Politics » Politics Feature

The Council District 5 Race

A preliminary laundry list, including the usual suspects, plus one bona fide surprise.


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The District 5 City Council seat, which has been occupied for two terms by Jim Strickland, who is vacating it to make a mayoral run, is a crucial one for several reasons, including the fact that the Midtown/East Memphis district contains both substantial commercial and residential turf and several different hotbeds of politically active citizens.

It bears repeating that it will be a solid month before April 17th, the first date on which candidate petitions can even be drawn, and that any list of candidates is, of necessity, only a preliminary one. But there are several individuals who are campaigning already and have to be taken seriously.

There is Mary Wilder, for example, a veteran political and civic activist and longtime presence in the Evergreen Vollintine neighborhood, who has political credibility and name recognition from a previous race or two and from having served as an interim state Representative in state House District 89.

Wilder was the beneficiary last Thursday of a well-attended fund-raiser at Annesdale Mansion, hosted by former state Senator Beverly Marrero (whose vacated House seat Wilder assumed temporarily in 2007), and longtime progressive activist Happy Jones, who noted that Annesdale was an ancestral home. Between the two of them, Marrero and Jones symbolized the broad appeal Wilder hopes to demonstrate along the Poplar Corridor.

In brief remarks, Wilder cited her 11 years as United Methodist services director and her work on behalf of preservation initiatives and environmental causes. She also served as facilities director at MIFA.

A candidate with similar appeal and who, like Wilder, was an early entry is Charles "Chooch" Pickard, an architect who also has evinced a strong interest in preservationist issues and strategies for dealing with blight. Pickard has served as executive director of the Memphis Regional Design Center and currently serves on the MATA board. He has signed on some seasoned campaign pros to help his race.

In her introduction of Wilder last week, Marrero challenged Wilder's supporters to work hard because, as she said, "there's a lot of money on the other side." 

There are several candidates that remark could describe, but one of them is certainly Worth Morgan, a member of a well-known brokerage family, if at this point still something of an unknown quantity. Morgan is an executive at SunStar Insurance of Memphis, and word is that his campaign will be well-endowed financially.

In that sense, with his themes unspoken to so far, his campaign could resemble the one successfully run in 2007 by current Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, whose race was in a sense under the radar but who had similar sources of support.

Another candidate who can count on significant financial backing and whose political profile is somewhat more developed, is Dan Springer, who has served as an aide to both Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and U.S. Senator Bob Corker.

Springer, who currently serves as communications director for Evolve Bank and Trust, has begun making the rounds of local civic and political clubs to introduce himself.

Coming from a totally different political corner is Paul Shaffer, business manager for IBEW Local 474 and a long-established presence in local Democratic Party politics. The well-liked Shaffer can count on serious backing from organized labor, but his support does not end there. In past races for a council super-district, he has enjoyed good across-the-board support from Democratic political figures of note, and he could well get a lion's share of them this time, too.

As other political observers have noted, the District 5 picture could be complicated by the recently much-rumored prospect of a retirement from the Council by Super District 9 member Shea Flinn, to assume executive duties with the Greater Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce. If that should come to pass, several of the names mentioned here, along with various others, could well end up on the ballot as potential successors to Flinn.

In any case, the District 5 field indicated here is likely to experience both pluses and minuses, and several other potential candidates have floated preliminary trial balloons. (Candidates omitted in this list should fear not; as indicated, we've got time, and they shall get their due.)

One of those who talked about making a District 5 race early on but who has been dormant of late is Mike Ritz, the former two-term county commissioner from Germantown who, as commission chairman, played a major role in important stages of the school merger/de-merger controversy.

On the eve of a move into Memphis last year, Ritz, a sometime businessman-banker with a long-term pedigree in both city and county governmental affairs, discussed his desire to seek the District 5 seat in the event that Strickland, as expected, chose to vacate it for a mayoral run.

Ritz has, however, decided against a council race. The reason? "I couldn't find much interest out there — not only for my race but for anybody's race."

On the supposition that all of you reading this are sitting down, I can announce that, er, somewhat to my surprise, I was informed this week that yet another contestant — and an unexpected one, at that — is waiting in the wings with a definite hankering to enter the already crowded District 5 City Council race.

Joe Cooper.

Wow, that was noisy — all those chairs falling! Well, pick yourselves up, and I'll say it again. Joe Cooper.

"I don't want anybody thinking this is a joke" said Cooper, on the telephone. And I can assure you, Cooper is no joke.

Yes, Cooper has taken some hits — more than his share, maybe. He has two felony convictions, and there's no hiding that. The first one, back in the 1970s, when he was a ubiquitous and influential member of the county court, is regarded in some quarters as having been payback for breaking ranks with a local Republican Party that was just beginning to feel its oats as a political force.

The offense was technically a species of mail fraud, in which Cooper, clearly hard up for cash, arranged some personal loans for himself in the name of friends, many of them influential government players. Irregular, to be sure, and he (but not they) got nailed for it by an unsympathetic D.A.'s office.

Cooper did some time, and for several years afterward divided his time between attempts at reestablishing a political career and several business start-ups, none of which endured for very long. He remained knowledgeable about government, however, and served in other people's campaigns and offices and as a man-to-see about working the system and as an all-purposes resource — "the world's greatest concierge" — as he called himself.

Do you need an autographed picture of President Chester A. Arthur by 2 p.m. tomorrow? Cooper is your best bet to get it. And much else.

In 2008, he got nailed again for selling Cadillacs to drug dealers, who paid cash for contracts that bore other people's names — money laundering. While Cooper ended up doing more time, his punishment was mitigated by his subsequent assistance to the FBI in making bribery cases against local officials, and his cooperation netted him a sentence of only six months on the money laundering charges.

Besides treading these dangerous legal waters, Cooper has survived some significant physical ailments in recent years, and he, unquestionably and in a very unique sense, bears the aura of a survivor. For all his derogators — and they are many — he has his defenders, also numerous, although many of them, perhaps most, may be loath about boasting the fact publicly.

Cooper is what he is. He can make the case that he's learned the hard way about staying on the beaten path, and it's a path that he knows something about. He isn't likely to win, but, in the crowded field that the District 5 race is becoming, who knows? He can at least hope to make a runoff (permitted in district races, though not for at-large positions).

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