Incumbents, particularly county courthouse incumbents, usually enter a re-election year a good leg up on any challenger. The office gives them name identification, and smart political money usually likes to stay with a winner. But County Judge John Whitting-ton is not like most incumbents, and former City Councilman Garry Weber is not like most challengers. What’s more, 1978 is not like most political years. The pundits aren’t hedging on this one: Weber is a sure bet to unseat Whitting-ton, and the reasons are simple and few.
● Money: Garry Weber is willing to spend. He spent a quarter of a million just to lose to Bob Folsom in the ’76 special mayoral election. Whit-tington raised and spent only $40,000 in his upset of Lew Sterrett in 1974: and though he says he’ll raise $100,000 for this race, many feel it won’t be enough. Weber has already raised $90,000 and could easily double that before November. Moreover, Weber has reportedly raided many of Whit-tington’s “/4 business community contributors with good success.
● Name identification: Whit-tington holds no incumbent’s advantage here: His profile in ’74 was almost nil; and though he’s built it considerably since then, he still is no match for Weber. Recent name ID polling (albeit by the Weber organization) indicates Weber holds a solid 20 percent recognition margin over the incumbent.
● Issues: There’s only one really, and it’s all Weber’s: leadership. Whittington holds up clean hands after all the funny business at the courthouse last year, but guilt by association is a fact of political life. After all. Judge Whittington was supposed to be in charge there. That fact is not lost on Weber, who apparently will keep the issues broad and vague, avoiding specific reform proposals such as county-manager government. Specifics could only get Weber in trouble, especially with Roy Orr- an ally he will need during the campaign. Whitting-ton. For his part, will be forced to run on his record, which is neither bad nor good. Which can be worse than bad.
● Political climate: It’s unpredictable as always, but the absence of a presidential race, and the prospect of a strong Democratic challenge to Senator John Tower, will cut down severely on conservative Democratic crossover voting. That will hurt Republican Whitting-ton, particularly in rural areas of the county. More important, Weber can appear to be a reform candidate without actually talking reform. This is a strategy Whittington himself used to unseat Sterrett in ’74. This time around, though, he will be in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible.
We’re not sure it’s necessarily an omen, but barely half an hour after Garry Weber announced his bid for the county judgeship. We tried to reach incumbent opponent John Whit-tington at his courthouse office for his comments. The phone rang once, twice, and then intoned. “I’m sorry, but the number you have dialed is no longer in service …”