Serving Notice

The GOP's new chairman avoids the school issue, aims at city elections.

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The newly elected chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, businessman Kemp Conrad, let it be known after his overwhelming election at Sunday's local GOP convention that he intended for the party to take an active role in endorsing candidates in this year's forthcoming -- and formally non-partisan -- city elections.

"I certainly lean that way, but, of course, it's up to the steering committee," said Conrad, whose hand-picked slate of candidates for the steering committee had, with minor exceptions, been elected along with him Sunday. Conrad's victory was by a vote of 338 to 72 over contractor Jerry Cobb, who indicated he would present to the state Republican Party a challenge to the party credentials of some of Conrad's delegates.

But the number of those named in Cobb's long-shot challenge -- well under 100 -- could hardly affect the result, and, as Conrad noted, his victory margin would have been even greater if a number of other delegates pledged to him had not been kept from attending the convention by bad weather.

Conrad cited current city councilman Brent Taylor, elected in 1995 after receiving official GOP backing, in support of the efficacy of endorsements. "He wouldn't have been elected without the party's support," said Conrad.

Sidestep

Brent Taylor was the victor eight years ago in a runoff against Scott McCormick, a prospective opponent this year for at-large council member Pat VanderSchaaf, who said Sunday she had the backing of George Flinn, the 2002 Republican nominee for county mayor, who had considered a race for her seat. "He's also behind my proposal for The Pyramid," said VanderSchaaf, who wants to relocate the University of Memphis Law School in the facility once the university's basketball Tigers, as anticipated, move their games to the new FedEx Forum.

Flinn, who at one time had indicated he might have privatization plans for The Pyramid, said Sunday he was unlikely to pursue them. As for his political plans, he indicated he was still mulling over a race for the council seat now held by John Vergos, who has not yet decided whether to seek reelection.

Conrad promised to continue the minority outreach effort he oversaw as head of an ad hoc Republican committee during the last year. If the Republican Party could not attract more blacks and Hispanic members, said Conrad, "we might have an organization, but we won't win elections."

• Shelby County school board president David Pickler, long regarded as one of the area's more accomplished political presences (how else could he have gotten the board's bylaws changed to become its virtual permanent president?), took the dais at Sunday's GOP convention to deliver an impassioned nominating speech for losing chairmanship candidate Cobb.

Pickler's speech was notable not so much for what it said about Cobb -- an opponent, like Pickler, of school consolidation -- but for its broadside against Conrad, who was at that point clearly destined to be a winner. Noting that Conrad had written an op-ed piece for The Commercial Appeal two years ago in favor of consolidation, Pickler said he couldn't support a chairman or belong to a party that favored consolidation.

The issue may be moot, since Conrad, after his election, announced from the dais that A) he regarded consolidation as a question to be resolved locally (which, in a sense, states the obvious); and B) he would distance himself from the issue as chairman. And both Conrad and Pickler, who said he spoke out so bluntly Sunday to see if he could get Conrad to make a public renunciation of consolidation, resolved to keep lines of communication open.

The new chairman did, however, observe pointedly of Pickler's action, "That was a strange way to spend political capital."

John Willingham, the GOP member of the Shelby County Commission who recently underwent emergency multiple-bypass heart surgery, returned to action at Monday's commission meeting and cast the deciding vote in favor of a $l75,000 renovation of commission quarters. The 7-6 vote for the renovation, which would create independent offices for the commissioners, otherwise went along strict party lines, with Democrats for the expenditure and Republicans against it.

"John had to vote that way because he's running out of people to share office space with," quipped fellow Republican commissioner Bruce Thompson afterward. Willingham, who was elected last year, had initially been assigned to share a cubicle with Linda Rendtorff, who had been opposed unsuccessfully in the 2002 GOP primary by Willingham's daughter, Karla Templeton.

Willingham, who had a good laugh at Thompson's joke, said Monday he had declined the office arrangement with Rendtorff on grounds of potential awkwardness. Before going into the hospital, he had shared space with Tom Moss but when he returned found that Moss was now in a cubicle with Marilyn Loeffel, while he had been billeted with Joyce Avery.

"I guess Tom decided he couldn't put up with me either," said Willingham, who has feuded with Loeffel. In point of fact, Avery, a former nurse and close friend of the Willingham family, had been asked by Commmissioner Willingham's wife Marge to move in and keep a close eye on her convalescing husband, who, as Moss noted Monday, has a tendency to ignore constraints.

Willingham, a barbecue specialist known in recent years for his several restaurants (the most recent of which, at Perkins and American Way, is about to be sold), was an official of the department of Housing and Urban Development during the Nixon administration and has floated his own plan to convert The Pyramid into a casino operated by the Chickasaw Indian tribe. The Nashville Tennessean reported prominently on Willingham's plan in its Sunday edition.

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