Politics » Politics Feature

Common Cause

Looking down the road, GOP Senate candidate Hilleary reaches out to a rival.



On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19th, while his aunt Ophelia Ford's 2005 election as a state senator was being voided by a Senate vote across the street in the state Capitol, Harold Ford Jr. was participating in a four-way debate among U.S. Senate candidates at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville.

Though outwardly Ford was carrying forth with his usual crispness and panache, inwardly he was seething. And, at one point, while Republican candidate Bob Corker was speaking, the 9th District congressman leaned over and began to whisper to another GOP candidate, Van Hilleary. Leave my family alone, was the gist of his message - a response to then recent remarks attributed to Hilleary that were critical of the Fords en masse.

Not long afterward, Hilleary, in an apparent effort to be propitiary, made a show of reaching over to fill Ford's water glass, and the forum proceeded along more or less predictable lines.

But when it came time for the candidates to do their summing up, Ford did his, and, then, while Hilleary had begun his own closing remarks, the Memphis congressman stood up conspicuously and began to make his departure, making a point of working the room and carrying on audible conversations all the while Hilleary was speaking.

Nobody present had ever seen anything like it. And Hilleary made a note to himself about Ford: Thin-skinned. And filed it away mentally, for future use in the event of a Ford-Hilleary fall campaign.

Hilleary, the former U.S. Representative from Tennessee's 4th District, is known in certain political quarters as a provocateur - largely on the strength of some hard-hitting (below the belt, some said) mail-outs he sent out against Republican primary opponent Jim Henry in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

But, whatever his intent might be down the line against Ford, and however intensely he is campaigning against current Republican rival Corker, Hilleary recently made a conscious decision to make nice with the third Republican in the Senate race, former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant.

Last week Hilleary sent a "Dear Ed" letter to fellow conservative Bryant suggesting that the two of them cool their sometimes aggressive rhetoric toward each other and cooperate in a concerted campaign against Corker, who is widely considered to be the moderate in the GOP three-way.

After expressing admiration for Bryant for "your commitment to the conservative cause and your steadfast character," Hilleary's letter made a practical campaign suggestion: "Let's come together for the good of the cause - running hard on our own merits and 'focusing our fire' only on the candidate who does not share our mutual conservative philosophy, Bob Corker."

Bryant would reply in kind. In the course of reciprocating Hilleary's compliments ("your willingness to stand for what is right," etc.), Bryant signaled his intent to comply, more or less, with Hilleary's request. - though not without a disingenuously disguised shot at Hilleary himself.

Said Bryant: "I understand, appreciate, and share your concern for the need of conservatives to remain united in our effort to defeat Bob Corker, particularly after Bob's already signaled his intention to attack you for what his campaign manager described as your 'strong ties to Jack Abramoff'  [Bryant's italics]."

Beyond the high-sounding statements of solidarity is some nitty-gritty political reasoning, of course. Somewhat in defiance of the conventional wisdom that Hilleary and Bryant might split the conservative Republican vote in such a way as to facilitate a Corker primary win, the thinking in Hilleary's camp has gravitated to an opposite conclusion.

"We need Ed to stay in," a source close to Hilleary said this week in elaborating on Hilleary's own recent statement in Memphis, "There's more than enough conservative vote to go around."

The thinking is that Hilleary is more than capable of holding his own in middle and east Tennessee, where most polls have shown him leading the two other Republicans handily. The danger, from Hilleary's point of view, is that Corker might become a fallback choice among West Tennessee Republicans - particularly those in Shelby County, a Bryant stronghold - should Bryant diminish his efforts or begin to falter.

That fear is based on the reality of the well-heeled Corker's heavy doses of television advertising, coupled with the knowledge that some of Bryant's support in west Tennessee is of the favorite-son variety. Many in the local GOP establishment are also friendly to the well-connected Corker a former Chattanooga mayor who served in the administration of former Governor Don Sundquist.

Though Hilleary leads among Republican candidates statewide in most current polls, he is realistic about the effects of Corker's ads and expects the Chattanoogan's poll numbers to rise.

Hence the decision to reach out to Bryant for a common-cause effort.

Ophelia Ford (left) and her attorney David Cocke meet the press Tuesday after federal judge Bernice Donald's ruling enjoining the County Commission from appointing a state Senate successor to Ford. (See Editorials, May 16-23.) - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Ophelia Ford (left) and her attorney David Cocke meet the press Tuesday after federal judge Bernice Donald's ruling enjoining the County Commission from appointing a state Senate successor to Ford. (See Editorials, May 16-23.)

Three's a Crowd:  When city judge Jayne Chandler got into the race for Juvenile Court judge right at the filing deadline last month, friends of state Senator Curtis Person, an administrator at the Court and another candidate for the judgeship, didn't exactly uncork the champagne, but they probably laida by an extra bottle or two.

Chandler, whose win in 1995 over incumbent city judge Nancy Sorak was something of a surprise, said then and says now that she expects to come in under the radar for another upset victory this year.

It would be an upset, of course, for the simple reason that Chandler's entry made it three well-known African-American women in a field of candidates that included Person and a lesser-known white male candidate, William Winchester.

The fact that Chandler, her fellow city judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, and former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman are all either avowed Democrats or draw significant support from Democratic ranks underscores even further the matter of their overlapping constituencies.

Hence the possible need for some extra bubbly on Person's part. It's a rule of thumb in politics that basic demographics can only spread so far.

There has been some grumbling from the Dorse camp that Chandler has a personal grudge against Dorse and entered the race as a spoiler.

Nonsense, says Chandler. "This is something I've wanted to do for a long time." She pointed out that she had almost run for Juvenile Court judge in 1998 but deferred at the time to Dorse, who ran a close a second that year to Judge Kenneth Turner.

In any case, Chandler professes optimism, as do both Coleman, who opened up her headquarters on Poplar Avenue last week, and Dorse, who stayed busy with a series of campaign appearances. Winchester, too, had an East Memphis meet-and-greet, but so far remains something of an unknown.

(Winchester has one thing, though, that Chandler benefited from in 1995 - a last name which happens to coincide with that of a famous local family; that's one way of getting around the name-ID problem!)

Meanwhile, various Democrats have been doing the math, and there's a move on in party ranks on behalf of a formal endorsement of one of the candidates. "We're thinking about it seriously," local party chairman Matt Kuhn said last week.

Kuhn acknowledges that the present situation might favor Person, a longtime eminence in Republican ranks, and promises an early resolution of the endorsement matter as soon as he and the Shelby County Democratic Committee can convene to consider it.

Ophelia Ford (left) and her attorney David Cocke meet the press Tuesday after federal judge Bernice Donald's ruling enjoining the County Commission from appointing a state Senate successor to Ford. (See Editorials, May 16-23.) - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Ophelia Ford (left) and her attorney David Cocke meet the press Tuesday after federal judge Bernice Donald's ruling enjoining the County Commission from appointing a state Senate successor to Ford. (See Editorials, May 16-23.)

A propos an item last week, Democratic activist David Upton protests that his involvement in the shadow campaign of term-limited county commissioner Walter Bailey, a longtime friend, was minimal, largely confined to an early-on academic discussion of the issue with Bailey and son Jay Bailey, another friend.

And Upton notes (correctly) that he had offered comments for the record that were flattering to both eventual Democratic primary winner J.W. Gibson and a third Democratic candidate Darrick Harris.

"Most of my time was spent on the Mulroy campaign," says Upton, who claims credit for the involvement of former Democratic congressman Harold Ford Sr. and state Senator Steve Cohen as endorsees on behalf of Democratic primary winner Steve Mulroy, who faces Republican Jane Pierotti in August for the District 5 county commission seat.

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