It wasn't exactly a bombshell, because reports that Jim Rout might not run again for Shelby County mayor had been rife for some time, especially since the weekend, when the decision was evidently made and confided to some close friends and advisers.
The word got out definitively Tuesday morning. But it still came as something of a shock to see the tall, rawboned, still fit-looking mayor standing at the podium in his eighth-floor conference room in the county administrative building later in the morning and hear him declare, "I called this press conference this morning to announce that I will not be a candidate for county mayor of Shelby County in 2002."
His once reddish-blonde hair has shaded to gray and, as he said, nobody lasts forever. When he was in his 40s, as Rout told a throng of people from media and county government, he could envision a ripe old age of somewhere in the 80s or 90s. "But at 59, I don't see a lot of 118-year-olds around," he said Ñ meaning that if he was ever going to stop and spend the proverbial Time With Family that retiring politicians speak of, this was the time.
"Family" was the deciding factor, he told a questioner, but when he responded to a question from the Flyer
's John Branston about his likely preoccupations for the next 13 months by naming them as the county jail and the question of school funding, he may have given another possible answer without intending to. Those are headaches which, along with the burgeoning county debt, won't go away.
As Rout said to somebody else, however, the increasingly overwhelming problems of government financing (which he is as much a master of as anybody else around) played a larger role in his decision, after a good deal of back-and-forthing, not to run for governor than they did in influencing his thinking about the mayoral race.
As an intimate or two had pointed out in the last few days as speculation began to mount about his intentions, Rout has logged enough time to command a decent county pension. And, as the mayor and former longtime county commissioner reminded people Tuesday, he had even spent six years as county coroner, holding that position at the time that Elvis Presley died in 1977.
Nobody was ever a more quintessential government hand than Rout, who began his political career in the '60s as a community activist fighting a piece of commercial zoning and is approaching the end of it (possibly) as an advocate of a substantial new commercial edifice, the arena-to-be that will, if court rulings proceed favorably, be built for the NBA's Grizzlies.
The word "possibly" in the preceding paragraph derives from the fact that, even now and even in making his farewell announcement, Rout manages to sound like an ambitious politician, ready for more government service (though the former operator of a health-care enterprise had made the obligatory reference to "opportunities" in the private sphere).
It took more than one question to get him to actually renounce a governor's race for next year, for example, and he made a point of professing himself open to "statewide or national possibilities." Accordingly, when he was asked late in the proceedings if he might run for the Senate in 2002 if incumbent Republican Senator Fred Thompson decided not to, he couldn't help saying that he would take a look at the race.
"I certainly wouldn't close the door on it," he said.
Meanwhile, he was opening the door to the mayor's office early enough so that, as he put it, others would have some lead time to try to plan their way into it.
"I'm interested," said former Memphis city councilman John Bobango. County Trustee Bob Patterson has previously indicated he'd like to go for it. Friends of Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas (who, like Patterson, was on hand for the announcement) leave no doubt that he's interested. Ditto for friends of Memphis city councilman Jack Sammons.
The name of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons is a natural, as are those of county commissioners Buck Wellford and (one hears) Tommy Hart. These are just some of the Republican names, and there will be others.
Meanwhile, Democrats are already running. Already there are State Senator Jim Kyle, who filed his initial campaign treasurer's report Tuesday, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and state Representative Carol Chumney. State Senator Steve Cohen and automobile dealer Russell Gwatney may be just around the corner. And more names will be heard from here, too.
n Look out, Shelby County. Here come the gubernator wannabes! Democrats Phil Bredesen and Doug Horne will be making frequent forays into the county during the next few weeks.
Knoxvillian Horne (whose campaign is being managed by the capable and rising Matt Kuhn of Memphis) had plans for a Germantown appearance this week, and starting next week Nashvillian Bredensen will be the guest at numerous local get-togethers. They are strictly that, says one of his chief advisers, the seasoned Karl Schledwitz: "get-togethers." The fund-raisers will come later on in the fall.