in three or four countywide races, perhaps more.

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