Thursday, May 23, 2002

The "Accountability" Man, plus the State Front

An interview with George Flinn, the GOP's surprise county mayoral nominee, plus Bredesen vexes his partymates, the income tax gets close, and more.

Posted By on Thu, May 23, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Memphis Flyer: To start with an issue that became moot the day after the election: the NBA arena-to-be. That figured in a lot of the election outcomes. What has been your thinking on it?

George Flinn: I am a booster for the area and anything that improves the mood or the prospects of the area. So I'm a Grizzlies fan. I have season tickets. I take my mother there all the time. And I made a successful bid to carry the Grizzlies' games on one of my radio stations (WHBQ 56 AM). But the fact is that I was always opposed to public funding for the arena, particularly if the public had no say in the decision. I think the people who do want to support the Grizzlies, which is a great number of people, should have been the ones supporting the arena and the businesses that will be benefiting from the increased visibility of the area.

That's out of the way now, of course.

Yes, it is.

And you're probably relieved.

I am very relieved.

During the campaign against GOP rival state Rep. Larry Scroggs, several Republicans maintained that your ads were misleading those which made him out to be a big-time taxer. What is your attitude toward that and what is your relationship with Scroggs today?

First of all, I consider Larry Scroggs to be a fine person. I know him. I know his family. I think they're great people. I think they're dedicated people. My campaign emphasized holding the line on taxes, and I didn't see it as attacking him personally. I think personally he's a great guy and he's serving us well in the Statehouse. But I don't think anybody can say that we didn't vary on how we see the issue of taxation. That was the difference, and pointing out differences or even dramatizing them is nothing new in political campaigning. But, personally, I do not see that as an attack on him.

And as far as what some people call "negative campaigning" goes, I didn't initiate the "attacks." Larry did, in that press conference he called accusing me of running two-bit radio stations and trying to buy the election and not being honorable and a real Republican and all that. That was before I ran a single ad, and I hadn't said anything unkind about him at all. I didn't much care for all that. I was kind of shocked, in fact. And if it comes down to it, it was unfair. But I just chalked it up to how the game is played, and I don't have any hard feelings about it. I do think we ought to have a single standard about how we see such things.

Well, do you have a point of view toward how the legislature solves the state tax problem?

I am concerned about holding the line at the state level too but in such a way that we are not penalized at our own local government level. My main concern is that Shelby County continue to receive the funding from the state that it is due, because Shelby County's budget which is in a tight way itself is dependent on receiving those funds, and we should not do anything to upset the balance. Because, in looking at the budget, we're dependent on those funds to hold our tax rate.

Shelby County will, I think, be very well represented by its legislators, people like Paul Stanley, Larry Scroggs, Curtis Person, Mark Norris, and, really, all the rest. I think they will have Shelby County's best interests at heart when they vote. I think they'll look very closely at what this might do to Shelby County and what it might do to the citizens of the state of Tennessee, and I will depend on their judgment.

So you don't want to recommend a particular solution or attitude in Nashville?

When it's outside my purview, I think I want to do whatever's best for Shelby County. I want Shelby County to be able to maintain its funding. Whatever is best for Shelby County is my concern.

Once again, what were your differences with Larry Scroggs?

Larry Scroggs and I were 95 to 99 percent the same. Our few differences were the ones that were aired. That's the reason the Republican Party is coming back together so rapidly. We in the Republican Party are 99 and 44/100th percent the same. We share the same thoughts and beliefs.

The differences will be somewhat larger in the general election between AC Wharton the Democrat and George Flinn the Republican. But these differences can be articulated and debated in a friendly manner. I think we can shake hands and smile at each other and let the voters choose. The voters need to be presented the differences in candidates' philosophies.

I think we owe it to the voters to be candid about the different approaches and philosophies we would bring to governing Shelby County.

What are the basic differences between yourself and Wharton?

I understand that his position, as a Democrat, would be weighted more heavily to government intervention and possibly more taxes, while my position would be that of doing a few things and doing them very well and holding the line on taxes and ensuring accountability on scrubbing the budget and seeing if every dollar is being spent wisely.

How do you feel abut the rest of the Republican ticket you'll be running with?

I feel great about the ticket. [County trustee] Bob Patterson is a treasure. My friend [newly elected county commissioner] John Willingham is very cost-conscious and is all about accountability. Bruce Thompson [a nominee for commissioner] is all about business and accountability. And Mark Luttrell, the nominee for sheriff, is going to be great. I've talked to him several times. I'm going to enjoy working with him, because he too is all about cost-cutting and efficient management and accountability. I think we've got a perfect ticket from top to bottom to present to the people, one that will hold the line and/or decrease taxes and make the government much more accountable.

You actually think it's possible to decrease taxes?

That's my goal.

Back to the feeling you mentioned that some thought you "bought" the election what's your response to that?

All I did was spend enough to make sure we got our message out, and I think, as we go through the general election cycle, it's going to be beneficial to the entire Republican ticket to have that message the Republican one of accountability presented for a full hearing. I think, in general, my message which includes a good deal of skepticism about the value of countywide consolidation, at least as it's been talked about is the same as the entire ticket's. But accountability, based on fairness, that's what the message really is. That plus public safety and job creation and education.

That's what we were able to make the voters aware of in the primary. They voted for it, not especially for me although I'm glad to be the messenger.

One more thing about this "buying an election" stuff. In radio, we say that the worst thing you can do is advertise a bad product. If you advertise something good, you win with it. If it's a bad product, you're going to go bust.

No doubt cost-cutting and "accountability" will play well in certain areas the suburbs, for example but your opponent is a well-regarded African American who hopes to cross political boundaries with his appeal. Meanwhile, what do you offer that's attractive to his base?

Well, I have an office in the inner city my main office. I've been there for 27 years. I talk to inner-city Memphians every day. I know their deepest concerns. When someone's sick, their deepest concerns come out. I'm very attuned to that. The main thing is that those Memphians are not abandoned, that the services they are used to continue to be offered to them. I am no less disposed to listen to them than I am to the folks in the suburbs and those out in the county. I'm balanced between everybody's needs, the way I think government should be.

But can you maintain a good level of social services and cut taxes too?

I think we can, by being accountable and making certain that the services we provide them are the ones they need. Oftentimes, we try to provide services that they don't need. And don't get. I know the services they need, because those are the ones they tell me about, and I'm very attuned to the inner city, as I am to the county at large.

To say the least, you've mentioned the word "accountability" a fair number of times. What exactly do you mean by it?

Exactly what it sounds like: The word means that you owe an accounting to the people who hire you to run their public affairs and spend their tax money. That means you make responsible allocations to agreed-upon purposes based on dependable revenue sources. And that you do it year after year in the most exacting way. "Accounting" contains another word: "count." You have to be able to count accurately and project your numbers. I've had a good deal of experience with that.

In the primary campaign, you had to deal with a good deal of speculation that you were unfamiliar with the issues. What is the state of your familiarity with them?

I have a broad experience in business and as a physician. I am a quick study. I have been studying [the issues], and I will continue to study. And I will know the issues better than most. As a matter of fact, I already know the issues, most of those someone might bring up, and I know them upwards and downwards. I would challenge those who want to promulgate the idea that I don't know the issues: Try me.

And the main thing is that I know the people, and I know the area. I'm one of those who grew up listening to Dewey Phillips. I went to Central High School like my father, and I know every one of our local landmarks like the back of my hand. The real issue, when you get down to it, is how the people feel about things. They'll always tell you what the issues are. And I'd rather listen to them than second-guess them.

The State Front

Bredesen vexes his partymates, the income tax gets close, and two GOP rivals vie.

NASHVILLE -- Politically speaking, last week was as notable for what didn't happen as much as for what did. One thing that didn't happen was a showdown in the legislature over an income-tax bill. (That's been deferred until this week or perhaps until next.) Another thing that didn't happen was that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen didn't send legislators a letter opposing a state income tax after likely Republican rival Van Hilleary did.

That was a relief to Democrats everywhere in the state, many of whom even some formerly stout supporters of the ex-Nashville mayor have been forced, uncomfortably often of late, to utter the P-word (yes, "pander," that's the one) in connection with the Democratic frontrunner.

This is not a matter of concern only to the more ideological-minded about party activists; fears are being expressed at high Democratic levels about Bredesen's propensity to play Pete-and-Repeat with Hilleary on the tax question.

Two key state Democrats stood in front of the downtown Sheraton in Nashville Thursday after the legislature had folded its hand without betting (at least for a week) and discussed the matter.

"He didn't need to go there," said one about Bredesen's readiness last month to chime in with Hilleary on a promise to try to "repeal" an income tax if one somehow got enacted into law this year. The other Democrat nodded in agreement.

The problem, the two of them agreed, was at least two-fold. First, the still-inevitable-looking Democratic nominee had alienated "the folks over there," as one of them said, indicating the state Capitol spire across War Memorial Plaza. It is a well-known fact that House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh won't return Bredesen's phone calls and that legislators deeply involved in negotiations over a tax bill not just Democrats and not just income-tax proponents have felt their efforts undermined by Bredesen.

By Hilleary, too, of course, but the 4th District GOP congressman is being cut more slack, on the dubious ground that He Knows Not What He Does as well as on the logical one that his position is not so flagrantly at odds with the assumptions of his party's spokespeople. Bredesen's hardening position against the income tax, on the other hand, puts Democrats running for the legislature on the spot.

But an even worse problem, noted the two key Democrats, was that Bredesen had raised grievous doubts concerning his ability, present- or future-tense, to take public positions good, bad, or indifferent with any risk attached to them. "He's got people worried about his character," one of them said.

Only if he takes one or two more steps of the "repeal" magnitude might he endanger the inevitability of his nomination, the two Democrats concurred, but Bredesen may have already conditioned a number of Democrats to the idea of sitting the election out or skipping the gubernatorial portion of the ballot in protest.

And such losses would not be balanced by commensurate gains, the Democrats agreed. It was notable Wednesday morning that anti-tax talk-show host Steve Gill of Nashville's WTTN mocked Bredesen's sincerity on the tax issue by pointing out his absence from the ranks of protestors outside the Capitol. (Of course, Hilleary wasn't there either a certain level of decorum being expected of mainstream candidates.)

There was one bottom-line matter the pair of Democratic party lions agreed on Phil Bredesen had lost, not gained, ground as a result of his frantic footwork on the income tax.

n Income Tax Prospects: You start with the premise, of course, that Governor Don Sundquist will sign Naifeh's 4.5 percent "flat-tax" bill as soon as it gets to his desk.

That's a slam dunk. It would be the culmination of the sorely beleaguered governor's three years of agonistic (and agonized) struggle to achieve "tax reform." (That's a euphemism for an income tax these days, of course, as is the term "flat tax," which describes one type of income tax the nongraduated kind now in play.)

And you proceed with the high likelihood that Naifeh, an adroit persuader and head-counter, will ultimately be able to distill the 50-vote majority he needs from the fluctuating number of possible House ayes that everybody agreed last Wednesday, when the Speaker chose not to bring the bill to the floor, hovered between 47 and 53.

What about the legislative Black Caucus' supposed threat to hold up the bill pending satisfaction of its demand that Naifeh arrange the appointment of a black member to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, whose membership is up for renewal?

The general belief in the Senate, which (as we shall see) holds the balance, is that the threat is more apparent than real, that, when push comes to shove (as it may this next week, both figuratively and literally), black legislators as a bloc will not want to stand in the way of an outcome desired so intensely by the great majority of their constituents, who see the income tax as the best of all possible nonregressive revenue sources.

Certainly, Kathryn Bowers, the Memphis Democrat who is a physical bantamweight but a legislative heavyweight and can usually speak for the caucus, carefully measured her words when asked about the subject last week, avoiding words like "threat" or "deal" or any syntax, for that matter, that came within an unabridged mile of an ultimatum.

The root of the problem has been that Melvin Malone, the African-American appointee who was Lt. Governor John Wilder's choice for the TRA last time around, has been substituted on the new list by Pat Miller, the Wilder confidante who in recent years has served as his chief of staff. Any action that attempted to arm-twist Wilder out of Miller would blow sky-high the gathering income-tax consensus in the Senate, where the wizened lieutenant governor famously presides.

There were actually weekend reports that the lieutenant governor had talked with his protégé about the possibility of stepping down so as to end the impasse. But if Wilder wants Miller, Wilder gets Miller. The Senate's presiding officer, after all, remains a key member the key member, perhaps of a 16-vote Senate bloc that will vote for Naifeh's bill if and when it arrives safely from the House.

"I will be responsible" is how Wilder describes his intentions on the flat-tax bill, and this is widely taken to mean a yes vote, however tentative. As Wilder explains, such other former key Senate holdouts as Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodletsville and finance chair Doug Henry of Nashville also mean to be "responsible."

Henry put it this way Wednesday night: "I've generally opposed an income tax, but we've gotten ourselves in serious trouble. We've got to do something to assure that state government has enough money to operate."

Also generally counted in this tacit list of last-ditch converts is House Republican Leader Ben Atchley of Knoxville.

But even with all these reluctant eminences accounted for, the total of Senate votes still stands at only 16 one shy of the number needed to pass the flat-tax bill. Where will it come from?

Not from the GOP's Mark Norris, the conservative Colliervillian whose current congressional bid would be compromised by an income-tax vote. And not from another Shelby County Republican, judiciary chair Curtis Person, a longtime Sundquist intimate who insists, almost in the manner of one of the current tax protesters, "No means no."

To which a Democratic senator backing the income tax says, "Damn that D'Agostino [Memphian Anthony D'Agostino, a Democrat who filed against Person this year, thereby becoming (along with independent Barbara Leding) the august GOP senator's first formal opposition of any kind since 1968]! Without him, we would have had Curtis' vote." (For the record, Person insists that this is not so; both he and Norris are backing a Constitutional Convention bill.)

Typical of several other doubtful prospects is Murfreesboro's Larry Trail, whose 2000 race against Republican Howard Wall may have come down to his pledge (against persistent badgering) that he would not, definitely would not, never ever, vote for an income tax.

As Trail said last week, in a wan parody of that ordeal, "I've hated [the income tax] since the age of 12!" When pressed for a more serious response, he keeps his own counsel amid what friends know is a troubling inner discontent.

Trail's name is invoked almost daily and sarcastically by talk-show host Gill, who sees Trail as a likely apostate and therefore is keeping the heat on.

"It's a matter of ratings," says Trail, who would just as soon not have to contemplate this flat-tax cup, much less drink it.

But contemplate it he must, as will several of the others named above, and if the Steve Gills of the world push from one direction, there is abundant pressure from the other direction as well. If something or someone gives, anywhere along the line, the income tax is law. It's that close. Or, as they say: So near yet so far.

n In what may be just another instance of making virtue of necessity (but may also be the simple truth), Tennessee's GOP Senator Bill Frist said on a recent visit to Memphis that his party's hard-fought senatorial primary between Lamar Alexander and Ed Bryant was "a good thing" for both candidates and for the Republican Party.

Since Senator Fred Thompson's surprise declaration in early March that he would not seek reelection, Alexander, a two-term former governor of Tennessee, and 7th District congressman Bryant have been locked in a primary struggle that has often been bitter.

As chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Frist is intent upon regaining control of the Senate for his party. While acknowledging that there was "some pressure" for him to state a preference for one of the would-be successors to his retiring colleague Thompson, Frist said only someone like Democrat Bredesen, a multi-millionaire, could have forced him to make such a choice.

"It's a matter of money. If Bredesen had been the Democrats' Senate candidate, we'd have had to focus very quickly on solidarity and fund-raising, and that would have probably caused me to indicate a preference," Frist said.

Frist said he did not think the Senate candidacy of Nashville congressman Bob Clement, the Democrats' consensus choice, presented the same urgency. Nor, Frist indicated, would a senate candidacy by Memphis' Democratic congressman, Harold Ford Jr., have been a compelling reason for him to intervene in favor of one of the Republican hopefuls.

"Frankly, I think it's been good for Lamar to face some competition and sharpen his game, and it's obviously a good opportunity for Ed to indicate his ability also," Frist, the Senate's only doctor, said at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in East Memphis, where, weekend before last, he signed copies of his new volume, When Every Moment Counts (Bowman and Littlefield, $14.95, 182 pages), which deals with the threat of bio-terrorism.

From Frist's point of view, the Senate race may turn into too much of a good thing, though. Bryant and Alexander, both professing to be diehard conservatives, escalated their war of words last week, with the former governor saying his record made him better qualified and rebuking Bryant for "mean-spirited" campaign tactics.

For his part, the congressman criticized Alexander for a published statement to the effect that, his presidential hopes long gone by, "the Senate will have to do." During a visit to the Flyer office this week, Alexander acknowledged that the remark, made "at the very end of a long interview" with the Knoxville News Sentinel's Tom Humphrey, might have been better phrased.

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