American Idol it ain't. But the Shelby County primary, already in progress via early voting and culminating on May 4th, the first Tuesday in May, bears certain resemblances to the singing competition familiar to TV watchers.
For most positions on the ballot, a number of contestants are competing — at this stage of the game merely for the right to go on against other survivors, with the countdown coming in August, when winners in each category are crowned.
Just as in the celebrated televised warbling match, the hopefuls have been strutting their stuff, week by week, hoping to catch the fancy of the folks at home and, having done that, to convince them to vote in their favor.
And, just as on the TV show, you can spot most of the likely winners early on, while a good many of the auditioners are manifestly wasting their time. It has to be said, however, that, just as on Idol every season, one or two contenders, wholly unforeseen, manage to come out of nowhere to make a run for it.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the audience for this first round of competition for Shelby County offices is as impressive as that which tunes in for installments of the television show. Going merely by the results of the first few days of early voting, the auguries weren't all that hopeful.
On the first three days of early voting, culminating with the weekend, only 1,085 eligible voters — out of 545,036 — had cast their ballots, all at the Election Commission office downtown. Mathematically, that's a pittance, one fifth of 1 percent. Of those 1,085 voters, 43.4 percent were African Americans; 30.9 percent were whites; and 25.7 percent were classified as "other."
A fair number of that last category were of Asian ethnicity, Native American, or Hispanic, but the majority were probably blacks and whites who choose not to reveal their race on their voter registrations. The reported imbalance between blacks and whites roughly corresponds, however, to patterns that will have emerged when voting is completed — and to patterns from the election years 2002 and 2006 when the majority-black Democratic electorate came to the polls in county primary season in numbers significantly greater than did the predominantly white Republican electorate.
And that miniscule ratio of actual voters to eligible ones is certain to rise as returns from 20 satellite locations come in between now and Thursday, April 29th, when early voting ends.
As central as the issue of city/county consolidation is destined to be this election year and beyond, it is difficult to believe that city and county voters will easily let pass the opportunity to parse the current crowd of public suitors on their positions, yea or nay. (Oppositionists tend to be more up-front in their expressions on the subject, while sympathizers or supporters are considerably more veiled).
In any case, there has been evidence here and there that the public is not indifferent — as witness the turn-away crowd that showed up for the first forum, a League of Women Voters affair, featuring candidates for Shelby County mayor. In our run-through this week of races on the May 4th ballot (next week's "Politics" column will add some finishing touches), the mayor's race is as good a place to start as any.
SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR
Republican: Theoretically, both major parties have races, but the one on the GOP side of the ballot is strictly pro forma.
The Republican contest matches Sheriff Mark Luttrell, a respected officeholder and proven vote-getter whose greatest asset, besides his omnipresence at public events, is his serious mien and air of competence (one which, presumably, is well-earned, particularly with regard to correctional matters, his forte). His opponent, Ernest Lunati, is a convicted felon (on pornography charges) who lacks only a "c" on the end of his last name to certify a psychic disposition and public demeanor that is, genuinely and in every sense, off the wall.
Yes, of course, Luttrell has raised money and can raise more, much more. He's holding on to most of it, pending the Democrats' selection of a candidate. And he's tilted against consolidation.
Democratic: The race here is tri-fold, with General Sessions court clerk Otis Jackson's surprise last-minute entry upsetting an apple cart which was presumed to involve two vendors, and two only — interim mayor Joe Ford and Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone. Those two are still the major contenders, and each has strengths.
Ford has the Ford name (for better or, here and there, for worse), the incumbency, and a general reputation as a congenial, well-intentioned public servant. He also has apparently genuine impulses to conservatism, especially on fiscal matters that — along with his out-and-out opposition to consolidation — have occasionally endeared him to the commission's Republican right wing.
Where Ford loses ground is in a certain awkwardness on the stump and in the resentment of those who begrudge his having "changed his mind" about not running after getting the interim appointment from his then fellow commissioners. He either saved the financially hard-pressed Med or fell short of doing so, depending on whose analysis you believe.
Malone is something of a charmer, notwithstanding some serious give-no-quarter battles fought with fellow commissioners on issues like a second Juvenile Court judge, gained by majority vote but now judicially disallowed. And her pleasantness of personality is anchored in a history of taking firm positions and in-depth knowledge of the many disparate issues before the commission.
What she needed to challenge Ford was exposure. She got much of what she needed by funneling a goodly part of her resources into an effective TV ad featuring herself and her mother — a financial gamble that seems to have worked. The subsequent endorsement she got from The Commercial Appeal didn't hurt, either. Though she professes a wait-and-see attitude on what the Metro Charter Commission comes up with, she was an early propagandist for the principle of consolidation.
Jackson is probably more spoiler than contender (though in which direction is hard to say). He, too, has a good-natured personality and some hero's laurels from his days as a University of Memphis basketballer in the Dana Kirk '80s. But his claims of financial success in upping his court's revenues clash somewhat with recent disclosures of apparently haphazard bookkeeping. On consolidation, his position is "No schools, no consolidation; no support in other [non-Memphis] municipalities, no consolidation." Pretty iron-clad.
Here voters will find stout races in both parties and candidates in both primaries who seem unusually and almost uniformly well prepared for the job of being the county's chief law enforcement officer. All of the chief contenders have ample — indeed, impressive — law enforcement credentials in and out of the Sheriff's Department, and most of them are still active in command roles. All, too, for what it's worth, are publicly leery of consolidation.
Republican: Here you find matched the current chief deputy (Bill Oldham), who also served as police director of Memphis; the current chief jailer (James Coleman); the current SWAT team commander (Dale Lane); and a 35-year veteran of the department who commanded virtually every unit there was to command and who has spent the last six years as a Bartlett alderman (Bobby Simmons).
Oldham was probably the early favorite, and he may be the late favorite, too — having finally gotten some visible signage and evidence of active campaigning to go with an endorsement by the CA. He was a bit reticent in the campaign's middle phase, however, which gave, first, Simmons and then Lane a shot at gathering support. Both are still in it, too, and the outcome of Lane's candidacy will prove something — either that a candidate can win with born-again rhetoric or that such overt Christian crusading risks turning off portions of the electorate.
Coleman, the lone African American in the GOP field, is a man of humane sentiment and serious accomplishment (it was he whose remedial labors apparently freed Shelby County's jails from supervision by the federal judiciary), and, if there is justice in the world, he will get a decent vote.
Democratic: Here, too, are active commanders with respectable pedigrees. Bennie Cobb is in charge of the uniformed patrol division, having also been ranking supervisor in divisions relating to the jail and the courts. Larry Hill is also a distinguished veteran who is currently serving as operations manager of the Shelby County court division.
Both these officers fairly sparkle when they have a chance to display their expertise, as at Monday night's League of Women Voters forum at the Germantown Municipal Center. Each will get ample votes from members of the law enforcement ranks.
The problem that each faces is the perception among Democrats and among African Americans in particular that the Democratic nominee will be either Randy Wade, the former deputy who was administrative assistant to the late former sheriff A.C. Gilless and is the current district director for 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, or Reginald French, who logged significant time in law enforcement before becoming one of former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's chief assistants.
Wade, who claims an artful diplomacy among his other devices, has been Cohen's indispensable steward with the rank and file of the 9th District's African-American community and is largely responsible for the congressman's constituent service. He has both street cred and a talent for summitry, which has given him access to and support in high places. And, like Oldham, he, too, has the CA's nod.
French is running without benefit of the ex-mayor's election network per se (no help from Sidney Chism, for example), but his many administrative jobs for Herenton have given him connections of his own, and therefore a shot. What hurts him most, ironically, is that his long association with Herenton smacked to critics of cronyism, and that, coupled with some episodes in his past (one involving his slashing the tires of an antagonist), undermines an otherwise credible, or at least arguable, claim for this sometime entrepreneur to be regarded seriously.
Both parties have at least the semblance of a contest, with the outcome of the Republican race, in fact, difficult to forecast.
Republican: David Lenoir, a financial services manager and investment counselor and a former all-SEC end for the University of Alabama, married with two children, a volunteer football coach at institutions as diverse as Manassas High School and St. George's Independent School, is the very embodiment of the up-and-coming suburban professional and has endorsements from mayors of outlying Shelby County municipalities.
He is opposed by John Willingham, an avuncular Old Guarder of broad experience — ranging from engineering to the art of pork barbecue. He has patents for the former and awards for the latter and found room along the way for governmental involvement, having once served in the administration of President Richard Nixon. Willingham's wholly idiosyncratic brilliance has never been questioned. Nor has his eccentricity. (As the late political reporter Terry Keeter once observed, in saltier terms, ask Willingham what time it is, and you have a conversation on your hand that will last for hours.)
Willingham is justly revered as a watchdog over the excesses of local government, having smelled out the fishier aspects of the FedExForum deal long before anyone else. On the strength of that, he won a term on the Shelby County Commission, but he flopped as a candidate for city and county mayor. There are races he can win, and races he can't win. Trustee is one that his name identification gives him a chance for.
Democratic: The bottom line is that Regina Morrison Newman, appointed to serve as trustee by the County Commission following the deaths of two predecessors, Bob Patterson and Paul Mattila, is hard-working and well-liked, both as candidate and as officeholder. Among her other credentials, she worked as an assistant treasurer for the city of Memphis two decades ago and was assistant to the state commissioner of revenue during the administration of former governor Ned McWherter.
As a white Democrat, a woman, and a person of broad friendships across all sorts of lines, she will be hard to beat, and her opponent, entrepreneur M. LaTroy Williams, though evidently able to self-fund (as his impressive signage here and there would indicate) has yet to work himself into the mainstream. He cannot be faulted for lack of persistence, however, having run for the office four years ago and mounted ample litigation both to defend himself against a tax delinquency for property he owned and to counter criticism in the regular and irregular media. Williams has put out a sample ballot this year featuring himself and other candidates under the auspices of the old Memphis Democratic Club, which he has attempted to revive.
REGISTER OF DEEDS
Republican: Tom Leatherwood, unopposed for renomination, has been the incumbent since 2000, when, as a sitting state senator, he won a special election to succeed the late Guy Bates. He is generally given good marks for stewardship of this low-profile position, and he escaped what might have been retaliatory opposition this year from party elements scandalized by his quixotic challenge in 2008 to 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.
Democratic: Coleman Thompson was the Democratic nominee four years ago and was considered to have the inside track on the nomination this year, when county demographics manifestly tilted even more favorably to Democrats than in the party's near-miss year of 2006. But political newcomer Carlton Orange, a lawyer, former Tennessee State track star, and ex-Air Force pilot, has come on to offer strong competition. Nor can the aptly named Lady J. Swift be disregarded as a challenger.
SHELBY COUNTY CLERK
Republican: Wayne Mashburn, son of the late former clerk "Sonny" Mashburn, is currently an administrator in the office he seeks to head. Heavily backed by the GOP establishment, he would seem to have an easy road to the nomination against the little-known Steve Moore.
Democratic: Longtime broadcaster, publicist, and man-about-town Corey Maclin, a veteran of the wrestling and entertainment worlds, has been running non-stop for at least a year and a half and has a full head of steam against two opponents: LaKeith Miller and Charlotte Draper, the latter of whom, a clerk's office employee, has challenged Maclin's ambitious plans to offer weekend service hours.
PROBATE COURT CLERK
Republican: County employee and Young Republican activist Paul Boyd, unopposed for nomination, is widely considered a sacrificial lamb, although his run now may build some name recognition for later on.
Democratic: Here's where the sweepstakes is, with several energetic candidates running — including Sondra Becton, a clerk's office employee well known from previous races; county administrator Clay Perry; Peggy J. Dobbins; Karen Tyler; and Annita Sawyer-Hamilton. But the most visible and active for upward of a year has been veteran labor figure and former county human services director Danny Kail, who may have earned enough across-the-board support to edge out the others.
CIRCUIT COURT CLERK
Republican: The veteran Jimmy Moore, an affable and ubiquitous figure at political events, is unopposed for renomination and has enough funding and political support to run well in the general election.
Democratic: Vying for the right to challenge Moore are Ricky Dixon, brother of the former state senator and Tennessee Waltz casualty Roscoe Dixon; Carmichael Johnson, husband of county assessor Cheyenne Johnson; and Steven Webster, a realtor and former assistant state Mental Health commissioner making yet another attempt at establishing himself in local elective office.
CRIMINAL COURT CLERK
Republican: Kevin Key, son of the retiring longtime clerk, Bill Key, is the favorite against Michael Porter, an ex-Marine and former lawman seeking to get a toehold in local politics.
Democratic: Former clerk Minerva Johnican's signs and campaign literature ask for a vote to "re-elect" her, though she hasn't held the position since 1994, when Bill Key defeated her. Nevertheless, she was a well-known public figure back in the day and should do well, especially with the older electorate. Bail bondsman Vernon Johnson Sr. and the Rev. Ralph White are both popular and well-known figures capable of making a race of it, though.
JUVENILE COURT CLERK
Republican: Joy Touliatos, chief administrator for outgoing clerk Steve Stamson, is unopposed.
Democratic: Former clerk Shep Wilbun is still riding a wave of sympathy for what many supporters regard as unjustified accusations against his former service, which contributed to his loss against Stamson eight years ago. His name recognition as a former city councilman and county commissioner also boosts him against relative unknowns Sylvester Bradley Jr. and Charles Marshall.
(See next week's "Politics" for updates on these races and a complete rundown on County Commission races.)