Wednesday, April 19, 2006

My Dinner With John Willingham

... and other fun things from the Main Street Journal County Candidate Mixer. Mick Wright, their blogger, had invited me to join him, so I thank him and the other fine folks from MSJ that I met: Jon, Mike, Ruth and Chuck.

Basically a lot of candidates for various County offices -- judges, Sheriff and County Commission -- met at the Butcher Shop with a lot of press folks for an open ended Q&A session with alcohol. I recognised some marquee faces (AC Wharton, John Willingham, Bill Gibbons, etc.) but most of the candidates were unknown quantities for me.

I really had no idea of my role until I noticed how candidates would twig to my having a website, which meant PRESS! Sometimes I came off really lame, like talking with John Harvey of Voting in Memphis, whom I mistakenly thought was still a candidate. I have a feeling I impressed him as a twerp. But he had a plan for saving the County Jail millions in feeding prisoners that sounded interesting. I hope to follow up on that soon. He also hinted at some stories coming in the CA at the end of the month that would have "national" (his word) impact. We'll see.

Other times I was pretty sharp, like with Mike Rude, candidate for County Commission District 1, Position 1. He was revved up with energy and drive in his quest for his seat. I was impressed that his answers to my questions were decisive but not canned-sounding. When I asked what his first priority was once elected he immediately replied with "freezing property taxes for seniors." He also wants to re-examine our PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program with an eye to seeing who is in compliance and deserving of continued tax relief. It was a pleasure to meet a "citizen" running for office and kind of uplifting, too. I wanted to ask him about the County budget but we got swept apart.

Various other reactions: Tonya Saafir seemed a very together woman (candidate for Criminal Court Judge, Division 1) with a clear purpose and some sympathy for defendants in her future courtroom. She seemed to have a social conscience side, but also was dedicated to the law.

Regina Newman (candidate for General Session Judge, Division 4) seemed to be enjoying herself hugely and was quick with a laugh. She has a self-admitted long history of political campaigning, and watching her talking with Rude about election day jitters was fun for me.

Joe Townsend (candidate for County Commissioner, District 5) seemed a bit too pre-occupied on not being Joe Cooper but was otherwise pleasant and professional.

A couple of folks, who I won't name, just rubbed me wrong. One, running for a judgeship, seemed just a bit to "good ol' boy (or girl)" gleeful at putting away "creeps." The kind of person who would volunteer to pull the switch, if you understand me. Another struck me as political perennial, someone who runs for office but with no discernable purpose in mind other than "elect me." He pointed to his campaign slogan on his flyer as though being printed made it true. He wasn't Mary Taylor Shelby weird, but kind of amiably oblivious.

I got to ask Attorney General Bill Gibbons about the raid he and the County deputies did about 18 months ago in my complex. His answer was very polished, pretty much avoiding substance. He ended up reminding me to call the County sheriffs or his office if problems didn't get better. I sorta understand that (he was at a presser being bothered about something old and, for him in the media, successful) but it was also annoying.

Joe Cooper was there, I'm told, but I didn't spot him, so I didn't get to ask him about the Kia his campaign seems to have bought from his car lot, nor the whole "stolen by a homeless man" story from the other day. Too bad; I had joked with Mick that that would be the thing that got me ejected from the event.

I saw George Flinn, who looked at me and my badge kinda absently before moving along. I regret not grabbing him. He didn't stay long; nor did AC, who mostly glad-handed his brief visit. It was enlightening watching his rock-star like presence.

Mostly I wandered about, watching the real pros at work. No television I saw, but reporters from the CA, the Flyer and some County papers. And of course Mick. Check the MSJ blog for his interviews and report.

Afterwards, there was a small dinner for the MSJ folks and several others. One was Larry Thomas, of the County Sheriff's office. There were a couple of women whose connection to people there I couldn't fathom. They spent the evening talking with each other almost exclusively. Weird East Shelby County socialite types, I'm guessing.

The big guest was County Commissioner John Willingham! He was kinda grumbly but an entertaining dinner companion. He got prodded into talking about some FedEx Forum stuff, and about the sell-off of the Fairgrounds and some of its parts. He made an excellent point about where the money raised for selling off City assets in the Pyramid and from the Fairground's Carousel would go. Where, you ask? Who knows!

But he also was pretty knowledgeable about the classic American songbook. The background music sparked off and on discussion about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra and others. And, of course, Elvis stories from everyone.

It's my closest brush yet with Real Power Brokers (other than some folks at the Election Commission when I worked there) and it was nice to see I didn't fall into Cringing Goofus mode.

I was, however, pretty much the wide-eyed boy sitting at the grownup's table, but I enjoyed myself immensely. And I had a killer steak from The Butcher Shop. I asked for "as rare as you can serve it" and by gum I got a true, rare steak! Very tasty as served, just the in-house rub and the flavor of the grill. Gooooooood.

So I made it through my political debut evening without embarrassing myself or anyone else, though with minimal impact. There were a few folks who claimed to have heard of my blog but, other than Mike Rude who proved it by talking about my cat posts, I think most were just being polite. Which I expected. I'm well aware that 99.9% of Memphis has no clue who I am.

I had a brief encounter with THE MAN HIMSELF, Jackson Baker, that I'll tell tomorrow when the picture comes in.

I also had a brief conversation with Jon, the MSJ publisher and editor, that might lead to me contributing to them. Sweet! I made sure he knew that I'm a Libertarian, as well as conservative, but he said that as long as I didn't advocate Free Love on his site we were fine.

I'll end this with a quote from the refrigerator magnet that Willingham passed out to everyone:
I Believe

If you don't believe you can,
you won't.
If you always wonder if you should,
You will never know if you could.
if you never ever try,
you will forever wonder why?
What could have been
but never was
is because you didn't try.

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