Friday, November 30, 2001

The Doctor Is In

Or make that "In Like Flinn," as the GOP may finally have a mayoral candidate.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Is radio magnate/radiologist George Flinn the Republican nominee-presumptive for the office of Shelby County mayor? It's beginning to look that way.

Dr. Flinn -- who owns a host of local radio stations and, as a radiologist, pioneered in (and got rich from) the now-widespread art of ultrasound technology -- hankered to run for mayor of Memphis in 1999 but decided that the number and variety of possible candidates made that race a potential three-ring circus for a political neophyte like himself and opted out.

Back then he foresaw himself being matched against the likes of Willie Herenton (the eventual winner), then city councilman Joe Ford, and wrestling eminence Jerry Lawler, among numerous others. As a potential candidate for the GOP nomination for county mayor, Flinn is all by himself. Nobody else seems to want the honor.

"I'm ready to go. I can put together the money, I believe, and if they'll help me with the essentials of running a major campaign, I think I can mount one," said the good doctor this week. The "they" of his commentary was the local GOP leadership, who have been running down the list of potential Republican heavyweights and seen them all deign not to run. The latest to say no was Allie Prescott, the recently retired president of the Memphis Redbirds.

Prescott was a new political face who would have been making his maiden race -- a fact that emboldens Flinn to believe that GOP eyes should now be turning to him.

Local Republican chairman Alan Crone, who has been heading the party's increasingly desperate efforts to find a standard-bearer, may be ready for a session with the doctor. "I think that a successful candidate has to be both politically viable and financially viable," Crone said. "I think that George is the latter, and it's possible he could be the former, too."

Any doubts Crone has on the matter are due to Flinn's relative inexperience in the GOP wars. He doesn't consider it an obstacle that Flinn's son Shea Flinn, a brand-new lawyer who is about to become a brand-new husband, ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for the legislature last year.

"George has been fairly convincing that he is a life-long Republican himself and I doubt that many people would be concerned about the fact that his son may have different personal politics. That happens a good bit," Crone said.

Crone does not buy into the widely accepted theory that name Republicans have ducked the race because recent demographic change has made it unwinnable for a Republican. "Not one of the people we talked to was of that persuasion," he said, meaning, among others, Prescott, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, former Memphis city councilman John Bobango, and Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson (who technically is still thinking about it).

The GOP chairman then proceeded to qualify himself a tad, however: "I do think that political influence is cyclical and it's probably true that the Republican Party will need to adapt to population tendencies. We've been heavily suburban and rural, but we'll probably see ourselves becoming more urban-oriented in the years to come." Crone has been a consistent advocate of Republican outreach into traditionally Democratic minority communities.

Flinn believes in that respect he is exactly what the, er, doctor ordered: "My main offices are in the center city. I've had a center-city presence for years and I understand the thinking of people who live in the center city."

It remains to be seen what becomes of a Flinn candidacy or of a local Republican reorientation, just as it remains to be seen what the results of next year's mayoral election will be. But change of some sort is clearly in the offing in a season when the incumbent Republican mayor, Jim Rout, has decided against running and potential GOP successors are scarce indeed, while simultaneously three active Democratic candidates -- Shelby County Public Defender AC Wharton, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and State Representative Carol Chumney -- are actively campaigning.

· It may have been inevitable but there was still an element of surprise to the sudden resignation of Bobby Lanier, top administrative aide to two-term mayor Rout (and Rout's four-term predecessor, Bill Morris).

Without much preliminary ado, Lanier filed for his retirement benefits last Friday, climaxing weeks of complaints from political opponents concerning his alleged use of county facilities on behalf of his current political protégé, mayoral candidate Wharton.

Lanier's move was said to have been prompted by the complaints, raised mainly by organization Republicans and by backers of Byrd. Lanier made a perfunctory denial Monday that he had resigned due to pressure, but others close to the situation acknowledged that the move owed much to the volume of the criticism, turned up considerably once Wharton, for whose candidacy Lanier was something of a prime mover, made his formal announcement last month

The well-liked Lanier didn't spend much, if any, time kicking back and relaxing after his "retirement." He spent Monday in the company of fellow Wharton backer Reginald French setting up Wharton's new downtown campaign office on Court Street and pushing ahead plans for the candidate's first major fund-raiser, scheduled for Thursday night at the Racquet Club.

There was a mishap connected with the latter. A list of potential donors was mislaid Monday during or after Lanier and French held a lunch meeting at the Cupboard Restaurant on Union Avenue in the hospital district.

Neither Lanier nor French hold any titles at the moment but they are two pivotal members of an ad hoc group that worked intensively -- in the aftermath of Rout's decision some months ago not to run again -- first to persuade Wharton to run and then to launch him as a mainstream candidate with appeal across racial and political lines.

Some of that crossover involved Wharton supporters from the ranks of Rout allies -- a circumstance that caused Rout himself some discomfiture that will no doubt be increased by a follow-up move by the Byrd camp Tuesday.

Attorney Richard Fields, a Byrd supporter, hand-delivered a letter to Rout which was subheaded "Re: Political activity by Bobby Lanier" and cited Section 12-46 of the county charter, which, as reprised by Fields, states that "[no] employee in the classified service may be required or directed, either directly or by implication, to contribute or solicit funds for any political candidate."

The Fields letter continued: "Clearly, Mr. Lanier's solicitation of funds for AC Wharton violates this section if he made solicitations of Shelby County employees and implicitly violates the purpose of the section when solictations are made from the office of the Mayor."

On behalf of the Byrd campaign, Fields asked for "a list of all persons contracted by Mr. Lanier for purposes of soliciting funds for the Wharton campaign" and "the telephone records for Mr. L's telephone extension in the county building showing incoming and outgoing calls with the phone numbers listed."

He also said that Wharton should be asked to withdraw from his "part-time" job as public defender and that Rout should engage independent legal counsel to investigate the matter since "Donnie Wilson, current county attorney, has openly stated his support of AC Wharton for county mayor and has appeared with him publicly at a church."

At press time Rout had not been reached for a reaction but County Attorney Wilson dismissed the allegations in the letter as "crazy" and said, "I'm surprised that Richard Fields would go to these lengths." Wilson said that while he privately supported Wharton's candidacy he had taken no public role and had not appeared with the public defender at a church.

· Jeff Sullivan, who had been working on behalf of state Senator Jim Kyle's mayoral campaign before Kyle's withdrawal from the race last month, is now Shelby County director of the gubernatorial campaign of former state Senator Andy Womack (D-Murfreesboro). Womack's is the only gubernatorial campaign so far to open a Shelby County office per se.

Both Republican gubernatorial candidates made Memphis stops during the last week. Fourth District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser at the Crescent Club on Monday, while his sole GOP opponent so far, former state Senator Jim Henry of Kingston, stopped over for a couple of days before Thanksgiving. Henry recruited veteran Republican activist Bob Schroeder as a member of his campaign committee. ·

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