Friday, August 30, 2002

POLITICS: Rites of Passage

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

Posted By on Fri, Aug 30, 2002 at 4:00 AM

RITES OF PASSAGE The dog days of summer, they used to be called, before the events of last September 11th created an aura of menace which is 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 6th 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 proberbial “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 in county contracting and winning a major one late in the game when he took the lead in passing a tree ordinance which imposed new restrictions on developers (but which, 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 and 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. Erstwhile man-about-town VanderSchaaf kept smiling as he heard himself described fondly by colleagues, as, for example, the commissioner who “could always identify the female members of the media in the audience.” (That one came from fellow developer Tom Moss.)Fair made a point of chatting up the incoming commissioner who ousted him in a sometimes bitter primary -- conservative GOP populist John Willingham, who looked unusually natty Monday in a new suit. In the spirit of conciliaton which predominated, budget committee chairman Cleo Kirk said he hoped restaurateur 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 -- belatedly marking his de facto acceptance as a bona fide Republican luminary. Flinn promised to be heard from again. At the same meeting Young Republican chairman Rick Rout read a letter of apology for an email 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 arch-conservative Dutch Treat Luncheon and Alexander has allowed himself to sound measurably more moderate than when he was engaged in a hotly disputed primary with outgoing 7th district congressman Ed Bryant. Though former governor 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 which 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 who, however, has been a much more frequent visitor to Memphis and Shelby County than has 4th district congressman Hilleary)....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 fundraiser, respectively. Said the former president in West Memphis: “They [Republicans in Congress] spent $70 million trying to prove I was a sinner. And you could have told them that in the first place!”

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