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Still Perking

A local Tea Party takeover attempt could be a portent of things to come in 2012.

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With the 2012 election cycle approaching, and with much local attention focused of late on the generally left-of-center Occupy Memphis effort, how active is the right-leaning Tea Party in Shelby County politics? Here's a case in point:

Traditionally, the Republican Party, in Shelby County as elsewhere, has been a political organization with an established pecking order. In normal times, the identity of its officials and leading figures — including mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential candidates and even party officers — can be predicted on the basis of past service and seniority.

These are not normal times. Back in March, when the Shelby County Republican Party had its biennial convention to elect new officers, there was a serious effort by local Tea Party activists to establish themselves in the party hierarchy. That effort succeeded in a larger-than-usual turnout and in the election of a handful of Tea Party members to the local GOP's steering committee.

But that was just the warm-up. The next target was the East Shelby Republican Club, the largest of several county GOP organizations and the home club of many past local officials. As of the beginning of 2011, the East Shelby club numbered perhaps 100 members. As of last month, it had grown to nearly 300. And this tripling in size was due almost entirely to a takeover attempt by members of a local Tea Party group called Campaign for Liberty.

What happened last month, in the wake of the East Shelby club's annual Master Meal banquet meeting, was that Campaign for Liberty cadres started becoming formal members of the East Shelby club at an unprecedented rate. They had already been a presence at the Master Meal, where a presidential-poll straw vote saw then Tea Party favorite Rick Perry finish ahead of supposed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney by 51-6.

To Arnold Weiner, the East Shelby club president, then running for reelection with an entire slate of members he calls "mainstream conservatives," this meant a sure challenge at the club's reorganizational meeting, scheduled for October 25th.

And so Weiner, his first vice-chair designate, John Williams, and others got busy on the telephone scaring up every known mainstream Republican in Shelby County, some of whom were already members of East Shelby, many of whom weren't.

Rounded up, among many others, were such venerable figures as former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, former party chairman and U.S. attorney David Kustoff, former chairmen Bill Watkins and Lang Wiseman, and former Shelby County commissioner George Flinn, all of whom either became members or renewed their memberships.

"There were people I hadn't seen at a meeting for years, along with all those new people I'd never seen before," marveled East Shelby member Mike Agee. The voting members at the October meeting, new and old, ended up filling the fairly commodious Pickering Center to capacity, with people lining the walls.

In the end, Weiner and his slate of seven other mainstream candidates prevailed, and he wants it known that the newcomers are welcome. "We're all going to work together to elect Republicans in 2012," he said, surveying a membership roster that had tripled virtually overnight.

Of course, it remains to be seen just who shows up at the first post-election meeting of the club, scheduled for next week, and how harmonious that one goes.

Meanwhile, win or lose in local test cases, the Tea Party remains a force. So does the GOP mainstream.

• "I did what I could to help him," said Mayor A C Wharton last week about the runoff-election victory of Lee Harris over Kemba Ford in City Council District 7.

The campaign of Harris, a University of Memphis law professor, was not lacking in support from members of the city's business and political elite, many of whom took a proprietary interest in the district, which takes in much of downtown as well as the surrounding inner city. Beyond that, the seat vacated by former council member Barbara Swearengen Ware is well situated to provide a tip-over vote in many a contested issue.

In any case, Wharton regarded the District 7 outcome as symbolic. "It was a vindication for the administration," he said, mindful perhaps that Ford, who had the support of city-employee unions, had vigorously criticized the pay and benefit cuts imposed on city workers in this year's budget.

Although many observers, including the candidates themselves, expected a closer outcome, Harris prevailed by a 2-to-1 margin. The final official totals were: Harris, 2,587 votes, or 67.25 percent of the total; Ford, 1,259 votes, or 32.73 percent.

Harris, who appeared to have swept the district's precincts, proclaimed that "service and dedication beat the brand name."

After a testy exchange between the two candidates on election night, Ford's campaign issued a statement: "Ford says she told Harris by phone that she hopes he does right by the people in District 7, and that she hopes he lives up to his promises. 'I will be watching,' she said. 'This is my first race, and it will not be my last. I will be very active in the community.'"

• Although he is one of the 21 members of the school-merger planning commission, Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald leaves very little doubt that he intends a more independent course for his city's schools than the "large, homogenized" system that would result from a totally amalgamated city/county school system.

After spelling out what he saw as Bartlett's public-school options to attendees at a "town hall" session at the Bartlett Municipal Center Monday night, McDonald sketched out his preference: a municipal school system run by the city and involved in ways yet to be determined with other municipalities and unincorporated county areas via "memorandums of understanding."

McDonald enumerated several unknowns. One was the cost of obtaining existing school infrastructure. He believes he can make the case that Bartlett has already paid in full for its school facilities through the state-ordained distribution-of-funding formula. "The worst case," he said, would be the schools' "book value" (which he estimated at $65 million, plus the cost of debt service, "53 cents on the tax rate").

Although the Norris-Todd bill seemingly allows for the creation in 2013 of new special school districts in Shelby County other than municipal ones, McDonald said he thought the legislature would shy away from non-municipal systems on the grounds that to allow their creation would involve the extension of new taxing authority.

Consultants hired by the city will report on January 16th on the feasibility of a city system, with a referendum possible by next November, McDonald said.

Though it was unclear to what extent he meant the remark to apply to a separate Bartlett educational system, McDonald was strikingly firm on his commitment to quality education for his city. "In politics you have to be careful which sword you are willing to die on. I'm willing to die on this one."

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