Friday, October 11, 2002

Crossing the Lines

As old political divisions loosen up, new coalitions form. But will they hold?

Posted By on Fri, Oct 11, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Q: What do loose morals, the Black Panthers, and the Third Reich have in common? A: They were all evoked in an unforeseen controversy that erupted in Monday's biweekly meeting of the Shelby County Commission. The argument, over county funding of a contraceptive program, was one of two issues -- the other concerned a zoning matter -- that underscored the tendency of the current body, elected in August, to cross partisan and racial lines more freely than previous commissions had.

Said Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham: "Are we not encouraging loosening up promoting promiscuous sex legalizing morality -- or the lack of it? [It] does give the girl and her partner free rein, doesn't it? If guys know they can pay without paying the price, they're going to." Said Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel: "To me, it's a moral issue. It's a matter of core belief, not a debate over financial responsibility . It's not our place to promote birth control. They can't remember to do homework, to make their beds, to catch the bus on time."

These sentiments had to do with a resolution initially considered so innocuous that it was placed on the commission's "consent agenda," which normally lists a plethora of routine matters that are voted out of the way early in a meeting so that the real controversies, if such there be, can come later and get all the time and attention they deserve.

It read this way: "Resolution approving expenditure of funds in the amount of $66,000 for the purchases of Depo Provera Prefilled Syringes from Pharmacia Corporation for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department's Family Planning Program." In effect, the syringes in question provide temporary inoculation against pregnancy, and that fact made the resolution an anathema to Loeffel, a longtime activist on social-conservative issues -- especially since the category of potential subjects necessarily includes females who are formally classified as minors and who are students in the county's junior high schools and high schools.

In asking that the resolution be taken off the consent agenda and placed on the commission's regular agenda, Loeffel intended only to be given the opportunity to vote against the measure, she said, adding, "I had no intention of provoking a debate." The debate ensued, however, sometimes heated, sometimes bizarre, and, as indicated, irrespective of the usual partisan lines.

One strong opponent of Loeffel's view, for example, was newly elected commissioner Joyce Avery, who turned out longtime commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf this year largely on the strength of her advocacy of tighter fiscal restraints for county government. Indeed, Avery, the sponsor of the disputed resolution, defended it as a classic instance of financial responsibility. "These are people who are already sexually active, are they not?" she asked Yvonne Madlock, county health department director, who concurred and added that, in her view, it was "the right of every individual to make rational decisions about reproductive life."

Avery attempted to mollify Loeffel by saying that, "as a Christian," she sympathized with the Cordova commissioner's views but added, "I agree to disagree." She said she felt that society was being unfairly burdened by "children having children" and that "a sense of fiscal responsibility" required making the contraceptive syringes available. In any case, said Avery firmly, she was determined to see the matter come to a vote without being deferred.

In the end, the commission would approve the expenditures by an 8-4 vote. Voting for it were Republicans Avery, Linda Rendtorff, Tom Moss, and David Lillard and Democrats Deidre Malone, Michael Hooks, Cleo Kirk, and Joe Ford. Voting with Loeffel and Willingham were newcomer Bruce Thompson, a Republican, and vintage Democrat Walter Bailey, who currently serves as chairman and who asked Loeffel to take over the chair briefly while he articulated his position -- along unanticipated lines, it's fair to say.

Some decades back, when he was a member of the board of an American Civil Liberties Union chapter, Bailey recalled, he had supported positions taken by the Black Panthers, a radical group prominent in the late '60s and early '70s, opposing state-supported birth-control programs on the grounds that, as a means of "population control," they were aimed at blacks. Asked after the meeting if he regarded that as a live possibility in today's circumstances, Bailey said he did, throwing in what was arguably a non sequitur: "Who could have foreseen what Hitler would do?"

The other matter Monday that operated independently of party structure was precipitated by Commissioner Hooks' request to reconsider a zoning proposal that was defeated two weeks earlier when it could not get a majority vote. This, a project by developer Kevin Hyneman to build 50 new homes in the Cordova area, received a 6-6 vote on September 23rd, when a coalition of Republicans and Democrats resisted two new subdivision proposals aimed at families with children.

One of those was that of Hyneman, who, along with brother and fellow developer Rusty Hyneman, has abundant political contacts. One of those on a number of former occasions was Hooks, who, to many of his colleagues' surprise, took the lead at the previous meeting in holding the line against the proposed new developments on the ground that, until reliable means of financing future school construction could be assured, it was folly to approve new family-oriented subdivisions.

Buttressing the argument, which is a staple of what is coming to be known as the "Smart Growth" concept, was the presence at that meeting of Maura Black, director of planning for Shelby County schools.

Black was absent from Monday's meeting, and so, crucially, was the united "Smart Growth" front of Hooks, Malone, and GOP add-ons Avery and Thompson, who, with members picked up from the other commissioners on the key proposals, were able to hold the line last time.

At the start of Monday's session, Democrat Julian Bolton, an absentee on September 23rd, asked Hooks if he, as a member of the prevailing side in the Hyneman vote, would mind moving to reconsider the proposal. To the discomfiture -- and raised eyebrows -- of some of his new allies (a couple of whom had skeptically predicted such a move two weeks ago), Hooks agreed, and the motion to reconsider, coupled with another that deferred renewed voting on the measure until the commission's next meeting, duly passed.

"He was very kind to me during my recovery, and he would have done the same thing for me," Hooks, who made a dramatic return to action after a widely publicized bout with cocaine addiction, would say later, justifying his decision to honor Bolton's request. "I am not so unmindful as not to know how Julian will end up voting," said Hooks, who, like everyone else, saw the former 6-6 deadlock on Hyneman's subdivision turning into a 7-6 vote of passage next time out.

Though no one professed any doubt about Hooks' motives for the record, two of his colleagues, commissioners Thompson and Lillard, the latter of whom had voted Hyneman's way in September, expressed displeasure at the result and suggested that a better option for Bolton, who had an opportunity to see the September 26th agenda in advance, would have been to seek deferral of the measure before its initial vote, not to have it resurrected for a second try later on.

Malone, however, saw no reason for distress. The "Smart Growth" faction, so far equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, would hold together as a unit in the future, she predicted.

• "I'm probably not going to make the list, ever, of the 50 most beautiful people, but there's a list of 50 I think I can make!" So said former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen after being introduced by 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. to an overflow Peabody ballroom crowd of several hundred supporters Monday.

Of course, Bredesen's list -- of U.S. governors -- depends not on People magazine's arbiters of style but on the Tennessee electorate, which both Democrat Bredesen and his Republican opponent, 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, are assiduously courting just now. The two, currently regarded as being in a dead heat, were in Memphis for a weekend debate on WREG-TV Channel 3, and though some sparks flew in that one, neither candidate prevailed, in the view of most observers.

Each, however, scored off the other's positions -- Bredesen casting doubt on Hilleary's arithmetic and consistently regarding the economic benefits of drastic TennCare reforms and Hilleary making some telling points regarding the financial arrangements, signed onto by Bredesen, between Nashville and the NFL's Tennessee Titans. As Hilleary pointed out, Memphis made a better, more cushioned deal with the NBA to get the Grizzlies.

• Last month, when Young Republican chairman Rick Rout was asked by his fellow members of the Shelby County Republican steering committee to am-scray, by a vote of 18-8, Rout's answer was "Thanks, but no thanks." On Thursday night of last week, a month later, the committee voted in Rout's absence to begin his removal by impeachment.

That vote was even more decisive, at 26-7, but as committee parliamentarian Jerry Cobb pointed out, Article C of the state Republican bylaws mandates that a majority of the 43-member committee -- or 29 members -- must vote in favor of such a removal, and therefore, the whole process would have to be repeated at the committee's November meeting.

Cobb would say later on that he had no intention of party-pooping, stressing that his motive in raising the quibble was merely to make sure that any impeachment process, once completed, could not be reversed on a technicality.

In the meantime, committee members had wrangled amongst themselves over the nature of the process, the order in which steps had to be taken, and whether -- as member Scott McCormick and others suggested -- the local committee's bylaws, which explicitly disallow Article C's constraints in case of "open and notorious" support of Democrats, permit a simple majority of the quorum present to do the deed.

But unlike the case at September's meeting, there was no serious argument or discussion about whether Rout deserved the punishment. It was taken as a given, even by his nominal supporters.

As Bob Pittman, not a supporter and one of several members who, like Rout, aspire to the local party's chairmanship, put it, "We've got the rule [prohibiting such 'open and notorious' apostasies], and we either ought to amend it or enforce it."

What Rout did, of course, was send out indiscreet e-mails during the late county election period advertising his discontent with the Republican mayoral nominee, George Flinn. When his e-mails surfaced in public, Rout, son of then-Mayor Jim Rout (who was also unenthusiastic about Flinn but more cautious about expressing it), made halfhearted and somewhat disingenuous claims that he'd only been joking.

The committee votes against him have followed, initiated by a motion last month from John Willingham (who, as the two tallies surely have indicated, was no Lone Ranger in the matter).

Stay tuned; this one may require as many installments as the lingering death of Francisco Franco did in Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segments of the 1975-'76 season. Ultimately, maybe in February or March, the GOP executive committee would have to conduct a trial.

Rout retains his membership -- and his seriously compromised chairmanship candidacy -- in the meantime. Declared or likely chairmanship candidates include Ray Butler, Bob Pitman, Kemp Conrad, and Arnold Weiner.

• Two local legislative races to watch are those for districts 89 and 93, in which Democratic incumbents Carol Chumney and Mike Kernell are being challenged, respectively, by Republicans Ruth Ogles and John Peliciotti. More of these anon.

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