Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission was a textbook exercise in how an agreement can be reached across ideological, party, and even racial divides. It had as many false bottoms as Houdini's hideaway, and it finally opened out in a formula that could be both a short-term and a long-term solution to the vexing problem of school funding in Shelby County.
The marathon session, which began at about 2 p.m. and was extended until roughly 7 p.m., saw two things occur that were in short supply when the Tennessee legislature was faced with a similar situation in the last several weeks: 1) Exponents of seemingly hard and fast positions relaxed their rigidity and accepted proposals which they had pronounced as anathema; and 2) they did so at a certain political risk to themselves.
When proceedings began, Commissioners Walter Bailey, Julian Bolton, Michael Hooks, James Ford, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Bridget Chisholm took positions diametrically opposed to the raising of the county's wheel tax. As representatives of Memphis' African-American community, which is mainly working-class and has a high rate of poverty, historically, these Democratic member were well within their rights to do so.
As they pointed out, a wheel tax -- which applies the same fees to all vehicles, be they Rolls Royces or eight-year-old Chevettes -- is inherently regressive and particularly odious to residents of less well-to-do neighborhoods.
The measure at hand, proposed by Commissioner Tommy Hart, would essentially double the current wheel tax on every class of vehicle except those related to church functions. Hart initially suggested action on the wheel tax some weeks back, as a means whereby the commission could explore a funding formula more diversified is permitted by a single-minded focus on the county property tax, historically the way in which the commission has raised new revenues.
Hart and his colleague Buck Wellford have argued relentlessly that overreliance on the property tax is an injustice to people, especially the elderly, on fixed incomes. This position, too, was a legitimate one from the point of view of the two Republican commissioners and their largely middle-class, suburban home-owners.
What the property tax does offer, as an ad valorem (value-sensitive) means of taxation, is some degree of progressivity. Clearly, the owner of a $400,000 house will pay more than someone who owns a $75,000 dwelling.
The two sides each had stated their positions, which would remain fixed through several hours of debate back and forth. More or less for symbolic reasons, Wellford and Hart held back on the initial efforts to raise the property tax by 33 cents per $100 of assessed value, up from $3.53. Superintendent James Mitchell and county school board president David Pickler had earlier made the case, as they have repeatedly in recent weeks, that this increase would not go nearly far enough toward meeting the school system's immediate needs and that drastic layoffs in teaching faculty and in parts of the curriculum would occur.
Hart and Wellford essentially agreed but held out for diversification of funding.
Meanwhile, the black commissioners were equally unrelenting in opposition to a hike in the wheel tax. There was one exception in budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who early on had professed that he, too, disdained the wheel tax but that the need for proper school funding was so great that he would hold his nose and vote for the wheel-tax increase. (He got the first sustained round of applause from the roomful of mainly tax proponents for his position.)
At one point in the prolonged back-and-forth, which produced recorded votes too numerous to recall without a calculator (including that rarity on a government body, a vote to adjourn which was rejected!), the wheel tax had gained enough new proponents that only chairman Ford, whose vote is the last in a roll call to be recorded, stood between it and the nine votes it required.
But it failed, and the commission, having approved a 33-cent property tax increase, went on to other matters. An unexpected initiative from Bailey to reconsider the wheel tax opened up new possibilities, however, and, after several huddled conversations (including one in which several commissioners say one of their colleagues made an improper offer to switch his vote in return for favorable consideration on a development proposal rejected earlier), a new round of voting ensued.
The long and the short was that Wellford, Hart, and another initially reluctant commissioner, Morris Hart, not only endorsed a 33-cent property tax increase but went up to one of 43 cents. For their part, Bailey and Ford made last-minute reversals of their opposition to Hart's wheel-tax proposal. (Chisholm had earlier done so.)
Presto! A budget resolution which the county school officials pronounced almost satisfactory, particularly in light of a third proposal, offered by Wellford. This was a resolution asking Shelby County's municipalities to formally waive their rights to use any extension of the local-option sales tax for a purpose other than school funding. That could result in $50 million of new funding, which all by itself could fix the school problem permanently, Wellford said.
(Pickler had earlier pronounced the proposal "political suicide" for politicians in the municipalities to embrace but was coaxed by Wellford into a promise to campaign for the proposal with the selfsame politicians.)
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 Pickler, who -- without mentioning Rout -- condemned in an interview before Monday's meeting the "catastrophic policy" of the four-year hiatus in property-tax increases from 1994 to 1998 and the wholesale awarding of PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) prerogatives to new industries.)
There are some observers, 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 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 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" instruction 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, he has another problem on his hands.
Shelby County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, Thomas' only conceivable rival for the affections of Shelby County's arch-conservative population, 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 typecasting in the three years since her election to the commission as a spokesperson for Cordova and its dominant 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 Ford's insistence on pronouncing her name "low-full," 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 Commissioner 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 seventh vote for a 33-cent property tax increase and the ninth 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 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 Wellford, who will not run for reelection next year and is still considering a mayoral run -- makes a remarkable statement, considering that the commission 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.
You can e-mail Jackson Baker at email@example.com.
Overall Registered Voters (sample size 874 [ /-4%])
· 49% said that, as of today they lean toward Bush; 48% said Gore and 3% had no opinion.
· 42% said yes, they want Al Gore to run for president in 2004; 51% said no and 7% had no opinion.
· 5% consider Bill Clinton to be the leader of the Democratic Party; 6% said Al Gore; 3% said Hillary Rodham Clinton; 9% said Dick Gephardt; 2% said Ted Kennedy; 7% said Tom Daschle; 1% said Joe Lieberman; 6% said other; 10% said no one; 51% had no opinion.
· Democrats/Democratic Leaners (sample size 490 [ /-5%])
· 6% consider Bill Clinton to be the leader of the Democratic Party; 9% said Al Gore; 2% said Hillary Rodham Clinton; 8% said Dick Gephardt; 2% said Ted Kennedy; 6% said Tom Daschle; 1% said Joe Lieberman; 7% said Other; 10% said no one; 49% had no opinion.
· Democrats/Democratic Leaning Registered Voters · 32% said they would be most likely to support Al Gore for the Democratic nomination for President in the year 2004; 19% said Hillary Rodham Clinton; 13% said Bill Bradley; 10% said Joe Lieberman; 10% said Dick Gephardt; 7% said John Kerry; 2% said Tom Daschle; 1% said John Edwards; 1% said Joe Biden; 2% said no one; 3% had no opinion. · Gore Supporters (sample size 156)
· 36% said Hillary Rodham Clinton would be their second choice if Al Gore does not run; 20% said Dick Gephardt; 19% said Joe Lieberman; 5% said John Edwards; 3% said Bill Bradley; 5% said Joe Biden; 2% said John Kerry; 3% said Tom Daschle; 3% said other; 1% said no one; 3% had no opinion.
· ABC News/Money Magazine Poll Finds 51% Rate US Economy Positively. An ABC News/Money Magazine poll of 1,023 adults conducted in the month ending August 5, 2001 ( /-3%) found:
· 2% rate the nationÕs economy as excellent; 49% said good; 37% said not good; 12% said poor.
· 5% rate their own finances as excellent; 60% said good; 23% said not good; 12% said poor.
· 3% said it is an excellent time to buy things they want and need; 38% said good; 40% said not good; 19% said poor.
· The ABC News/Money Magazine Consumer Comfort Index now stands at 5, down from 23 at the start of the year.
What a shocker! Those of us who keep up with the sport of politics were still receiving freshly minted faxes last Friday from the gubernatorial camp of Knoxville businessman Doug Horne, all touting his scheduled appearance the next day at several Memphis venues and exhorting our presence.
Indeed, Horne's campaign people -- like campaign manager Matt Kuhn of Memphis and his deputy, Greg Wanderman of Nashville -- had delightedly anticipated the gains their man could make in the wake of presumed Democratic front-runner Phil Bredesen's adoption, the week before, of a seemingly rigid anti-tax campaign posture.
Democratic activist Steve Steffens of Memphis circulated an angry e-mail response to Bredesen along his network of party activists. It began with a lament ("I passed out stickers for this fool") and concluded with a question directed at Kuhn ("[W]here is Doug Horne on the income tax?").
There was a certifiable window of opportunity for Horne, the well-heeled former state Democratic chairman, whose support for "tax reform" (so often a euphemism for the income tax) was incontrovertible and on the record.
Then came Horne's surprise Friday afternoon announcement of withdrawal. It was short on specifics, but Horne would say -- both in an interview or two of his own and in explanations dutifully given by his two clearly crestfallen junior aides -- that he had succeeded in his earlier aim of making sure credible Democrats ran for the office and that he feared the divisiveness of a contested primary, so forth and so on.
None of it rang true. It was as stupefyingly puzzling a moment as had been the news, in 1990, of then Shelby County sheriff Jack Owen's suicide. Like the earlier event -- a far more serious one, of course -- Horne's actions defied explanation.
One of Horne's scheduled engagements on Saturday morning was an address to the Germantown Democratic Club. Like the others, it was canceled, and club president Guthrie Castle arranged a makeshift itinerary that included several speakers.
One of them was Kuhn, who began his remarks by saying wryly, "What a week!" Several days earlier, he had lost his home to a fire, then came the loss of his job. One thing he hadn't lost was his focus.
Outlining the results of a poll taken by the Horne organization which showed a majority of Tennesseans opposing an income tax, Kuhn said that his candidate believed deeply in the need for "tax reform" and had pledged to make the case for it across the length and breadth of Tennessee.
That was then, of course. Now was suddenly different. Even so, said Kuhn, any candidate for governor who denied the need for immediate tax reform (as Bredesen had explicitly done) was "irresponsible."
Three other speakers at the Germantown club meeting were Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, state Representative Carol Chumney, and state Senator Jim Kyle -- the party's declared candidates for the office of Shelby County mayor, so far.
If this amounted to an ad hoc contest between the three, all held up their ends. Byrd gave a crisp, evocative rundown of what he saw as lack of public progress in Shelby County, coupled with an ominous proliferation of governmental debt. "What we're doing is eating our seed corn," he said, likening the current county crisis over school funding to the state government's budget problems in Nashville.
Chumney followed with an energetic statement of her intentions with regard to the reconvening of the legislature this week to deal with Governor Don Sundquist's veto of the no-new-taxes budget passed last month amid crowd disturbances in and around the state capitol.
In an oblique swipe at opponent Kyle, whose duties as House-Senate conference chairman had required him to make the technical motion on behalf of that budget, Chumney said that to accept it was indefensible and vowed to stay in Nashville as long as it took ("even if I have to get a part-time job there") to get a better budget that included "tax reform."
As the third candidate to speak, Kyle had to match the performances of the other two and did so -- holding the audience of Democrats rapt as he described the fiscal emergency the state faced, one which was reciprocated at the county level, he said.
And the senator got off two zingers. Chumney had pointed out that in recent years she had worked hard for other Democrats' campaigns, including Kyle's last one for the Senate. "I thank you for helping me last time, Carol," said Kyle, "and, you know, it's not too late for you to help me this time!"
Speaking of the need he saw to take the state sales tax off food, shelter, and clothing, Kyle pointed at the always well-dressed Byrd and said, "Why, taking the sales tax off clothing would allow Harold Byrd to save half of his campaign fund!"
Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, who will not run for reelection next year, made it clear last week that he might still become a candidate for county mayor -- but only if both District Attorney General Bill Gibbons or former Memphis City Council member John Bobango decided not to run.
Former Germantown resident Dennis Berwyn, a Web master/activist who designed Internet sites for such GOP clients as 7th U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, state Senator Mark Norris, state Reps. Tre Hargett, Paul Stanley, and Larry Scroggs, as well as the Shelby County Republican Party itself, has been named special projects manager for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, now chaired by U.S. Senator Bill Frist.
GORE: He's Back And He's ... Bearded?!
Ex-VP Al Gore, who'll be "easing back into" politics by training Dem operatives and founding a PAC, "has been vacationing in Europe for several weeks and has changed his image again: he has grown a beard."
However, Gore associates said the new look "had nothing to do with politics and was unlikely to be seen" in the U.S. Gore "has promised to campaign" in NJ for Jim McGreevey and "expects to appear" for other Dems in states with mayoral elections.
These appearances and the "frequency of invitations to make them" will be an "important measure" of Gore's standing among Dems. Several associates said Gore's plans "did not commit him to running" for WH '04, although "they expected him to run."
Ex-Sen. James Sasser (TN) said that while Gore hadn't "told him his intentions": "I've always really thought that he would run. ... I've always taken it for granted. After all, he got a half million more votes than the other guy."
While in Europe, Gore has "stayed in touch with political and fund-raising associates, planning to resume political activity" (Clymer, New York Times, 8/3).
Trenton Times' Perkiss reports, Gore "will come out of political hiding" when he visits NJ to campaign for McGreevey, Dems said 8/2. Gore spokesperson Kiki McLean: "Al Gore ... wants to do what he can to help out in New Jersey." Observers "said Gore's willingness to campaign for McGreevey is an indication that he still has" WH ambitions.
UVA's Larry Sabato "This is one of the first concrete signs that Gore is considering running (for president) again." More Sabato: "Clearly this will mean more to Gore than it does to McGreevey" (8/3).
The first step in Gore's return "is running a political academy" in Nashville the week of 8/12. One "mark of the importance" attached to NJ, which Gore won by 504K votes, is that state Sen. Raymond Lesniak"will direct the school," along with Rep. Harold Ford Jr (D-TN) and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA). The other state with a gov race, VA, "may be less hospitable" to Gore, who lost it by 220K votes.
Gore's "activities this fall, and some contributions to candidates, will be financed from" a PAC formed to help Dems in the '98 elections. That PAC, Leadership '98, had $281K cash on hand on 9/30. A new PAC "will be founded after the" '01 elections, a DC associate said (Clymer, New York Times, 8/3).
...Gore "plans to help train" young Dems to help in several elections, associates say. Gore "has kept a low profile," but friends "indicate he is preparing to gradually step back into" politics in the coming months - though Gore "has given no indication" of his long-term plans. Some two dozen young Dems "will attend a weeklong workshop" in August focused on grass-roots activism, and a "bipartisan" workshop 8/11 at Vanderbilt Univ. with Gore and Gov. Lamar Alexander (R).
The young Dems will then "work with" Dem party orgs in several states - including VA, NJ and NY.
"Details were not outlined," but in '01 VA and NJ elect govs, and NY City elects a mayor. Gore associates "gave no timetable" for the appearances with McGreevey (Lester, AP, 8/2).
Familar Second Fiddle
Newsweek's Fineman, on whether Clinton's "comeback" obscures Gore: "Al Gore is so invisible that a large foot is not required to obscure him. I was just told today that he's having Camp Al down in Tennessee in a couple weeks. Twenty five young activists are going to come down to be lectured in political activism by Al Gore."
MSNBC's Matthews responds: "You know what this reminds me of? In the back of the New York Times Magazine they have the ad for the camp for the fat kids. Please send your fat kid to this camp. ... You know -- Chester will come back 20 pounds lighter as a happy kid."
Fineman: "Al Gore is slowly re-emerging on the political scene. ... It should hit its maximum around 2032, I think" ("Hardball," MSNBC, 8/1).
UPDATE: Germantown Board votes 4-0 to approve agreement.