Thursday, January 24, 2002

Ryder's Run?

A GOP primary contest in the commission's 5th District could echo an old war.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Not since the great showdown of 1991 -- when two almost equally matched Shelby County Republican factions battled to a virtual draw over control of the party machinery -- has the local GOP had a serious internal schism. The signs are there again, however -- in a year when the party's decade-long dominance of countywide political affairs is under serious challenge.

Eleven years ago the fight was over the party chairmanship. After an extended all-day convention of county cadres Memphis lawyer David Lillard, who represented what was then regarded as the old-line Republican establishment, was the loser, by a scant few votes, to Dr. Phillip Langsdon, the champion of a suburban-based insurgency. Langsdon -- now retired from party affairs but a possible contender for future office -- was at the helm for the institution of local party primaries and during the subsequent Republican sweep of county offices in 1994.

At some point, the two contending elements of 1991 joined forces, more or less (victory making for easy bedfellows), but today's battle, which is not yet fully under way, could be a reprise of sorts of the old war. Lawyer John Ryder, one of two Tennesseans on the GOP national committee (and a Lillard partisan back then), has reportedly begun talking up a possible run for the Shelby County Commission's 5th District seat, which is being vacated by Republican incumbent Buck Wellford.

The problem is that there is already a "mainstream" Republican candidate for the seat: financial planner Bruce Thompson, a Wellford-style opponent of urban sprawl who, up until now, had faced primary competition only from builder Jerry Cobb, a spokesperson of sorts for what has been an outnumbered -- if defiant -- group of GOP dissidents. One of Thompson's main men, coincidentally or not, is lobbyist Nathan Green, a former close aide to outgoing Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and a prime booster also of Lillard's run for yet another vacant commission seat.

(Lillard, now one of two Republican members of the county Election Commission, is focusing on his own race -- for the seat being vacated by outgoing Commissioner Tommy Hart.)

The contest for the District 5 seat, which comprises a large chunk of East and Southeast Memphis, has major implications. Of the commission's other 12 seats, six are heavily Democratic and African-American and six are predominantly white and Republican. District 5, which is the commission's only single-member district, emerged from reapportionment discussions as the body's swing seat -- that which will determine who holds the balance of power on the commission, and perhaps in county government as a whole.

The most active Democrat now seeking the seat is veteran pol Joe Cooper, although lawyer Guthrie Castle has also acknowledged an interest in running. When last contacted, Clay Perry, local office manager for U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., had not decided whether to make a race. Perry and some other Democrats -- notably including local party chairperson Gale Jones Carson -- believe that District 5 emerged from reapportionment discussions as something less than the racial and political "tossup" district it was billed as.

If Republicans do indeed hold an edge in the district, that edge could be blunted by a divisive three-way primary, which at root is a potential contest between individuals but which could inflame old wounds and become something more than that.

Ryder has been a key figure in Republican affairs, both locally and statewide, and it was largely through his efforts that the GOP was able of late to settle on a candidate for Shelby County mayor, state Representative Larry Scroggs. But Scroggs, whose ability to raise money is hampered by a state law prohibiting legislators from raising money while the General Assembly is in session, faces what already appears to be an uphill battle against the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary (whose major contestants are Public Defender A C Wharton, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and state Representative Carol Chumney).

Countywide, the demographic edge has turned in favor of the Democrats, and Shelby County Republicans would seem to require a united front at all costs.

Perhaps a shootout for the 5th District commission seat would leave that unity intact, and perhaps not. Perhaps the contest will not even come to pass. But if it does, Green professes confidence. "He [Ryder] may not think so, but we'll beat him. He's going to be badly surprised."

* In a burst of activity this week, Scroggs made it clear that he intends to run as hard as his involvement with legislative matters will let him. Taking advantage of a lull in floor action, the GOP's mayoral hope laid on a brisk Memphis schedule.

Beginning a weeklong round of local speeches with one to the Southeast Shelby County Republican Club at Fox Ridge Pizza Monday night, Scroggs both presented a legislative preview and outlined some of his views on county government.

Using the euphemism of "tax reform" to mean a state income tax, Scroggs indicated that such "reform" was less likely to come to pass in the current session than was a 1 percent rise in the state sales tax, which would increase it to 7 percent, with allowances for another 2.75 percent in local-option sale taxes. The combined rate would be far and away higher than any of Tennessee's neighbor states.

An increase in that amount could yield as much as $750 million, at a time when the state's looming deficit for the next fiscal year is estimated to be at least that much, Scroggs said. He underscored the relationship between the state's fiscal problems and those of Shelby County by taking note of another proposal for obtaining financial relief at the state level -- holding on to $700 million worth of tax funds ordinarily shared with local governments.

Such an action could force a 67-cent increase in the property tax rate of Germantown and one of 93 cents for residents of Memphis, said Scroggs, who warned, "The future of Shelby County is at stake."

Scroggs stated his opposition to city-county consolidation per se, on three grounds -- a personal belief in the "dispersal" of governmental power; a fear that, rather than reducing costs, consolidation would produce more "bureaucratic" expense than already exists within the separate governments of Memphis and Shelby County; and his view that the specter of duplicated services in the two governments had been overstated.

In particular, Scroggs warned against one of the advocated means for achieved city-county consolidation -- the voluntary surrender of the city of Memphis charter. "That could open up that whole 'tiny town' thing all over again," he said, referring to the conflict arising from a short-lived 1997 state law, later ruled unconstitutional, which would have permitted virtually unbridled incorporating powers by communities of almost any size.

In Scroggs' scenario, other Shelby County municipalities might get into turf battles over efforts to annex parts of Memphis.

Scroggs did suggest that various forms of "functional" city-county consolidation might be desirable, although he noted, with seeming approval, ongoing efforts of any opposite sort in public education policy -- specifically a bill co-sponsored by state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville that would establish the Shelby County school system as a special school district with its own taxing authority.

That bill has the imprimatur of David Pickler, chairman of the county school board. Pickler said this week, however, that he thought compromise was possible between that proposal and one by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton that would provide "single-source funding" for a unified district that would maintain administrative separateness for the two currently existing districts.

As Scroggs also noted Monday night, the other bone of contention besides that of administrative control is the matter of funding. Current state law, based on a classroom-attendance formula, mandates a 3:1 split, in Memphis' favor, on all capital construction expenditures in Shelby County.

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