Friday, February 15, 2002

Flinn's In (Again)

A successful eccentric tests waters that are turning turbulent for the GOP.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 15, 2002 at 4:00 AM

George Flinn, a radiologist and media magnate who has made a career of bucking various establishments and profiting thereby, is targeting yet another establishment -- that of the Shelby County Republican Party -- and expects, against all odds, to end up the winner again.

Flinn, who based his thriving medical practice on confronting and challenging the city's medical establishment, will file a petition this Friday to run in the GOP primary for county mayor.

His action ends a period of back-and-forthing in which Flinn first sought the Republican hierarchy's blessing and was spurned, then considered an independent run, then finally resolved to take on state Representative Larry Scroggs, one of the best-liked and best-respected people in local politics and the candidate who has the unmistakable stamp of approval from his party's leadership.

Why would he do such a thing, and how does he think he can get away with it?

His answer to the first question goes like this: "I've been a Memphian for over 50 years, and I've been watching things from the sidelines. It's really no secret that people don't think they're getting their money's worth from government. Most people don't hear the voice of leadership in the people who have so far announced for county mayor. That's why I'm stepping forth."

And, as a political and governmental neophyte, his answer to the second question goes like this: "I've built a successful medical practice and successful radio and TV stations from the ground up. I've got the ability to lead and work with people. The fact is, I get into situations all the time where I don't know the facts to start with, but my medical training has prepared me to locate the root problems, make a diagnosis, and find a solution."

As for Scroggs, who was the end result of a desperate search by the local Republican hierarchy to find a plausible and politically experienced candidate willing to run this year, Flinn says, "I've met Larry Scroggs twice, and I find him likable and sincere. I'm sure he knows government, especially at the state level, but the fact is, we need some fresh eyes."

Flinn offered his own eyes -- and the rest of his somewhat Mr. Peeperish countenance -- to the Republicans last fall when preferred candidates like District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, former city councilman John Bobango, and ex-Memphis Redbirds president Allie Prescott all turned down entreaties to run.

To his dismay, Flinn's offer of himself was not met with immediate acceptance from local Republican chairman Alan Crone, veteran GOP strategist John Ryder, or any of the other party eminences who were then leading the hunt for a candidate. As a newcomer, he was asked to consider making a race for state representative instead.

Flinn simmered for a while, then went through a period of indecisiveness. Just before the New Year, he filed a petition to run in the Republican primary, thought better of it, withdrew the petition, and began a rethinking of his situation. For a while, he thought he might run as an independent but eventually decided that, to have even a theoretical chance of winning a countywide campaign, he needed the party infrastructure.

Hence his filing this week. "I believe that a major party is the right vehicle to address the problems of Shelby County," he says, "and I'm a Republican by nature, a believer in getting the most out of government for the least expense." He adds, meaningfully, "But you can find the Old Guard in both parties, and I would appeal to Democrats and independents, too."

Some Republicans may question that ecumenical streak. One of Flinn's potential handicaps as a Republican candidate is that his son Shea Flinn, now a freshly credentialed lawyer, ran as a Democratic candidate for the legislature only two years ago. "I don't see that as a problem," Flinn says. "People understand that different generations see the same things differently."

A tendency to see things differently manifests itself in every aspect of George Flinn's career. A medical colleague who supports Scroggs talked last week of how Flinn's tendency not to "gel" with establishments led him first to start a radiology practice that, in effect, was in direct competition with hospital-based procedures and, later, to become an innovator in the science of ultrasound technology, an area in which he holds several lucrative patents.

His patents and his practice have made Flinn wealthy (enough so to have helped establish the 38 broadcast stations he owns nationwide), and, ironically, he has certain advantages over his more orthodox -- and politically better-known -- GOP opponent. Flinn, who will hold conventional fund-raisers, starts the race with somewhere between $250,000 and half a million of his own money ready to go.

Rep. Scroggs, who raised $100,000 recently, is prohibited by state law from active fund-raising while the legislature is in session. Differing measures to abolish such restrictions have passed both houses of the General Assembly but still await reconciliation in committee. Gamely, Scroggs, a conscientious legislator with committee responsibilities and bills under way, vows to keep a promise to serve through the current spring session.

Flinn has used his money to engage a high-priced consultant, Tom Pardue of Atlanta, who helped Sen. Bill Frist win his first victory in 1994 against then-incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser. Businessman/pol Karl Schledwitz, who has been associated with Democrat Sasser for a quarter century, remembers Pardue bitterly as a "hatchet man," but Flinn promises to run a "highly positive" campaign.

He'll have help locally from several out-of-the-loop Republicans -- one of whom, Dr. Phil Langsdon, is a former two-term GOP chairman who, moreover, came to power in 1991 as the champion of Republican have-nots versus the haves of that era.

Langsdon, a facial plastic surgeon who disavows any political ambitions of his own (but was known to have been interested in running for Congress if Ed Bryant's 7th District seat had opened up this year) will serve as Flinn's campaign manager and professes excitement at the prospect. "He's got a fresh outlook and real ability," says Langsdon. "He's going to surprise the political hacks who doubt him."

™ The Flinn-Scroggs showdown is but one of several that have churned up in what were, just weeks ago, the untroubled waters of Republican harmony. Incumbent county mayor Jim Rout and, reportedly, other local GOP notables are now outspoken in their support of Republican gubernatorial challenger Jim Henry of Kingston, while a majority of the party's officials and activists still lean to 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, the presumed frontrunner.

"That isn't necessary a bad thing," says chairman Crone. "A contested gubernatorial primary, concurrent with the August general election, will bring out a healthy Republican vote."

The mayoral contest is a different matter. "We had hoped to organize our whole strategy around that race," concedes Crone, who makes no secret of the fact that he would have been delighted with an uncontested primary. Crone shrugs at what has now become inevitable, however, promises neutrality, and is actively in search of silver linings.

Of Flinn's surprise candidacy, he says, "I'm hoping George brings some new people in and helps us expand the grassroots base of our party."

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