There's no doubting that one of the most ubiquitous - and controversial - figures in local politics is David Upton, who, since his days as a Memphis State University Young Democrat in the '80s, has been a prime mover and dealmaker in Democratic Party affairs.
Other than races for YD positions in the '90s and for state and local Democratic Party committee contests, Upton himself has not been a candidate for public office since a respectable run in 1988 against Karen Williams, now a Circuit Court Judge and then an incumbent Republican state representative.
But since that one-and-only try for public office himself there has hardly been an election involving Democratic candidates in which Upton was not at least a significant background figure. And in 1990, the last year of non-partisan countywide elections, Upton played a role there, too - as one of the point men in the late A.C. Gilless's successful race for sheriff.
Actually, the political involvements of Upton, now 43, go back further - to student government politics at the University, when some of his active contemporaries were David Kustoff, Alan Crone, Maura Black, and Jim Strickland. The first two of those made names for themselves in Republican Party politics, both of them as party chairmen, while Kustoff went on in addition to become the current U.S. attorney. Strickland, a former local Democratic chairman, is now a city councilman, and Black (now Maura Black Sullivan) is a former Democratic Election Commissioner and the wife of Jeff Sullivan, who ran for state representative in a special election in late 2003.
Upton, with then state Senator, now Congressman Steve Cohen, backed Beverly Marrero, the eventual winner, against Sullivan, in a bitter, take-no-prisoners contest that left his longstanding friendship with the two Sullivans in shreds. And, though he stoutly denies having an animus against recent city-council candidate Desi Franklin, an intra-party rival, his efforts in favor of rival candidate Mary Wilder are considered by Franklin and others to have been aimed at preventing her ascension to office.
It is Upton's willingness to pull no punches that has from time to time earned him the reputation of a tough, almost Soprano-style infighter - "Tony Up," he's been called by one wag (okay, by me) - as well as the animosity of certain party figures. Always a partisan of the Ford wing of the Democratic party, Upton has often been persona non grata with members of the party faction closely associated with Mayor Willie Herenton - especially with longtime party broker and now Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism and former Herenton spokesperson Gale Jones Carson, both of whom he had been publicly critical of.
It came as something of a surprise, then, when Upton was credited by Carson herself as having been instrumental in gaining for her the post of Democratic National Committeewoman in last weekend's party reorganizations in Nashville. Though Upton had been boosting state Senate Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry for that position, he quickly switched to Carson when DeBerry counted herself out.
The victory of Carson, who was vigorously opposed by other party candidates, including one or two from Middle Tennessee, was by no means guaranteed, and Upton's nonstop lobbying for her with fellow state Democratic committee members, as well as his willingness to work alongside Chism, was an important factor in insuring that she did come through.
The collaboration between Upton and Carson drew this rave review from blogger Steve Steffens on his well-read LeftWingCracker weblog: "Yes, they have worked together before on state races, but this is a new level of cooperation and I love it. I applaud both of them for this, and think this is a sign that Republicans in Shelby County may as well give up on getting anyone elected in August or November. It's the best I've felt about our local party in years...."
That remains to be seen, of course, and Upton still has some fences to mend. But if Tony Up is willing, in the interests of party unity, to subordinate his well-known zeal for infighting and intrigue, and to emphasize his equally acknowledged talents both for nuts-and-bolts politics and for strategy at large, he could indeed be a major factor in the politics of 2008