Politics » Politics Feature

Crunch Time

Voters decide on vacancies in the state Senate and state House.


Kelsey; Pakis-Gillon
  • Kelsey; Pakis-Gillon

Within the week covered by this print issue — on Tuesday, December 1st, to be exact — voters in state Senate District 31, a sprawling area which overrlaps much of Germantown, Cordova, Bartlett, and East Memphis, will have decided on someone to succeed Republican Paul Stanley, who resigned last spring after his public involvement in a sex-and-blackmail scandal.

The contestants are GOP nominee Brian Kelsey and Democratic nominee Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, and, as the special election race drew to a close, the two were pursuing quite different strategies.

Pakis-Gillon was appearing virtually everywhere she was invited to speak and seeking opportunities to confront Kelsey in open debate. That included even a meeting of the famously ultra-conservative Dutch Treat Luncheon last Saturday, where one attendee baited her for noting, in a response to a question about health-care legislation, that she and her husband had endured financial privation during her first pregnancy. "Why should I pay for your pregnancy? I didn't get pregnant!" the man heckled.

Though her basic appeal was to fellow Democrats (whom she and her strategists reckoned as more numerous in the district than a string of Republican victories there would indicate), Pakis-Gillon was soliciting votes from independents and Republicans, too — citing Kelsey's votes in favor of guns-in-parks and guns-in-bars bills and his vote, as she maintains, "against an amendment to freeze property taxes for senior citizens."

Eschewing direct contact with Pakis-Gillon, the well-financed Kelsey maintained a lower profile, relying on mailouts, door-to-door campaigning, and all-day vigils at polling sites during early voting. Seemingly counting on the district's disproportionately Republican voting history, Kelsey reminded voters in his mail pieces of his opposition to "big-spending" and what he called "job-killer" legislation. Insofar as he mentioned his opponent, he coupled her to Barack Obama, using the president's name as something of an anti-mantra.

Kelsey even embraced the flamboyant reputation that has led opponents to call him "stunt-baby," citing with pride the occasion when, as he put it, "I stood on the House floor and placed bacon into an envelope to demonstrate my opposition to pork projects for individual state legislators."

Another showdown will take place on December 1st, this one between Republicans Mark White and John Pellicciotti for Kelsey's vacated seat in state House District 83. Both contenders are veterans of losing campaigns in the past and have eschewed intra-mural strife in expressing traditional conservative platforms.

Whoever wins will face veteran Democrat Guthrie Castle, unopposed for his party's nomination, and independent John Andreucetti in a special general election on January 12th.

Although the White-Pellicciotti race has attracted little attention, the very fact of a contested GOP primary should benefit Kelsey, turnout-wise. The Democratic strategists who counseled Ivon Faulkner to withdraw from his primary race against Castle seemed not to have conjured with that factor in mind.

• Life is full of surprises. I have followed the right wing's recent propaganda war against ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) only casually and more sympathetically for ACORN than not.

I recall being holed up in a Little Rock hotel late one night in 1982 while I was working on an Arkansas political campaign and listening to a meeting of the group transpire either overhead or in an adjoining room. In whichever case, it was like I was right there, hearing every voice as a passionate argument went on between ACORN field reps over the best recruiting strategies to pursue in Arkansas.

What I recall most, beside the aforesaid passion, was the absolute sincerity and sense of commitment, even zeal, of the participants for doing something about the living conditions of the poor and powerless.

Well, here I was Monday morning, looking at an e-mail from the Tennessee Republican Party noting that one Wade Rathke was due to speak at the University of Memphis that night.

He was identified as ACORN's co-founder and was taken to task by the anonymous GOP scribe for concealing the embarrassing fact that his brother had embezzled almost $1 million from the group — a circumstance that supposedly prompted Rathke to resign from ACORN only last month.

I gather that the point of the e-mail was to entice Republicans to go heckle Rathke or, at the very least, to monitor his activities. For myself, remembering the intensity and righteous energy I'd overheard in that Arkansas hotel way back when, I thought I would go give the ACORN man a fair hearing, if circumstances permitted.

Later in the day, though, I got another e-mail alerting me to an entry in the aforesaid Rathke's personal blog.

Discussing a meeting sometime Sunday with "20 community leaders" here in Memphis, Rathke went on to deal with a recent controversy involving developer Harold Buehler's ultimately successful application, under a federal program, to acquire 140 vacant lots to develop rental property.

Said Rathke: "I found a squib by Jackson Baker in something called the 'political beat' in the Memphis Flyer. Despite Baker's bias in favor of Buehler and his contempt for Commissioner Henri Brooks, and anyone who opposes this project, his piece does confirm the facts behind the minister's disgust and my new friends' revulsion at this action."

Whereupon he went on to quote several paragraphs from my coverage of a commission meeting, and, sure enough, those paragraphs could be used to support criticism of Buehler's project. Or mayhap to support the project, for that matter. Or whatever one chose to think, really, since all I was aiming to do was, as Rathke would put it, to "confirm the facts" behind the controversy.

I own up to contributing "squibs" on a regular basis to the online and print editions of the Flyer. I disclaim, however, any "bias in favor of Buehler" and, most certainly, any "contempt for Commissioner Henri Brooks, and anyone who opposes this project." Au contraire. I confess to a regard for several opponents of the project and a genuine respect for Brooks, especially for her determination to go it alone, if need be, on behalf of causes she holds dear.

What I have "contempt" for is someone who rolls into town and, on the basis of a single ex parte conversation and a hasty skimming (and misreading) of one article, becomes an instant authority on people, places, and things he knows not of. For the record, Rathke should know that most of the certifiable progressives on the commission, those who would be expected to underwrite the goals of organizations like, say, ACORN, voted with Buehler. Rightly or wrongly.

On the evidence of Rathke's capacity for blatant prejudgment, I find myself at least leaning to the notion that the conscientious members of ACORN might be well rid of him, whatever his contributions of the past. And that's the end of this squib.

• Commissioner Brooks, incidentally, provided the decisive vote in last week's resolution by the commission of the stalemated race for interim Shelby County Mayor between commissioners Joe Ford and J.W. Gibson. Her switch-over to Ford — which prompted James Harvey to change his vote, too — was the result, in part, of heavy lobbying by members of the Baptist Ministerial association and, reportedly, by a venerable civil rights activist or two.

Commissioner Deidre Malone, a Gibson loyalist to the end and a declared candidate for the full-time job of county mayor in next year's regular election, may have seen her own political chances affected by a well-publicized dispute with former congressman Harold Ford Sr. over the import of Ford's attempted intercession with her on behalf of his brother Joe.

Though no longer the local force he once was as the dominant political broker of inner-city Memphis, Ford, now a high-stakes lobbyist living in Florida, still keeps his hand in, especially when prompted by circumstances.

• Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, arguably the front-running Republican candidate for governor, put in two full days of campaigning and fund-raising in Shelby County last week. At a meet-and-greet affair at Neely's Restaurant in East Memphis, he branded as "totally crazy" a statement by GOP rival Zach Wamp at a recent "Pasta and Politics" Republican dinner here implying that Haslam, might, if nominated, end up running to the left of a Democrat.

Another Republican gubernatorial candidate, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis, insisted that he was in the race to stay despite trailing in fund-raising and that he had no intention of switching to a race for county mayor.

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