Politics » Politics Feature

Holding on Tight

The 2014 election results could hinge on whose coattails — or hugs — count for most. Witness Amy Weirich and Judge Joe Brown.



What is interesting at this stage of Election 2014 in Shelby County is the degree to which what used to be called "coattails" loom larger than usual.

The endorsement game gets played in every election, of course, but there is usually a good deal less correlation between one politician's favorable say-so about another and good results for the latter on Election Day than there is between, say, a famous athlete's mug on a Wheaties box and the degree to which that cereal gets itself munched.

Endorsement campaigns in politics don't do nearly as well. One reason is that people tend to make up their minds about candidates on other levels. For political regulars, most often it's on a pure party-line basis. Or specific issues may predominate in voters' minds — on the basis of candidates' zeal or lack of it on hot-button issues like abortion or gun carry or school-district independence.

Or, as Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the late President Ronald Reagan, a talk show host, and a fixture on the Republican  lecture circuit, told it to a crowd of the GOP faithful at Collierville's Town Square on Monday, "people vote for the people they like." That was how his father was able to create a class of voters known as "Reagan Democrats," and that was something that Republicans running in politically divided Shelby County had best keep in mind in 2014, he said.

Talk to people about "shared values," he urged. Yet Reagan's very presence, along with that of 8th District Congressman Stephen Fincher, whose reelection contest won't occur until November, was designed to confer something else upon the Republican ticket that will present itself to the electorate in August, and whose current office-holders were scattered generously in the crowd at Collierville — a bit of borrowed luster.

That was especially so in the case of Michael Reagan — likable but not notably charismatic in his own right but someone whose family name is the ultimate brand in Republican politics and whose late father remains, for the GOP rank and file and crossover voters alike, the emblematic Wheaties-box avatar.

Another circumstance at the Collierville event underscored the endorsement principle even more directly. Mark Luttrell, the Republican Shelby County mayor who will have his own reelection battle this August but who has always done well with middle-of-the-road groups and Democratic crossovers, had already had his turn on the dais and now became de facto master of ceremonies for a late arrival, District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

Almost compulsively, as Weirich stepped forward to take her place at the mic, Luttrell grabbed her in a vise-like one-armed hug and said, "Folks, we can't afford to lose this girl. We cannot afford to lose this — I said 'girl.' This lady, this general, this District Attorney General, this paragon of virtue and a student of the law!"

The crowd exuded a surprised chuckle at the county mayor's sudden show of zeal. "Don't laugh, I'm telling the damn truth," Luttrell said, still holding Weirich close. "Folks, let's get out there and give our all for all of our candidates, but let's remember: This lady here needs to be our attorney general. Amy Weirich!"

And then, and only then, Luttrell released her, and the endorsee could begin her speech — a measured, cheerful paean to public safety and good weather and high hopes and pride in her record.

There had been meta-messages a-plenty in that hug of Luttrell's, that fervent introduction, that almost desperate-sounding endorsement. Weirich strikes a lot of people as an able professional, but this year she is up against not a checklist but an opponent of unpredictable intensity, of enormous panache and demonstrated show-business skill — Judge Joe Brown, the de facto Democratic nominee already, as Weirich, also uncontested in her primary, is a de facto nominee.

Famous for his 15-odd years in Los Angeles as a reality-show judge on daytime TV, the former Shelby County Criminal Court judge, a returned prodigal if there ever was one, had already shown what he could do in the previous week. Dropping into Juvenile Court and latching on to an unrepresented client the way somebody else might pick up a discarded newspaper, Brown stormed into a courtroom and a) made a shambles of judicial order, or b) struck a blow for justice. Pick one, depending on your politics.

He challenged the credentials of the presiding magistrate, decried the court itself as a "circus" and a "sorry operation," got himself cited for contempt and (briefly) jailed. A disgraceful spectacle. Or a gallant deed. Again, take your pick, according to your politics. A domination of the news week, in either case. And a demonstration of political potency.

It was already axiomatic that Brown's star power, if harnessed properly and, like nitroglycerin, kept within safe limits, could drive a lot of votes for the Democratic ticket. Contrariwise, he might implode unpredictably and scarify middle-of-the-road voters into going the other way.

In any case, Brown's own version of the hug — both literal and figurative — is at this point a blessing devoutly to be wished by his fellow Democrats. On Saturday, he turned up in Whitehaven for the headquarters opening of Patrice Robinson, running for the District 9 County Commission seat in the Democratic primary against two tough opponents, Memphis Education Association President Keith Williams and incumbent Justin Ford.

Brown endorsed Robinson and sealed his endorsement with a bone-crushing hug — in every way a precursor and ironic counterpart to Luttrell's hug of Weirich, two days later.

Nor is Brown's embrace necessarily reserved for representatives of the inner city. In what is arguably an odd-couple arrangement, he has decided to make common cause with Steve Mulroy, the focused, Jesuitical, limerick-loving professor of law at the University of Memphis who has made a role for himself as the County Commission's liberal light.

Mulroy is in a three-way battle for the Democratic nomination for county mayor with well-liked veteran Deidre Malone and with the Rev. Kenneth Whalum, an outspoken former school board member who sees himself as the people's voice.

Both party regular Malone or Whalum, a maverick's maverick, might regard themselves as deserving of the nod from Brown, but it is Mulroy who has it, perhaps because of their joint connection with the legal profession. He and Brown have recently been in conversations about doing joint campaign endeavors.

For her part, Malone announced an endorsement last week from James Harvey, the current county Commission chairman who dropped out of the county mayor's race himself at the withdrawal deadline and is now looking down the road at a city mayor's race in 2015.


Taylor Berger, who’s no longer running, with his son - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Taylor Berger, who’s no longer running, with his son

• Meanwhile, one of the touted races — between Republican incumbent County Commissioner Heidi Shafer and Democratic challenger Taylor Berger, has ceased to be — at roughly the point that it seemed to be heating up.

It was only last Thursday night, at a packed fund-raising affair that the Berger campaign seemed to be acquiring enough real energy to be competitive. But Berger announced on Monday that he was out of the race. Citing personal concerns on his Facebook page, Berger said, "To run this race right, I'd jeopardize my family and business." After what had been a significant advance build-up, and especially after last week's event, the timing left some of Berger's supporters, who included some well-heeled donors, puzzled.

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