Convicted felon and disgraced former state Sen. Ward Crutchfield will neither confirm nor deny rumors of an attempted comeback five years after he was swept up in the Tennessee Waltz public corruption sting.
Finished with a sentence of six months' home detention and two years' probation that ended in 2010, the once-powerful Chattanooga Democrat won't answer one of the juiciest political questions in town.
Will he run for City Council in March?
"A lot of people would like to know," the 83-year-old said with a reedy laugh at a local Democratic gathering last week. "I'm getting calls from all over.
"I'm not trying to be funny," he said, "but that's all I'm going to say about it right now."
Two years removed from open-heart surgery, Crutchfield navigates salad bars instead of the steak dinners he enjoyed as a state senator. He's the lingering ghost of a bygone era, a shadow of the cigar-chewing political bull he once was.
A try at resurrection would follow perhaps the most epic tumble in Chattanooga political history.
But experts and potential opponents point to Crutchfield's steady flow of donations to campaigns, increased visibility at political events and a reluctance to state his intentions as signals of his re-emergence as a Democratic insider and possible candidate.
"People tell me he's running to maintain relevance," said Chris Anderson, a candidate in the 2013 race for Chattanooga's newly redrawn 7th City Council District, where Crutchfield owns a home. "People say he wants to be back in power."
Crutchfield's still-active campaign account shows a balance of $145,809, according to disclosures filed in July. Officials said he could use the money in a City Council bid.
In the last four years, Crutchfield has donated $20,000 to various organizations and candidates, including $4,650 to the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
"I have no comment on Ward," said county Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith, a close friend of Crutchfield's.
Smith said he's concentrating only on state and national elections in November.
"I'm not talking about anything in the city elections," he said. "Those are after November."
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Whether Crutchfield legally can return to the public sphere is another question. Reforms passed because of the Tennessee Waltz investigation included a 2007 law that appears to prevent politicians convicted of corruption from running for office again, but attorneys say he could challenge the law.
His fall from grace was precipitous.
Among other roles before his political demise, Crutchfield served as Senate majority leader, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and attorney for the Hamilton County Board of Education.
But the longtime state senator's lengthy legislative career ended in 2007 after he pleaded guilty to bribery for accepting a $3,000 "gratuity" in office.
The money was Crutchfield's reward for shepherding a bill that would have benefited E-Cycle, a fictitious recycling company created by the FBI.
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said obvious questions of public integrity would define a Crutchfield campaign.
"A comeback," Oppenheimer said, "is really dicey."
State law says any elected official who commits a felony involving his or her official capacity "shall be forever disqualified from qualifying for, seeking or holding any public office in this state," including city and county posts.
"The bill was aimed at any SOB that disgraced his office," said former state Rep. Frank Buck, a Democrat and lead sponsor of the relevant legislation. "I didn't give a damn who it was, Democrat or Republican, past or future."
But Jerry Summers, a Democrat and former Hamilton County Election Commission attorney, said Crutchfield could challenge the law's use of the word "forever." A judge restored the former lawmaker's voting rights in September 2010, and Summers said Crutchfield could make a legal argument that those rights extend to running for public office.
"There is a question of interpretation," Summers said.
The office of the state attorney general declined to comment.
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Crutchfield's health also could be a roadblock. He avoided jail time in the bribery case after his wife and a doctor testified in federal court about his diabetes, his enlarged prostate and a heart condition that required a pacemaker and later led to surgery.
One possible rival described it as "funny" that Crutchfield was too sick for jail in 2008, but potentially well enough to run for office in 2013.
"I'm constantly out and about in meetings, moving around, meeting people," said City Councilman Manny Rico, the 66-year-old District 7 incumbent who is seeking re-election next year.
"Ward can sit in that seat like he did in Nashville and vote 'yes' or 'no,' but he could not physically do the rest of my job."
The qualifying deadline for City Council is Dec. 20.
"I'm doing well, feeling fine," Crutchfield said. "You'll hear a lot out of me later."