Did Trustee Bob Patterson Anoint His Own Successor? 

Democrat Paul Mattila and Republican Ray Butler have several things in common besides the fact that they both aspire to win the August special general election for the office of Trustee. Most importantly, each was demonstrably a close associate of longtime Trustee Bob Patterson, who died unexpectedly earlier this year.

As governmental liaison and general factotum in Patterson's office, Mattila - who currently serves as interim Trustee after being chosen by the majority Democrats on the Shelby County Commission -- was constantly in his boss' company over the last several years. Similarly, it was unusual for Patterson to attend a political function without having at his side Butler, a CPA who served as his campaign treasurer and all-purpose adviser.

Career proximity to the much-missed Patterson is one reason why each candidate now bears his party's nomination.

The two appeared together Monday night at the Madison Avenue bistro Neil's for a debate sponsored by the libertarian/conservative group Defenders of Freedom. Each had something of a claque on hand, and each acquitted himself well. Both were at pains to portray themselves as having been policy confidantes at large, not just role players. Both pledged to maintain the "team" left behind by Patterson.

The similarity of their presentations took something of a humorous turn at one point when both Mattila and Butler claimed to have drafted a memorable letter from Patterson to Mayor Willie Herenton in which the Trustee volunteered to collect the city's bad debts.

That portion of the debate may have been resolved - or complicated - when a former employee of Patterson's rose to say that she remembered typing the letter, as dictated to her by Patterson himself. The two candidates were compelled to fall back on the premise, no doubt true, that there may have been, at various times, several drafts and several versions of the Patterson-to-Herenton missive.

Late in the debate, another audience member asked a question directed at a crucial point. Who had Patterson intended to be his successor, Mattila or Butler? That gave Democrat Mattila a chance to make a claim that, on several occasions, the former Trustee had conferred that designation on himself. Significantly, Mattila contended, looking directly at his opponent, one of those occasions was a three-way lunch at Applebee's between himself, Patterson, and Butler.

The claim took on special resonance when Butler not only made no effort to refute it but said quietly, "That's right." In his own turn, he pointed out that Patterson, for all of his across-the-boards popularity, took special pride in his Republican affiliation. Therefore, argued Butler, he himself could best continue the Patterson tradition.

Mattila got another boost on the point when, after the debate was over, moderator Angelo Cobrasci confided that Patterson had told him last Christmas that,"if anything were to happen to him, " he - Cobrasci - should do what he could to help Mattila succeed him in office.

To his credit, Cobrasci moderated Monday night's debate with scrupulous even-handedness, and there was no reason to believe that he had any role in the Big Question's being asked. But it was, and it was answered, and it was by that indirect - and no doubt unintended - route that Patterson's alleged wish may in fact have been furthered.

A caveat, though: Mattila made a point of saying, "I'm not running as Bob Patterson. I'm running as Paul Mattila." In the final analysis, the race is still between himself and Butler - two no doubt well-prepared and perhaps equally credentialed familiars of the well-regarded man who preceded them.

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