Monday, April 28, 2003

FROM MY SEAT

FROM MY SEAT

Posted By on Mon, Apr 28, 2003 at 4:00 AM

MISCELLANEOUS MUSINGS Some random thoughts on the games being played (and those playing them):
  • Hats off to the Central Hockey League champion Memphis RiverKings. Coach Doug Shedden has clearly built a minor-league powerhouse in Southaven, having now won two straight President’s Cups. With a certifiable star in Don Parsons (MVP the last two years, 14 goals in 14 playoff games this season), our 11-year-old hockey franchise is something to be proud of. The DeSoto Civic Center will never be mistaken for the Montreal Forum or Joe Louis Arena, but when Kahlil Thomas drilled the championship-winning goal five minutes into the second overtime(!) Friday night, the 6,158 fans in attendance went certifiably Cup Crazy. If you’re looking for a sign of the hockey bug spreading in the Mid-South, you need look no further than the walk-up line for tickets Friday night, a line that snaked outside the arena well after the opening face-off. Fear the turtle, indeed.
  • In watching the NBA playoffs, don’t you get the impression the Eastern Conference bracket is the professional equivalent of the NIT, with the Western Conference representing the NCAA tournament? I mean, there are four teams from the West that would whip the Eastern champ in five games, max. You have to wonder how this accident of geography developed. With free agency and a draft lottery, you’d think talent would spread evenly across conference lines. Somehow, though, the six best players in the league have landed among five Western Conference clubs (Kobe and Shaq in L.A., Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Chris Webber in Sacramento, Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas). With O’Neal being the senior member of this Six-Pack (at age 31), don’t expect the balance of power to swing east anytime soon.
  • Runs are going to be hard to come by for the 2003 Memphis Redbirds. Which is all the more reason to appreciate the front of ‘Birds pitching rotation. In Nerio Rodriguez (seven shutout innings against Omaha Friday night), Steve Stemle (nine innings of 1-hit ball against Colorado Springs last week), and the much-hyped Jimmy Journell, Memphis should keep games tight, even with a less-than-imposing batting lineup. With Jason Simontacchi and Garrett Stephenson struggling in St. Louis, one of these three may be getting a big phone call.
  • It would have been nice to read John Calipari’s press release swearing his devotion to Tiger Nation during the Final Four’s weekend media blitz . . . as opposed to after the dust had settled and his candidacy for the Pittsburgh job (among others) proved more tenuous than first believed. Taking a knee and proclaiming one’s love is easy once you recognize no one else in the room is winking at you.
  • How many Memphis golf fans were rooting for Len Mattiace during the fourth round of the Masters? What a story that would have been, Mattiace claiming the game’s most hallowed prize a year after winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic as a complete unkown. A prime example of how difficult it is to get one’s name to the top of a major leader board . . . and how astonishing it is that Tiger Woods has managed this eight times before his 30th birthday.
  • I couldn’t help but chuckle at the comedic “brawl” between the Cardinals’ Tino Martinez and Arizona’s Miguel Batista on Easter Sunday in St. Louis. Either these kind of fisticuffs have to end once and for all . . . or the players have got to learn how to throw a punch. Seriously, here’s a thought on ending the madness. Instead of these silly warnings that an umpire will give a pitcher who is judged to be intentionally throwing at a hitter, why not penalize the team behind him? If a batter is hit by a pitch that is considered by the plate umpire to be intentional . . . give the batter two bases. See how many pitchers will plug a guy if this immediately puts the batter in scoring position. As for the hitters who charge the mound, not only should they be booted from the game . . . but the batter due up next is out as well. This sophomorish gamesmanship has to end before someone really gets hurt. And wrist-slapping suspensions aren’t the answer.
  • We sports journalists rely more on cliches than anyone this side of Hallmark. But there are times we have to stifle ourselves. During the Cardinals-Braves telecast last Thursday, WTBS broadcasters Joe Simpson and Don Sutton -- a pair of veterans who should know better -- described St. Louis pitcher Woody Williams “dancing through landmines” as he escaped Atlanta scoring threats. Considering the international climate in which we’re all living these days, we simply have to be more creative in describing the games we watch.

    Friday, April 25, 2003

    FLINN FLIES AGAIN?

    FLINN FLIES AGAIN?

    Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Don't look now (all right, look now!), but the elusive and unpredictable George Flinn, the radiologist/radio magnate who parlayed his considerable private resources into a semi-successful run for public office in 2002, has finally tipped his hand as to his intentions for 2003. Flinn has picked up (okay, okay, has had picked up!) not one but two petitions for a place on this year's Memphis city-election ballot. One petition is for the District 5 city council seat now held by the retiring John Vergos, the other is for -- would you guess it? -- mayor. Something in Flinn plainly lusts for the gold ring on the merry-go-round ride. The Memphis native and former Central High School ham-radio operator, who succeeded in the seemingly disparate fields of medicine (as holder of several ultra-sound patents and as the proprietor of a multi-office local practice) and broadcasting (as the owner of a string of local radio stations), likes the idea of holding the top job. Though many -- including the powers-that-be in the Shelby County Republican Party -- were skeptical when Flinn began coveting the GOP nomination for county mayor in late 2001, he won it, in an upset over the establishment favorite, then State Rep. Larry Scroggs. Though nominally the head of the Republican ticket, Flinn was deserted by a considerable number of Republicans, some of whom charged outright that his tactics against Scroggs had been unfair. Flinn and his supporters countered that the dissidents were part of a Good Old Boy network lining up behind A C Wharton, the smooth and highly credentialed Democratic nominee who would end up winning easily. Whatever explains Flinn's distant second-place finish in 2002, he at least had a theoretical chance of winning a mayor's race in Shelby County, which in 2002 had an electorate divided almost evenly between whites and blacks and between Republicans and Democrats (dichotomies whose local overlap is considerable). He has in the judgment of most analysts no chance at all to win against entrenched three-term mayor Willie Herenton, an African-American and a Democrat, in a city whose vote is overwhelmingly black and Democratic. Still he may try. Or he may, in the judgment of Joe Cooper, a fellow member of his old Central High ham-radio club and a veteran pol in his own right, do the smart thing and run for the Vergos seat. "He'll start as the favorite there," Cooper declared. The wealthy Flinn will certainly have the means to make a stout race. Others intending to run for the 5th District seat or floating the idea of a race are Memphis lawyer Jim Strickland, Democratic activist David Upton, and political newcomer Mary Wilder. Oh, and as for those rumors of a run for the Vergos seat by Cooper himself, who rarely forgoes finding a place for himself on an election ballot, fahgidaboutit! Cooper confirmed Wednesday that he is more likely to enter the anticipated free-for-all in Super-District 9, Position 1, where incumbent Pat VanderSchaaf is expected to have a multitude of challengers and where a plurality will win the seat.

    Double-Header

    The county commission hears from mayors Wharton and Herenton on issues of the day.

    Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    It was a precedent-shattering day for the Shelby County Commission Monday. The assembled commissioners were addressed by two mayors -- county mayor A C Wharton in the morning, pitching his proposed new Adequate Facilities Tax, and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in the afternoon, stumping for city/county consolidation. But the key moment may have come at the very end of the commissioners' long day, when, just before adjournment, Commissioner Joe Ford announced, almost as a throwaway line, "I'm going to vote for development every time it comes by here," and proceeded to make the case that adding property to the tax rolls was the summum bonum for county government, transcending considerations of "Smart Growth," urban sprawl, school funding, or whatever.

    Ford's declaration followed a close and controversial vote on an east Shelby County subdivision project proposed by developer Rusty Hyneman, which in itself was an appropriate capper for a day's worth of high-urgency policy debate -- much of which centered, explicitly or implicitly, on that selfsame issue of development. The morning's activity focused on Wharton's presentation of the case for an Adequate Facilities Tax as a lynchpin of his Smart Growth plan, technically delivered to the commission's budget and finance committee but made before a de facto meeting of the whole commission, reconvened for the purpose in the first-floor auditorium in the county administration building. The afternoon saw "Willie W. Herenton, citizen" (as the city mayor insisted on calling himself) make what -- considering the advance buildup -- was actually an anticlimactic and understated plea for consolidation.

    The intertwined issues of development and school funding as they impact the county's worsening financial predicament underlay both presentations and the discussions that ensued from them.

    The Adequate Facilities Tax that Wharton proposes -- and which he had first introduced to the commission in a preliminary budget projection last week -- would impose fees of $1 per square foot for new residential development and 75 cents per square foot for new nonresidential projects. Citing the fact that "our property taxes are among the highest in the region," resulting in a "tremendous loss" of population and industrial clients to DeSoto County, Wharton said he intended the A.F.T. -- which is close cousin to an "impact fee" on new development -- to "take pressure off the property tax." But he added, "I'm looking for workable solutions," offhandedly throwing out a number of other possibilities, including that of a payroll tax.

    Commissioner Deidre Malone grabbed that ball and ran with it, pointing out that a payroll tax would be an appropriate means of getting help on infrastructure costs from out-migrants who live elsewhere but still work in Shelby County or rely on the county's shopping, recreational, and entertainment facilities. And, though commission chairman Walter Bailey dutifully pointed out that the scope of Monday morning's discussion was limited to the proposed new tax or to the county mayor's Smart Growth concept or his budgetary proposals in general, the payroll-tax idea kept resurfacing. Commissioner Joyce Avery, who represents an outer-county district, added her approval of it, twice calling the payroll tax -- either in a Freudian slip or as an imaginative analogy -- a "poll tax."

    And a sizable host of developers and their spokesmen on hand were like-minded. A series of speakers, beginning with former Office of Planning and Development director Dexter Muller, who now represents commercial developers, and continuing with several officers of the state and local Home Builders Associations, deplored the effect of the proposed new tax on what they described as an already depressed homebuilding industry and talked up the alternative of a payroll tax. Homebuilder Frank Uhlhorn, a Germantown alderman, was typical in suggesting that the right tactic was not to penalize local developers but to target those who "have chosen to cut and run." Ron Belz, president of Belz Enterprises, said county entrepreneurs trying to attract warehousing and other commercial clients could "lose deals over pennies" and that the proposed A.F.T. could tilt the balance, however minutely, in such negotiations.

    Commissioner Tom Moss, himself a developer, was skeptical of the limited yield -- $4 to $7 million annually, Wharton has estimated -- from an Adequate Facilities Tax and quipped sarcastically that "we could go for some real money" by applying the proposed tax retroactively to developments already completed. That, Wharton aide Kelly Rayne said straight-facedly, would be unconstitutional.

    The lone testifier on behalf of the tax was Cordova homemaker Stacy Heydrich, who said that the morning session seemed "skewed" on behalf of homebuilders and developers and lamented the fact of pell-mell development in her area. Mentioning specifically the Hyneman project on Macon Road that would be voted on later in the afternoon, Heydrich cited the difficulty of funding new schools and other infrastructure that she said would arise from that and other new development and proclaimed, "If you don't have the money, you have two choices: Don't build, or tax builders and developers."

    What Wharton was asking the commission to do was not to enact his proposed new tax but merely to pass it on to the legislature, where, if the Shelby County delegation supports it with what amounts to unanimity, enabling legislation could be passed, and the tax could be forwarded back to the commission for definitive action. With that in mind, such undecided commissioners as Marilyn Loeffel and Avery voted with a 6-to-4 majority to pass the proposed measure on for action in Nashville, where, as Wharton pointed out, the General Assembly is heading toward an early-May adjournment.

    Though his afternoon appearance had been much ballyhooed, Herenton added little to the consolidation agenda which he had previously proposed, though his declaration before the assembled commissioners -- and in the presence of Wharton, his mayoral counterpart -- that "we cannot continue to support two separate governments and two separate school systems" had inherent symbolic power. Like Wharton, Herenton pronounced that local taxpayers could not continue to be burdened with add-on property taxes. Underscoring the implicit comparison between his own no-new-taxes budget and the county's revenue difficulties, certain to require additional taxes of some sort, the Memphis mayor-qua-Shelby County "citizen" said, "As a taxpayer, I expect better policies and better management."

    One result of that was a somewhat testy back-and-forth between Herenton and commission budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who at one point asked Herenton what the city's bond rating was. "Double-A," the city mayor said proudly. "Well, ours is Double-A-plus," responded Kirk. "We can't have been doing things all that badly."

    At some point, the idea of a "summit" to discuss the issues of schools and local governance got bruited, and Herenton said, "I am hoping that Chairman [Walter] Bailey, in his great wisdom, would call the summit." To which Bailey replied, "I trust your hopes will be realized." As they were ultimately, with the commission voting 11-1 to hold such a meeting of local officials -- time, place, agenda and other particulars yet to be defined.

  • Commission Capsules: The Hyneman proposal -- for 85 new dwellings in the Macon Road/Houston Levee Road area -- was deferred for two weeks, with Smart Growth advocates like Bruce Thompson, who cited Land Use Board and OPD rejections, and pro-development advocates, like Ford and Moss, who called OPD "rudderless," girding for a showdown. A redesigned proposal by Commissioner John Willingham to authorize a private company's research into converting The Pyramid into a casino sneaked through a rump session of a commission committee virtually unnoticed; it will come before the full commission at its next meeting. Willingham indicated his threat to ask reconsideration of a rural school bonds proposal may not materialize if further cuts are made in the budget for a proposed new Arlington school.

  • If there ever was a government official who was entitled to hold court, it was 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn on Tax Day, April 15, 2003. And the freshman congressman and seasoned anti-tax battler did it in the right venue -- with an open house in her branch office on Stage Hills Boulevard in eastern Shelby County -- the other end of the district from her own Brentwood residence but the home of her once and maybe future opponent, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff.

    "I'm just going to continue to try to be the best congressman I can," said Republican Blackburn about the potential 2004 challenge which Kustoff acknowledges he is considering. News of Kustoff's intentions -- first reported in these spaces last month -- reached her almost instantly. "I wasn't surprised," she said -- something of an understatement since she and her staff people had been on orange alert for news of a Kustoff bid for several months.

    The premise of a Kustoff run is that Shelby County is -- and will remain -- the largest voter base in the sprawling 7th, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, and that, had not Kustoff been saddled with two major local opponents -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor and state Senator Mark Norris -- in the GOP's 2002 primary, he might have had good one-on-one chances against Blackburn.

    "I've had a lot of encouragement to run," Kustoff has said, and likely he has -- though it is still hard to estimate his chances against an incumbent who has worked Shelby County as often and as hard as Blackburn has (last year she finished a strong third in the county, to Kustoff and Norris) and who hit the ground running in Washington, where she serves as an assistant Republican whip and won another plum as vice chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee on government efficiency.

    The latter post gives Blackburn a chance to work out on her pet scenario of government as Big Bumbler. And she hasn't laid aside the tax issue that boosted her fame (or notoriety) in Tennessee -- where as a state senator she became one of the focal points of opposition to a state income tax.

    Just now she is pushing legislation to allow taxpayers in Tennessee -- along with those in other states that have a sales tax but no income tax -- to deduct their sales tax expenditures on their federal income-tax filings. Whipping out her Blackberry, on which she has her research information recorded, she ran through a chronology which began, as she outlined it, in 1913 with the imposition of a U.S. income tax and continued through 1986 when state sales-taxes became the last of of a variety of local and state taxes which had progressively been eliminated as a basis for deductions.

    "It was social engineering pure and simple," Blackburn maintained in all seriousness, "a way of forcing the states to shift from sales taxes to income taxes. I promised [state Lt. Gov.] John Wilder I would try to restore the sales-tax deduction when I got to Congress."

    Did that mean she makes floor speeches using the vintage Wilder line "Uncle Sam taxes taxes"? Blackburn laughed. "No, and I haven't said, 'The cosmos is good,' along with everything else." That, of course, is an allusion to Wilder's liberal use of the adjective "good" to describe virtually everything (notably and primarily, the state Senate itself).

    And Blackburn is the last person you would accuse of being liberal about anything -- except maybe in her consumption of the breakfast bars and nutrition supplements she says she substitutes for most regular meals.

    In particular: "I can't use sugar. It gives me headaches." If last year's election season was any indication, Blackburn knows how to exude sweetness on the campaign trail (she was one of the few contestants who eschewed mudslinging as such), but she clearly knows how to give headaches to the opposition too -- even someone as shrewd as Kustoff, who ably directed George W. Bush's crucial electoral win in Tennessee but has since seen Blackburn cop her own share of Republican mainstream action.

    If the race comes off, it's one to look forward to in 2004. ™

    Wednesday, April 23, 2003

    POLITICS

    The county commission hears from mayors Wharton and Herenton on isues of the day.

    Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    DOUBLE-HEADER It was a precedent-shattering day for the Shelby County Commission Monday. The assembled commissioners were addressed by two mayors -- county mayor A C Wharton in the morning, pitching his proposed new Adequate Facilities Tax, and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in the afternoon, stumping for city/county consolidation. But the key moment may have come at the very end of the commissioners’ long day, when, just before adjournment, Commissioner Joe Ford announced, almost as a throwaway line, “I’m going to vote for development every time it comes by here,” and proceeded to make the case that adding property to the tax rolls was the summum bonum for country government, transcending considerations of “Smart Growth,” urban sprawl, school funding, or whatever. Ford’s declaration followed a close and controversial vote on an east Shelby County subdivision project proposed by developer Rusty Hyneman, which in itself was an appropriate capper for a day’s worth of high-urgency policy debate -- much of which centered, explicitly or implicitly, on that selfsame issue of development. The morning’s activity focused on Wharton’s presentation of the case for an Adequate Facilities Tax as a lynchpin of his “Smart Growth” plan, technically delivered to the commission’s budget and finance committee but made before a de facto meeting of the whole commission, reconvened for the purpose in the first-floor auditorium in the county administration building. The afternoon saw “Willie W. Herenton, citizen” (as the city mayor insisted on calling himself) make what -- considering the advance buildup -- was actually an anti-climactic and understated plea for consolidation. The intertwined issues of development and school funding as they impact the county’s worsening financial predicament underlay both presentations and the discussions that ensued from them. The Adequate Facilities Tax that Wharton proposes -- and which he had first introduced to the commission in a preliminary budget projection last week -- would impose fees of $1 per square foot for new residential development and 75 cents per square foot for new nonresidential projects. Citing the fact that “our property taxes are among the highest in the region,” resulting in a “tremendous loss” of population and industrial clients to DeSoto County, Wharton said he intended the A.F.T. -- which is close cousin to an “impact fee” on new development -- to “take pressure off the property tax.” But he added, “I’m looking for workable solutions,” offhandedly throwing out a number of other possibilities, including that of a payroll tax. Commissioner Deidre Malone grabbed that ball and ran with it, pointing out that a payroll tax would be an appropriate means of getting help on infrastructure costs from out-migrants who live elsewhere but still work in Shelby County or rely on the county’s shopping, recreational, and entertainment facilities. And, though commission chairman Walter Bailey dutifully pointed out that the scope of Monday morning’s discussion was limited to the proposed new tax or to the county mayor’s Smart Growth concept or his budgetary proposals in general, the payroll-tax idea kept resurfacing. Commissioner Joyce Avery, who represents an outer-county district, added her approval of it, twice calling the payroll tax -- either in a Freudian slip or as an imaginative analogy -- a “poll tax.” And a sizeable host of developers and their spokesmen on hand were like-minded. A series of speakers, beginning with former Office of Planning and Development director Dexter Muller, who now represents commercial developers, and continuing with several officers of the state and local Home Builders Associations, deplored the effect of the proposed new tax on what they described as an already depressed homebuilding industry and talked up the alternative of a payroll tax. Homebuilder Frank Uhlhorn, a Germantown alderman, was typical in suggesting that the right tactic was not to penalize local developers but to target those who “have chosen to cut and run.” Ron Belz, president of Belz Enterprises, said county entrepreneurs trying to attract warehousing and other commercial clients could “lose deals over pennies” and that the proposed A.F.F. could tilt the balance, however minutely, in such negotiations. Commissioner Tom Moss, himself a developer, was skeptical of the limited yield -- $4 to $7 million annually, Wharton has estimated -- from an Adequate Facilities Tax and quipped sarcastically that “we could go for some real money” by applying the proposed tax retroactively to developments already completed. That, said Wharton aide Kelly Rayne straight-facedly, would be unconstitutional. The lone testifier on behalf of the tax was Cordova homemaker Stacy Heydrich, who said that the morning session seemed “skewed” on behalf of homebuilders and developers and lamented the fact of pell-mell development in her area. Mentioning specifically the Hyneman project on Macon Road that would be voted on later in the afternoon, Heydrich cited the difficulty of funding new schools and other infrastructure that she said would arise from that and other new development and proclaimed, “If you don’t have the money, you have two choices: Don’t build, or tax builders and developers.” What Wharton was asking the commission to do was not to enact his proposed new tax but merely to pass it on to the legislature, where, if the Shelby County delegation supports it with what amounts to unanimity, enabling legislation could be passed, and the tax could be forwarded back to the commission for definitive action. With that in mind, such undecided commissioners as Marilyn Loeffel and Avery voted with a 6-to-4 majority to pass the proposed measure on for action in Nashville, where, as Wharton pointed out, the General Assembly is heading toward an early-May adjournment. Though his afternoon appearance had been much ballyhooed, Herenton added little to the consolidation agenda which he had previously proposed, though his declaration before the assembled commissioners -- and in the presence of Wharton, his mayoral counterpart -- that “we cannot continue to support two separate governments and two separate school systems” had inherent symbolic power. Like Wharton, Herenton pronounced that local taxpayers could not continue to be burdened with add-on property taxes. Underscoring the implicit comparison between his own no-new-taxes budget and the county’s revenue difficulties, certain to require additional taxes of some sort, the Memphis mayor-qua-Shelby County “citizen” said, “As a taxpayer, I expect better policies and better management.” One result of that was a somewhat testy back-and-forth between Herenton and commission budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who at one point asked Herenton what the city’s bond rating was. “Double-A,” the city mayor said proudly. “Well, ours is Double-A-plus,” responded Kirk. “We can’t have been doing things all that badly.” At some point, the idea of a “summit” to discuss the issues of schools and local governance got bruited, and Herenton said, “I am hoping that Chairman [Walter] Bailey, in his great wisdom, would call the summit.” To which Bailey replied. “I trust your hopes will be realized.” As they were ultimately, with the commission voting 11-1 to hold such a meeting of local officials -- time, place, agenda and other particulars yet to be defined.
  • Commission Capsules: The Hyneman proposal -- for 85 new dwellings in the Macon Road/Houston Levee Rd. area -- was deferred for two weeks, with Smart Growth advocates like Bruce Thompson, who cited Land Use Board and OPD rejections, and pro-development advocates, like Ford and Moss, who called OPD “rudderless,” girding for a showdownÉ.A redesigned proposal by Commissioner John Willingham to authorize a private company’s research into converting The Pyramid into a casino sneaked through a rump session of a commission committee virtually unnoticed; it will come before the full commission at its next meeting. Willingham indicated his threat to ask reconsideration of a rural school bonds proposal may not materialize if further cuts are made in the budget for a proposed new Arlington school.

    Sunday, April 20, 2003

    GREEN EYESHADE RESULTS

    GREEN EYESHADE RESULTS

    Posted By on Sun, Apr 20, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Bringing Home the Green

    Green Eyeshade Awards honor local journalists.

    The Memphis Flyer and its sister publication, Memphis magazine, were winners at the 2003 Green Eyeshade Awards, held April 5th in Atlanta. Hosted by the Atlanta chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, this competition honors the best work of writers and photographers in 11 Southern states.

    This year's winners included:

    Marilyn Sadler: first place, feature writing, "Meeting Halfway," Memphis magazine.

    Vance Lauderdale: first place, humorous commentary, "Ask Vance," Memphis magazine.

    Vern Evans: first place, photography, "Return to Shiloh," Memphis magazine.

    Jackson Baker: third place, non-deadline reporting, "Meltdown in Nashville," The Memphis Flyer.

    Chris Herrington: third place, sports commentary, "The Second Time Around," "Split Personality," and "Silver Lining," The Memphis Flyer.

    Other local finalists included The Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins, second place for sports commentary; and David Williams, third place for sports reporting.

    Friday, April 18, 2003

    Where's the Beef?

    A wild Democratic convention produces lots of excitement -- but no party chair.

    Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    A propos that old adage about politics being a sausage factory: The Shelby County Democrats' biennial convention last Saturday at Hamilton High School may have been a messy and shocking spectacle, but it was at times spicy and even delectable. And lots of fun. The only problem was that the process ended with no sausage.

    Which is to say, no chairperson. Current chair Gale Jones Carson and her challenger, state Representative Kathryn Bowers, both ended up with 20 votes apiece -- thanks to a sudden illness that forced a presumed Bowers delegate, Marianne Wolf of Cordova, to go home early. When various remedies for the standoff -- including a proposed revote and an attempt to invoke a tie-break via Roberts' Rules of Order -- failed to come off, both contestants (and their backers) finally agreed to an adjournment and a runoff vote at a special meeting of the newly elected executive committee to be called later on.

    Some of the contests that produced the 41 elected committee members in conclaves (based on state House of Representatives districts) held throughout the Hamilton auditorium were close in their own right --and self-sufficiently dramatic. For example, in District 85, one of several to experience a tie vote requiring several ballotings, a shoving match erupted at one point involving radio talk-show host Thaddeus Matthews, a Bowers supporter, and Carson supporter Jerry Hall. In the end, the majority vote went for Carson.

    There were accusations and controversies aplenty in other district conclaves. A Carson supporter in District 87 (Bowers' home district) was city council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, whose credentials were challenged by Bowers booster James Robinson on grounds that Mitchell had not participated in last month's preliminary pre-convention caucuses. Mitchell denied the allegation.

    As Carson wanly noted toward the end of the proceedings, the old Arab proverb that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" was very much in play. There were all manner of unnatural alliances and combinations to be seen -- starting with the fact that longtime antagonists David Upton and Del Gill, both Bowers advocates on Saturday, were on the same side. And, though most known partisans of 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. were deployed on Bowers' behalf, at least one, field rep Clay Perry, was on hand to give apparent lip service to Ford's public statement on behalf of Carson.

    That statement, made last month as some of Ford's cadres apparently invoked his name on Bowers' behalf, seemed clearly pro forma and the result of what some of his supporters saw as a panic reaction. A Bowers backer on Saturday remarked bitterly that the congressman had "left us high and dry" after earlier promises of support.

    Late in the game, Carson supporters were insisting that Roberts' Rules mandated a tie-breaking vote by the chairperson or -- since Carson, in the apparent interests of propriety, declined to do those honors herself -- the first vice chair, who happened to be one of her supporters, freelance journalist Bill Larsha. The crucial argument was supplied by lawyer David Cocke, a Bowers proponent, who somehow prevailed on a hastily assembled jury of fellow barristers to accept his interpretation that parliamentary rules exempted election of a chairperson from that sort of tie-break.

    Cocke, a newly elected committee member and voter himself, was under clock pressure to get something done fast, inasmuch as he was due to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law Saturday afternoon. "We kept them from knowing that," gloated Upton, who with another Bowers ringleader, John Freeman, had been involved in another time-sensitive mission, pleading on the telephone to the ailing Wolff for her return.

    Wolff, who was suffering from nausea (presumably for reasons other than the raucous events at the convention), had been carried home early by her Cordova neighbor, Nancy Kuhn, a Carson supporter whom Wolff had beat out for a District 99 committee slot. To compound the irony, it was Kuhn who dutifully drove Wolff back to the auditorium after Wolff finally said yes to her insistent implorers. By then, the convention had adjourned, however.

    "That was insensitive," Carson said scornfully about the prolonged effort to persuade an ailing delegate to return.

    Insensitive or not, the Wolff mission was as nothing compared to the arm-twisting and cajoling and threatening and subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- bribery that will go on (as all of it had during the run-up to Saturday's convention) in the days remaining before the newly constituted committee is reconvened to break the tie.

    Whatever the final result, the course of civilization at large will not be much altered. Clearly, a Bowers victory would gratify those Democrats critical of Carson or of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, whom she serves as press secretary, or of Carson/Herenton ally Sidney Chism, blamed by Bowers and other legislators for recruiting election opponents for them last year. (Herenton, who showed the flag on Carson's behalf at last month's caucuses, was not on hand Saturday, though many members of his inner circle, including city finance director Joseph Lee, were.) White Democrats on the new committee seem mostly to be Bowers backers, testament to one of the convention's subtexts, invoked subtly by Bowers in earlier remarks from the stage calling for more "inclusion."

    Just as clearly, many Democrats faithful to Carson's cause (and the mayor's) were among those who have traditionally been alienated from what they have seen as the party's establishment -- an ill-defined aggregate including partisans of the party's Farris and Ford clans and, these days, members of the county's legislative delegation.

    In any case, the Democrats will take one more crack at creating a sausage when they meet again, though it is doubtful that the next attempt will have quite the sizzle and spectacle of Saturday's convention.

    Thursday, April 17, 2003

    POLITICS

    POLITICS

    Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    MARSHA SAYS SHE'S READY FOR A CHALLENGE If there ever was a government official who was entitled to hold court, it was 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn on Tax Day, April 15, 2003. And the freshman congressman and seasoned anti-tax battler did it in the right venue -- with an open house in her branch office on Stage Hills Boulevard in eastern Shelby County -- the other end of the district from her own Brentwood residence but the home of her once and maybe future opponent, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff. “I’m just going to continue to try to be the best congressman I can,” said Republican Blackburn about the potential 2004 challenge which Kustoff acknowledges he is considering. News of Kustoff’s intentions -- first reported in these spaces last month -- reached her almost instantly. “I wasn’t surprised,” she said -- something of an understatement since she and her staff people had been on orange alert for news of a Kustoff bid for several months. The premise of a Kustoff run is that Shelby County is -- and will remain -- the largest voter base in the sprawling 7th, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, and that, had not Kustoff been saddled with two major local opponents -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor and state Senator Mark Norris -- in the GOP’s 2002 primary, he might have had good one-on-one chances against Blackburn. “I’ve had a lot of encouragement to run,” Kustoff has said, and likely he has -- though it is still hard to estimate his chances against an incumbent who has worked Shelby County as often and as hard as Blackburn has (last year she finished a strong third in the county, to Kustoff and Norris) and who hit the ground running in Washington, where she serves as an assistant Republican whip and won another plum as vice chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee on government efficiency. The latter post gives Blackburn a chance to work out on her pet scenario of government as Big Bumbler. And she hasn’t laid aside the tax issue that boosted her fame (or notoriety) in Tennessee -- where as a state senator she became one of the focal points of opposition to a state income tax. Just now she is pushing legislation to allow taxpayers in Tennessee -- along with those in other states that have a sales tax but no income tax -- to deduct their sales tax expenditures on their federal income-tax filings. Whipping out her Blackberry, on which she has her research information recorded, she ran through a chronology which began, as she outlined it, in 1913 with the imposition of a U.S. income tax and continued through 1986 when state sales-taxes became the last of of a variety of local and state taxes which had progressively been eliminated as a basis for deductions. “It was social engineering pure and simple,” Blackburn maintained in all seriousness , “ a way of forcing the states to shift from sales taxes to income taxes. I promised [state Lt. Gov.] John Wilder I would try to restore the sales-tax deduction when I got to Congress.” Did that mean she makes floor speeches using the vintage Wilder line “Uncle Sam taxes taxes”? Blackburn laughed. “No, and I haven’t said, ‘The cosmos is good,’ along with everything else.” That, of course, is an allusion to Wilder’s liberal use of the adjective “good” to describe virtually everything (notably and primarily, the state Senate itself). And Blackburn is the last person you would accuse of being liberal about anything -- except maybe in her consumption of the breakfast bars and nutrition supplements she says she substitutes for most regular meals.. In particular: “I can’t use sugar. It gives me headaches.” If last year’s election season was any indication, Blackburn knows how to exude sweetness on the campaign trail (she was one of the few contestants who eschewed mudslinging as such), but she clearly knows how to give headaches to the opposition, too -- even someone as shrewd as Kustoff, who ably directed George W. Bush’s crucial electoral win in Tennessee but has since seen Blackburn cop her own share of Republican mainstream action. If the race comes off, it’s one to look forward to in 2004.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2003

    POLITICS

    POLITICS

    Posted By on Wed, Apr 16, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    MARSHA SAYS SHE'S READY FOR A CHALLENGE If there ever was a government official who was entitled to hold court, it was 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn on Tax Day, April 15, 2003. And the freshman congressman and seasoned anti-tax battler did it in the right venue -- with an open house in her branch office on Stage Hills Boulevard in eastern Shelby County -- the other end of the district from her own Brentwood residence but the home of her once and maybe future opponent, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff. “I’m just going to continue to try to be the best congressman I can,” said Republican Blackburn about the potential 2004 challenge, which Kustoff acknowledges he is considering. News of Kustoff’s intentions -- first reported in these spaces last month -- reached her almost instantly. “I wasn’t surprised,” she said -- something of an understatement since she and her staff people had been on orange alert for news of a Kustoff bid for several months. The premise of a Kustoff run is that Shelby County is -- and will remain -- the largest voter base in the sprawling 7th, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, and that, had not Kustoff been saddled with two major local opponents -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor and state Senator Mark Norris -- in the GOP’s 2002 primary, he might have had good one-on-one chances against Blackburn. “I’ve had a lot of encouragement to run,” Kustoff has said, and likely he has -- though it is still hard to estimate his chances against an incumbent who has worked Shelby County as often and as hard as Blackburn has (last year she finished a strong third in the county, to Kustoff and Norris) and who hit the ground running in Washington, where she serves as an assistant Republican whip and won another plum as vice chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee on government efficiency. The latter post gives Blackburn a chance to work out on her pet scenario of government as Big Bumbler. And she hasn’t laid aside the tax issue that boosted her fame (or notoriety) in Tennessee -- where as a state senator she became one of the focal points of opposition to a state income tax. Just now she is pushing legislation to allow taxpayers in Tennessee -- along with those in other states that have a sales tax but no income tax -- to deduct their sales tax expenditures on their federal income-tax filings. Whipping out her Blackberry, on which she has her research information recorded, she ran through a chronology which began, as she outlines it, in 1913 with the imposition of a U.S. income tax and continued through 1986 when state sales-taxes became the last of a variety of local and state taxes which had progressively been eliminated as a basis for deductions. “It was social engineering pure and simple,” Blackburn maintained in all seriousness , “ a way of forcing the states to shift from sales taxes to income taxes. I promised [state Lt. Gov.] John Wilder I would try to restore the sales-tax deduction when I got to Congress.” Did that mean she makes floor speeches using the vintage Wilder line “Uncle Sam taxes taxes”? Blackburn laughed. “No, and I haven’t said, ‘The cosmos is good,’ along with everything else.” That, of course, is an allusion to Wilder’s liberal use of the adjective “good” to describe virtually everything (notably and primarily, the state Senate itself). And Blackburn is the last person you would accuse of being liberal about anything -- except maybe in her consumption of the breakfast bars and nutrition supplements she says she substitutes for most regular meals.. In particular: “I can’t use sugar. It gives me headaches.” If last year’s election season was any indication, Blackburn knows how to exude sweetness on the campaign trail (she was one of the few contestants who eschewed mudslinging as such), but she clearly knows how to give headaches to the opposition, too -- even someone as shrewd as Kustoff, who ably directed George W. Bush’s crucial electoral win in Tennessee but has since seen Blackburn cop her own share of Republican mainstream action. If the race comes off, it’s one to look forward to in 2004.

    Tuesday, April 15, 2003

    FROM MY SEAT

    FROM MY SEAT

    Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    BEAR NECESSITIES The Grizzlies will wrap up their second season in Memphis when the final buzzer sounds Wednesday night in The Pyramid. Regardless of the final score between Hubie Brown’s Griz and the playoff bound Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s been the most successful season in the eight-year history of this franchise. Here are a few thoughts on the team’s future, near and far.
  • Hubie Brown can coach. There were plenty of nay-sayers back in November when the 69-year-old Brown was handed the task of re-birthing a team that had started 0-8 (again) under Sidney Lowe. Somehow, a man with an ABA title on his resume managed to connect with millionaires almost a half-century his junior. As promised, the Grizzlies played better defense under Brown, they were more disciplined offensively, and somehow grew deeper (the bench production from Earl Watson being a primary example).
  • Ever seen a point guard with six arms? I still have to be convinced the Jason Williams-for-Mike Bibby trade was a win for the Griz. Can’t help but wonder where the team would be with Bibby’s clutch shooting and steady hand. But with that said, you just can’t argue with the improvement J-Will showed under Brown. He’s near the top of the league in assists and, more impressively, assists-to-turnover ratio. And he seems to have learned that he’s not the club’s best shooting option at the buzzer. Backed up by Watson and Brevin Knight, Williams gives this team the best trio of point guards in the NBA. (There may be better pairs -- Dallas’ Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel come to mind -- but no better trio.) When Knight is healthy, this triple playmaking threat is the Grizzlies’ single greatest weapon. Here’s hoping all three are back for 2003-04.
  • Pau Gasol has to grow up. If the facial contortions and arm-flailing after every perceived uncalled foul continue, this guy’s gonna be mistaken for Bill Laimbeer. And he doesn’t have two NBA titles to his credit. Gasol has two years under his belt now. He’ll be 23 in July. If he continues to put the work in, he’ll be the backbone of this team for years to come. Which means he needs to grow into a leader. His touch within 10 feet of the basket is breathtaking in this age of dunk-or-nothing inside play. He’s an above-average passer for a player of his size. Which makes it all the more troubling to witness his whining when the going gets tough. This is the NBA, Pau. Every player is fouled on every shot. It’s simply a matter of which fouls get called by which ref. As Sir Paul McCartney himself would say, let it be.
  • Geography matters. Oh, to be a member of the Eastern Conference. Take the number of games Memphis played against the NBA’s Big Four (the Lakers, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Dallas) and cut them in half, from 16 to 8. Add a pair of games against each of the following: Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, and Toronto. All of a sudden, instead of closing in on 30 wins for the first time in franchise history, the Grizzlies are near .500 and have an outside shot at a playoff berth. Unless there’s a divisional shakeup (don’t hold your breath), Memphis is looking at a decade of facing the Spurs and Duncan, the Mavs and Nowitzki, the Rockets and Yao, the Timberwolves and Garnett. Makes for nice ticket sales at the FedExForum . . . and some heavy lifting for playoff wannabes.
  • Give Shane Battier a lifetime contract. And I mean lifetime. In eight or nine years -- when the Grizzly swingman is ready to hang up the hightops -- give him his tie and cuff links and send him straight to the front office. He may not have Jerry West’s jumpshot, but he embodies the same All-American (All-Good Guy) qualities Mr. Logo has come to represent. Battier will never win a game by himself, but he sure won’t lose any either. He contributes on the offensive end, where he can handle the ball and drop an occasional trey. And on the defensive end, he can match up with both small forwards and big guards. The irony with Battier is that you’ll know the Grizzlies are near playoff contention when he’s no longer starting games but coming off the bench, night in and night out. Sign him . . . for life.

    WEBRANT

    WEBRANT

    Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Rx FOR SCHOOLS: MORE CLOCK TIME, NOT MORE MONEY Major motion pictures are often remembered for memorable lines such as "Show me the money!" or "Just put your lips together and blow." Others are made immortal by riveting speeches such as Wilford Brimley's star turn in Absence of Malice. But one particular oratory sticks in my mind when I think of America's educational system and our insistence on clinging to a nostalgic ideal of how our schools ought to be run. That speech is Danny DeVito's address to the employees and stockholders of the fictional New England Wire and Cable Company in Other People's Money. Gregory Peck plays the owner of this venerable company which is being targeted for takeover by the venture capitalist firm owned by Danny DeVito. DeVito's character is known for his ruthlessness and lack of emotion for anything but the bottom line. If the deal is consummated, the company will be broken up and sold off, destroying the life and the economy of the small town in which NEW&C has played a significant part. In answer to Peck's heartfelt plea to spare his employees because of the quality product they have put their lives into making, and the traditions and rhythms of small town life created by those employees, DeVito responds with pathos and pithiness. His answer is that in the nineteenth century, there were thousands of buggy whip makers that fell, one by one, to the effects of increased mechanization and the advent of the automobile. DeVito muses to the audience that as superior as that last-of-a-breed buggy whip company must have been, he would have hated to be a stockholder clinging to the belief that the end wasn't near. Implicit in his speech is the point that the world changes, and those wanting to survive in it must change also. The leaders and citizens of Shelby County would do well to reflect on this Tinseltown tableau if we want to solve the problem of delivering education at a price we can afford. This is particularly true in the matter of high school overcrowding, where the proposed solutions are limited to deciding how much more or less money we are going to spend. No one seems to be interested in discussing whether we should be spending any of it on propagating more of the same inefficiencies. The current squabble over expansion and construction of county high schools is not going to be adequately solved by more money, or even slightly less grand plans for that money, but in completely overhauling the way we look at providing the physical plants in which our adolescents are educated. We can do it now, or we can do it later, but either way, we will have to adjust ourselves to a world where there are limited funds to run our schools--funds that are insufficient to continue in the hidebound traditions of our Baby Boomer past. Throughout Shelby County, we have a seven-hour school day which begins in early morning and ends in mid-afternoon. No one has bothered to ask if we need to continue this arrangement. Whether it makes sense to shutter these buildings at about 3:00 every day, not to be reopened until about 7:00 the next morning. Whether our middle and high schools should lie vacant for nearly sixteen hours a day, regardless of the fact that the maintenance requirements are about the same whether the buildings are empty or full. Although principals and teachers may come early and stay late, students, for whom the system is ostensibly operated, are not on campus at hours other than these. Therefore, they are not realizing the highest and best use of the multimillion dollar complexes that our county builds and maintains. And neither are their parents and other taxpayers. My own Florida high school, faced with serious overcrowding in the early 1970s, found a solution to the problem of a dearth of time and money to build additional schools. Mainland Senior High School in Daytona Beach, Florida required its juniors and seniors to attend from 7:00 A.M. until noon and its sophomores to be in class from noon until five in the afternoon. Of course, such a change required that many longstanding high school traditions be reexamined including graduation credits, extracurricular activities, bus transportation, meal service, and faculty and staff positions. But when I mention changing the school day as a solution to Shelby County's dilemma, I am met with sentimental objections similar to the ones that faced DeVito in OPM. My response is that once upon a time we also taught girls to sew and boys to weld and when we abandoned these elements of the curriculum, few people seemed to cry out that tradition was going to hell in a handbasket. To accommodate the change in Mainland High in 1970, the number of graduation credits for my 10-12 school dropped from 21 to 15. When officials examined the hours required for graduation, they realized that many of those additional hours were outside the core curriculum anyway and included study halls, physical education and enrichment programs such as music, art, band and sports. Therefore, streamlining the core offerings was accomplished with little damage to the basic educational program. This did not prevent students from taking additional courses and participating in extracurricular activities. Band and football were taken before or after school, depending on class status. Bus transportation, however, concerned itself only with picking up and dropping off students according to their core schedule. Bus transportation was compressed to fit the new schedule as well, with the yellow behemoths that transported the upperclassmen at the crack of dawn, going on to the elementary schools, just before picking up the sophomores for their trip at noon. These same buses picked up the juniors and seniors moments after the sophomores were disgorged, scooted by the elementary schools, and then picked up the sophomores for their ride home in time for dinner. Nary an empty bus rattling from barn to school and back with hours of downtime in between. Meal service, too was altered to fit the new reality of a shortened school day, resulting in menu items such as ice cream, juices, fresh fruit and cold sandwiches being available to us. These foods were purchased from distributors or prepared at a distant commissary with the attendant efficiencies of such an arrangement. Teachers and personnel were assigned schedules according to which student population they were serving: morning or afternoon. Some teachers and staff were more or less happy with this arrangement, depending on whether they liked arriving early or late, but there was a full complement of faculty and support personnel. For those of us sitting in the classroom in pursuit of a diploma, the changes were hardly noticed--or welcomed wholeheartedly. Next week: how Shelby County schools could adopt this plan.

    Sunday, April 13, 2003

    THE WEATHERS REPORT

    The test of America's patience has just begun

    Posted By on Sun, Apr 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    THE SLOW FUTURE OF IRAQ Now comes the hard part. In Iraq, the fast-and-simple part is over. Now comes the slow-and-complicated part. Here in the United States, in the land of the 24-second shot clock and the 30-second news hole, we’re not so good at slow-and-complicated. We’d rather just change the channel, turn to another game. The war in Iraq has been, so far, simple and fast. Simple: Saddam is bad, we’re good. Fast: Just three weeks of high-tech bombing, and we get to topple the statues. (One is tempted to compare this statue-toppling to the tipping of the loser’s king at the end of a chess game, except the scene in Baghdad, so carefully posed and mechanical, all winches and camera angles, had none of that kind of elegance. Donald Rumsfeld, predictably, compared the few dozen Iraqis who watched an American truck drag down Saddam’s statue in the center of Baghdad to the thousands of Germans who hammered in a frenzy of freedom at the Berlin Wall in 1989. In this comparison, he insulted everyone. Donald Rumsfeld, it’s becoming clear, even to his friends, is an insulting man. He keeps things simple, though, and Americans like simple.) But now Iraq gets complicated, and things go slow. Some will point to today’s scenes of Iraqis greeting American troops with plastic flowers and say, "This is the future." Others will point to the scenes of mass looting and violent vengeance and say, "This is the future." We Americans want the future to be now. But the future in Iraq is still a long way off. When it comes, we Americans will almost certainly have changed the channel. (What channel was Afghanistan on, anyway? I don’t remember.) The future in Iraq will come slow because there are so many players, each playing a different game. The Kurds fight the Iraqis. The Turks fight the Kurds. The Kurds fight themselves. The Shi-ites fight the Sunnis. The Americans, the British, the Republican Guard, the fedayeen, the Baathists, the irregulars, the suicide bombers, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Arabs, the Bedouin, the returning exiles, and all the various village and regional clans--all those players, all playing different games. There’s the law-and-order game: Who will police Iraq now that the police are gone? Who will control the interim government? (We Americans hate "interims." We want the finished product, now.) There’s the democracy game: When will there be free elections? Who will be allowed to run for office? What if fundamentalist Shi-ites win? There’s the rebuilding game: Can Oxfam and Unicef get enough clean water to Basra’s children to prevent epidemics of dysentery and cholera? Can the International Red Cross get medicine to Baghdad’s hospitals? Does Iraqi oil pay for Iraq’s rebuilding or do the Americans who bombed it do the paying? Do only American and British companies get that rebuilding money? Do only contributors to the Bush election campaign get that money? There’s the global power game: Does the U.S. now get to use Iraq as a base--and a precedent--to invade Syria and Iran, too? Has the war injured the terrorists--or inflamed them? Will the U.S. victory bring secular democracy to the Middle East or more entrenched fundamentalism? Will Russia and France serve as the core magnet of a third major power in the world, a Eurocentric third weight to balance against China and the U.S., or will they slide into impotence and irrelevance? It will be a long time before we know the outcomes of these games. Almost certainly, we Americans will have stopped paying attention by then. (Of course, there are some games we never pay attention to in the first place: for example, the game in central Africa that has killed over 2 million people in the last decade and left thousands of women and children with their hands hacked off--a half-century-long game far too slow and complicated for our attention span.) We Americans love the 100-yard dash. (The 10,000-meter run? Well, we leave that to the Ethiopians and Algerians.) We love the slam dunk and the quick-launched three-pointer. (Working the shot clock while waiting for the give-and-go? Well, we leave that to the pointed heads in the Ivy League, who are hardly typical Americans.) We want our quick buck, our Speed Pass, our fast food, and our overnight dry cleaning. We are, in other words, adolescents. Our impatience is our great national virtue and our curse. We have energy and verve and muscle, and we make things happen fast. It’s why we are the greatest inventors the world has ever seen. The French will take hours to prepare a meal, and then take hours to eat it. The Germans will sit not just for a three-hour opera, but for a twelve-hour Ring Cycle. The Russians--well, the Russians have been waiting in lines for centuries, and a four-hour game of chess is for them a pleasure. The Russians and the French and the Germans, you see, are grownups. But we are adolescents, and we hate to wait. Some things, however, demand the long wait and the long-range view: great wines, for example, and global warming. And the wisdom of age. And world history. As for Iraq, I’d suggest we all just stay tuned, but I don’t think we will.

    POLITICS

    POLITICS

    Posted By on Sun, Apr 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    BOWERS, CARSON BATTLE TO STALEMATE FOR DEM CHAIR If politics really is like a sausage factory, then what we got here is a metaphor that’s out of date. The Shelby County Democrats’ biennial convention Saturday at Hamilton High School may have been a messy and shocking spectacle, but it was at times spicy and even delectable. And lots of fun. The only problem was that the process ended with no sausage. Which is to say, no chairperson. Current chair Gale Jones Carson and her challenger, State Representative Kathryn Bowers, both ended up with 20 votes apiece -- thanks to a sudden illness that forced a presumed Bowers delegate, Marianne Wolff of Cordova, to go home early. When various remedies for the standoff -- including a proposed revote and an attempt to invoke a tie-break via Roberts’ Rules of Order -- failed to come off, both contestants (and their backers) finally agreed to an adjournment and a runoff vote at a special meeting of the newly elected executive committee to be called later on. Some of the contests that produced the 41 elected committee members in conclaves (based on state House of Representatives districts) held throughout the Hamilton auditorium were close in their own right --and self-sufficiently dramatic. For example, in District 85, one of several to experience a tie vote requiring several ballotings, a shoving match erupted at one point involving radio talk-show host Thaddeus Matthews, a Bowers supporter, and Carson supporter Jerry Hall. In the end, the majority vote went for Carson. There were accusations and controversies a-plenty in other district conclaves. A Carson supporter in District 87 (Bowers’ home district) was city council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, whose credentials were challenged by Bowers booster James Robinson on grounds that Mitchell had not participated in last month’s preliminary pre-convention caucuses. Mitchell denied the allegation, and it was, in any case, moot that post-convention challenges to her credentials, and those of other voting delegates, could still be heard by the convention’s credentials committee, which had, however, been over-worked right up to, and including, game-time. There were such accusations to be heard as one by delegate Nancy Kuhn that activist David Upton, one of Bowers’ floor leaders, had pulled credentials committee member Del Gill out of a meeting Friday, depriving the meeting of a quorum and preventing the adjudication, presumably in Carson’s favor, of a disputed delegate member. Upton said Gill was outside the meeting room by the time he encountered him Friday and had already determined to leave, on proper parliamentary grounds. "Actually, the Friday credentials meeting was improper because the rules state that all challenges will be finished four days prior to the meeting and parties will have two days to respond," added Upton afterward in a clarifying email. Whatever the case, the contretemps was interesting in that it featured Upton and Gill, traditional antagonists, on the same side for a change. Indeed, as Carson herself wanly noted toward the end of the proceedings, the old Arab proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” was very much in play. There were all manner of unnatural alliances and combinations to be seen -- with most known partisans of 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. deployed on Bowers’ behalf, for example, but with at least one, field rep Clay Perry, on hand to give apparent lip service to Ford’s public statement on behalf of Carson. That statement, made last month as some of Ford’s cadres apparently invoked his name on Bowers’ behalf, seemed clearly pro forma and the result of what some of his supporters saw as a panic reaction. A Bowers backer on Saturday remarked bitterly that the congressman had “left us high and dry” after earlier promises of support. One prominent attendee, State Rep. Carol Chumney, continued her efforts to be influential without obligating herself, and she brought with her Saturday a form letter to whom it might concern denying any involvement in anybody’s campaign. Chumney, an attorney, had personally recruited a sizeable crowd of potential delegates at last month’s caucuses, and she found herself involved in what turned out to be the climactic act Saturday -- an impromptu congress of lawyers who huddled on stage to determine a legal strategy for beating the impasse. At that point, Carson supporters were insisting that Roberts’ Rules mandated a tie-breaking vote by the chairperson or -- since Carson, in the apparent interests of propriety, declined to do those honors herself -- the first vice chair, who happened to be one of her supporters, free-lance journalist Bill Larsha. The crucial argument was supplied by lawyer David Cocke, a Bowers proponent, who somehow prevailed on the other barristers to accept his interpretation that a motion to elect a chairperson was specifically exempted from that sort of tie-break under parliamentary rules. Presumably unbeknownst to the Carson supporters was the fact that Cocke, a newly elected committee member and voter himself, was under clock pressure to get something done fast, inasmuch as he was due to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law Saturday afternoon. “We kept them from knowing that,” gloated Upton, who with another Bowers ringleader, John Freeman, had been involved in another time-sensitive mission, pleading on the telephone to the ailing Wolff for her return. Kuhn had incurred suspicion among the Bowers contingent because she was known to be supporting Carson and it was she who had done the friendly duty of transporting home Wolff, who was suffering from nausea (presumably for reasons other than the raucous events at the convention). But Kuhn -- who, to compound the irony, had been Wolff's opponent for a committee slot in District 99 -- proved her bona fides by dutifully driving Wolff back to the auditorium after Wolff finally said yes to her insist implorers. By then, the convention had adjourned, however. “That was insensitive,” Carson said scornfully about the prolonged and insistent effort to persuade an ailing delegate to return. This was after the convention had finally thrown up its collective hands and adjourned (Carson concurring only because she had learned of Wolff's then imminent return, some Bowers supporters charged cynically). Insensitively handled or not, the Wolff mission was as nothing compared to the arm-twisting and cajoling and threatening and bribing that will go on (as all of it had for the several days of runup to Saturday’s convention) in the days remaining before the newly constituted committee is reconvened to break the tie. Bowers is rated a slight favorite, if for no other reason than that Wolff, whose name was listed on the state representative’s official handout as a delegate for her, will presumably vote for Bowers (she reportedly so assured the state rep upon her belated return Saturday). But there may be shifts of other committee members in both directions. Whatever the final result, the course of civilization at large will not be much altered. Clearly, a Bowers victory would gratify those Democrats critical of Carson or of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, whom she serves as press secretary, or of Carson/Herenton ally Sidney Chism, blamed by Bowers and other legislators for recruiting election opponents for them last year. (Herenton, who showed the flag on Carson’s behalf at last month’s caucuses, was not on hand Saturday, though many members of his inner circle, including city finance director Joseph Lee, were.) White Democrats on the new committee seem mostly to be Bowers backers, testament to one of the convention’s subtexts, invoked subtly by Bowers in earlier remarks from the stage calling for more “inclusion.” Just as clearly, many Democrats faithful to Carson’s cause (and the mayor’s) were among those who have traditionally been alienated from what they have seen as the party’s establishment -- an ill-defined aggregate including partisans of the party’s Farris and Ford clans and, these days, members of the county’s legislative delegation. In any case, the Democrats will take one more crack at creating a sausage when they meet again, and it will be disappointing -- to outside observers, anyhow -- if that attempt lacks the sizzle and spectacle of Saturday’s convention.

    SIGN OF THE TIMES

    SIGN OF THE TIMES

    Posted By on Sun, Apr 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Friday, April 11, 2003

    Poker Hands

    That's one way of describing matters before the Shelby County Commission these days.

    Posted By on Fri, Apr 11, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    John Willingham, the suburban Republican who has somewhat unexpectedly become the swing vote on several issues that confront a tenuously balanced Shelby County Commission, was standing near the doorway of the county building's auditorium after Monday's commission meeting when one of his colleagues, Deidre Malone, passed by on her way out.

    "Don't be mad at me, Deidre," said Willingham, referring to a vote he had just cast -- the deciding one -- to authorize the issuing of $38 million of rural school bonds for the financing of some overdue county school construction. Malone, an inner-city Democrat, had been on the short end of the 7-6 vote and, like most of her party colleagues (Joe Ford being the exception), saw in the vote for rural school bonds a precedent that could undermine the current funding formula favoring city schools.

    "Just be careful with that casino proposal of yours," said Malone with faintly arched eyebrows.

    "That's a threat," Willingham observed glumly after Malone had passed through the swinging doors into the lobby area. And well it might have been.

    Malone and her Democratic contingent were not the only ones who were sweating out a borderline vote. So is Willingham, whose proposal to convert The Pyramid into a downtown casino/hotel was turned down two weeks ago by another 7-6 vote but is still hanging fire, thanks to efforts to revive it by one of the original nay voters on the proposal, Commissioner Tom Moss.

    Moss, like most of the commission's Republicans, has been a supporter of the proposal, brought formally by David Lillard, to fund a new school in the Arlington area and provide improvements at other county school sites by departing from the traditional state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) formula for allocation of school construction funds. That formula has mandated a 3:1 spending ratio, whereby for every dollar spent on capital construction by the county school system, three dollars must be paid into the city system.

    In the last several years, and in the 2002 election campaign in particular, the ADA formula came in for severe criticism by county officials and political figures, who see it as unfairly burdensome and restrictive in an age of revenue shortages and fiscal belt-tightening. Representatives of the inner city, conversely, either defend the formula as necessary to upgrade deteriorating city schools or want to bargain over changes in the formula so as to safeguard the interests of the city school system.

    Meanwhile, of course, both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton have offered competing plans to reform the way the county's two school districts interact and are funded -- Herenton coming out boldly for consolidation and condemning the city school board, while Wharton has made a series of compromise proposals that most recently have included his acceptance of the funding plan voted by the commission Monday as a first step toward reform.

    That plan, a compromise, would allocate $11 million of the $49 million total sought by the county system from a long term reserve held jointly by the two systems to fund construction resulting from annexations and other future developments. The remaining $38 million would be raised by the issuance of rural school bonds, requiring a probable 6 cent increase in the county property-tax rate.

    Deferred for several weeks, the school-bond issue narrowly squeaked through Monday thanks to the vote cast by Willingham, who had previously been counted as undecided and leaning to the other side of the issue. But Willingham -- a city resident whose fiscal conservatism coexists with a maverick antiestablishment streak -- has developed into a member whose attitudes and votes have often proved unpredictable and pivotal.

    Best known locally as a barbecue maven, Willingham also has a history in both government -- he served the Nixon administration as an administrator in the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- and construction. Indeed, he is even now hatching a comprehensive proposal that would in essence put Shelby County Corrections Center inmates to work doing precast molds that would be used not only in the renovation of The Pyramid but in construction of schools and railway projects.

    Typically, the project appears grandiose and complicated to the point of appearing Byzantine at first glance. Typically, it would put Willingham in conflict with members of the local business/government establishment -- in this case, with members of its construction and contracting end. And, typically, it is an instance of Willingham's capacity for thinking out of the box.

    Willingham is alone among Republican members of the commission in his openness to school consolidation proposals, and his casino project, which was originally greeted with open skepticism, has been gathering momentum, failing to gain acceptance last month by a vote of -- what else? -- 7-6. Willingham was the solitary GOP proponent for his measure, along with five Democrats. (One Democrat, commission chairman Walter Bailey, went the other way.)

    The casino proposal's failure may, however, prove to have been short-lived. Almost immediately, commission members partial to the rural school-bonds proposal began lobbying Willingham, who had opposed the bond issue, to open his mind. At its last prior commission vote in March, Willingham joined with Marilyn Loeffel, another opponent, to defer a final vote on the bonds until Monday. On that occasion, social conservative Loeffel made it clear that she would ultimately be voting no (as, indeed, she did on Monday) but was willing to accommodate others, expecting, as she said pointedly, "the same courtesy in return."

    For a gambling opponent, Loeffel is one of the most dedicated poker players on the commission, frequently playing her hand for tradeoffs with other members. Willingham, who otherwise doesn't get on too well with Loeffel, seems to have learned something from her on that score. In any case, in several discussions with other GOP members in which the concept of quid pro quo was never mentioned outright or even suggested, he did agree to open his mind.

    So did others -- notably Moss, after some rewriting of the Willingham proposal in order to further buffer the county against financial liability. What the proposal now provides is official commission sanction for the efforts of Lakes Development, Inc., a Minnesota-based company experienced in prior casino projects, to pursue two prospects: 1) that of consigning a narrow riverfront property including The Pyramid to Native Americans for casino-development purposes; or 2) looking for loopholes in state law that arguably allow for casino gambling. The latter prospect would involve negotiations at some points with such formidable -- and perhaps proprietary -- legislative personalities as state Senator Steve Cohen, currently embroiled in efforts to fashion a state lottery.

    In any case, the current proposal, carefully vetted with county attorney Donnie Wilson, contains no financial liabilities until and unless the county should license a casino operation, in which case Lakes would have first dibs on the project or would be paid a sizable forfeit. The county is meanwhile free to pursue a variety of other uses for The Pyramid if, as is widely anticipated, the University of Memphis decides to relocate its basketball games to the soon-to-be venue of the FedExForum.

    In that form, the proposal proved amenable to Moss and others, and expectations were that Moss, as a voter on the prevailing (nay) side two weeks earlier, would ask for a reconsideration of the casino proposal on Monday -- the same day, coincidentally or not, that rural school bonds would be coming up for a do-or-die vote. Both proposals looked like borderline winners -- provided that all prior proponents of either stayed put.

    Whether that carefully secured balance came undone or whether further negotiations were under way or whether Moss merely wanted to be sure of his legislative underpinnings, on the very eve of Monday's meeting he decided against asking for reconsideration of last month's casino vote. "The proposal is not the same one that we originally voted on," Moss explained Monday, arguing that the commission would need to take up the rewritten casino proposal anew, in which case he would gladly co-sponsor it along with Willingham.

    But that won't happen until the commission meets again in two weeks, and, until then, efforts to pursue converting The Pyramid into a casino/hotel complex remain an unknown quantity. And so, hypothetically, did the balance of votes on the commission.

    That is the proximate context for Willingham's formal statement, upon casting his vote for rural school bonds Monday, that he reserved the right to ask for reconsideration at the next meeting. He indicated to reporters that he wanted to see the county school administration of Dr. Bobby Webb further pare projected construction costs for the Arlington facility or that he wanted "answers" to a variety of other (largely unspecified) questions, but, whether he meant it so or not, his threat could be construed as a hedge to keep his newly gained casino-proposal alliance in line.

    But, as Malone's parting shot Monday would indicate, Willingham isn't the only commission member who can imply -- or carry out -- threats. So clouds remain over both the rural school-bonds issue and John Willingham's pet Pyramid scheme -- clouds that won't be dispelled until April 21st, if then.

    · Two other long-pending matters got dealt with Monday. First, a proposal to extend the unpaid vacation benefits for former chief commission administrator Calvin Williams died in committee as potential votes for it, never numerous, dwindled to the vanishing point. Secondly, the commission voted to name acting administrator Grace Hutchinson the successor to Williams, who was forced out in January amid a barrage of conflict-of-interest allegations.

    The contest came down finally to Hutchinson and former Memphis police director Winslow "Buddy" Chapman, but there had been other interesting developments before it got to that. One major contender, Chamber of Commerce administrator Jesse Johnson, failed to supply a requested verification concerning his resume and was thereby disqualified. Another, Memphis City Council administrator Lisa Geater, abruptly withdrew, and yet another, veteran political figure Joe Cooper, turned out to have been eliminated in a semifinal round by a miscount. He was paired with Chapman in a runoff vote Monday, though, and was eliminated again.

    Ultimately, Hutchinson was always expected to be the commission's choice -- with Geater at one point, before votes began mysteriously shifting away from her, considered a close runner-up.

    · During a committee meeting Monday, Commissioner Bruce Thompson at one point noted that his colleague and close friend David Lillard had voted against the tide on a matter and jokingly called him, to general laughter, "Councilman Vergos." All things considered, that was a compliment. City councilman John Vergos has, in his two terms of representing Midtown Memphis, made a name for himself as one who stands for his beliefs and what he perceives as the views of his constituency against all odds and all comers.

    A tireless advocate of the environment and of educational reform, Vergos announced this week he would not seek a third term. Prospects for succeeding him, so far, include lawyer Jim Strickland, activist David Upton, and radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn.

    · Another political showdown will take place Saturday at Hamilton High School when Shelby County Democrats will either reelect current party chairman Gale Jones Carson, who doubles as Mayor Herenton's press secretary, or elect in her stead state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who has support from a number of other local elected officials. The vote is expected to be close. ·

    Tuesday, April 8, 2003

    FROM MY SEAT

    FROM MY SEAT

    Posted By on Tue, Apr 8, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    OF JACKETS AND GENDER
    ADVERTISEMENT
    ADVERTISEMENT
    ADVERTISEMENT

    Most Commented On

    Top Viewed Stories

    ADVERTISEMENT

    Flyer Flashback

    Looking Back at Flyer Story About a "Religious Freedom" Protest in Mississippi.

    To celebrate the Flyer's 25th year, we're looking back on stories from past issues.

    Read Story

    © 1996-2014

    Contemporary Media
    460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
    Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Memphis Business Quarterly
    Powered by Foundation