Thursday, August 16, 2001

ON THE MAYORAL FRONT

ON THE MAYORAL FRONT

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Opinions differ as to why Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout chose not to run for reelection next year. Rout himself offered "family" considerations as the predominant ones. Some maintain that the mayor simply recognized the enormity of the county's long-term fiscal dilemma and wanted no more of it. (Some measure of how volatile that consideration might be came from county school board president David Pickler, who -- without mentioning Rout -- had, in an interview before Monday’s county commission meeting, condemned the "catastrophic results" of a four-year hiatus in property tax increases -- from 1994 to 1998-- and the wholesale awarding of PILOT -- i.e., payment-in-lieu-of-taxs -- prerogatives to new industries.) There are those, too, who maintain that Rout had consulted polls which showed him losing in 2002 to a high-profile Democratic nominee. Word comes from the mayor's camp that the latter was not the case, that such polls as had been commissioned and analyzed by the mayor showed Rout overcoming any of several likely Democratic opponents by a 4- or 5-point margin. Of course, that's the usual spread assigned to the margin of error in most polls. * Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas has made a point lately of advertising his availability for the office of Shelby County Mayor. Shortly before Rout's announcement of non-candidacy last month, hints of his interest in running were communicated from sources that were anonymous but clearly close to Thomas. The Probate clerk's prominent -- and early -- presence at Rout's announcement ceremony, while a neutral fact in and of itself, compounded speculation about Thomas' plans. So it was no surprise that Thomas announced the official creation of an exploratory committee last week. In his appearance Saturday before the arch-conservative regulars at the Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe on Park Avenue, Thomas styled himself a "total conservative" (i.e., in both the fiscal and social senses), and therein lies his dilemma. With the voting population of Shelby County split so visibly right down the middle between Republicans (mostly white) and Democrats (mostly black), a premium is necessarily placed on a candidate's ability to capture cross-over votes. Thomas indicated his awareness of that when, faced with a question from the Dutch Treat audience about the school funding issue, he gave a reply that closed no doors. But he will stay reasonably close to his ideological base -- both for strategic and ideological reasons. Still in his '30s, Thomas is something of a a true believer, a Golden Boy of the Right. For years he backed the presidential ambitions of Pat Buchanan, as an example, and, during his tenure on the Memphis school board, as he recounted Saturday, he was an outspoken advocate for the idea of "moral" instructon in the public schools. Not only might his orientation (which Thomas and his supporters would prefer to see as adherence to principle) restrict his natural constituency, but he has another problem on his hands. Marilyn Loeffel, Thomas's only conceivable rival for the affections of Shelby County's ultra-conservative populaton, is herself still thinking of a mayoral race. Moreover, Thomas' professions of interest had not, as of last week, anyhow, dissuaded her from such thoughts. Clearly, the presence of both Loeffel and Thomas in next year's Republican primary would seem to nullify the hopes of either, in that a dual candidacy would clearly fracture the common ideological base of support. Loeffel, however, thinks that she has outgrown such type-casting in the three years since her election to the commission as a spokesperson for Cordova and its predominant streak of conservative populism. "The opportunity to serve on a body that considers the point of view of all segments is a broadening experience," Loeffel maintained recently. "You begin to see things from other people's perspectives, and you have to keep in mind what serves the greater interests of the community." That sounds like the rhetoric of a candidate who thinks she can escape her political label well enough to capture middle-of-the-road votes. She, after all, is a woman, and recent elections -- particularly judicial ones -- have seemed to demonstrate that there is a women's voting bloc significantly greater than the number of voters who have a knee-jerk aversion to a woman's serving in office. But her voting record on the commission may serve to limit her voter potential as severely as Thomas' ideological pronouncements might limit his. Loeffel has become so predictable a "No" vote on fiscal issues that every new utterance of the N-word, coupled with a characteristic bob of the head, seems to be a video replay of the all the ones that have gone before. And Chairman James Ford's insistence on pronouncing her name "low-ful," instead of the correct "lef-ful," which he must have heard several hundred times, may be at least a sidewise indication that something about her doesn't dig as deeply into public consciousness as a mainstream candidate would need to. * A sleeper candidate -- but one who, on the strength of his recent achievements, should be taken seriously -- is county commissioner Tommy Hart, who has confided to friends and colleagues his interest in becoming county mayor. Asked about his current intentions after Monday’s commission meeting, Hart at first attempted dismissive rhetoric. "Would somebody who had just taken the lead in doubling the wheel tax and who was the 7th vote for a 33-cent property tax increase and the 9th vote for a 43-cent increase be seriously thinking of running for mayor?" He then went into the "I-have-no-plans. . ." mode of potential candidates who have not yet finalized their "plans" but are known to be in dead earnest. Acknowledging as much, Hart said at length that he had yet to decide but that, indeed, he thought he had something to contribute and might end up making the race. His interest -- along with Loeffel’s and that of another commission colleague, Buck Wellford, who will not run for reelection next year but is still considering a mayoral run -- makes a remarkable statement, considering that the commission, in raising both the county property tax and the wheel tax to help fund education, has just made one of the most controversial decisions on a pocketbook issue in local political history. Maybe it's arguable that, as Hart and Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kyle (who as a state senator was in the middle of several legislative controversies) maintain, someone willing to take a stand and demonstrate leadership will gain rather than lose from it. We may yet get to test that thesis.

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