Saturday, July 20, 2002

AD WATCH: FLINN GOES FOR BROKE

AD WATCH: FLINN GOES FOR BROKE

Posted By on Sat, Jul 20, 2002 at 4:00 AM

The fat, as they say, is in the fire. The race for Shelby County Mayor, which had settled into a sort of mid-summer torpor, has heated up so much -- virtually overnight -- as to kindle political explosions that make the recent 4th of July fireworks demonstrations look like a few harmless sparklers. George Flinn has found -- or, more accurately, restated -- his major campaign theme: “Accountability,” his initial slogan, has now metamorphosized -- or broadened -- into an insistence on what could be stated as the consent of the governed in major public decisions. In reviving the issue of the publicly built NBA arena through a suddenly controversial TV commercial which characterizes it as the product of "a $240 million backroom deal," Flinn has set himself at the head of what may or may not be (we will shortly find out) an army of the alienated. At one end of the current political spectrum, there are those who, like newly elected County Commissioner John Willingham, a dedicated Flinn supporter, see conspiracy in last year’s arrangement for public financing of an NBA arena. Willingham, who upset commission chairman Morris Fair in the May GOP primary, refers to himself, accurately, as an outsider who, by virtue of being elected, has managed to get himself on the inside. Willingham imagines there to be a nexus of Connected Ones, both in and out of government, who have been collaborating , lo these many years, toward the ends of political control and private enrichment. Vowing to stop the rascals in their tracks, the commissioner-elect cites several recent instances of infamy: the wheel tax increase, the raise which commissioners gave themselves, and, most notably, the NBA arena The arena deal has, in fact, been a lightning rod of discontent. It gathered together several different kinds of opponents: those who were indifferent to the Grizzlies’ coming in every sense; those who favored the Grizzlies but saw no need for a new arena; those who accepted the idea of an arena but thought it should be privately financed; those who welcomed both the Grizzlies and the arena, but thought a publicly financed arena should have been subjected to a referendum. It was people from all these groups who signed the referendum petitions collected last year by homemaker-turned-activist Heidi Shafer but subsequently deflected by the powers-that-be.. Some of the critics are Republican dissidents like Willingham, but others are veteran liberals like that gentle-lady, Happy Jones, who have found themselves siding with Democrat A C Wharton in the mayoral campaign. And there is a galaxy of different sorts in between. Flinn, too, straddles various lines. He was -- and is -- a Grizzlies fan who, in his role of radio-station-owner, successfully bid for the right to broadcast the team’s games. He frequently escorts his mother to the games. Though he was not involved in last year's petition movement, Flinn said early on in his campaign that he didn’t favor a publicly built arena for the team, and certainly not one built without voter approval. His new ad, in other words, is not a new thought on his part. And, despite some of the invective now being hurled at him, there is no discernible inconsistency on his part. Wharton seems to acknowledge the fact, and his initial response to the arena-ad brouhaha contained a statement that he, too, thought a referendum on the arena would have been in order. Let’s move on, he says. In various follow-ups to the arena ad, which used the image of a private handshake in a darkened room, the Flinn camp has suggested it is premature to do so. How much of A C’s support, they want to know, can be located, in the support group for the arena deal? In one sense, it is guilt by association; in another, it is a perfectly logical question. Is there an unelected leadership axis in Shelby County? And are its actions, even if blameless in intent, subversive of the rights of citizens who, newly galvanized by the Internet and talk radio, want to be in on the process of deciding public matters? Flinn’s new ad -- whatever the degree of political calculation that went into it -- raises a question that needs to be put. Clearly, he is hoping that it gains him more votes among the public at large than it loses for him in a Republican establishment whose loyalty, as the party’s nominee, he thinks he has a right to count on. As Flinn well knows, there is a general sense that Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout,the Republican incumbent who has given lip service to the concept of supporting “the ticket” may be privately friendly to Wharton’s cause. Flinn has attempted to be complimentary of Rout, his titular party leader, and has yet to utter anything directly critical of him (though his forbearance has hardly been reciprocated by Rout, whose high-intensity reaction to Flinn’s arena ad reflects a general edigness toward his would-be successor.) Flinn’s new ad, with the populist red flag it waves, runs the risk of pushing Rout and his allies further in the direction of the Democratic nominee. (This, of course, would be problematic for the campaign son Rick Rout is waging to be chairman of the Republican Party!) But it is a risk Flinn has now taken, in the hope that those voters who felt themselves cheated of a referendum last year will see on the August 1st ballot an opportunity to hold one ex post facto. It is not just the arena deal that troubles critics of things as they are; the recent reaction, both on and off the County Commission, to the proposal for a private conservancy for Shelby Farms suggests that public resistance to covenants not openly arrived at may be growing. A private note: interviewed Thursday by a local TV station about a Flinn ad concerning crime and education, I observed that these are subjects hard for a county mayor to affect directly and that the ad was, in that sense, misleading. But, I added, in two provisos that were not broadcast but I would just as soon had been, Flinn is not alone in making such claims, and, in fact, a county mayor --whose control over crime and education is subordinate in a sense to that of the sheriff and the school board, respectively - can influence both areas by means of his bully pulpit. With his arena ad, mayoral candidate Flinn has exposed himself to a great deal of flak, some of it sensible, some of it self-serving. But a campaign which had of late been floating on those platitudes about crime and education may have found a target worth the trouble of the current bombing run. Again, it remains to be seen.

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