POLITICS: Van's Plan

Former gubernatorial candidate Hilleary asserts himself in state GOP affairs.

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Ever since former 4th District U.S. Representative Van Hilleary lost his bid for governor last year, and especially after Hilleary’s recent move to Murfreesboro, speculation has abounded in state political circles as to what he intends next.

Last weekend’s meeting in Nashville of the state Republican executive committee may have provided an answer: In advance of the meeting, 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.

Hilleary has been rumored as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in 2006, and the position of national committeeman-- though some Republicans might regard it as a step back politically -- would give the former congressman some degree of visibility in the interim.

Ryder professed himself not at all nonplussed about the outcome. “I think the committee took the action it did on principled grounds,” he said.

Shelby County GOP chairman Kemp Conrad, a Ryder ally, wasn’t so easily mollified, and spoke with Hilleary after the committee’s vote. “I expressed some concern about it,” he acknowledged.

  • Conrad had a mini-tempest of his own to deal with last week. At the regular monthly meeting of the Shelby County Republican steering committee, the chairman proposed revamping of the awards that are presented at the local Republicans’ annual Lincoln Day dinner.

    Among the changes, as first presented, were the elimination of an award named after Thelma Williams, the late wife of John T. Williams, and of another named for Bob James. John T. Williams, a former 7th District congressional candidate, and James, a former Memphis city councilman, are both in their 90s and have traditionally been regarded as elder statesmen in the party.

    Conrad’s proposal was greeted with some measure of dissent, and the Thelma Williams Award was quickly reinstated. “It was just an oversight that we hadn’t proposed continuing it,” said Conrad. Not so in the matter of the James Award, given annually for public service.

    Hillary to Skip S.C. Counting In Order to Make Nashville, Memphis StopsConrad note that James , who represented the 5th council district for many years, had endorsed the candidacy of eventual winner Carol Chumney, then a Democratic state representative, in this year’s city election. The local Republican Party endorsee had been Dr. George Flinn, whom Chumney defeated in a runoff.

    “When people work against the interests of official party candidates, it doesn’t make sense to have awards named after them,” said Conrad, who contended that the ultimate committee vote in favor of his proposed changes was “unanimous.”

    One chronic critic of Conrad’s blasted the chairman. Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham, who remains bitter that Conrad and the committee did not endorse him in his recent bid for city mayor, said, “If fidelity to party candidates is the issue, then Conrad himself should resign. The fact is, that someone like Bob James, in the twilight of his long career, should be treated with more respect.”

    Though in recent years the 94-year-old James has coped with various illnesses and a situation two years ago in which he was held at knife-point by a burglar, he has remained interested in public issues, serving as a program coordinator for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), and has attended most recent Lincoln Day dinners. Privately James, one of the founders of the modern Republican Party in Shelby County, has expressed concern about what he regards as the increasing prominence of social conservatives in GOP affairs.

    Ryder, a former local Republican chairman, noted about the matter of Lincoln Day awards, “The fact is, there get to be too many of them. When I was chairman [in the '80s], I tried to keep the number down to three, but mission creep tends to take over, and they predominate.”

    This year’s GOP Lincoln Day is scheduled for February 21st at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn on Central Avenue. Program details have yet to be completed.

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