Tuesday, December 21, 2004

POLITICS: Person of Interest

A Shelby County legislator is at the center of a tug-of-war in the state Senate.

Posted By on Tue, Dec 21, 2004 at 4:00 AM

PERSON OF INTEREST Curtis Person is under virtually non-stop pressure these days from a number of his fellow Republicans, many of whom are -- directly or indirectly -- putting the screws on the easy-going longtime state senator from East Memphis and Germantown.

The point of this effort to wean Person away from his oft-stated promise to support octogenarian John Wilder for another term as state Senate president -- an office which carries with it the title of lieutenant governor. Though a nominal Democrat, Wilder has in effect been a non-partisan political figure since the mid-‘80s, when, under challenge by other Democrats, he put together his current coalition of Democrats and Republicans to hold on to his office.

By and large, Senate Republicans have heretofore been happy with Wilder, who awarded them a generous -- though minority -- share of committee chairmanships (one of which belongs to Judiciary chairman Person). But last month’s elections, which gave the GOP a one-vote majority in the Senate, has encouraged the body’s Republicans to strive for a Senate president from within their own ranks. Most likely, this would be Ron Ramsey of Blountville, last session’s minority leader, though other prospects might emerge in a trade-off breaking the current impasse.

Holding firm so far against the tide of intra-party pressure are both Person and Knoxville GOP Senator Tim Burchett.

Person went three full decades without having an opponent on the ballot against him. He’s an old hand at dissuading potential challengers, but as he looks ahead to 2006 he has his hands full. As previously reported, Beale Street impresario John Elkington says he has been sounded out about opposing Person and is thinking about it. More ominous for the incumbent senator, perhaps, are the number of established, office-holding Republicans who are now considering a race against him.

Two state representatives, Tre Hargett of Bartlett and Paul Stanley of Germantown, the current ranking Republicans in the House, acknowledge that they are both considering a challenge in 2006 to Person. “We wouldn’t run against each other, but one of us is likely to make the race,” says Stanley. “I’m considering my options,” confirms Hargett.

“There’s no shortage of people wanting to run against Curtis,” says one of his Senate Republican colleagues, Mark Norris of Collierville. Norris, however, still thinks that Person may do a turnaround on the Wilder issue, “particularly if he sees that Wilder has betrayed him on chairmanships.”

That last point has to do with whether a reelected Wilder would agree to reverse the current 5-4 ratio by which Democratic committee chairmen outnumber Republicans.

In the opinion of one key Democrat, new Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, “the lieutenant governor would have a hard time changing any of the current chairmen.” In any case, opines Kyle, Wilder won’t commit himself on a chairmanship formula until he is safely reelected.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, or maybe a game of chicken, in which somebody finally has to budge. But so far nobody has. Early in January, somebody may.

Another up-for-grabs situation, also involving local Republicans, is that of the party chairmanship. Traditionally there is a hard-fought race for the right to head the Shelby County Republican Party, and the forthcoming one, due for resolution at a party caucus in February, looks to be no exception.

Current chairman Kemp Conrad has opted not to run again, and two local Republicans, Terry Roland, the owner of several automotive businesses in Millington, and Bill Giannini, a Memphis wholesale grocer and restaurateur, have been the announced candidates to succeed him.

After the local GOP’s annual Christmas party Monday night, hosted this year by new county commissioner George Flinn, word spread that Roland was considering dropping out of contention. Contacted about that, Roland, the owner of several automotive businesses and the first to declare for the party post, said in effect that rumors of his departure had been greatly exaggerated.

“I haven’t decided,” said Roland, who professed disappointment at having overheard “elitist” elements in the party talking disapprovingly of “country bumpkins” -- meaning, presumably, outer-county residents like himself -- challenging for the GOP leadership. “If it weren’t for us, Republicans wouldn’t win any elections in Shelby County,” said Roland, who promised a decision about staying in after he returns from this week’s GMAC Bowl in Mobile.

State senator Steve Cohen, who this week came out for increased funding of lottery scholarships, takes a dimmer view of Governor Phil Bredesen‘s call to relax academic requirements for the scholarships -- a move which Cohen believes would over-burden the fund. “He doesn’t need to be the Gordon Bonnyman of the lottery,” said Cohen, referring to the Tennnessee Justice Center head whose opposition to limiting TennCare coverage has been cited by the governor as a factor in that program’s potential insolvency.

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