Politics » Politics Feature

Game Changers

Herenton on the "race card," Gibbons' exit, and a picked-up sheriff's race.


Gibbons and Herenton last week - JB
  • JB
  • Gibbons and Herenton last week

Willie Herenton has the microphone and is using it to broadcast his grievances loud and large over the speaker system at his friend Sidney Chism's Saturday kick-off event in the Plaza Shopping Center mall on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

"We got nothing we need to apologize for," he is concluding. "We didn't put people in chains and bring them over here against their will." This and similar remarks make up the peroration of his introduction of county commissioner Chism, who is running for reelection, and when he turns the microphone over, Chism continues in that vein:

"No, we got nothing to apologize for." But it turns out there is something that requires an apology, or at least an act of atonement," according to Chism. "We got to clean up what you messed up. Yeah, you got to clean up what you sho' messed up!"

Both men are talking about the same thing: the need, as they see it — hoping that the rest of the city's African-American population agrees — for a reversion to black occupancy of the 9th District congressional office won in 2006 by then state senator Steve Cohen, at least partly with Herenton's help. Herenton, who contends he is defending the principle of equal representation, is now determined to unseat Cohen, whom he has referred to publicly as an "asshole."

It is Chism's event, and the well-known political broker has enough clout to attract a passel of other candidates and officeholders to his event: interim county mayor Joe Ford, for example, whose mayoral campaign office occupies the space next door to Chism's and who shortly delivers a testimonial to his erstwhile fellow commissioner.

But Herenton is the reigning celebrity here and has already altered the character of the event merely by his presence. And, though his public stemwinder is over with, he hasn't got everything off his chest.

He heads over my way, and, after a few comments on how his run for Congress is going — "I'm campaigning hard. I've been working every goddamned day!" — he begins to dilate on "media bias" against him, citing as the latest instance of it the final paragraph of an "In Brief" item by The Commercial Appeal's Bartholomew Sullivan in that morning's paper.

The offending passage comes at the end of some matter-of-fact graphs about Herenton's having filed his petition for office on the preceding day and a short statement from the former Memphis mayor on his desire to serve in Congress as "a continuation of public service."

Then Sullivan notes that, on the same day as Herenton's filing, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons had given up the ghost on his lagging gubernatorial campaign, thereby, Sullivan notes, "potentially freeing some GOP voters to cross party lines and vote in the Democratic primary."

Well, I comment, the observation seems true enough. Cohen has always enjoyed some Republican crossover (paradoxically, given his simultaneous reputation as the leading liberal light in these parts). And Gibbons' withdrawal as a favorite-son candidate for governor in the Republican primary would surely facilitate the fact.

"But who's crossing over?" Herenton demands. I agree that most of the crossover voters, if such there be, would, in fact, be white. At that, the former mayor — who in his middle years as mayor, especially in his 1999 re-election campaign against Joe Ford, could claim a generous share of white and Republican votes himself — looks vindicated.

"If I say it, I'm playing the race card. To me that's the race card!" he proclaims.

• To be sure, Gibbons' exit from the gubernatorial race is a game-changer. His decision to shut down operations had been postponed about as long as it possibly could be. He had become locked into a vicious circle. People had begun saying of the Shelby County D.A., whose credentials to be governor were no doubt as good as anyone's, that he couldn't raise money, therefore he was not regarded as a possible winner. And because he wasn't regarded as a possible winner, he had even more trouble raising money. And because he still couldn't raise money, he was regarded as an even less credible winner. Which meant that he couldn't catch a break. But a Catch-22 caught him. And wouldn't let go.

It had got to this point: Zach Wamp, the Chattanooga congressman who was locked into a real scratching match with Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey for dibs on challenging Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, was lambasting both those worthies right and left (mainly from the right, of course). But he had nothing but nice things to say about "General Gibbons."

That's what the others were doing, too. Unloosing shots at their other GOP rivals but sugarcoating everything they said about the man from Memphis.

That may have been the last signal Gibbons needed. But other prompters were the facts that time for the next financial disclosure period, on March 31st, was drawing nigh, as was the withdrawal deadline for gubernatorial candidates, next Thursday, on April 8th.

As Gibbons had made plain on Friday, when he addressed the press in both Nashville and Memphis concerning his reasons for dropping out, his next financial disclosure would show that he had even less cash than he had in January, when he reported all of $250,000 on hand.

As recently as two weeks ago, when he addressed a meeting of Young Republicans here in Memphis, Gibbons had been defiant about his chances. He had likened himself to Winfield Dunn, the Memphis dentist who in 1970 overcame anonymity and long odds to wrest the Republican nomination for governor from several better-known GOP contenders, then wreaked an upset win over Democrat John Hooker to become governor.

After that YR meeting in Memphis two weeks ago, Gibbons was asked what he would say if someone suggested to him he should step aside and get out of the governor's race.

"It would be a short conversation," a proud and seemingly resolute man answered.

But lengthier conversations on that very subject had to take place. As he explained at his pressers on Friday, a fund-raiser in Nashville fell way short of expectations. Then came one of those difficult conversations (known as "come-to-Jesus" in the trade) with his finance committee. And shortly thereafter, his decision to give up the ghost.

Gibbons blamed his failure to raise money on a late start (his campaign got under way in mid-2009) and on the lack of a built-in network like those of his GOP opponents. Haslam had "family ties" (i.e., via Pilot Oil); Wamp had congressional ones; and Ramsey had connections through state government.

He discounted another possibility — that, in an age of Tea Parties and red-meat politics, particularly on the Republican side, he may have come off as a tad bland and moderate in his exposition of issues like public safety, education, jobs, and the special needs of Memphis. (Prominent among the latter were controlling drug crime, funding the Med, and addressing the status of the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee.)

"No, I think I was in tune with most Republican voters, frankly more so than the other candidates," Gibbons protested.

Whatever the case, he is now out of the gubernatorial picture — like another able Memphian before him, state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle.

• One of the hot races this election season is that for sheriff, where serious contests are being waged on both sides of the party line.

Democrat Randy Wade, a longtime Sheriff's Department official who has been serving since 2007 as district director for Steve Cohen, kicked off his campaign on Saturday with a well-attended rally in the plaza in front of his Union Avenue headquarters. Numerous other candidates were present — always a token of a campaign's viability — and queued up to present their own brief speeches. Cohen himself addressed the crowd by the expedient of a cell phone held by one of Wade's aides in front of a microphone.

Reginald French, another Democrat and the former longtime aide to ex-mayor Herenton, made his presence felt with two events on Saturday, the latest in a series of meet-and-greets. One was a "Women for French" brunch at Owen Brennan's, and that was followed by an evening affair at the Hilton entitled "Urban Professionals for Reginald French."

Other Democratic candidates are Bennie Cobb and Larry Hill.

On the Republican side, Bartlett alderman and former Sheriff's Department official Bobby Simmons held a meet-and-greet at Fat Larry's Barbecue on Summer and is running a stout race against current Chief Deputy and former Memphis police director Bill Oldham, who may have been favored to start with.

Other GOP candidates are James E. Coleman and Dale Lane, who has managed to get some signboards strategically located.

Wade at kickoff; French at women's luncheon (w/Sondra Becton, candidate for Probate Court clerk and Joan Briggs) - JB
  • JB
  • Wade at kickoff; French at women's luncheon (w/Sondra Becton, candidate for Probate Court clerk and Joan Briggs)

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