Making Changes 

Last week saw some dramatic turnarounds and new approaches in the political universe.

Last Saturday's meeting of the state Republican executive committee in Nashville was notable both for one thing that happened and one thing that didn't happen.

The former first: Memphis lawyer John Ryder has regained the post of Republican national committeeman which he lost to former 4th District congressman Van Hilleary four years ago on the eve of Hilleary's unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate.

In balloting by the Tennessee Republican Party executive committee, meeting at Legislative Plaza at the state Capitol in Nashville on Saturday, Ryder eked out a 31-30 second-ballot victory over Hilleary.

The two contenders had tied 31-31 on the first ballot, after which state committee member Scott Golden, an aide to 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, had to depart on a mission for Blackburn. Golden's absence turned out to be the difference for Ryder.

A bit of background: Ryder, who served two previous four-year terms as his party's national committeeman, had desired reelection back in 2004, but the party's bylaws prohibited three consecutive terms. From my report of late 2003: "[At] last weekend's meeting in Nashville of the state Republican executive committee ... Hilleary lobbied the committee's 66 members hard to forestall a change in party bylaws that would have allowed current GOP national committeeman John Ryder of Memphis to serve a third term.

"The bottom line: 'Van wants the post himself, starting in 2004,' said a leading state Republican acquainted with the situation. Ryder, who was first named a national committeeman in 1996, is limited to two four-year terms by current bylaws concerning term limits. The Memphis lawyer, a former Shelby County Republican chairman and longtime presence in GOP affairs, had reportedly wanted the bylaws changed so that he could be in place when the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, scheduled for Memphis in 2006, takes place.

"Until Hilleary began his lobbying effort, there had been enough votes to make the bylaws change, and Ryder had been so assured."

In the event the bylaws were not changed, and Ryder had to yield. As a consolation prize of sorts, he became an ad hoc chairman of the conference, a successful one attended by every potential Republican presidential candidate, including all of those who competed this year.

All the same, this year's turnaround (the bylaws did allow for a third non-consecutive term) was sweet revenge for the Memphian.

Now for the shoe that didn't drop: In other action, the GOP executive committee engaged in no discussion and took no public action on the standing of party spokesperson Bill Hobbs, a controversial figure because of his party press releases — especially the one circulated week before last that imputed anti-Semitism to some supporters of "Barack Hussein Obama." That release, which originally was accompanied by a photograph of Democratic presidential candidate Obama in Kenya wearing tribal African clothes that the release misidentified as "Muslim garb," got national attention and was roundly denounced in political and media circles.

Among those explicitly repudiating it were numerous Republican leaders. They included both of Tennessee's Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker; Blackburn; Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan; and the GOP's likely presidential standard-bearer, John McCain.

While advance word had been that Hobbs' head might be on the chopping block, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain, party chair Robin Smith received a vote of confidence and a standing ovation from committee members.

• As it happened, Senator Alexander was the featured speaker Saturday night at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner held by the Shelby County Republican Party. In remarks to reporters as well as in his formal address, Alexander made the case for nonconfrontational politics.

Before he took the dais, the senator, who now holds the position of Republican caucus chairman in the Senate, was asked about his widely reported intercession with state chairman Smith on the Obama press-release matter. He acknowledged taking the lead in contacting Smith in an effort to have the release expunged from the state party's website: "We agreed that it was easily misinterpreted and could be very inappropriate and should come down. She took it down."

Said Alexander: "I think the right thing was clearly done. If Senator Obama is the nominee, we will have plenty of differences between his views and ours, and the best way for us to begin is by referring to him as 'Senator Obama.' That's what I do, and that's what I think Republicans should do."

Both in interviews and in his speech to the gathered Republicans, Alexander noted with pride a list of 52 prominent Democrats and independents who last week signed a statement endorsing his reelection this year. "We need to keep this one country and not balkanize it," he told the group at large. Politicians should "focus on the big issues and stay away from bickering." Voters, he said, had no wish to "see us poke fingers in each other's eyes."

Alexander praised putative GOP presidential nominee John McCain for the very quality that riles many Republicans on the party's right: his "ability to attract independent voters to our party."

Even the senator's conclusion had the ring of political ecumenism: "This is a year when people are borrowing each other's speeches," he said, ending with a signature line from Obama: "I'm fired up and ready to go."

• Seventh District congressman Blackburn was also an attendee at the Lincoln Day Dinner. Asked about the fact that her name has ended up on lists of potential vice-presidential running mates for McCain, she said, "That's flattering. It just shows that there's got to be a conservative, a female, or someone on the national ticket. It's not about me, specifically; it's more about filling that profile. We know it won't happen, but it's nice to be mentioned."

Kathryn Bowers, the former state senator from Memphis and Tennessee Waltz offender who was recently sentenced to a 16-month prison term by U.S. judge Daniel Breen, released an open letter this week which included this passage:

"This was a one-time very bad decision on my part, and I urge others who are in elected and appointed positions to know the law and serve the people with honor and integrity. I hope and pray that my bad decisions and bad decisions of others do not discourage the people from participating in the electoral process.

"I truly believe that Judge Breen struggled over his decision to sentence me to 16 months and I dispelled the notion that his decision was based on race or gender. In all of my years of public and private life I never considered race, gender, religion or economic ability as a deciding factor in working with people."

• The death last week of state representative Gary Rowe caught most people, even Rowe's legislative colleagues, by surprise. Rowe, who represented a district spanning parts of Whitehaven and Southeast Memphis, had been diagnosed with colon cancer only in January. A funeral service will be held for Rowe Friday at 10 a.m. at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on McLemore.

• At one point during last week's three-hour joint City Council/County Commission meeting with Greg Ericson on the Memphis entrepreneur's theme-park proposal for The Pyramid (see Editorial, p. 16), Councilman Shea Flinn interrupted proceedings to say he wanted to ask something of the gathered audience and media.

Flinn swept his arm around the crowded table areas, indicating the commingled members of the two legislative bodies. "How are we doing with consolidation?" he asked.

The question was regarded as rhetorical and drew a general chuckle. But it had a serious thrust, too, and Jimmy Ogle, Ericson's vice president of operations, would observe later in an e-mail that Wednesday's meeting had been a "historical moment," with "19 out of a possible 26 attendees present."

Ogle went on: "No one in the room could figure out the last time, if ever, when that many elected officials from both sides of Main Street were in the same room at the same time in an official meeting. ... Not only that, but the meeting was called only 48 hours earlier."

If Ogle, a veteran of numerous governmental and quasi-governmental positions, is impressed, perhaps the rest of us should be, as well.

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