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Rising Star

Larry Finch may have a future in politics after all.

by Dennis Freeland

was wrong.

Two weeks ago in this space, I bemoaned the fact that Larry Finch, a local hero, was running a doomed campaign for the job of county register. “This is how a hero ends up in Memphis,” I wrote, “out of work and running an uninspired campaign for a position that in no way suits him.”

Because I underestimated the power of a hero’s name, I gave Finch no chance of winning an election that was still 10 days away. Finch garnered 48.6 percent of the vote and lost by just one-tenth of one percentage point. It had to be one of the most heartbreaking losses in the coach’s career. Incumbent Guy Bates, 72, beat the political novice by 127 votes in a race where 126,382 cast ballots.

Here are the lessons I learned:

1) Stick to sports and leave politics to the experts. Senior editor Jackson Baker tried to warn me about the unpredictable nature of the voting booth, but I wouldn’t listen. And when, a few days after my commentary appeared, he relayed to me the thoughts of a local Democratic leader that the county register’s race was tight, I dismissed it as political spin.

2) Never underestimate the power of name recognition in politics. Bates had been on the job for 37 years, but few people know much about him. Finch, on the other hand, has had enough face time on local TV to rival Dave Brown or Jerry Tate. Voters might not know what the county register does, but they know Larry Finch, the former Tiger who grew up in Orange Mound.

3) Finch can still unite a divided community. I thought Finch would be buried in the same avalanche of white, Republican voters who carried Marilyn Loeffel to her overwhelming win in a county commission race. But Finch obviously received significant support from both Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks. Think back to March 1, 1997, after Memphis upset Cincinnati in Finch’s final home game. The Pyramid basketball court was surrounded by fans standing five and six deep, holding signs telling the coach how much they loved him. More than 90 percent of them were white. They loved Finch for all the joy he brought them as a player and coach. They were a loyal bunch, and I bet they voted for him in droves.

4) Never discount the role of the Independent. Who knows Robert E. Harris? An African American who ran for the county register position without party affiliation, Harris received 2.59 percent of the votes – just enough to keep Finch from pulling a major upset. Give most of Harris’ 3,267 votes to Finch, and I’d really be eating some crow here.

So what’s next for Larry Finch? You can bet that Shelby County Democrats will encourage him to make another political run. And, if the former coach can polish his campaigning skills, he might just become a political force in this area.

Whatever happens, I hope Finch doesn’t become bitter. The last 20 months have been difficult for him. He lost his job, he was turned down for several college positions, during this campaign one of his dearest friends, Tommy Edwards, died unexpectedly, and now Finch has lost one of the closest elections in Shelby County history.

I hope Coach can find the bright side to this story. As the election results prove, he still has thousands of friends.

Dennis Freeland is editor of The Memphis Flyer and is one of the 61,494 who voted for Larry Finch last week.

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