Flyer InteractivePolitics

Nashville on His Mind

A reelected Rout peeks down I-40 as he charts his course for a second term.

by Jackson Baker

or all the nail-biting that attended some of the races on the August 6th election ballot, there were several that occasioned no drama whatsoever. Notable among these, of course, was the race for Shelby County Mayor, in which the Republican incumbent, Jim Rout, had no more worthy opponents all year than convicted pornographer Ernie Lunati, whom he dusted off in the May GOP primary, and independent Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges, whom he took care of last week.

Willie Herenton made a surprise visit to Rout headquarters, getting back on board the Solidarity Special.
But, even as Rout and a middling-sized crowd of fellow Republicans celebrated such blessings as were theirs on Thursday night at the Adam’s Mark Hotel, clear signals were being sent about the county mayor’s ambitions in a battle yet to be fought. Commemorative T-shirts were being sold at the Adam’s Mark event, and mayoral son Rick Rout made a point of calling reporters’ attention to the graphics printed upon them.

On the front of the shirt was Rout’s name and on the back was a map of Shelby County, with yard signs to indicate each of Rout’s successful elective races – “Commissioner, 1978” and so on, through his two mayoral races so far. There was another yard sign, tucked into the northeast corner of the Shelby map, which said merely “2002,” with a space left blank for the office to be sought.

Rout the younger wouldn’t fill in the space out loud, but he left little doubt what word belonged there. “Governor?” he was asked. “You didn’t hear it from me,” was his roundabout reply.

One does hear it quite a lot from other people close to the county mayor, however – as well as from sources in Nashville, both Democratic and Republican, who believe that Rout’s future ambitions lie in that direction.

The county mayor himself is taking the conventional “have-no-plans” approach to an event that far off. “I’m just concentrating on the job before us in Shelby County – for now,” he said pointedly to the Memphis Rotary Club recently after a member’s introduction of him as “a future governor” – a statement which was followed by cheers and a standing ovation.

For the time being, of course, Rout will have to forsake the affairs-of-state to come in favor of some knotty local problems. He used all his administrative legerdemain lately to avoid having to raise taxes – persuading both school administrators and restive Democrats on the county commission to forgo pushing for a 25-cent raise in the property-tax rate. This was on the eve of the election, at a time when the Democrats seemed to have enough votes – including that of outgoing GOP commissioner Pete Sisson – to enact the tax increase, which would have been earmarked for education.

That was on the heels of some administrative maneuvering which had seen Rout veto a commission-enacted pay raise of hefty proportions for deputy jailers while handing the increase back to the jailers in the form of a “personal safety” allowance.

In both actions Rout was able to access county reserves and to make the claim that he had upheld his 1994 campaign pledge to avoid a general tax increase. But the solutions were stopgap. After two different official “studies” are conducted this year (a favorite Rout device for postponing unpleasant duties), educational spending will almost certainly have to be increased, and deputy sheriffs will probably reap pay increases equivalent to those of the jailers.

Pointedly, the mayor made no pledge in this reelection campaign this year to avoid a tax increase during his forthcoming term. Given the less than nominal opposition he faced, he was able to finesse the question. But it will be there for him to deal with soon enough. Meanwhile, it lies squarely athwart his path to the governor’s mansion.

The times, however, may be right for Rout, no slouch as a numbers-cruncher, to use an artful solution for the county’s revenue problem as a precursor for what he might do as governor, since state government will soon enough face its own deferred-spending crisis. A former budget chairman of the county commission, the mayor can claim with some justice to have juggled funds in order to keep school renovation and inner-city housing programs alive.

Policy-wise, Rout is a kind of Republican version of Bill Morris, his friend and the Democrat who preceded him as county mayor. Both are moderates and believers in public investment. Both have long been close friends of Governor Don Sundquist’s, with many of the same political and financial supporters.

As chronicled two weeks ago by the Flyer’s Phil Campbell, one thing Rout has in common with his predecessor is the ability to raise big money – from the same corps of builders and developers who helped Morris build a sizeable war chest for his own 1994 gubernatorial run.

It is a matter of simple fact that Rout still has roughly half a million dollars in his coffers – money which could presumably be used for campaign purposes other than those which, strictly speaking, it was raised for.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton was on hand for Rout’s Thursday-night celebration, as he had been for the newly elected county mayor’s victory party at the same site four years earlier. In the intervening period, the two mayors had been on-again, off-again, feuding as often as not over issues like that of the annexation/incorporation controversy of 1997.

But they are evidently simpatico again. Herenton made it clear, incidentally, that while he might be inclined, as expected, to seek a third term as city mayor next year, he had no interest in running to succeed Rout as county mayor in 2002.

“One more time, if I do it, and then I’m going to get out of politics,” said Herenton.

After what seemed a whirlwind of late campaign activity that roused her supporters’ expectations, Democratic county commission candidate Irma Merrill ended up losing her race against Republican Marilyn Loeffel by the same 2-to-1 ratio that might have been predicted on the front end of the campaign.

The fact is that District 1, which encompasses a sprawling territory ranging from Midtown Memphis to the city’s near suburbs, is reliably Republican in its voting patterns. Merrill was able to make modest inroads – particularly in some of the district’s upscale neighborhoods, where her presumed moderation on social issues was here and there preferred to the more hard-core positions expressed by Loeffel in the past.

But Loeffel’s positions (articulated, ironically enough, through the same coded buzzwords – crime, education, family values – that her opponent also employed) clearly resonated with the middle-class populations of Bartlett and Cordova, the essential hinterland of the district.

And when a recent Sunday newspaper column in The Commercial Appeal took Loeffel severely to task for her well-known social conservatism, the congregation of Bellevue Baptist Church, where Loeffel is a member, gave her on that same day a standing ovation, which was followed by a pointed exhortation from Bellevue’s pastor, the Rev. Adrian Rogers, that members should go out and vote en masse.

The fact is that, even though Merrill attempted to label her opponent an “extremist,” she was not able to make the charge stick – partly because she went about making the case half-heartedly and partly because Loeffel avoided making the kind of ideological statements that might have given the charge substance.

Beyond all that, however, a majority of the district’s suburban voters, most of whom moved to their present residences in order to continue in a social lifestyle which others elsewhere might consider too conservative, probably agree with Loeffel on matters ranging from abortion to charter schools. And they could no more be expected to respond favorably to attacks upon Loeffel than they would cotton to being dressed down for their own cultural inclinations.

With the extremist argument destined to go nowhere, Merrill resorted to stratagems like attacking Loeffel for her presumed support of a roadway through Shelby Farms. But for the transplant populations of Bartlett – and especially those of mushrooming Cordova – development is not the bugaboo it is for Midtown Memphians or for residents of Germantown to the south. This argument, too, seemed to fall flat, and, to the extent that Merrill’s supporters tried to make a case against Loeffel as holier-than-thou, they often came off as social elitists themselves, as instances of tonier-than-thou.

In the final analysis, Merrill – a hard-working and attractive candidate, though one who seemed at times to be on a star trip – lost as badly as she did because her opponent reflected more clearly the convictions of the district. As simple as that, and that’s how it is with representative government.

In two closely watched legislative races, State Rep. Joe Towns (District 84, Whitehaven) beat his Democratic primary rival, Joseph Kyles, by a two-to-one margin, and Republican State Representative Larry Scroggs (District 94, Germantown) defeated the former incumbent, David Shirley, in a rematch – thanks largely to huge help from Governor Don Sundquist, who campaigned for Scroggs and said it would be a “disaster” if Shirley, who had always bucked his gubernatorial agenda, got back in. Scroggs’ margin of victory, however, was unexpectedly narrow.

The Towns-Kyles contest had gotten intertwined with an ongoing controversy over the administration at Shelby State Community College of that institution’s embattled president, Floyd “Bud” Amann. Towns had been a vehement critic of Amann in the past, and some of his supporters were candid last week in owning up to the political motives behind a recent press conference at which Towns and two other legislators attacked Amann anew and called for the state Board of Regents to replace him.

“It was getting too tight, and Joe needed some help,” said one Towns aide. The results of the election – a two-to-one pasting of Kyles – indicate that, in more than one sense, the Towns camp (which included city councilman Rickey Peete as a silent partner) protested too much.

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