Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who began his presidential bid as a long shot several months ago, has now become a full-blown frontrunner among Democrats, his dimensions and prospects expanding in much the way of the giant screen blowup at stage right of his Tuesday night rally at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. The Flyer traveled with the candidate during a 10-city, three-day cross-country tour that began on Saturday in suburban Washington, D.C. We'll share the results with you over the next few days on this website and in next week's issue of the Flyer. Meanwhile, here's a photo scrapbook of sorts.
Israel's minister of tourism launched a round of stops in the United States last week and made it clear he had no room in his itinerary for President Bush's "road map" for peace.
With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under pressure to accept American mediation leading by stages to a Palestinian state, "I can be the bad guy," said Benny Elon, adding, "The road map is a road trap." Elon confided his opposition to the plan to a small group of clerics, religious conservatives, and media representatives after addressing a larger group at the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.
Elon, who acceded to the tourism ministry last year after the assassination of his predecessor, presumably by Palestinian terrorists, told both the larger and the smaller assemblies that the challenge for both Israelis and the country's sympathizers among American Jews and Christians was "not to forget who gave us the power" to inhabit contested territories in the historic Holy Land.
"We are not going to agree to let down our borders, to be without a state, just to have sympathy," Elon said. Brandishing a Bible, he told the assembly in the seminary auditorium, "This is behind the conflict -- not politics." He said there was "no difference" between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and likened the supportive evangelicals in his audience to "Christian Zionists."
Elon said that complications ranging from the ongoing second intifada in Palestine to the after-effects of the September 11th attacks in this country had cut tourism in Israel to almost a third of its former volume but that visits to his country were back on the upswing. He assured his hosts that they would have "absolute safety" as visitors to Israel.
One of Elon's hosts, Religious Roundtable leader Ed McAteer, announced that his group was paying for several billboards in the Memphis area and elsewhere, all urging President Bush to support Israel's claim to the Holy Land on biblical grounds.
Elon, who was scheduled to visit several major American cities during his visit, was welcomed to Memphis by Shelby County commissioner Marilyn Loeffel and city councilman Rickey Peete.
* Ordinarily, August would have been the lull before the storm politically, but -- well, we had the storm first this year, didn't we? Then the lull.
In any case, local campaigns have struggled of late to be blips on the radar screen. During the immediate aftermath of the storm, some campaigns even had to discontinue telephone polling because of the negative vibes they were getting to the process.
All that is about to change. With two months to go, door-to-door operations are back under way, ad campaigns are about to be sprung upon us. Among recent developments:
Two District 5 City Council contenders busied themselves with headquarters openings, while a third decided to marshal his resources elsewhere.
State representative Carol Chumney braved the torrid heat to open her headquarters at the Chickasaw Crossing shopping center on Poplar Saturday, with such eminences as Marguerite Piazza and Bob James on hand to lend support. Opponent George Flinn, the physician/broadcast magnate who has the local Republican endorsement, will be holding his headquarters opening this Saturday at Park Place Mall.
Lawyer Jim Strickland, on the other hand, has decided to do without a headquarters and focus instead on electronic advertising and direct mail. Strickland, who began his campaign with a goal of raising $100,000, says he now has $91,000 on hand.
The race for city court clerk has sailed into its first major controversy, with incumbent Thomas Long angrily denying allegations from the campaign of challenger Janis Fullilove that he is a Republican. Long cited a long string of involvements in major Democratic campaigns in an appearance recently before the Shelby County Democratic Women.
A third contender in the clerk's race, Betty Boyette, hopes to benefit from the internecine warfare of Long and Fullilove.
The Long-Fullilove contest, like that between Democrats Strickland and Chumney, has local Democrats moving in different directions. The party executive committee, which was evenly divided in last spring's chairmanship race between state representative Kathryn Bowers, the eventual winner, and former chairman Gale Jones Carson, reflected the same split in this month's key vote on whether to follow the Republicans' lead and endorse candidates in city-election races.
The committee voted 20-16 against endorsements, with the Bowers faction once again in the ascendancy.
* Sometime Memphian Chip Saltzman, who was state GOP chairman during the 2000 campaign year, held his annual "Young Guns" retreat this past weekend on the Ocoee River in Polk County.
Some 45 sub-40-year-old Republicans from across the state were invited for the weekend -- including Memphians Kemp Conrad, the current Shelby County Republican chairman, and David Kustoff.
Of all the facts that are taken for granted in this political and governmental year, none has been more uncontroverted publicly than the following, concerning the office of Sheriff Mark Luttrell, still in his first year as Shelby County's chief constitutional law-enforcement officer:
As the scenario goes: The highly regarded Luttrell, formerly county corrections department supervisor, came into office after campaigning last year on a pledge of fiscal solvency, promising to eliminate the excess spending that had characterized the administration of his tarnished predecessor, A.C. Gilless. The new sheriff, who beat several opponents handily, then set about fulfilling his promise.
First, he eliminated more than 500 positions, most of them in a blatantly overstaffed jail, where nepotism and cronyism had long padded the payroll. The savings attributed to this amounted to $19 million.
Next, Luttrell found himself pushed to the wall by the requirements of a budgetary process he has characterized as "Draconian" and was forced to make a series of further reductions. These, after some serious bargaining with the administration of county mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Commission, finally came to some $8.5 million -- cutting his departmental needs to the bone.
Luttrell had fended off even further and more damaging cuts by several means, including a public threat to sue Shelby County government, direct appeals in the media (including an op-ed in The Commercial Appeal), and telling appeals on his behalf, like those made by several sheriffs' deputies to the Shelby County Commission on Monday.
All these approaches had their effect, and both the administration and the commission eventually signed off on an understanding, made public at the commission meeting, that Luttrell could avail himself of another $2 million during the course of the current fiscal year if he could make the case that he required it.
All in all, an impressive accomplishment for a persevering public official, and there is much in this accepted version of events that still rings true.
There is, however, another way to look at it -- and one that stands all these circumstances, and the accepted interpretation of them, on their heads.
Commissioner Tom Moss couldn't shake a doubt or two after Monday's meeting -- which concluded with Luttrell's having been granted a budget in the neighborhood of $126,250,000 and that tacit understanding of another $2 million to come. "Where," asked Moss, "did that $19 million go?"
His question was predicated on the following circumstance: That Luttrell's requested budget of record for the current fiscal year was $134 million and that figure, minus his currently awarded budget of $126-and-a-quarter million, yielded a figure of $7-and-a-quarter million.
How did that square, Moss wondered, with the previously reported voluntary cuts of $19 million, which, when added to the $8.5 million in additional reductions required by the budgetary process, add up to more than $24 million? That's a difference of $17 million.
In other words, if the reported cuts were to be subtracted from his requested budget, Luttrell's budget for the current fiscal year would be expected to be in the neighborhood of $110 million -- not $126 million.
As it turned out, Moss wasn't the only commissioner puzzled by the discrepancy in the arithmetic, which depends on some highly creative accounting. It is the sort of calculation that Commissioner Bruce Thompson, at several points in the budget process, characterized (though not especially with reference to the sheriff's department) as "moving target" bookkeeping.
Here are some of the particulars, as vouched for by the commission's chief administrator and acknowledged budget maven, Grace Hutchinson.
The figure of $19 million in reported cuts in paid positions includes a number of positions that had been vacant for some time, as well as many that had never been filled. The actual fiscal reduction in jobs actually held by real functioning employees? Perhaps as low as $4 million.
Further, last year's baseline figure of $138 million against which the current budget is measured is not the true yardstick, because it includes an add-on figure of some $13 million in additional ad hoc appropriations granted to Luttrell during the course of the year. Without that, Luttrell's budget for the coming year would be the same as that enjoyed by his "spendthrift" predecessor.
Moreover, the case can be made that the legitimate cuts made by Luttrell -- and these are quite real, consisting in the main of jail positions -- when added to and/or subtracted from the actual budgetary figures from the relevant years, leave him in possession of some $7 million more this year than he enjoyed last year.
That figure is arrived at by taking his face-value budget of fiscal 2002-03, with its additions, which is $138 million, then subtracting the face-value $19 million in claimed cuts, which leaves $119 million, and then comparing that figure to the actual allocated spending-money budget of $126,250,000, which the sheriff's department will have at its disposal this year. That's an apparent gain of $7 million. Confused? So has almost everybody been during the course of the current budget year. It's just that Luttrell has been such a success in his public relations that few critics have taken a long, hard look at his numbers. Stay tuned. We'll probably revisit this subject.
The calendar of late has included an usual number of deaths of prominent public figures, with a conspicuous overlapping of mourners.
There was the death of Memphis school board member Lee Brown, whose quiet and conscientious mien had impressed all members and all factions of an often fractious board. Although Brown, who doubled as a minister, had attempted to downplay his illness, he had been suffering from the effects of cancer for more than a year.
There was the passing, reported last week, of 80-year-old music legend Sam Phillips, the "godfather of rock-and-roll," whose public and political concerns had always been more extensive than were generally realized. Phillips lay in state at Memorial Park Funeral Home last Wednesday, attracting an unending line of people, ranging from his faceless fellow citizens to the famous, who paid their respects from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. A "celebration" the next day at the Cannon Performing Arts Center downtown crowned the observance.
There was the death of longtime Memphis political eminence Bill Farris, who himself had almost reached the age of 80. Hundreds of visitors would pay their respects at the Farris home on Sweetbrier on Friday and attend the funeral on Saturday at Eudora Baptist Church. Among them were Governor Phil Bredesen and former Governor Ned McWherter and countless eminences from the political and governmental worlds, including all factions and parties. (Symbolizing this was the participation in the funeral rites of Republican Brent Taylor and Democrat John Ford, both principals of funeral homes and both friends of the deceased.)
Two Memphians, entrepreneur Charlie Burch and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, recalled in their visits to the Farris home on Friday separate occasions on which they had sat in a back room at Farris' and knocked back a cocktail with -- the aforesaid Sam Phillips.
Finally, there was the death just this week of Oscar Mason, a longtime local Republican activist who had been instrumental -- even of late, when his health was visibly failing -- in attempting to broaden the appeal and outreach of his party to his fellow African Americans.
It is often said after the death of someone prominent that we are the less for their passing. After last week, we are much the less. But much the greater too for the public legacies and contributions of the deceased.
The following exchange, lifted directly from a videotape of the event, occurred last week during an attempted interview of MLGW officials by Bill Lunn, a reporter for WMC-TV, Action News 5. Lunn had for two or three minutes been questioning MLGW CEO Herman Morris in Morris' office about details of the utility's ongoing cleanup after last month's windstorm, then attempted to move on to another matter -- the still hazy one of why MLGW turned away offers of help from Mississippi-based Entergy, Inc.
Before Morris could answer, MLGW public relations officer Mark Heuberger, who had arranged the interview, interrupted: "I let you into his private office and you're bringing up this crap!"
"Well, these are legitimate questions," Lunn responded.
Heuberger then said, "Well, we're not gonna -- you know," and signaled that the interview was at an end.
Lunn said that, up until that point, Morris had attempted faithfully to answer without evasion all questions put -- unless one counts the following answer to a pointed question of Lunn's about points raised in the Flyer's coverage of the post-storm aftermath:
"I don't read the Flyer," Morris maintained.
Lunn said he was dubious about the authenticity of that answer.
Some of his colleagues have already expressed misgivings, and some are evidently wide open to the prospect, but, whatever the case and ready or not, Shelby County commissioner John Willingham has prepared a version of what from his hand or someone else's is likely to be the next new thing -- and the focus of the next new battle: a payroll tax.
Moreover, he's won the conditional support of an important ally, Cleo Kirk, the commission's budget chairman.
The idea for such a tax arose several months back when county mayor A C Wharton, facing a budget crisis and looking for some revenue source besides that of a property-tax increase, proposed what he called an "altered facilities tax." That was a diplomatic way of saying "impact fee," and the county's developers massed impressively at a subsequent meeting of the Shelby County Commission to turn it aside.
Wharton had another ace up his sleeve, though. He had already discussed the idea of a payroll tax as a fallback possibility with Commissioner Deidre Malone, and Malone dutifully put the idea forth during public discussion of the altered facilities measure (which would end up being tabled for further study next year). Commissioner Michael Hooks, a Democrat like Malone, promptly took the bait, and so did Republican Willingham.
Currently engaged in an underdog campaign for Memphis mayor against incumbent Willie Herenton, Willingham is not reticent about committing himself to innovative formulas (e.g., converting The Pyramid into a downtown casino).
Nor is Willingham bashful about overlapping his mayoral candidacy with proposals that do double duty on the commission agenda.
Bruce Thompson and David Lillard, two freshman commissioners who have assumed the mantle of conservative reformers, are on record as doubting the efficacy of a payroll tax, with Lillard suggesting last week that such a tax would "probably cost the county jobs." But Joyce Avery, another first-termer who, like Thompson and Lillard, is a Republican and a conservative, is reportedly open to the idea. And so are Malone and Hooks, of course.
So, too, it turns out, is budget chairman Kirk, a Democrat whose willingness to compromise on a 25 cent tax-rate increase (Kirk, like commission chairman Walter Bailey, wanted more to take care of school operating costs) enabled last week's decisive vote for a county budget after months of agonizing deliberation.
"I'm interested in the advantages of a payroll tax. Each year we go through all this intense anxiety over increasing the tax burden on property owners, and each year we go through this concern about finding alternative revenue sources. I think it's time for something like this," said Kirk, who went on to say, "If John's figures are right, and if the legislature gives it approval, I think we're three-quarters of the way there already."
Here are Willingham's figures, through at least seven drafts of his proposal: Setting the proposed payroll-tax rate at 2.5 percent, and assessing that against an estimated annual payroll amount of $19 billion-plus, would yield annual revenues in the neighborhood of $476 million. (For purposes of comparison, Wharton's proposed altered facilities tax would have netted something like $4 million.) That level of revenue collections, estimates the commissioner, would allow the outright abolition of the county wheel tax ($141 million, annually), a rollback of this year's property-tax increase and one from two years ago (totaling $94 million), and the reduction of the county's sales-tax portion from 9 and a quarter percent to 7 percent ($124 million).
The tax, according to Willingham, would provide enough extra revenue to subsidize Oakville Sanitarium, Head Start, and The Med at currently suggested or, in the case of the latter, enormously increased levels. It would allow the county debt to be paid down by $80 million and provide a $9 million sum to be used for an "attack on crime" (a category in which Willingham would include a variety of social services for low-income residents).
"I want to be sure these figures are audited and accurate before I put myself on the line," cautioned Kirk, and, indeed, there are numerous complications to be vetted before a payroll tax could end up even being voted on. The state legislature would have to authorize Shelby County to impose such a tax, for example.
Though he, too, believes a payroll tax deserves to be looked at carefully and very soon, Thompson makes no secret of his wariness. "First off, it's an income tax in disguise. And I think it's one of those variables which could put the county at a competitive disadvantage in attracting new residents and new industry." It also could prompt various businesses to relocate in nearly out-of-state suburban areas or at least to diversify their operations geographically, Thompson said.
But, one way or another, the issue would seem to be about to hit the front burner sometime very soon.
UPDATE: Deidre Malone declares for County Mayor at Chism picnic.