Politics » Politics Feature

Déjà Vu

From A C's "Town Meeting" to filling vacancies to hot-button issues, here we go again.



Haven't we seen this movie before? A newly installed city mayor comes in and forthwith holds an open public meeting at which he and various members of his administration, most of them inherited from his predecessor, do a little show-and-tell, answering questions and otherwise dealing with issues brought by the public.

We saw interim Memphis mayor Myron Lowery do it with City Hall "open house" events in August and October. And now A C Wharton, elected in October to fill out the term of former mayor Willie Herenton, has done it with a well-attended "Town Meeting" Monday night at Breath of Life Christian Church, which straddles the large North Memphis communities of Frayser and Raleigh.

Topics ranged from crime to PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) programs to attract industry to trash pick-up problems to crime to neglected properties to after-school programs for Memphis City Schools students to crime and more crime.

Unmistakably, public safety was the main subject at the meeting, a fact which not only had holdover police director Larry Godwin constantly on his feet but also brought Sheriff Mark Luttrell, not a city employee, to the dais for one extended answer session, during which he cited an alarming rise in the rate of juvenile crime.

Wharton, who candidly confessed, "I'm the new kid on the block," frequently referred questions to such other members of the city administration as public works director Dwan Gilliom, another holdover.

The mayor, who has pledged to make transparency a hallmark of his administration, made a point of soliciting dissent and complaints Monday night and promised at meeting's end, "We will be back. This is just the beginning."

One of the ironies of Wharton's appearance at Breath of Life was that he had been a conspicuous absentee from a mayoral forum held at the church back in September, at which time several of his opponents took potshots at him for his absence. That was the subtext of the mayor's fulfilled promise to hold his first major public meeting at the church, to accomplish which required switching Monday's meeting from a previously arranged venue.

• With Joe Ford scheduled to leave his Shelby County Commission post next week to become interim county mayor, his seat will need to be filled by his fellow commissioners. It is no secret that Ford's son Justin Ford is a likely candidate to succeed his father in the position. The other active prospect is Ike Griffith, a teacher of broadcast journalism in the Memphis City Schools and a sometime aspirant for public office who forced eventual winner Harold Collins into a runoff in their 2007 Memphis City Council contest.

It remains to be seen whether the commission can agree on a successor to Ford without incurring the near-deadlock that characterized Joe Ford's contest with fellow commissioner J.W. Gibson for the interim mayor's post.

• Some familiar names have also surfaced already as possible successors to the late Larry Turner, the longtime state representative in House District 85 who died last Friday at age 70 after a prolonged illness. The Shelby County Commission is charged with appointing someone here, too, since state law requires that manner of succession when less than a year remains before a regularly scheduled election.

One name mentioned has been that of local NAACP head Johnnie Turner, Representative Turner's widow. Another is that of attorney Van Turner (no relation), the current chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party. Other prospects are Eddie Jones, a driver for MS Staff Corporation, who ran second to Turner in the 2008 Democratic primary, and attorney Errol Harmon.

Van Turner and Jones seem to be the most actively interested.

• A word about the late incumbent: Larry Turner was about as beloved as a legislator who consistently votes contrarily can be.

In an age of polarized partisan politics and lockstep party voting, the long-serving Turner's was the one vote that was never taken for granted by anybody. As the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Tom Humphrey noted on his passing, Turner was not averse to being on the short end of a 98-1 vote in the state House of Representatives if an issue struck him as a matter of conscience or conscientiousness.

And yet there was no showboat in him. The diminutive, ever-smiling Turner was about as mild-mannered and diffident in his self-presentation as it was possible to be. He never shamed a colleague, friend or foe, merely stated his case for the record and made his vote. He was a quiet man whose voice and vote carried far.

I cannot recall the issue now, but I remember being struck by Turner's taking a holdout position on some vote during the early '90s, one that caused other members to look again at the matter and vote to reconsider it. I was so impressed by the transformation caused by this mighty mite that I wrote a column about Turner in which I jokingly compared him to Superman.

A reelection campaign or two later, I went to one of his events and saw that column mounted on a board with a cartoon image of Turner, in Superman costume and cape, superimposed on it. He had a famous sense of humor, too. To employ a standard that I have been able to use on only a handful of political figures, it was impossible to imagine anyone saying "that damned Larry Turner!"

Even so, for an incumbent who lasted in the legislature as long as he did — almost a quarter century, having been elected and reelected for a total of 12 terms — Turner seemed always to be drawing an opponent in his district, the southernmost in Memphis and Shelby County. He always won, easily.

He and Johnnie Turner, his wife and lifelong partner in all things, had for decades been figures of crucial importance and large influence in local affairs.

The last time I took public note of his studied singularity on a major vote was in August 2007 during the course of a strenuous late-session showdown vote in the House over a tobacco tax pushed by Governor Phil Bredesen, with the proceeds intended for education. It was definitely a party-line issue. Republicans were against it as a bloc, and Democrats were expected to be for it — though Larry Turner and Mike Kernell, both Democrats, dissented, each for essentially the same reason.

Neither was opposed to the tax per se; each merely felt that the revenues raised from a tobacco tax should be allocated to health care and held out unsuccessfully for a bill that took that form.

Turner was not a spoiler, though. As late as 2007, the Democrats still commanded enough of a majority in the House that fellow Democrat Bredesen was able to get his bill through. Former speaker Jimmy Naifeh noted on his passing, "You could always count on Larry." He meant that in more than the head-counting way. In the last full term that Democrats controlled the House (2007-08), Turner had risen to the rank of deputy speaker.

In more ways than one, Larry Turner made a difference.

• Guests of honor at next Tuesday's annual "Master Meal" dinner of the East Shelby Republican Club at the Home Builders ballroom on Germantown Parkway will be Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, currently a candidate for governor, and the state's three constitutional officers: Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Treasurer David Lillard, and Comptroller Justin Wilson.

The event represents something of a homecoming for Hargett, who formerly represented Bartlett in the state House, and Lillard, who was a member of the Shelby County Commission before being appointed to his current position by the legislature's Republican majority.

Hot-button issues won't be absent from the occasion. Besides Ramsey's gubernatorial candidacy, there is Hargett's involvement in the ongoing controversy over when and whether to implement the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act of 2008, which calls for statewide use in next year's elections of optical-scan voting machines with "paper-trail" capability.

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