Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, who has made a point of keeping his distance from the mayoral campaign of would-be successor George Flinn, the 2002 Republican nominee, unbent a little at Saturday night's Master Meal, sponsored by the East Shelby Republican Club at the Homebuilders on Germantown Parkway.
The Master Meal, which annually features political exhortations from this or that prominent speaker, had more than the usual quota in this election year, with speeches from the congressional, gubernatorial, and senatorial contestants on hand. Rout's remarks were somewhat out of sync with the standard party boilerplate that prevailed in others' remarks.
Although he promised to speak only "a very, very few seconds" when he rose, as the evening's last speaker, Rout used the occasion, as he has in most of his recent public speeches, to defend his eight-year stewardship in office. "We have not had continuous tax increases" but have "managed your budget well," Rout said. Jail expenses had been "more than I think they should have been, but that's not my job, my responsibility," said Rout, who later made a point of extolling the cost-cutting virtues of GOP sheriff's nominee Mark Luttrell.
Rout said he had kept county government "lean and mean" and touted public-private arrangements like that which resulted in the creation of the Mike Rose Soccer Complex. "Not one penny of property-tax dollars" had been committed to the building of the forthcoming new downtown arena, Rout noted, touching on a subject that had been worked over by more than one candidate in last month's Republican primary.
He pointedly referenced that controversy and the underlying political divisions which, clearly, he thought it stemmed from. "I want to say, as the mayor of the county -- Dr. Flinn, I know you're listening out there -- I think you have to understand that the mayor of the county is what it says: the mayor of the county. And the county doesn't start at the city limits and go east only. The county starts at the river and goes all the way to the Fayette County line."
A previous speaker had been Mary Taylor-Shelby, the perennial candidate who is on the GOP primary ballot just now as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. In her usual manner, Taylor-Shelby had talked emotionally about being an African American in a political environment still largely dominated by whites.
Congratulating her for her perseverance, Rout said Republicans would have to deal with "disenfranchised people" to remain relevant. "If we're going to make this party roll, we've got to reach out. We've got to figure out how to do some things." He expressed concern about the disproportionate number of prisoners in Shelby County -- more, as he indicated, than in 20 states -- and left unsaid the obvious implication: Too many of these were black.
Rout expressed concern about the state's financial crisis and, in particular, the possibility that a budget settlement could end up depriving local governments of shared tax revenues they have come to depend upon. "If they do in Nashville what they're talking about, that's going to make it tough on our nominee for county mayor and other people," he said.
Rout's use of the term "accountability" in this extended apologia and his off-handed reference to its prevalence in this year's political campaigns was no accident. Flinn has employed the term as a kind of motto, a pledge at the heart of his candidacy. Though he has been at pains to insist that he has never uttered any criticism of Rout or his administration -- and the record would seem to bear this year's nominee out on that score -- Rout has, both publicly and privately, taken umbrage at the use of the word and has chosen to see himself and his administration as, at least obliquely, under attack.
The current mayor's direct citation of his would-be GOP successor was ambiguous enough to permit of different explanations. Was he chiding Flinn or expressing solidarity with him? (Showing good political instincts, Flinn chose the latter interpretation and rose at the end of Rout's speech to say aloud, "This is a great man.") In either case, Rout was insisting that Republicans must broaden their outlook and their constituency, both for this year's sake and for time to come.
At a time when most other Republican exemplars, whether running for local, state, or federal office, focused on cost-cutting and tax relief without much reference to social themes, the outgoing Shelby County mayor's remarks pointed in a different, more inclusive direction, one often overlooked by GOP candidates in recent years.
* Every Republican candidate for major office was on hand Saturday night except for gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary, whose wife Meredith substituted for him. Candidate Hilleary, currently the U.S. representative from Tennessee's 4th District, had been in Memphis the previous evening to throw out the first ball at a Redbirds game.
Increasingly, the congressman has decided to focus more on such photo-op events and on news releases rather than on direct contact with his opponents (former state Representative Jim Henry and Brownsville minister Bob Tripp) or with the media, which he believes (sometimes, arguably, with reason) has targeted him for ridicule.
Meredith Hilleary was the evening's penultimate speaker, coming just before Rout, and she devoted what seemed a disproportionate amount of her time to a denunciation of a proposed state income tax and a pledge that her husband would do everything he could to keep one from ever being instituted in Tennessee. (Rep. Hilleary has, in fact, promised to try to repeal such a tax if some variant of it gets enacted in the current session, as has his likely Democratic opponent, ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen.)
Henry, who attended the dinner with what seemed to be his entire family, has expressed his personal disbelief in an income-tax solution too and did so again Saturday, but he refuses to rule any solution out and calls for a constitutional convention to resolve the state's tax and revenue dilemmas.
All five of the Republican 7th District congressional candidates rated as major were on hand -- Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor, Shelby County state Senator Mark Norris, Williamson County state Senator Marsha Blackburn, and Nashville lawyer Forrest Shoaf -- as was Lakeland's Sonny Carlota, a candidate considered out of the mix but one making resolute efforts through mail-outs and press releases to stay in the game.
The six candidates differentiated themselves not so much on issues as by differing personal emphases -- or even, truth to tell, by gimmicks. One of the more entertaining approaches was that of Kustoff, who concluded his remarks by observing that underneath one chair at each table at the event could be found one of his campaign stickers. Whoever sat on that chair, he announced, would be entitled to a free American flag, the small sort normally found these days flapping from the sides of SUVs.
Kustoff's announcement, which artfully invoked the theme of patriotism, had almost everybody scrambling to see whether they were "winners." The flag gambit was consistent with a speech in which he urged continued support of the war-on-terrorism policies of President Bush -- a reminder that he had served as Bush's state campaign director in 2000.
Taylor, a funeral director who has made much of his opposition to the federal estate tax (which he and most other Republican candidates choose to call "the death tax"), made his remarks with his young son Gage by his side -- a way, of course, of calling attention to his status as a family man.
Norris' chief innovation was to conclude his remarks by segueing into the playing, from several TV sets stationed about the room, of a videotape showing his endorsement by Shelby County's six suburban mayors. The collective-endorsement strategy had been employed in the GOP mayoral primary by state Rep. Larry Scroggs, who finished second to Flinn.
Shoaf, a diminutive but ramrod-straight man, invoked his background as a former military officer to express solidarity with President Bush's current foreign-policy strategies, while Blackburn, to nobody's surprise, made much of her up-front role in the fight against the income tax. It was she, as she reminded her audience, who had circulated news via e-mail of a pending income-tax vote in the Senate last summer, one which precipitated what some call a riot and others call a patriotic demonstration against the tax.
* Former Governor Lamar Alexander, who has engaged in something of a running sniper's duel with 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, his main challenger for the GOP Senate nomination, took advantage of his opponent's absence Saturday night to express solidarity with him on most issues. "We're both good Republicans. We're both good conservatives. We both support President Bush and his policies," said Alexander, whose polls continue to show him well ahead of Bryant in most parts of the state.
* Though Republicans running for countywide offices stand to gain disproportionately on August 1st from the simultaneous statewide primary, which features many more high-profile races on their side, Democrats will get a boost this weekend from former Vice President Al Gore's presence in Memphis for three days, during which he will both address local Democratic cadres at the party's annual Kennedy Day dinner and summon his chief national supporters and fund-raisers to a three-day summit meeting at The Peabody.
The Gore summit has been acknowledged by virtually every pundit in the country as a preamble to a 2004 presidential candidacy.
* Memphis legislators distinguished themselves in the collective eulogy given in the House of Representatives chamber last Thursday for state Rep. Keith Westmoreland (R-Kingsport), who killed himself in the wake of revelations that he had been arrested recently for indecent exposure in Florida. Notable were House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry and state Reps. Joe Kent, Kathryn Bowers, and John DeBerry.
DeBerry made an emotional connection between the tragedy and the legislative pressures that may have triggered it. "The Lord hates the sin but loves the sinner," said DeBerry, a minister, who wondered aloud if "we have lost ourselves in the insanity and intoxication of this place" and urged his mates to "dig deep" to improve one another and the state. "Have we created an atmosphere so terrible, so resolute in its hypocrisy, that an individual would rather die than face us?" he asked.
With time literally running out, legislators met again this week, still torn between advocates of draconian cuts, proponents of an income tax, and some who have offered a new package calling for both an increased sales tax, "sin" taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and new levies on businesses. As before, no side seemed to have a majority in hand.