FLARE vs. Cherrie Holden

The fundamentalist group quietly lobbies against Sundquist’s State Board nominee.

by Jackson Baker

hat a difference a year makes. Really.

Roughly a year ago, in the late winter of 1997, Governor Don Sundquist named his appointment to fill a vacancy in the State Board of Education. It was conservative social activist Marilyn Loeffel of Germantown, who had made her reputation both locally and statewide as an exponent of ideas like the privately operated, publicly funded charter school and who had been prominent in the pro-life movement.

Loeffel was immediate past president of the conservative/fundamentalist group FLARE (Family, Life, America, Responsible Education Under God). She was opposed by groups like the Tennessee Education Association and Planned Parenthood, and her candidacy, having passed all the barriers in the State Senate, was eventually shot down in the State House of Representatives.

Skip a year. It’s now the late winter of 1998. Governor Sundquist has made another try at filling the vacancy on the nine-member board (one member for each congressional district, with the open seat being for the 7th district). His nominee is conservative social activist Cherrie Holden of Germantown, who espouses ideas like the charter school and who has been prominent both locally and statewide in the pro-life movement (having been state director of the Tennessee Right-to-Life Political Action Committee).

Holden is also a former board member of FLARE. She has apparently passed muster with groups like the Tennessee Education Association (which has, publicly at least, found no fault with her), and her candidacy, having passed all the barriers in the State Senate, is now on its way to the State House of Representatives.

The only opposition to Holden that’s surfaced so far has been from … FLARE?!

Members of the arch-conservative organization seem somewhat nonplussed at being caught in the act of taking potshots at Holden’s nomination (a fact disclosed by tips from other social conservatives) and strive to keep their names out of the public record. But the fact is, as one highly prominent and influential member admits, that several phone calls have been made by FLARE members to the governor’s office expressing dissatisfaction with the appointment, and FLARE president Emily Jo Greer acknowledges that she wrote a letter to Governor Sundquist pointedly telling him that the group did not endorse Holden. (Greer declined to make a copy of the letter available.)

“She had no right to claim our endorsement,” said Greer this week. Holden denies having done so, contending that all she ever did was list her past affiliation with FLARE in her publicity material. That’s a tender subject with some FLARE members, one of whom complained of Holden that “she’s made a habit of using people like us to build up her resume.” The same FLARE member accused Holden of waffling on her commitment to pro-life positions and said, “She hasn’t been asked back [as a board member]. What does that tell you?”

Holden said she heard of complaints being made about her to the governor’s office on the same day, last Wednesday, that the Senate Education Committee passed on her by a favorable 9-0 vote. (The whole Senate later approved Holden’s nomination by a 33-0 vote.) Holden is at a loss as to how to account for the opposition to her from key members of FLARE.

So are Holden’s chief legislative sponsors, State Senators Curtis Person Jr. and Tom Leatherwood and State Rep. Larry Scroggs, all Shelby Countians.

Person, a highly respected 32-year legislative veteran who customarily runs without opposition, noted that both he and Leatherwood are members of FLARE’s Advisory Board and were not prepared for Greer’s letter to Sundquist or for the group’s other attempts to distance itself from Holden.

“It certainly would have been expected,” said Person when asked if he thought he should have been notified in advance of Greer’s letter. “Baffled” is a word used both by Person and Leatherwood to account for their response to the situation.

State Representative Larry Scroggs of Germantown, sponsor for the Holden nomination in the House, said that Greer’s letter, as he remembered it, had been specifically addressed to David Locke, head of Governor Sundquist’s legislative liaison team. “It definitely indicated their opposition. It stated the position of FLARE as an official position, that they would not be supporting Cherrie Holden,” said Scroggs, who recalled language in the letter suggesting that Holden “had departed from or strayed from” the organization’s principles.

“My first thought was that it reflected somebody’s disappointment about the situation last year when Marilyn was defeated,” Scroggs said. Loeffel herself, now a candidate for the county commission seat being vacated by Pete Sisson, would not speak on the Holden matter for the record, but she is known to share the view that Holden may have backslid or been less than pure on some social issues important to FLARE members.

“I can’t imagine what they have in mind,” said a puzzled Holden, business manager of Ecko Records, a blues label, and a previous Sundquist appointee to the state Board of the Judiciary, a panel of jurists and citizens charged with reviewing judicial performance in the state. “It’s true that I once suggested that FLARE’s questionnaire was too rigid on the abortion question,” Holden said, referring to a document which the group asks prospective office-holders to fill out whenever a local election is held. (Answers to the questionnaire are later published but, as FLARE officials consistently point out, not accompanied by editorial advice about how to vote.)

All three Shelby County legislators predicted easy sailing for Holden through consideration by the House Education Committee and the full House next week. (It was a subcommittee of the Education Committee whose negative vote doomed Loeffel last year.) “There’s no reason why she shouldn’t pass. She’s an outstanding nominee,” Person said. And Scroggs noted that he was certain that Sundquist had vetted his nominee “months in advance” with such Democratic House members as Gene Davidson of Adams and Leslie Winningham of Huntsville, chairmen, respectively, of the House Education Committee and the K-12 (public schools) subcommittee.

Holden’s nomination is scheduled for consideration next week by Winningham’s and Davidson’s committees and then by the full House. Most observers agree with her Shelby County legislative sponsors that she’s a shoo-in and that FLARE’s expressed reservations might, on balance, help her prospects rather than hurt them.

And Greer herself, for the record, now says, “We don’t want to do anything that would look like we’re trying to undermine Cherrie.”

n As this week’s Thursday noon deadline approached for filees for countywide non-judicial races, rumors circulated briskly about a number of potential candidates. Former Sheriff Gene Barksdale, for example, was said to be about to enter the Republican primary against incumbent A.C. Gilless. (AIDS activist Novella Smith Arnold already had.)

Gilless, who will face opposition from Democrat Melvin Burgess, told a Dutch Treat Luncheon audience at the Midway Cafe Saturday that he was not responsible for the conduct of Sheriff’s Department employees now under indictment for job-selling and other offenses. His former chief deputy, Ray Mills, is one of those, but Gilless said afterward he had had no contact with Mills “for at least four months.”

Still lacking major opposition as the week began were County Mayor Jim Rout and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, both Republicans. Rout and Gibbons were each coming off campaign events that featured prominent Democrats and independents among their supporters.

n A public forum on the charter school issue, which will be a major bone of contention in this year’s General Assembly, will be held at the Board of Education auditorium at 2597 Avery, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday. *

Ford Sr., Rout Warn Herenton

Faced with a veritable storm of public criticism after he suggested last week that no referendum was needed to approve a sale by the city of Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Mayor Willie Herenton would later back down and, in a statement released Friday, promised “a referendum that allows the constituents to vote on this issue” if a committee he has appointed recommends sale of the utility.

One member of that committee, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, had privately expressed doubts about the sale earlier in the week, suggesting that any referendum on the issue should be countywide. Without any referendum at all, Rout said pointedly, Herenton could expect an “uprising.”

That sentiment was underscored by former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., widely regarded as a possible mayoral opponent for Herenton in 1999, who said that Herenton’s expressed intent to sell MLGW without a referendum could be the occasion for a “recall” initiative.

Ford’s statement was all the more ominous for Herenton in that his audience, at a luncheon last Wednesday at the Racquet Club, were the relatively conservative members of the East Memphis Rotary Club, whose reactions to Herenton’s proposal were – to judge by their comments – clearly disapproving and in sync with those of the former Democratic congressman.

Stressing that he was “completely happy” in his current career as a business consultant, Ford downplayed a possible future political role but warned Herenton that any unilateral action on MLGW would be “unbecoming.” He said further that a “30-day recall provision” in the city charter was meant to be applied “in a situation like this.”

Commenting on the currently developing Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Clinton, Ford said the most likely source of leaks in the case was Hickman Ewing Jr., now an aide to special Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The former congressman said that Ewing had leaked abundantly to the media a decade ago when he was a local U.S. Attorney and Ford was charged with bank and mail fraud. Ford, who was indicted in 1987, was acquitted in 1993. *

A Sheepishly Told Tale

When Shelby County’s numerous tribe of Republicans came together last Saturday night at the Adam’s Mark Hotel for the party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner, it was inevitable that some of the distinguished cast of GOP speakers would get around to the subject of the day: President Clinton’s alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.


Rep. Ed Bryant

One who touched on the matter was 7th District U.S. Representative Ed Bryant, who made a number of references to l’affaire Lewinsky and other aspects of the several legal predicaments now facing the president.

A tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by Bryant, a propos the present climate of public satisfaction with a booming economy, was that Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr might offer Clinton “retroactive, temporary, prospective, 9-to-5, contingent immunity” for all past, present, and future misdeeds – “adultery, sodomy, or even a little perjury” – but only “as long as the Dow Industrial Average stays over 7,000.”

That drew laughs, but Bryant got his most animated reaction to another suggestion for Clinton, whose standing in public opinion polls has steadily risen in the course of Starr’s continued probing into the Lewinsky matter. “Maybe he should get involved with some sheep, and he could go up to 100 percent,” the congressman deadpanned. The remark prompted a mix of breathy intakes, groans and nervous laughter from the 1,500 or so people present, and Bryant quickly added, “Don’t write that down. Or credit it to Senator [Bill] Frist.” (For the record, Emily Reynolds, Tennessee field director for the absent U.S. Senator, declined to accept Bryant’s facetious attribution.)

Various banquet attendees would later wonder aloud about the impact of Bryant’s joke on a crowd that, after all, included a large number of socially conservative and relatively strait-laced people. But perhaps they shouldn’t. Sheep figure prominently in the folklore – and in the history – of West Tennessee, site of Bryant’s sprawling 7th Congressional District.

There’s the famous case of a sheriff in the adjoining 8th District, who was convicted of theft some years back in a strange case in which the lawman was found to have ejected a sheep out the back window of a motel room while police were pounding on the room’s front door.

n More conventional in his Lincoln Day remarks was the event’s keynote speaker, U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, who defended the bipartisan nature of his recently concluded inquiry into 1996 campaign finance abuses and said of congressional critics of the probe, “Read the [forthcoming] report, and if the shoe fits, wear it.”

Thompson cracked that when he learned that the Democratic co-chairman of his committee, Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), wanted to go back into space, he asked, “Anything I can do to help?”

Other speakers at the dinner were Governor Don Sundquist and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout. n

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