Thursday, August 1, 2002

At the Crossroads

Republicans found themselves having to make defining choices in this week's voting.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 1, 2002 at 4:00 AM

As the penultimate -- and perhaps most meaningful -- election day of 2002 neared, two statewide candidates who have received shorter shrift of late than the lofty office they seek would justify came to Memphis for final pitches.

And both Van Hilleary and Jim Henry, the major Republican candidates for governor on the statewide primary ballot, were dissembling just a little. Hilleary, in proposing a debate invitation to putative Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen, was pretending he was not in a primary contest. Jim Henry, in vowing to overcome against Hilleary, was pretending he was in one.

Henry had fresh polls -- one from a Knoxville TV station that actually showed him with a lead and another, from workhorse local pollster Steve Ethridge, showed him only 10 points behind Hilleary, with half the electorate still undecided. The TV poll, which processed electronic tallies of respondents at-large, was one of those best described by the euphemism "unscientific," and, while Ethridge's poll gave the genial ex-state legislator from Kingston a shot, 10 points is still 10 points.

Not that, win or lose, Henry won't have something to show for his year-long effort to catch up with the front-running Hilleary. As Memphis businessman Bob Schroeder bustled about him at his East Memphis headquarters, planning precinct-by-precinct efforts for this last week of electioneering, Henry took a break from a round of telephone calls. "I've had a heck of a time," he said. Noting that virtually every major state newspaper has endorsed his candidacy, Henry smiled and said wanly, "If nothing else, I can make a collage out of all those nice editorials."

By his own choice, Henry is socked in for the duration. Not until late Wednesday, when he returns to his East Tennessee home to wait for returns, will he leave Shelby County, which he sees as key to the outcome and to hopes which have to be rated the upset variety.

Hilleary made one earlier visit Monday afternoon for a press conference at which, by way of responding to a debate proposal floated by Bredesen, he suggested his own proposal -- for 10 "flatbed truck debates" across the breadth of Tennessee. Oh, and he suggested a third debater, fringe candidate Edwin "Barefoot" Sanders, an independent. To say the least, the gesture seemed designed to dis Henry, whom Hilleary has otherwise attended to with increasingly acerbic remarks. In his television commercials, Henry is treated as some sort of appendage of Governor Don Sundquist, the lame-duck Republican incumbent.

Sundquist's standing among fellow Republicans statewide can best be gauged by the fact that, when the governor last week admitted to reporters in Nashville his preferences for Henry over Hilleary and Senatorial candidate Lamar Alexander over 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, Hilleary and Bryant trumpeted the fact, not the two endorsees. A Hilleary press release, in fact, greeted the news with the classic headline: "Sundquist Seeks Third Term."

It is no secret, of course, that Sundquist's presumed low repute among Republicans stems from the governor's openness to fundamental revisions of the state's tax structure -- a position that had him, ultimately, leading a futile three-year crusade on behalf of a state income tax. Opposition to an income tax -- or "IT," as it is sometimes referred to in editorial shorthand -- has been the major plank of late in Hilleary's gubernatorial campaign, in general, and in his TV commercials, in particular.

Jim Henry is well aware of what public-opinion polls show about Sundquist's approval rating -- hovering now in the high 20s or low 30s, percentage-wise -- and, while he has made it clear that he will be open to any means of revenue-enhancement, he suggests a constitutional convention as the only viable way to reach a solution, and his own TV commercials make the case that he too has opposed the income tax in the past.

The issue was not intended to figure in the forefront of Jim Henry's Shelby County campaign blitz, you may be sure.

* Probably no candidate in recent Shelby County history has ever had as catastrophic a campaign period as has George Flinn, the Republican nominee for county mayor, over the last two weeks.

It all began after Flinn, the wealthy radiologist/radio magnate who is largely financing his own campaign, ran a widely noticed TV ad attacking the arrangement for the county's publicly funded NBA arena, now under construction, as a "back-room deal."

Whatever bounce Flinn hoped for was quickly dissipated by two consecutive polls, done by Ethridge for The Commercial Appeal, that showed Flinn losing badly (and with progressively worse showings) to Democratic nominee A C Wharton; by a barrage of criticism of Flinn's attack ads (the arena commercial and two others), which made frontal assaults on Wharton's purported public record; and by a legal action, undertaken by WHBQ-TV, Channel 13, to unseal the settlements in legal proceedings involving Flinn and two Memphis women with whom he had personal relationships during the past decade.

Flinn fired back in vain, in statements and in a freshly cut commercial, that he was being victimized by his opponent, the county's "power elite," and the media. Nor did he get much traction for his counter-complaint that it was he, not Wharton, who was being targeted "personally" by negative campaigning.

Not implausibly, Flinn suggested that persons in the Wharton campaign might have been instrumental in helping to publicize the two suits (although Wharton himself would strenuously deny having any knowledge of such activity).

"What people really didn't like was the robo-call," said lawyer David Cocke, a Democrat heavily involved in Wharton's election effort. And what he meant was an anonymous telephone message which suggested to those who received it that, as Shelby County public defender, Wharton had engaged in various conflicts of interest.

In a statement later on, Flinn acknowledged that the calls should have been identified as coming from his campaign but stood by the allegations, which he said primarily had to do with Wharton's defense of child-care entrepreneurs under challenge for violations of state codes. One of Wharton's primary opponents, state Representative Carol Chumney, had made the same charge but was denounced by Wharton's defenders, as Flinn has been, for not properly respecting an advocate's role in the American legal system.

* In a kind of second front to the mayoral war, Rick Rout, son of incumbent Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and chairman of the county Young Republicans as well as a declared candidate for the local party chairmanship, became embroiled in controversy regarding an e-mail he sent last week to fellow YR board members.

In the e-mail, Rout advised the board members that their July meeting was being canceled and wrote, "We all are going nuts trying to get 95 percent of the Republican ticket elected and should focus on that." He said further that his father, saying his farewells to the group as mayor, would be the speaker at the regular YR August meeting. He continued, "The September meeting, we will hopefully be able to get the new Shelby County mayor to come and speak to us. So I will give A C a call today and ask if he will do it."

In an interview with the Flyer, Rout said it was only being realistic to assume that Wharton would be the mayor in September because of his current 23 percent lead in the CA's most recently published poll. "That's pretty impossible to overcome," Rout said, adding, "[T]he tactics that George Flinn is using right now are backfiring greatly. People just don't like negative campaigning. I, for one, am not endorsing anyone."

Flinn, he said, was "using smear tactics." Citing the arena ad with its allegations of back-room politics and "deals," Rout said, "My dad is the most honest public servant anyone has ever seen, and I don't appreciate [the allegations]." (Mayor Rout, who has kept his distance publicly from the mayor's race, was a firm advocate of the publicly funded arena project.)

Elaborating on his view of Flinn's candidacy, Rick Rout said, "To be honest with you, I feel that he doesn't know what he's talking about. As a member of the Republican Party, I'm actually embarrassed. I don't think Dr. Flinn knows anything about running county government. It's a shame we've got a nominee that won't make speaking engagements and won't make debates. I am really disheartened at the way this election has gone."

To those YR members who had contacted him to express their disappointment with the invitation being extended to Wharton, Rout said, "That's a little narrow-minded. We have to work with public servants across party lines. And we've had Democrats like [Memphis] mayor Willie Herenton speak to us before."

Rout said he had not known that his sister Sherry Rout, who was in the group accompanying Wharton to a mayoral debate at WHBQ-TV last Thursday night, was taking an active role in the Wharton campaign but said, "We disagree on many things, politics being one. But if you have to choose between two candidates, you've got to pick the candidate you think will do the better job." Most people look at "the man, not the party," Rout said.

Flinn spokesperson Cary Rodgers denied that the arena commercial had impugned Mayor Rout's integrity or suggested he was dishonest. "The whole point is that anything the voters don't get to vote on is perceived as a back-room deal. Nothing more, nothing less." Rodgers said that "numerous calls" had been received at Flinn headquarters from "people who are outraged at Rick's approach." She said, "They disagree totally with his reasoning, his conclusions, and his future as chairman of the party."

This last was a reference to Rick Rout's active campaign to become the next Shelby County Republican chairman, succeeding the outgoing Alan Crone. Other names have been mentioned as potential candidates -- including those of businessman Kemp Conrad, who Flinn said had been an active supporter, and county commission member Marilyn Loeffel. Only Rout, who has already printed up campaign material, is declared, however. He said last week he didn't think his campaign would suffer from the current controversy or from his position on the mayor's race.

This week, however, GOP activist Denise Martin, one of those who objected to the e-mail's content last week, said she, too, may seek the chairmanship.

This week, as one election day neared, and as his own loomed several months down the pike, when Crone will step down, Rout began to couch his e-mail in somewhat different terms. "Really, I was just using my sense of humor," he said of the "95 percent" reference. "The polls have made it pretty clear that Flinn's not a real possibility to win; that's mainly what I was saying." But then he repeated his earlier displeasure with the party nominee.

There was no joke about one thing. The public estrangement between the Routs and Flinn was not an isolated affair; it highlighted a schism that had been foreshadowed by several prior circumstances, including the heated primary race which saw John Willingham unseat county commission chairman Morris Fair in May.

As do the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, each in a somewhat different way, the Shelby County mayor's race has pointed up a serious division in the ranks of Republicans -- between those who, like Mayor Rout, operate comfortably within a bipartisan, nondogmatic structure of opinion and those who, like Flinn, Willingham, and others, represent the feelings of populist, anti-tax insurgents.

Whatever the outcome of the current mayoral battle or of that over the chairmanship, this is a war that will go on for some time.

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