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VOL. 122 | NO. 121 | Friday, June 29, 2007

Morris Field Director Seizes Opportunity With Clinton Camp

By Andy Meek

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For years, she'd courted local votes for candidates running for everything from the Shelby County Commission to Memphis mayor to the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, opportunity knocked - loudly.

Liz Rincon, a political activist who several weeks ago was the field director for Herman Morris' mayoral campaign, departed for her newest gig, set amidst the farmland and corn patches of rural Iowa. That's where she's putting in a fair amount of 12-hour days working as a regional field organizer for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid.

Her last day with the Morris camp - Morris, being the former head of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division - was May 31.

Working out of Clinton's field office in Iowa City, a college town that hugs the Iowa River, her new mission is to persuade Iowa voters, approaching them in coffeehouses, around kitchen tables, at local fairs and the like, to participate in that state's coming caucus.

"She's a political junkette," said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, by phone from his Washington office. Rincon worked as field director for Cohen's congressional campaign last year.

"She loves politics. She loves the nitty gritty. And I hope to have her come back and work for me again."

A spot to fill

Rincon's Memphis departure, meanwhile, created an opening for Morris insiders to continue something they've done from the outset of his mayoral run. Namely, they've added yet another politico with broad name recognition to that campaign's high-profile roster.

Chaired by civil rights icon and former judge Russell Sugarmon, Morris' campaign recently tapped a new field director to replace Rincon. He's consultant Kevin Gallagher, a former assistant to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton Jr., as well as the manager of Cohen's successful campaign last year for his Ninth Congressional District seat and an unsuccessful candidate himself in the recent election for the State House District 89 seat.

"Liz had a chance to go work for Hillary Clinton, and that's a great opportunity for her," said Memphis attorney John Ryder, Morris' campaign co-manager. "And, fortunately, Kevin was able to pick up where she left off."

That rotation in the Morris camp - both Rincon's invitation to work for Clinton and the hire of Gallagher - is emblematic of something Morris has, in not so many words, made clear all along. He's in the race to win, a fact that obviously necessitates his bringing such top-level talent on board.

Meanwhile, Rincon's new job is getting Iowa voters to participate in the state's caucus, which is regarded as a candidate's first real test in the presidential nominating process.

Other states hold traditional primary elections to winnow down the field of candidates. The Iowa caucus is more of a neighborhood gathering, generally held in each of the state's voting precincts. Leading contenders emerge from Iowa with support that can then catapult them to prominence in statewide primaries that follow.

"The people here will open up their homes when you meet with them and even invite you to sit down and have some lunch around the kitchen table," said Rincon, who still keeps an apartment in Memphis. "From the farming community to the academic community, people here are engaged in the process and like their politics up close and personal."

A known name

Gallagher is certainly a well-known commodity, via everything from his involvement in civic organizations to his political activism and his years in county government in Wharton's office.

"(The Morris campaign) hired me as a consultant to set up a field operation," said Gallagher, who, incidentally, hired Rincon to be field director in Cohen's 2006 congressional race. "We did one with Steve Cohen's race, where we got several volunteers and college students who can devote a lot of time and effort to the campaign."

Gallagher continued: "Whether it's knocking on doors or working at an event or making phone calls, we're training these guys on just about every aspect of a campaign so they know why we're doing what it is we're doing."

Gallagher had just wrapped up his run for the state House seat when Rincon packed for Iowa. He lost the Democratic primary for that District 89 seat to Jeanne Richardson, who will face Republican Dave Wicker Jr. in the July 17 general election.

Now, he's spending his time preparing to deploy a volunteer force to campaign for Morris.

"I want a real presence of the campaign to be felt throughout the community, more than just the TV and media and things like that that will happen," Gallagher said. "This will be a more personal effort on the part of the campaign because Herman Morris has got a great personal story. He really personifies what you hope to see out of Memphis - someone from a poor neighborhood and public schools who can become very successful."

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