Politics » Politics Feature

Dueling Democrats

The first county mayoral forum featured a Ford-Malone shoot-out.


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Fielding a question on domestic violence at Monday night's county mayoral forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone opined, "These days, a lot of women have tempers — quite frankly, they have issues as well as men."

Whereupon she would go on to demonstrate a couple of times more what she had already begun to manifest during the hour-and-a-half forum at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library — that she had issues with her major Democratic primary opponent, interim mayor Joe Ford, and that she could conjure up a right impressive show of temper about it.

Although all of the four mayoral hopefuls — who also included General Sessions Court clerk Otis Jackson and Sheriff Mark Luttrell, the only Republican in the mix — had their moments, it was the byplay between Malone and Ford that provided the most sparks and maybe even the most genuine illumination.

The essence of the argument between the two was their disagreement over whether the Med had achieved a level of financial stability in the face of adverse circumstances (including a state cutdown on TennCare disbursements). Ford said that it had — that, in fact, a $10 million emergency add-on appropriation from county government that he had brokered had "saved" the institution.

Malone questioned that, calling the $10 million a "band-aid" that had been stripped from the county's reserve fund, and in that contention she would be seconded by Luttrell, who viewed the appropriation as a temporary and essentially unsatisfactory expedient as well.

Luttrell's solution was much the same as the one advocated by Republican county commissioners George Flinn and Mike Ritz, who eventually prevailed on the commission as a whole to endorse a call for gubernatorial candidates to pledge that all federal revenues generated by the Med through its care of uninsured patients should go back to the Med. At present, those funds are distributed to hospitals statewide through the TennCare network.

The small flame of disagreement would eventually build up into sizable conflagration. The two Democratic contenders went through an on again, off again dialogue consisting essentially of Malone's insistence that "the Med is not saved" and Ford's rejoinders that "the Med is saved."


And, as the final candidate to make a closing statement, Malone would get the last word, demanding to know of the $10 million, "Where did those dollars come from?" She said Ford threw county CAO Jim Huntzicker "under the bus" when Huntzicker supplied the commission, at Ford's behest, with what turned out to be some very rough estimates of future revenue sources.

Answering her own question, Malone said, "We don't know where from. The commission approved [the funds] without knowing. If you like that kind of leadership, then you'll support the interim mayor as the next mayor of Shelby County. If you want somebody that's serious about having integrity and bringing integrity to that office, then you'll support me."

Meanwhile, Ford had some good moments of his own — perhaps the most surprising coming when forum moderator Danielle Schonbaum hit him with what she said was the most frequently submitted audience question of the night: Why had he become a declared candidate in the mayor's race when he had "committed" himself not to seek the job permanently at the time of his accepting an interim appointment from the commission?

"Well, I changed my mind," began Ford with a response that, in its baldness and simplicity, begat more than a few appreciative guffaws.

Ford then went on to talk about his caretakership of the mayor's office, his visitations in each of the county's several communities, and, for one of several times, his stewardship in "saving" the Med. He contended that he had literally been besieged with requests that he run for mayor and that "only two people" had asked him not to.

That gave Jackson, in his own closing, his best line of the night. "Mr. Ford, somebody's telling you a lie, because everybody says they're going to vote for me."

All the candidates had telling moments: Jackson with his contention that he had increased the revenues of General Sessions Court and Luttrell with his generally serene, knowledgeable manner and moments like his apparently genuine anguish over the loss of funding for mental health activities.

But the main show Monday night, in what was an overall quite revealing forum, was the shoot-out between rivals Ford and Malone, one that is sure to continue.

• The importance of Memphis and Shelby County in the statewide vote for governor got to be more than usually obvious Monday when a trio of gubernatorial candidates came calling: Republicans Bill Haslam and Zach Wamp and Democrat Kim McMillan.

Knoxville mayor Haslam, the undisputed leader in fund-raising, went door-to-door, accompanied by his wife Krissie, in the Oakleigh section of Germantown. Unsurprisingly, virtually every homeowner who opened the door told the candidate they'd seen Haslam's biographical ad, which has played incessantly on TV, especially during the Olympics.

Haslam, who reported $5 million on hand during his January financial disclosure, estimated the amount spent on the TV commercials at just under $1 million.

As Haslam was knocking on doors, 3rd District congressman Wamp was the beneficiary of a big-ticket meet-and-greet elsewhere in Germantown. He met with reporters beforehand, surrounded by two celebrity well-wishers from the world of country music: John Rich and Larry Gatlin. (Rich announced he would later be playing a set at the Hard Rock Café, and Wamp promised to join him.)

Wamp expressed optimism about his campaign, contending that he would be helped by the "conservative crest" that was happening in Tennessee.

Asked if such an upsurge in conservatism wouldn't also benefit Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, another conservative Republican running for governor, Wamp was dismissive: "Ron Ramsey is the lieutenant governor. He will still be the lieutenant governor. It stops right there. Frankly, the lieutenant governor's base is only the lieutenant governor's base. It is not the base of a person who can win our party's nomination for governor.

"He may be the only one who doesn't realize that so far. But a lot of other people know it. They talk about it everywhere we go. And so I respect him as lieutenant governor. That's exactly where he'll be on August 6th."

Wamp was asked about solutions for Memphis' financially beleaguered Med and reminded that he had tentatively agreed a month ago to a sign a letter from the Shelby County Commission backing the principle that a federal dollar generated by the Med should be a dollar routed by the state exclusively to the Med.

Expressing a mite of caution about that commitment, Wamp said he'd have to see the letter (which hasn't been sent to gubernatorial candidates yet and won't be until April 1st) but agreed "the principle is right." He said the main order of business would be to work with the state's congressional delegation to convince Arkansas and Mississippi to contribute their fair share to the Med's upkeep.

That was also the approach of Democrat McMillan, the former state House majority leader who met with a group of Democrats in Collierville on Monday.

Just as Wamp expressed no fear of his rivals for the Republican nomination, McMillan was ebulliently confident of her ability to hold her own in the primary against Jackson businessman Mike McWherter and against whoever she had to face in the general election, if nominated.

McMillan expressed a belief that her experience and "passion and desire to improve things for Tennessee" will ultimately weight the election results in her favor, despite the fact that she is low person on the fund-raising totem pole, having reported only $100,000 on hand in her January financial disclosure.

"I've always been the last woman standing," she said, agreeing with a reporter's jest to that effect.

She said her vote for an income tax in the legislature a decade ago should not — and would not — count as an albatross against her prospects. "The tax reform bill I voted for actually reduced taxes," she said, noting that the measure would have removed the sales tax from groceries and abolished the Hall income tax on investment income.

At press time on Tuesday, word was that Ramsey was in town also, and he, too, was working eastern Shelby County. He invited the Flyer to a late-afternoon get-together, and the results of that chat — which would undoubtedly include his retort to Wamp's characterization of his chances — will be posted on the Flyer website in "Political Beat," along with a more detailed account of the League of Women Voters forum.

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