Take the race for Shelby County Sheriff, for example. In both major parties, a trio of ranking competitors will vie for the nomination. Among Democrats, they are Randy Wade, E.C. Jones, and Henry Hooper. In the GOP, the Big Three are Don Wright, Bobby Simmons, and Mark Luttrell.
Wade and Simmons are ranking departmental officers who argue plausibly that they have not been in the loop of the department's command structure during its turbulent recent history. Wright, who is chief deputy, must, for better and for worse, own up to having been there. Jones, a city councilman; Hooper, a former Secret Service agent; and Luttrell, director of the county's Corrections Division, can make the case that they are outsiders.
Three is the dividing number, too, in the contest for the District 5 seat on the Shelby County Commission -- one which may determine the shape of things to come, since whichever party wins it will have the capability of dominating party-lines by the narrow margin of seven to six.
Among Democrats, veteran political figure Joe Cooper has held the fort by himself for a longish time, but at press time there were reports that he might have company before the week was out -- possibly from lawyer Guthrie Castle, who made two unsuccessful runs for Congress but has kept his hand in politically, notably in the 2000 presidential race on behalf of Democratic nominee Al Gore.
The center ring, however, may be reserved for the melee involving three Republicans seeking the District 5 seat. They are lawyer John Ryder, a GOP veteran with a chestful of I.O.U.s and a determination to cash them in; financial planner Bruce Thompson, a newcomer who has filled up a few cash buckets himself; and Jerry Cobb, a contractor who has long been a principal spokesperson for those dissatisfied with the reigning hierarchy of the local Republican Party.
Ryder's partisans agree with his conclusion that, having acted for two decades as a guiding figure in party affairs, providing key assistance or direct management in almost all important races during that time, and serving today as a Republican national committeeman from Tennessee, he has, as he puts it, come into "my time" to wear the mantle of candidate.
Discontented Republicans are, of course, likely to regard the former chairman's extensive history to be liability rather than asset.
Thompson is a new face who talked up the race with many of the party's leading figures -- not excluding Ryder -- before he cast his die as a candidate. One of his key backers, city council member Jack Sammons (who doubles as the local Republican treasurer), recently hosted a fund-raiser for Thompson which hoisted his already impressive total all the way up to what the candidate claims is a war chest of $75,000.
Cobb won't raise much money, but he has at his disposal the same hardy, stubborn, and dedicated corps of supporters who helped him mount a credible challenge last year to the reelection of local GOP chairman Alan Crone.
After the Monday night meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club (which had seen a spirited free-for-all forum among the three GOP candidates for sheriff), Ryder and Thompson had a jesting exchange over the issue of whether Thompson might attend a forthcoming Ryder fund-raiser (one subscribed to by a who's who of party figures).
"Only if you pay," said Ryder, observing that his ticket price of $250 was more reasonable than the $1,000-a-head asked for the Sammons affair.
"Well, you get what you pay for," responded Thompson. "It just shows a greater willingness on the part of my supporters."
The exchange continued along such lines, with Ryder suggesting helpfully that if Thompson did make it to his fund-raiser (to be hosted by department store magnate and former legislator Brad Martin at the Saks Conference Center next Tuesday), "You'll get lost in the crowd."
"Not if I come with my girlfriend," said Thompson, referring to a recent Miss Tennessee.
The exchange was good-natured but tinged with an acidity that could turn quite sharp in the heat of future combat.
There are those in the Republican Party who see a handwriting-on-the-wall in Ryder's decision to enter a race on his own rather than guide the campaign for county mayor of state Representative Larry Scroggs, interpreting the decision as something less than a vote of confidence in Scroggs' general election prospects in a year in which county demographics have shifted in favor of the Democrats.
And there are other Republicans who fear that the three-way District 5 primary could engender divisive feelings that could hurt the party in any case.
Crone, for one, professes to be untroubled about the prospect, seeing the contest as one that could generate high interest among party cadres and thus not only boost voting levels in other Republican primary races but generate interest in the general election contests to come.
Contests that are much more likely to be simple one-on-ones and not three-on-a-match.
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."
Jewell indicated he will also eschew reelection this year and leave the Bartlett Board of Alderrmen after the completion of his current term on December 31st.
Its just been too rough raising money, Jewell said of his decision to drop her sheriff's race in mid-afternoon of a day which began with his waking to the aftermath of a snowstorm and drawing certain conclusions he suddenly saw as overdue.
I looked out the window and saw all that snow, and it just clicked, Jewell said. I said to myself, You know, theres no need dragging this thing out any further. Its just one of those things that didnt work out.
Jewell hinted that he might choose to intervene in the sheriffs race at some later point with an endorsement but chose to keep his options to himself for the time being. I will say this, Jewell reflected. Ive talked to enough people to know that the public isnt going to want to vote for anybody whos in the department right now.
In effect, Jewell was disqualifying everybody except county Corrections administrator Mark Luttrell, running as a Republican, and city councilman E C Jones. a Democratic contender. Other candidates are Republicans Bobby Simmons, a captain who heads up the departments DUI operations, and Chief Deputy Don Wright, .who carries the reputation, for better or for worse, of being Gilless right-hand man.; and Democrat Randy Wade, another ranking departmental chief.
Given Jewells longtime activity in Republican ranks, including several years on the local GOPs steering committee and a stint as party vice chairman, he is likely to come out at some point for Luttrell.
Jewell preferred not to address the issue for the record on Wednesday , but he publicly expressed resentment some months ago that, shortly after announcing his candidacy, he was assigned to prisoner transport duties on a 2 p.m. to midnight shift which precluded much effective campaigning. His imputation then was that politics was at the root of his reassignment
Having shed his candidate's mantle and decided also to leave the Board of Aldermen after this year, Jewell said one reason for both decisions was that he would now be able to concentrate on "my granddaughter, the Bible, and bluegrass music, all of which I love, even though, as far as the last thing goes, I may be the world's worst banjo-player."