Thursday, April 25, 2002

The Air War

Being "fustest with the mostest" may involve lavish use of the broadcast media.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Forrest Shoaf, a Nashville lawyer who is seeking the Republican nomination for Congress in the 7th District (the one Ed Bryant is vacating to run for the U.S. Senate), was in Memphis last week reconnoitering possible support for his race -- which pits him against three Shelby Countians (lawyer David Kustoff, state Senator Mark Norris, and Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor) as well as state Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County in his own Middle Tennessee neighborhood.

Virtually all his opponents are better known than Shoaf, who was serving as GOP gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary's legal counsel when he discovered that congressional reapportionment had put him in the 7th District. "When I go out in the morning to get the paper, I'm in the 7th District," Shoaf noted while here last week. "When I lean over the curb to pick it up, I'm in the 5th."

Shoaf and many of his suburban neighbors are Republicans who were dumped into the 7th District on the say-so of 5th District incumbent Bob Clement, with the concurrence of his colleagues in the Tennessee delegation. Clement presumably breathed easier with a greater proportion of Democrats in his already safe Democratic district; for Clement at least, the point is now moot, since the same act which led Bryant to run for the Senate -- incumbent Republican Fred Thompson's surprise withdrawal from the race two months ago -- induced Clement to become a Senate candidate as well.

Although he is -- literally -- just within the district line, Shoaf thinks he can win his party's nomination through what he calls, unabashedly, "the air war." Shoaf, a West Point graduate and Army veteran, thinks that all his competitors will come down fairly uniformly for the Republican concepts of limited, less costly government. "What will distinguish us is my military background and pro-military outlook," says the man whose full name is Nathan Bedford Forrest Shoaf III, a family name whose passage from generation to generation signifies the fact that a male ancestor actually rode with the Confederate cavalry leader whose motto was "be the fustest with the mostest."

The way in which Shoaf intends to follow Forrest's motto is to do lots and lots of media advertising. In contemporary political parlance, that is "the air war," and it is a methodology that has increasingly been relied upon by modern candidates. "Now Marsha will be running mainly a ground war," said Shoaf of his chief regional competitor. "And so will Brent. Norris and Kustoff will be doing some of both."

"Ground war" connotes an intensive form of meet-and-greet politics done at the local voter level, and, while all candidates for office (Shoaf included) must avail themselves of it, the larger the field of action, the less important it is proportionately. Forrest Shoaf's belief is that an elongated district which stretches from metropolitan Memphis to metropolitan Nashville -- two areas intensively served by the electronic media -- is made-to-order for air-war candidacies.

He also thinks that it's the best way to play catch-up and to acquaint himself with voters who may already know something about other candidates who've been in the field longer (as, in fact, all of Shoaf's GOP rivals have).

* What is somewhat surprising -- but perhaps understandable under the circumstances -- is the emergence of a largely air-war candidacy for Shelby County mayor -- that of Memphis physician/businessman George Flinn, whose spots began running on the county's major radio and TV outlets two weeks ago.

Flinn's reliance on media is surprising, in that Shelby County is a small-enough area to permit a more variegated election strategy, including door-to-door campaigning, appearances at forums and neighborhood clubs, and phone banks and other GOTV (Get-Out-the-Vote) tactics. The radiologist and broadcast magnate has done some of all this as well, of course, but the ratio of his effort leans much more heavily to direct media appeals than most.

What is understandable and unsurprising about the Flinn air-war strategy is that: 1) as a highly successful practitioner of both his main prior callings, he can afford to splurge on his maiden political effort; and 2), as is the case with Forrest Shoaf, it may be the quickest, most direct way to acquaint himself with the voters of his would-be constituency.

Flinn's first spots concentrated on his general biography and local roots ("I went to the same school, Central High, that my father did. ... I remember when Walnut Grove ended at East High School"); a second series focused on a highly generalized approach to issues (stressing the candidate's three themes of public safety, education, and job-creation), and others in the series may branch out further, campaign sources say.

Meanwhile, Flinn's main Republican rival, state Representative Larry Scroggs, has been turning up at every available local Republican club and mayoral forum, whenever his legislative service in Nashville has permitted. Assuming a certain degree of name-familiarity, at least with the Republican regulars he assumes will make up the brunt of May 7th primary voters, Scroggs stresses themes relating to his long-term party activity and legislative record -- "performance-based budgeting," a proposal to sunset government programs that cannot pass the muster of periodic review, being typical of the latter.

For most of the campaign, Scroggs was able to attend more local meetings as such than Flinn, a circumstance which emboldened him to introduce himself at this week's Memphis Rotary Club forum as "the Republican candidate for mayor," even though Flinn, who has of late also begun to budget such appearances in his itinerary, sat down the dais from him.

An unusual feature of Scroggs' campaign, however, has been the fact that, uniquely among major local candidates for office, he has done without a campaign headquarters as such. (Shelby County mayor Jim Rout was heard to wonder out loud about this circumstance on Monday.) Scroggs explains that as a necessary consequence of husbanding his funds.

Although legislation was passed this spring allowing members of the General Assembly to raise money locally for local races (a fact which benefits Democratic candidate Carol Chumney as well), Scroggs acknowledges that he operates at a competitive disadvantage against the well-heeled Flinn -- the major reason why the legislator called a press conference two weeks ago, on the eve of his opponent's media blitz, to denounce a practice he described as "trying to buy" an office.

* Mary Taylor-Shelby, an African-American activist and perennial candidate who has run for many offices and is in the field again this year, as a Republican candidate for mayor, is not considered a realistic prospect to achieve the office. But she achieved a career peak of sorts this past week at a forum sponsored by the women's group Hadassah at the Jewish Community Center.

Taylor-Shelby, who in two forums in recent years concluded her appearances with sobbing episodes, conducted herself not only with poise at the JCC forum, she more than held her own rhetorically, and she had the best line of the evening when, in discussing the strain of multiple demands on a severely straitened county budget, she averred, "We can't afford cake and ice cream, too" -- a variation on an old cliché that not only was unexpected but had the virtue of being so simple and evocative that one could only wonder why the phrase was not already a political commonplace.

* The verbal war between Democratic mayoral candidates AC Wharton and chief challenger Carol Chumney continues unabated -- with Wharton, advised almost uniformly by his advisers not to respond, not only replying in kind to Chumney's barbs but adding some hard thrusts of his own.

At the Hadassah-sponsored forum, Wharton contrasted his experience with that of what he termed the "boutique" candidate. Since he was the last speaker of the evening, his thrust went, at least temporarily, unanswered. But Chumney was able to avenge herself somewhat the next night, when, at a reception at the Botanic Garden, she acknowledged the "boutique" reference with a smile and used the term "conflict of interest" to describe what she said was Wharton's over-involvement with developers and (in his role as an attorney) with daycare brokers.

(She also responded to a Commercial Appeal editorial characterization of her as a "purist" by saying, "Thanks for the compliment."

* Shelby County commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, who chairs the commission's education committee, single-handedly put a temporary roadblock Monday in what was expected to be the commission's approval of a reapportionment plan for the Shelby County school board.

Acting on a request by school board member Wyatt Bunker, who, like Loeffel, represents the Cordova area, Loeffel took note of the fact that Bunker had withdrawn his approval of a proposal approved earlier by the entire board and observed that "responsibility for approving" reapportionment rested with the commission, not with the school board, "especially when there is no consensus." She would define this latter term as meaning unanimity.

At issue was Bunker's discovery that the newly drawn lines, approved without demurrer by his six colleagues on the seven-member board, located a fellow social conservative, Leeann McNinch, within the same district as himself, rather than in the adjoining district of board member Joe Clayton, who is thought to be considering retirement. McNinch is the current president of FLARE, a conservative organization formerly headed by Loeffel.

Both Loeffel and Bunker acknowledged, when asked, that their hopes of giving McNinch an opportunity to join the board played a prominent role in the positions they took at Monday's commission meeting. Board president David Pickler and member Ron Lollar were on hand, pointing out that the lines of the plan under consideration had been drawn so as to assign each member a major high school and the "feeder" schools for that high school.

"That's all right if you can get it," Bunker said with a shrug about the fact that redrawing the lines to accommodate McNinch might make it impossible to apply the principle. "But it's not the only thing you need to think about." Bunker and Loeffel both defended the propriety of redrawing lines to accommodate particular candidates' future ambitions.

"They did it for me, and they've done it for lots of others," observed Bunker, who was elected to the board two years ago to succeed his father, long-term member Homer Bunker.

The commission scheduled a Thursday morning meeting to ascertain whether the school board's 6-1 approval of the plan proposed Monday could be made a 7-0 vote for a newly configured plan.


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