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VOL. 124 | NO. 140 | Monday, July 20, 2009

Democrats Squabble Over Mayoral Choices, Backing

By Bill Dries

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GROUPTHINK: Local Democratic Party executive committee member Del Gill is pushing for a Democratic convention to back a candidate in the coming special election for Memphis mayor. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Shelby County Democratic Party leaders are considering weighing in on the coming special election for Memphis mayor.

Local party chairman Van Turner Jr. solicited opinions from members of the party’s executive committee last week at the group’s monthly meeting. The options include a straw poll or some kind of party-sponsored forum for the candidates.

One committee member, Del Gill, is calling for a Democratic convention in late August to back a candidate.

“This would be a fairer way, I think, of ferreting out who’s really serious about earning support of the Shelby County Democratic Party,” Gill said. “It makes no difference that this is a nonpartisan race.”

Back and forth

But the idea drew immediate opposition from other Democrats.

“I think Dell is trying to relive 1991,” said Roy Thompson, referring to the 1991 People’s Convention held in advance of that year’s race for Memphis mayor and designed to select a consensus black challenger to incumbent mayor Dick Hackett. “It will split this party. It will not be good for this city.”

Gill said a convention would not be racially exclusive as the ground rules were for the 1991 gathering at the Mid-South Coliseum.

“There will be no one barred based on their skin color or what they look like,” Gill said. “The only people barred will be those participating in a Republican primary in 2008.”

Nate Jackson estimated 80 percent of the executive committee members are already aligned with one of the dozen or so prospective candidates.

“Nine times out of 10, none of those candidates are going to get out of the race. And nine times out of 10, everybody on the executive committee is going to wind up supporting the candidate they are supporting right now,” Jackson said. “I’ve already selected me a candidate. I do care what the party does. But in a nonpartisan race, I’m going to get out and help the candidate that I feel is best to help run this city.”

Jackson said Gill and other proponents of a convention should “face reality.”

“You already know who the frontrunner is right now – Wharton,” Jackson said, referring to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. Several Democrats in the crowd responded by saying, “No.”

Tax platform

Meanwhile, the idea of whittling the field of potential candidates is surfacing elsewhere.

Last week, Wharton met privately with Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, who has already declared his candidacy in the special election.

Harvey said the meeting didn’t change his mind, at least for now, about running. And Harvey said he was unimpressed by Wharton’s pitch in a report on The Daily News blog, http://blog.memphisdailynews.com.

That and other reports prompted Wharton to issue a statement late Thursday saying he is meeting with “candidates and non-candidates alike – to share my plans and vision for the future prosperity of the city.”

“At no point during any of my talks and conversations, however, have I asked any individual to not enter the Memphis mayor’s race or to leave the race if they have already committed to run,” Wharton said. “Also, I have not offered any candidate or any business or community leader anything other than an opportunity to share in my hopeful vision for our great city.”

Turner said he will announce what, if any, involvement the local party will have in the special election after July 30, when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to leave office.

The discussion came after mayoral candidate Charles Carpenter spoke to the group in what has been an aggressive start to his bid formally announced a week and a half ago.

Carpenter drew a distinction between calls for city and county government consolidation and more recent efforts to change which local government funds what program or function.

“We will talk about equity in taxation. It is totally unfair for the residents of the city of Memphis to bear the cost for all of our infrastructure, for all our hospitals, for all of the things that everyone outside of the city enjoys but don’t pay for. That’s not right,” Carpenter said to applause from the crowd of around 100 at a Midtown union hall.

“We have not had a discussion about that yet because of the personalities involved. … Consolidation is no panacea. It may not be the solution to our problems. The solution is tax equity.”

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