Politics » Politics Feature

Who Is Mark Luttrell?

A moderate or a partisan? And who’s really ahead in the polls?



Will the real Mark Luttrell stand up?

One possible Mark Luttrell is the man who recently addressed a group of upscale progressives at the home of local activist Happy Jones and heard himself addressed this way by one of those present, longtime activist Joceyln Wurzburg:

"We're pretty much on the progressive/liberal side of issues today. We wanted to gather some folks to come and see if there's room for some progressive-minded folks to support the winner of the Republican primary in a race against someone who won a Democratic primary."

On the other hand, here is the same Mark Luttrell described by state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester, here from Nashville on Saturday to assist the chances of interim Shelby County mayor Joe Ford, Sheriff Luttrell's Democratic opponent in the current race for county mayor:

"He's a right-wing ideologue whose two planks are to build a bigger jail and to out-source county jobs. He's attempting to cozy up to Democrats, and he's not clear about his Republican pedigree. There's a sense that Mark Luttrell is a moderate, somebody who stays in the middle. That's not the case."

Forrester also noted that Luttrell was co-chair of the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Bob Corker against Democrat Harold Ford in 2006 — "one of the most divisive I've ever seen" — and the local co-chair for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008.

And, while people in the active political sphere are divided on who Luttrell is, the pollsters are also divided in how they evaluate his standing in his race against Ford.

A telephone poll conducted in mid-May by consultant John Bakke and Ethridge and Associates shows Luttrell leading Ford by 49 percent to 33 percent, with the rest undecided.

This would be the Luttrell as perceived by the group of some 75 people who crammed into Jones' living room on Belvedere, the Luttrell who, in his two previous races for sheriff, has demonstrated bountiful crossover ability, who, for example, garnered as much as 15 percent of the predominantly Democratic African-American vote.

But another fresh poll, done by Berge Yacoubian of Yacoubian Research, shows a virtual dead heat, with Ford leading Luttrell by a margin of 40 percent to 39 percent, with the rest undecided.

This would be Luttrell as Forrester and Ford see him, a partisan Republican who can be beaten on the basis of strict arithmetic, which gives a slight but growing edge to Democrats in the changing demographics of Shelby County.

To be sure, evidence can be marshaled to justify either perspective. Republicans do tend to emphasize the importance of new jails and prisons as an antidote to crime, and Luttrell — who, like his father before him, worked for most of his adult life in the field of incarceration — has been an avowed campaigner for a new and larger jail facility.

But Luttrell, in his talk to the self-declared progressives (several of whom, like Wurzburg and Jones, were expatriates from the Republican Party), did not fail, in discussing crime control, to pay homage to the concepts of "prevention and intervention." And he linked public safety to education and public health to form a triad of interlocking issues.

It is equally true that Luttrell, like many in the GOP, is open to the possibilities of out-sourcing and, to some degree, has practiced it as sheriff. In their one debate so far, that was one of the clear dividing lines between Luttrell and Ford, with the latter renouncing the concept altogether and emphasizing that out-sourcing could cost public employees their jobs and/or benefits.

On the other hand, Luttrell has pointed out that many of the county-jail jobs he eliminated after taking over as sheriff in 2002 were either patronage positions or what he termed "fill-ins" to cover chronic absenteeism under his predecessor. And he does not advocate retrenchment at all costs.

In particular, Luttrell told the group on Belvedere that he would like to see expansions in court divisions dealing with domestic violence and with intervention in drug cases. He favors legal alternatives to the incarceration of the mentally ill and stepped-up actions against "wage theft," the exploitation of workers, mainly Hispanics, by unscrupulous employers.

Many of these issues are beyond the immediate purview of the position he now seeks, which, Luttrell frankly avers, is a "weak-mayor" position. The solution to that drawback he finds in the development of "relationships" with officials in other governmental fiefdoms, something he regards himself as especially suited for.

Indeed, Luttrell is a smooth article, famously able to adjust his lingo and mood to the audience he is dealing with. In answer to a question about recent legislation in the Tennessee legislature allowing guns in bars, he sounded the right note, drawing murmurs of approval. "I want to make it clear I am not a proponent of [those] gun laws. The Wild West had it right when they had people check their guns. People who drink can get a little silly."

• The mayoral race, like many others on the August 5th ballot, could be impacted by the Democratic primary in the 9th congressional district, which matches incumbent Steve Cohen versus Willie Herenton.

Up until last week, there seemed to be no Herenton campaign to speak of — and thus no great potential for driving a Democratic vote that would boost the vote for Democrats in countywide general-election races happening the same day as primary elections for state and federal offices.

A head-on collision last week between Herenton and the local media only partly cleared up the outlook. At the encounter, held in a sparsely furnished office space on South Third that may or may not double as a campaign headquarters, Herenton displayed some new paraphernalia: caps, T-shirts, and banners bearing the slogan "Just One/Herenton," as well as a revised flyer showing the 11 members of Tennessee's congressional delegation, all white.

Previous versions of the flyer had contained misidentifications and misspellings. The new, improved version did not suffer from such lapses, but it, like its predecessors, harped on what would seem unmistakably to be the former mayor's predominant campaign theme — that at least one representative from Tennessee in Congress should be African American.

Questioning from the media revolved around former mayoral issues — prompting a remarkable admission from Herenton that he didn't "give a damn" about deficiencies during his final year at the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC) and the city's Animal Shelter. "I say it's trivial. I never made one visit. I didn't even know where MSARC was located until you guys covered it."

And he faulted successor A C Wharton for paying a visit to the Animal Shelter, calling the mayor a "disaster" and condemning in particular Wharton's decision to settle a longstanding legal standoff regarding the city's contract with Beale Street developer John Elkington.

Herenton conceded the obvious, that he had not done much campaigning. Whether he picks it up significantly remains a moot point, though he has begun making the rounds, speaking this week to a citizens' group in the Frayser/Raleigh area.

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