Ready To Rumble

County Democrats will either disorganize or organize, starting this Saturday.


The Shelby County Democrats are looking to have a typical brouhaha starting Saturday, when the party holds preliminary caucuses at East High School prior to its biennial reorganization, and continuing with the April 7th party convention.

Mal Hooker, a contender for the party chairmanship (which will be decided by whatever executive committee the party ends up electing), will offer a proposed change in the rules of the local party charter that would limit voting in the caucuses and convention to persons registered to vote as of the time they are held. Hooker also challenges the party's legal standing to impose different rules.

Chairman David Cocke has issued an interpretation of party rules that would allow participation by persons who will be of age to vote as of November 2002 and have the intent to do so. At issue, of course, is whether one side or the other can "stack" the election.

Besides Hooker, city court clerk Thomas Long is known to be interested in the chairmanship, as is lawyer/lobbyist Percy Harvey, a former vice chair. Chairman Cocke has wondered out loud if Harvey, otherwise eminently qualified, as Cocke acknowledges, might be able to effectively serve as party head, since one of his clients, Shelby County government, is dominated by the county's leading Republican, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout.

Another possibility is state party secretary Gale Jones Carson, currently serving as press spokesperson for another mayor, Memphis' Willie Herenton.

n Ah, those occasional infelicities of tongue: Last week, while talking on a local radio station, I was asked by one of my hosts whether the aforesaid Mayor Rout, who is clearly a formidable competitor for re-election in 2002, might forgo that race for one in the Republican gubernatorial primary next year.

I replied that Rout, the proverbial "800-pound gorilla" in a Shelby County context, might be regarded as something of a "chimpanzee" on the state scene. The comparison delighted the hosts, always eager for some vivid audio; it dismayed me, because I knew I'd misspoken myself. Rout is no minor monkey -- literally or symbolically.

But his relative dimensions will be reduced at least initially (as those of his predecessor, Bill Morris, were when he ran for governor in 1994) by the daunting task of beginning a statewide race as an unknown. Rout also has the further encumbrances of persistent county debt and an intractable jail problem. For all that, he should not be minimized as a potential statewide competitor.

The acknowledged Republican front-runner right now, U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary of Tennessee's 4th Congressional District, by no means has a lock on his party's nomination.

n If Rout should run for governor, one of those thinking about succeeding him is County trustee Bob Patterson, who told a Dutch Treat Luncheon audience last Saturday he was running for re-election next year but confided afterward he would probably switch races in a jiff if Rout looked toward Nashville. n

Special Note: On the adjoining page a name familiar to readers and journalists alike appears for the first -- but not, we trust, the last -- time as a contributor to the Flyer.Terry Keeter, long the dean of local political writers, retired a season or two back from The Commercial Appeal after experiencing some serious health problems -- the kind (emphysema and pneumonia) that would have taken a lesser man out of action altogether.

Keeter -- for years, along with his friend Larry Williams, the bastion of the local Gridiron Show -- is still very much with us, however, and has lost none of his keen insight or literary skill.

It is high time that the rest of Keeter's sizeable local fan base got some extra helpings of his wit and wisdom. The selection included on the next page was a spontaneous reaction to the death of a friend, and it brings the subject back to life for the duration of the passage.

Keeter has agreed to grace our pages on a semi-regular basis and will submit his takes on a variety of subjects. We'll probably end up giving his space a name. For the time being, in any case, it's Keeter Time again, and I, a onetime competitor and forever a friend, couldn't be happier. -- J.B.


By a Dam Sight

JAMES PATTON "Pete" HOUSTON, 75, died at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 10, 2001, at Memphis Methodist Central Hospital after a long battle with cancer. He is thought to be currently planning a flood control project along the banks of the River Jordan in addition to teaching St. Peter how to handle a backhoe.

A sweat-stained Stetson in the back window of the mud-splashed Ford gave word that a working man lived there. It was truly Pete's home away from home and his mobile office as he built dams and levees up and down the Mississippi and on nearby rivers and streams. His rear seat was his daily planner -- a week's schedule, bid dates, a steel tape measure, and memories of some huge dams and some damns that had been almost as large. In days past, the rear seat had seen its share of pretty rears, but its main function was business.

Pete's trunk held a stuffed briefcase of cash, credit cards, contracts, business cards, and a calendar of folks scheduled to spend a free weekend at what he called "The Farm." Pete wasn't born in a log cabin, but by the time he made his first million he rebuilt one on a hill on 400 rolling acres at the Lafayette-Panola County line. Pete added a 24-acre lake, thousands of fish, a herd of cattle, boats, and a boathouse along with two piers. There was a barn, horses, a herd of cattle, wild turkeys, deer, and an alligator, long suspected to be a silent offering from Pete's employees at Meharry-Houston Construction. He was the Houston.

His partner died many years ago, but Pete didn't like change, so he kept the company name. He was a wonderful friend who gladly shared his "farm," which looked much like the house on Bonanza, and his condo in New Orleans. Pete always drove a Ford or Chevy and made no secret that he remembered Pearl Harbor. He also remembered foxholes throughout France, Luxembourg, and Germany. He recently revisited those sites and talked of battles won and friends lost. (He never mentioned the Bronze Star he'd won.)

Pete was a true American with a Southern accent and a love for his native soil -- a red-clay strip of farmland near Houlka, Mississippi. He was the Model-T of pretension and the Cadillac of friends. He helped old friends like John Grisham's father (who is in the same business and is a former Mississippi county supervisor), Gov. Kirk Fordyce, the late West Memphis leader Bill Ingram, and the late Tennessee state highway commissioner Jimmy Evans. He was a modern quick-draw artist.

The only way to beat Pete in picking up a bar tab was to pay it before it appeared. He was a strong supporter of Memphis Gridiron and an ardent Ole Miss fan. But his hat in the rear window best told his story -- Pete was a straight-A graduate of the School of Hard Knocks.

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