Thursday, August 29, 2002

Rites Of Passage

As summer cools off, politicians take a breath and manage some transitions.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 29, 2002 at 4:00 AM

The dog days of summer, they used to be called, before the events of last September 11th created an aura of menace likely to endure for a while whenever the anniversary of that occasion comes around.

The current season, however, is still more suggestive of easeful transitions than of horrific stresses, and Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission -- the last one ever for five of the 13 commissioners -- was as mellow as the autumnal shades that will shortly be upon us.

Presiding over a brief ceremony in the commission's sixth-floor quarters in the county administrative building, outgoing chairman Morris Fair presented framed composite photographs of the current commission to all of his colleagues and plaques to those who were leaving.

There was lawyer Buck Wellford, for example, a poster boy for the proverbial "sadder and wiser" look after two terms during which he rarely shied away from battle -- losing one early on when he challenged the findings of a disparity study on county contracting and winning a major one late in the game when he took the lead in passing a tree ordinance that imposed new restrictions on developers (but that, he lamented Monday, could not have prevented the recent landslide on Mud Island). Wellford opted not to run this year. As he cracked Monday, "I always wanted to be a public official -- but I've got my fill of it!"

There was first-termer Bridget Chisholm, a late 2000 appointee who was much-heralded as a woman of achievement in the financial sector but who seemed unhappy with the demands -- always political and often highly partisan -- of the disputatious public sector and decided to bow out gracefully.

Another voluntary exile was Tommy Hart, the Collierville businessman who was a solid anchor for conservative and Republican causes but who found himself an active agent of compromise more than once. He said Monday that he prided himself on never having succumbed to a sense of power during his two terms (including an eventful year as chairman) and opined, "The important thing is not to change from who you are."

Developer Clair VanderSchaaf, badly defeated in the May Republican primary by newcomer Joyce Avery for his unrepentant support of public funding for the new downtown arena and, he acknowledged, "a few other reasons" (presumably including notoriety from a much-publicized DUI arrest) was low-profile on Monday, his still-youthful appearance belying his 60-odd years and a generation of service on the commission.

In the spirit of conciliaton which predominated, budget committee chairman Cleo Kirk said he hoped incoming commissioner John Willingham would rise to the level of expertise on funding matters as had former banker and bond broker Fair, who enjoyed an unusual last hurrah Monday by shepherding through the commission several major retractions in the benefits package enjoyed by county employees.

Economic factors being what they are, downsizing initiatives of that sort will, almost certainly, be one of the hallmarks of the commission when it meets again on September 9th with five new members -- Avery, Willingham, lawyer David Lillard, financial planner Bruce Thompson, and publicist Deidre Malone (the sole Democrat among the new commissioners).

Democrat Julian Bolton went against expectations Monday by predicting that the new commission, despite the more conservative cast of the new members, would be "more progressive" than the current body. "That's because the Republican majority has been joined at the hip with the administration of Mayor [Jim] Rout," he explained, suggesting that "things will be different" when newly elected Democrat A C Wharton takes office as county mayor next week.

• OTHER POLITICAL NOTES: George Flinn, the businessman/physician who carried the standard of a divided Republican Party against Wharton, got a standing ovation from attendees at the August meeting of the local GOP steering committee. Flinn promised to be heard from again. At the same meeting, Young Republican chairman Rick Rout read a letter of apology for an e-mail to YR board members during the campaign that had seemed to be critical of Flinn. Both Lamar Alexander and Bob Clement -- the Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, respectively -- have made frequent appearances in Shelby County of late, the middle-of-the-road nature of which can best be gauged by the fact that Clement has appeared before such groups as the archconservative Dutch Treat Luncheon and Alexander has allowed himself to sound measurably more moderate than in his hotly disputed primary with outgoing 7th District congressman Ed Bryant. Though Alexander is favored over Nashville congressman Clement, the two will participate in a series of debates, and Clement may find himself the beneficiary of the same expectations game that boosted GOP gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary's stock in a recent debate in which he was judged to have held his own with favored Democrat Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor.

A slenderized, silver-maned Bill Clinton possessed movie-star cachet in the relatively nondescript company of Arkansas political candidates and Memphis-area Democrats during visits Monday to West Memphis and Memphis, for a Democratic rally and a party fund-raiser, respectively. Said the former president in West Memphis, "They [Republicans in Congress] spent $70 million trying to prove I was a winner. And you could have told them that in the first place!"


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