Politics » Politics Feature

Chords and Discords

Kuhn's marriage proposal highlights an otherwise contentious week.

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As erstwhile county commissioner Joe Ford prepares to take the oath this week as interim Shelby County mayor, the legislative body he leaves behind seems to be every bit as riven with schism as it was when supporters of Ford barely broke a stalemate to elect him over fellow commissioner J.W. Gibson.

For one thing, the commission finds itself factionally divided once again, as it prepares for a scheduled December 21st vote to determine Ford's successor on the commission. Sentiment is divided three ways among as many main contenders — Ike Griffith, James O. Catchings, and Justin Ford, son of the outgoing commissioner.

And, once again, there are deals and rumors of deals in the run-up to the vote.

These issues were in the undercurrent Monday, when various commissioners found themselves at loggerheads over other matters.

Commissioner Mike Ritz accused colleague James Harvey of "runnning interference" for a private vendor in sponsoring an inquiry into shuttle service for county employees. Ritz and Commissioner Henri Brooks, each presumably representing other members, differed on which county building should be named for late civil rights icon and commissioner Vasco Smith. And Brooks persisted with her crusade against developer Harold Buehler, failing in yet another last-ditch effort to prevent Buehler's acceding to 140 vacant lots for purposes of building rental property.

For all of that discord on and just below the surface, Monday's meeting will be best remembered for an act of blessed harmony, when Commissioner Matt Kuhn segued from a mock interrogation of Community Services deputy director Heidi Verbeek into a proposal of marriage to her, with Kuhn on his knee bestowing a diamond ring on his betrothed.

May this be an omen of better times, at least for the happy couple.

Kuhn, by the way, is rumored to be administration-bound himself, as a mayoral aide to Ford.

• As the remaining Democratic candidates for governor sort things out, one thing appears obvious: The withdrawals from the field of state senator Roy Herron, now a candidate for Congress in the 8th District, and, to a lesser degree, of Nashville entrepreneur Ward Cammack, have begun a redrawing of the battle lines.

All three survivors — Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, and former state representative Kim McMillan of Clarksville — are scrambling for their share of donors and supporters from Herron's leave-behinds.

And at least two of the candidates — McWherter and Kyle — agree on the reasons for the surprise announcement by the 8th District incumbent Democrat that he wouldn't be seeking reelection in 2010. It was that news from John Tanner on Tuesday night that triggered Herron's change of race and the fast shuffling that followed.

In similar terms, each expressed in Memphis this weekend the same theory — that Tanner, a 22-year veteran of Congress, was unwilling to expend time, energy, and treasure in a campaign already being stoutly contested by Republican Stephen Fincher, just to gain two more years in office.

Based on the possibility that continuing Republican legislative majorities after the 2010 election cycle would result in the drawing of district lines to meet GOP needs, Tanner would then be confronted with a hopeless reelection situation for 2012.

In a conversation with Kyle on Saturday, after the two had addressed a Democratic Party-sponsored "S.O.S." (for "Save-Our-State") training session for party cadres, McWherter took the scenario a step further, suggesting that Tanner's opting-out was "good for our party," in that it would allow a Democratic winner in 2010 time to develop an incumbency and therefore a leg-up on the 2012 race in the redesigned 8th District.

One revelation from McWherter, running counter to a conspiracy theory or two suggesting a possible role of the candidate's father, former governor Ned McWherter, in prompting Tanner's decision: The younger McWherter was visiting his father Tuesday night when the former governor got a courtesy phone call from Tanner concerning his decision. "I was floored. We both were," said candidate McWherter.

McWherter's appearance at the S.O.S. affair, where he delivered a carefully crafted and thoughtful address on the challenges of the 2010 election season, may well have augured a new strategy to boost his prospects among still undecided Democrats. Word-of-mouth afterward was uniformly positive, even among some who had harbored doubts previously about the speaking ability of McWherter, a no-show among many of the previous party dinners and forums around the state.

A "rose garden" strategy was how Kyle had dubbed McWherter's effort up to now. Something like that had been the appraisal of many observers about a campaign that had depended largely on name recognition but may now be morphing into a more public phase.

McWherter had clearly made gains in the immediate wake of Herron's switch-over — especially in the Nashville area. Typical was the announcement this past week from Charles W. Bone and Charles Robert Bone, influential party figures and fund-raisers, that they were transferring their allegiance from Herron to McWherter.

For his part, Kyle was concentrating on solidifying his support from organized labor and in picking up his own recruits from among ex-Herron supporters — in the Chattanooga area, especially. On Monday of this week, pollster Peter Brodnitz released the results of a carefully calibrated poll taken on Kyle's behalf during the first week of November.

In some ways, the Kyle poll showed the same results as one released earlier by rival McWherter. In the new poll, as in the earlier one, McWherter led all comers — both in a "cold" poll and in a subsequent "informed" one, to which brief information about each candidate was added. In the cold poll, McWherter received 22 percent; Kyle, 5 percent; McMillan, 4 percent; Herron, 3 percent; and Cammack, 1 percent. In the informed poll, McWherter got 27 percent; Kyle, 10 percent; McMillan, 8 percent; Herron, 4 percent; and Cammack, 3 percent.

As in the McWherter poll, Kyle gained more than other candidates in the informed round.

In a conference call with Tennessee reporters, Brodnitz illumined some other silver linings — for example, that Kyle actually led McWherter in the Memphis area (38 percent to 22 percent), which will account for something like 23 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Kyle's home-base strength plus the large number of undecideds (65 percent in the cold poll, 48 percent in the informed ballot) are posited as reliable long-term strengths.

The two chief surprises in the Brodnitz poll are the less-than-expected showing of Herron, who boasted a string of "straw-vote" victories before changing races, and the greater-than-expected strength of McMillan, whom Brodnitz judged to be a serious ongoing player.

Like McWherter and Kyle, McMillan, who spent several days in Memphis this week, was also redoubling her efforts and making phone calls to erstwhile Herron backers.

• To no one's surprise, Republican Brian Kelsey handily won last week's special election for the state Senate District 31 seat vacated last summer by Paul Stanley. Kelsey's margin was 7,120 votes to 2,394 for Democratic Adrienne Pakis-Gillon in the overwhelmingly GOP-dominated district.

Also victorious last week was Mark White, who defeated opponents John Pellicciotti and Michael Porter to become the Republican nominee for the state House of Representatives District 83 seat vacated by Kelsey in the early stages of his state Senate race. White polled 1,851 votes to 1,556 votes for Pellicciotti and 121 votes for Porter.

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