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VOL. 130 | NO. 115 | Monday, June 15, 2015

Chism Political Picnic Offers Pre-Campaign Snapshot

By Bill Dries

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Memphis mayoral contender Jim Strickland saw a face he didn’t recognize Saturday, June 13, in the southwest Memphis crowd at former County Commissioner Sidney Chism’s annual political picnic.

So with a bundle of campaign literature in hand, he approached the man, stuck out his right hand and said, “I’m Jim Strickland, and I’m running for mayor.”

Mayoral contender Harold Collins, center, was among the candidates Saturday putting in time at the annual political picnic in southwest Memphis hosted by former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, left.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“I’m running for mayor too,” said Leo Awgowhat, a perennial contender for city and county mayor over several election cycles.

Some of those at Chism’s annual picnic weren’t running in this year’s Memphis elections. But few were civilians with no political track record of at least working in a campaign or two. Some had run in the 2014 elections.

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton brought a 2006 newspaper clipping with him touting a $20 million city government surplus.

Just about all of the several hundred adults who turned out under the shade trees at 3657 Horn Lake Road were at least working in campaigns.

The picnic featured a petting zoo and a kiddie train as well as free food and drink and a snapshot of local political culture just before the campaigns for City Council, mayor and City Court clerk are expected to go public in a big way next month.

The candidates and their partisans will surface after several years in which ballot questions – including suburban school districts, wine in food stores, and state constitutional amendments on abortion and judicial selection – have competed for the attention of uncommitted voters.

So far there are no referendums on the Oct. 8 Memphis ballot.

The local Democratic Party’s table near the picnic entrance featured a variety of “Hillary Clinton for President” buttons the same day Clinton made a new push for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination on Roosevelt Island, N.Y.

Chism addressed the local party’s recent discord and poor showing in 2014 county elections.

Republicans won every countywide race in the elections except the race for Shelby County Assessor.

Chism was reprimanded by the local party last year for backing Republican incumbent Sheriff Bill Oldham over Democratic challenge Bennie Cobb.

“You ought to be smart enough to know that the people in this country are in the middle,” Chism said from the stage, where each candidate got three minutes to make their pitch.

Strickland framed the election as a “unique opportunity” to change Memphis.

Del Gill, one of the local party leaders in the move to censure Chism, later sent out an email referring to the picnic as “the Benedict Arnold picnic.”

Back at the picnic, Awgowhat pushed for the legalization of marijuana, promising an economic boost from the legalized pot industry.

“Bam. It’s all taken care of,” he said of City Hall’s financial problems.

Some candidates handed out campaign flyers and push cards detailing their records and bios, but many came with no literature yet.

Fellow Memphis City Council member Harold Collins, who is also among the October challengers to incumbent Mayor A C Wharton Jr., campaigned without them, heading for a pavilion where most of the politically unconnected attendees were watching the campaign work.

Among the first to set up a tent at the Chism picnic was former County Commissioner Joe Cooper, who is running for City Council after an eight-year hiatus from seeking office. During that time, he served a six-month federal prison term for money-laundering conspiracy – the second prison term in a political career that began on the Shelby County Commission in the 1970s.

Cooper is one of 11 potential contenders for the Super District 9 Position 2 seat, which incumbent Shea Flinn announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election too. It’s the largest potential field for any of the 13 council races so far. But only two of the 11 have filed so far. The filing deadline is July 17.

City Council member Janis Fullilove, who is seeking re-election, touted her rapport with constituents.

“I am the fabulous one,” Fullilove said. “I’m here for you 24 hours a day. Just ask my husband. He gets upset.”

Fullilove has been a vocal critic of Wharton but said the council races on the ballot are more important in terms of setting city policy and the direction of city government.

“I don’t care who you vote for for mayor,” she added.

The newest political contender in the crowd, Shep Wilbun, pulled a petition in the race for City Court clerk late last week, following incumbent Thomas Long’s announcement that he would not run for re-election.

Wilbun is a former Juvenile Court clerk, Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Council member.

“A lot of people came to me,” Wilbun said. “A lot of folks had committed to the race before me. I will see if I can put a team together.”

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