Marilyn Loeffel, the Cordova homemaker who was first elected to the Shelby County Commission in 1998 after making her name as an activist for causes and propositions dear to social and religious conservatives, has progressed by degrees into the maelstrom of politics as usual, though not without a few bumps along the way.
For someone whose initial concerns, ranging from charter schools to the abortion issue, were largely focused on social and moral issues (see Right With God, this weeks cover) , Loeffel has moved into increasingly secular areas.
At this weeks regular meeting of the commission, she held back somewhat on one subject of controversy -- the issue of whether to sell Oakville Sanatorium to a private entity -- allowing vice chairman Michael Hooks, who had started presiding during her temporary absence, to continue when she returned to the floor.
But she took the reins for the next -- and equally heated -- discussion, in which Sheriff Mark Luttrells proposals for a technologically streamlined jail met with vehement opposition from a multitude of deputy jailers, who made it clear they feared being shortchanged during the transition.
But she finally hit her stride during a prolonged debate about whether to approve funds for a variety of county demolition projects, asking what seemed to be informed questions about the financial and technical aspects of the issue. Of course, that might have been her way of spiting colleague Bruce Thompson, with whom she has had an on again/off again feud -- conducting mostly in private but sometimes publicly -- as when she recently informed Thompson he wouldnt be reappointed to the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) Evaluation Committee of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board.
Hell hasnt frozen over, she announced when Thompson inquired about her decision.
During the lengthy demolition discussion Monday, Thompson had absented himself from the chamber, as Loeffel was not reticent about pointing out -- wondering out loud later on if he shouldnt have recused himself outright. (Thompsons wife Jeni works for a bio-tech enterprise which would expand into one of the physical locales vacated by demolition.) For his part, Thompson had earlier used his cell phone to text-message an onlooker, noting Loeffels absence from the chairmans seat during the Oakville discussion.
Part of the tension between the two undoubtedly derives from the fact that both sought the commission chairmanship last year. But much of it stems from genuinely different perceptions about the commission and the proper role of commissioners. In general, Loeffel adheres to the rule of protocol (arguing that, for example, she was in line for the chairmanship by prior arrangement), while Thompson, along with colleague David Lillard, another first-termer, wishes to think things through anew.
I was elected a commissioner to represent my district, not an apprentice to wait around on protocol, Thompson says. The two also differ on a number of specific matters, most of them having to do with the issue of restructuring -- its fiscal, organizational, and policy aspects of it.
Loeffels emergency as an advocate of commission of tradition is a bit of a switch. She almost came a cropper last year when she invoked the concept of Christian charity as a reason for retaining the services of Calvin Williams, the commissions then administrative director -- later fired and indicted for complicity in covering up a fellow employees alleged sexual misdeeds. She briefly faced an ouster suit from an irate constituent (whom she suspected of desiring her seat), and, even though the suit was dismissed, Loeffel has been more careful since about acting in concert with her colleagues on such sensitive issues.
No more claims, either, of divine inspiration, as on one matter before the commission last year. Increasingly, she emphasizes more secular aspects of her concerns -- her unsuccessful effort to avert the tearing down of a fire-damaged Shelby County Building; her sponsorship of a Missing Childrens Project, in tandem with various law enforcement and community agencies; her resistance to cutting funds for the Victims Assistance Center and the District Attorney Generals domestic violence budget.
Though she acknowledges that she has occasionally rubbed other colleagues besides Thompson wrong (she also has had public disagreements with fellow commissioner John Willingham), Loeffel professes a sincere interest in harmony on the commission and believes she is on the way to achieving it, at least where she is concerned.
When they found out I wasnt going to be a holy terror, she says, conscious of the pun, things began to relax.
But just try telling that to Bruce Thompson.