Madame Chairman

Well, that's settled, anyhow: Loeffel will head the Shelby County Commission.

The big election -- the Memphis city version scheduled for October 7th -- is still to come, but a significant mini-election -- that for the chairmanship of the Shelby County Commission -- has come and gone, and the winner, Marilyn Loeffel, got in without having to break a sweat.

To say that was a surprise is an understatement. Less than 24 hours before the commission was scheduled to vote, there were no fewer than four announced Republican candidates for the chairmanship, and since it was the GOP's turn to nominate a chairman under an annual-rotation agreement between the two major parties, that meant that a majority of the nominating caucus were candidates.

Two of those, Tom Moss and Linda Rendtorff, the latter of whom announced her candidacy as recently as Sunday, had advertised themselves as fallback candidates -- possible compromise choices should the expected showdown between Loeffel and first-termer Bruce Thompson not yield a winner.

This was not exactly a student-body election, in which the winner's vanity was mainly what was at stake. Loeffel and Thompson, though nominal partymates, have wholly different constituencies and philosophical outlooks.

Loeffel, who represents Cordova, is a former president of the now-defunct organization FLARE, which opposed abortion, favored school prayer and charter schools, and stressed other social themes favored by Christian fundamentalists. Like Ed McAteer, the ex-marketing director for Colgate toothpaste whose Religious Roundtable lobbies for various social-conservative causes, Loeffel does not advance a complex economic agenda, but she and her constituents are, to be sure, middle-income types averse to paying higher taxes.

In practice, Loeffel has voted against all tax-increase resolutions -- including the 25 cent property-tax hike of this year -- but has taken something of a scattershot approach to expenditures, voting for some controversial projects this year -- like money for MIFA and WKNO -- and rejecting others.

Thompson, whose background is in business and money-managing, has been much more rigorous in pursuing goals of fiscal solvency, backing his commission-mate David Lillard's efforts to impose new budget procedures and, like Lillard, calling for structural changes and reexamining the priorities of county government.

Early on in his tenure, he let it be known that he thought Loeffel was allowing her de facto alliance with Democratic chairman Walter Bailey, who had successfully backed her last year for the stepping-stone position of chairman pro tem, to influence her votes. Thompson, Lillard, and, on occasion, other Republicans thought they saw a pattern, too, of Loeffel's abstaining on issues and voting for courtesy reconsiderations of prior votes so as to advance agendas favored by Bailey and other Democrats.

Loeffel didn't allay these suspicions by couching many of her votes in moralistic, even pious, terms -- at one point justifying her position against casino gambling as one reflecting divine will.

Thompson, clearly, was counting on Rendtorff and Joyce Avery to see things his way. He saw Rendtorff's late-blooming candidacy and the absence Monday of Avery, who was obviously conflicted as to which one of her four colleagues deserved her vote, as lengthening the odds to the point of making his chances academic. At worst, he would lose outright to Loeffel; at best, he could keep her from winning -- thereby handing the election to Rendtorff or Moss, two relatively moderate candidates.

The most likely winner in that scenario would have been Moss, a homebuilder whose position on zoning issues had often been 180 degrees away that of Thompson. Hence, Thompson's concession before Monday's meeting.

Democrat Michael Hooks, who would end up being voted chairman pro tem and is therefore Loeffel's putative successor next year, nominated Loeffel, who won without a single opponent and without a negative word being uttered.

Unless you count the new chairman's acceptance remarks, in which she began by praising the loyalty of her husband Mark Loeffel for standing by "a wife who has been attacked and lied about" and ended with a veiled reference to media attention (focused most recently on some of her expense-account procedures) and an injunction to the offending media: "Now, go away."

Considering the high-profile position she now occupies, that probably won't happen.

One other matter of semiotic import: When erstwhile antagonist Thompson addressed her at point thereafter as "Madame Chairperson," she quickly responded, "Before we go any further, let's not stumble over this. It's 'chairman,' 'Madame Chairman.' If you feel comfortable with that, I feel comfortable with that." Thus did the new chairperson -- er, chairman -- announce her first major decision.

In the Line of Fire

Mayoral candidate John Willingham is no stranger to controversy.

The selection of Marilyn Loeffel to head the Shelby County Commission was by no means the only matter of import to come before that body on Monday, nor was she the only commissioner to come under unusual scrutiny.

Some unexpected attention came the way of Commissioner John Willingham, who had let it be known that he hadn't wanted to "get in the middle" of the chairmanship contest and was no doubt greatly relieved that an expected knockdown-dragout involving two or more of his Republican colleagues didn't come to pass.

Willingham is a candidate for Memphis mayor and is the best-known of several opponents of incumbent Mayor Willie Herenton, and he'd just as soon concentrate on that battle. The problem is that Willingham is, by his very nature, always up to his elbows in controversy. Make that "controversies," for the issues he gets involved with tend to get interlocked.

Just before adjournment of Monday's commission meeting, a gentleman named Robert Hawks materialized before the body, having filled out in advance one of those cards by which any citizen in attendance can indicate his desire to address the commission.

Hawks proceeded to tell the commission that, at Willingham's suggestion, he had functioned as a consultant and done abundant research on various complications involving the ongoing construction of the FedExForum and that -- bottom line -- he was entitled to compensation to the tune of some tens of thousands of dollars.

"It's been a matter of 40 to 60 hours every week for months," he would explain after the meeting. Willingham said little during the commission meeting -- except to suggest that Hawks might be there to embarrass his candidacy -- but both then and later he denied obligating either himself or the commission to pay Hawks for investigative work which he said Hawks had undertaken on his own.

The commission voted to allow Hawks to make his case before a meeting of Willingham's Public Service and Tourism committee when it meets again, either this Wednesday or next week.

Oddly, both Hawks (publicly) and Willingham (privately) made reference to the FBI as an agency which had interested itself in whatever investigations of the arena matter that the two, together or singly, were privy to. And both cited that fact as something that would limit their ability to be forthcoming.

Willingham said Tuesday that he would ask the commission to meet in "executive session" to discuss aspects of Hawks' claim.

• Did we mention interlocking controversies? Though he was unusually subdued during a contentious discussion of a pending internal audit of the commission, Willingham -- along with commissioners Deidre Malone and Michael Hooks -- had been one of the prime movers for such an action during and after the period last year when Tom Jones, then a top assistant to outgoing Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, was discovered to have made questionable charges on his county-issued credit card. (Jones has since come under indictment.)

Though commissioners Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton first expressed doubt that a thoroughgoing audit of commission expenditures was called for, others felt differently, and eventually a motion to conduct an audit of all expenditures charged to the commission since 1998 was passed unanimously.

• Did we mention Willingham's penchant for controversy? As an attendee at a meeting of the East Shelby Republican Club Monday night, Willingham raised the issue of political misconduct by the current leadership of the Shelby County Republican Party, whose chairman, Kemp Conrad, had attempted to dissuade Willingham from running for mayor and who had made no bones about his doubts about the commissioner's chances of winning.

Addressing Conrad's deputy, Don Johnson, who was in attendance, Willingham vented this concern as well as one involving the party's decision to endorse one Republican over another.

Willingham was joined in his complaints by several other club members and by another candidate, Betty Boyette, who is the only Republican running for city court clerk but maintains she has neither been endorsed by the party nor acknowledged by it as a Republican nor even listed on the party's official Web site.

Johnson patiently heard out such concerns, and Conrad responded Tuesday that "the key to failure is to try to please everybody" and that endorsement decisions were "tough" by their very nature but that his and the steering committee's had been designed to advance long-term party interests.

He denounced as "totally false" an allegation by Willingham that he had a de facto alliance with Mayor Willie Herenton which influenced his attitude toward the mayor's cause and which had caused him, suggested Willingham, to persuade George Flinn to run for the City Council in District 5 instead of for mayor, baiting him with the party's endorsement for the council position.

"That's absurd. It's pure conspiracy theory," Conrad said.

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