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VOL. 124 | NO. 121 | Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Weekend Events Draw Politicians in Droves

By Bill Dries

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WARDROBE ISSUE: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, left, took a few playful jabs at the “Cohen for Congress” T-shirt Steve Steffens was wearing at County Commissioner Sidney Chism’s weekend political gathering. Herenton referred to the Cohen shirt as a “loser T-shirt.” -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Before candidates take their quests for elected office to the public, they usually give them a road test before other politicos – allies and adversaries – to see if this is really what they want to do for the next year or so.

A lot of that was in evidence this past weekend among Democrats eyeing races on the 2010 ballot as well as the 2011 city election ballot.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s first stop of the uber political weekend was a fundraiser for the local Democratic Party at Hattiloo Theater.

Herenton didn’t make any pitch for the 2010 Democratic congressional primary.

Instead, he offered a sort of political benediction.

“Congratulations on victory, even before they get here,” he said to the group of nearly 100 Democrats.

Sniffing the air

Democratic candidates for governor Roy Herron of Dresden and Ward Cammack of Nashville were at the event.

There were several near candidates as well.

Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd, who called off his 2002 bid in the Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor at the filing deadline, said he hasn’t yet decided on running in 2010.

“Yes, I do have political aspirations,” said County Commissioner James Harvey.

The next day he confirmed his intentions to run for Memphis mayor in 2011 with three large placards at fellow commissioner Sidney Chism’s annual political picnic in southwest Memphis. The placards asked “Who Should Be Mayor?” and listed the choices as “James Harvey vs. A.C. Wharton.”

“They are not campaign signs. It’s basically a campaign notice. I’m putting a notice to the community that there are other options, other than A C Wharton,” Harvey told The Daily News. “I think the bench of black leadership is very thin. I want to expand the bench and be competitive.”

“I appreciate him helping me get my name out,” Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. responded when asked about the sign. “Tell him to get it right, though. There’s no periods after A and C.”

Tough talk

Like Wharton, Herenton came to the picnic with no campaign literature, signs or T-shirts. But he was more aggressive, spotting a Cohen supporter in a Cohen campaign shirt. As he walked onto the picnic grounds, Herenton referred to it jokingly as a “loser T-shirt.”

“I wish all of you well, except one candidate,” Herenton told the crowd weighted heavily with politicians active, inactive and prospective. “That’s the one that’s running against me. I don’t wish him well.”

Cohen showed up shortly after Herenton left.  And he minimized Herenton’s presence in the race.

“If I have an opponent or don’t have an opponent, the issue is Steve Cohen and how I do in my district,” Cohen said. “It’s really not the opposition, it’s me.”

OPPOSING SIDES: Candidates for governor Kim McMillan of Clarksville, left, and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons chatted during a picnic over the weekend. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Herenton, talking with reporters before Cohen arrived, agreed to a point.

“I believe that I have a better grasp of urban issues than the incumbent,” he said.

Herenton’s supporters, including Chism, have said a black candidate should be elected to the congressional seat because there are no black members of Congress in the Tennesseee delegation and the 9th District is majority African-American.

“No one is going to convince me at this point in time that the Tennessee delegation is a reflection of a representative democracy,” Herenton said when asked whether those kinds of comments amount to bringing the politics of race into the election.

“It is easy for me as an observer to submit that Steve Cohen played a race card when he entered this race,” Herenton said. “He knew full well that the African-American community would be divided. There would be numerous candidates. He strategically entered this race.”

Tweet for tat

Meanwhile, there was a bit of partisan political jostling via the social networking site Twitter as Shelby County legislators returned home to their districts after the fractious first half of the two-year legislative session in Nashville. The session ended with a last-minute attempt by Republicans in both chambers to make drastic changes to Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget that Democrats turned back.

Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis tweeted, “Can’t recall being this tired after a session. My batteries in real need of recharging.”

Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville responded with a tweet reading, “That’s because you wasted more energy trying to be so difficult all the time. I have never felt better or more energized.”

At Chism’s picnic, Kyle responded, saying, “If you have to be disagreeable to protect Pre-K (education funding) and you have to be disagreeable for the West Tennessee megasite to be built, I’ll be disagreeable.”

The “megasite” is a 1,700-acre tract of land near Interstate 40 in Haywood County that Bredesen wants to market as a major manufacturing site including a 20-acre solar energy “farm” or plant.

Kyle is weighing a bid in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor.

“I’m going to take a deep breath, take a break for a couple of weeks and talk to folks and see where we are. I’m awfully tired. We’ve had a hard year,” Kyle told The Daily News.

Already declared Democratic candidates for governor Kim McMillan of Clarksville and Mike McWherter of Jackson were at the picnic, as was Republican candidate for governor and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

Local Democratic Party chairman Van Turner announced a goal of leaving no Republican state legislator in Shelby County unopposed in the 2010 general elections.

“We want to make them work. We want to make them spend money on those races,” he told the group of around 100 at the Hattiloo Theater fundraiser for the local party.

The goal would end an informal agreement that both parties have had in recent years of not actively fielding challengers to the other party’s incumbents in the Legislature.

Crowded field

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary contest for Probate Court clerk is generating the most candidates, if not the most attention.

Clay Perry, an administrator for the Shelby County Commission, was the first Democratic contender to declare. He’s bringing in Grammy award winner Dave Hollister, formerly of the R&B quartet Blackstreet, for a backyard fundraiser later this month.

Assistant county attorney and longtime Democratic Party activist Danny Kail is about to open his campaign headquarters.

And Anita Hamilton, a 34-year employee of the clerk’s office who is currently administrator, is also running in her first bid for elected office.

Republican incumbent Chris Thomas is not seeking re-election and intends to run for Shelby County Commission.

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