The Play's the Thing

Might some members have pitched to the audience at Monday's commission meeting?


There is a characteristic moment in any Shelby County Commission debate of consequence when Julian Bolton, who once taught dramatics at college, seems to get a whiff of which way the wind is blowing through the audience out there in the auditorium.

He begins to lean in the direction of the onlookers, swiveling his head due left so as to be looking right into their faces, and when he talks, he appears to be addressing the folks out there, not his commission colleagues.

The predominant school of thought among principals at Monday's commission meeting seemed to be that the 75 or so people who showed up early to raise hell against a tax increase for the county schools were the fruits, as Shelby County school board member Ron Lawler put it, "of 10 days straight of Mike Fleming trying to turn a crowd out."

Indeed, there had been a dedicated attempt at conscription on the part of the popular WREC-AM 60 radio talk show host -- who generally is a gentle rain and sweet reason itself compared to his tempestuous counterparts in Nashville, Steve Gill and Phil Valentine.

In the manner, however, of Gill and Valentine, who on each occasion this year that the state legislature came close to giving serious attention to a state income tax did their shows and broadcast their exhortations from the pavement of Legislative Plaza, Fleming set up his broadcast booth Monday afternoon on the concrete patio outside the county office building where the commission was meeting.

Many of the folks inside the often rowdy commission auditorium (some of whom proclaimed themselves to be members of the "Turnip Liberation Army," as in "Turnip Your Nose at a Tax Increase," as one sign had it) had answered Fleming's call, and, though this group included many of those who had protested both the NBA Grizzlies' cause and previous potential tax increases, there were some newcomers as well -- noticeably less interested in the niceties of public discourse than earlier protesters had been. Bolton, however, acted as though he were in the presence of Vox Populi.

And the commission's newest member, Bridget Chisholm, who -- perhaps not coincidentally -- sits to Bolton's left on the auditorium stage and frequently whispers with her neighbor, also seemed caught up in the often turbulent crowd reaction as the commission met Monday to complete action on the current fiscal year's budget so as to fund the Shelby County schools.

For reasons best known to themselves (although some clue was surely afforded by their frequent sidewise glances toward the audience, as well as to the omnipresent TV cameras from all four local news channels), both Bolton and Chisholm began professing a belief that the taxing arrangement which everyone save Bolton had signed on to at the commission's previous meeting was something other than what it was.

As had been extensively reported in both the electronic and print media, a bargain had been struck two weeks ago between key members of both the commission's white Republican and black Democratic factions whereby a majority of Republicans would accept a property tax increase in the range of 43 cents in return for a Democratic majority's approval for a doubling of the regressive wheel tax.

As outlined by GOP Commissioner Buck Wellford, who with partymate Tommy Hart had crafted the plan, there was a third component as well -- a sense-of-the-commission resolution that the county's municipal governments would be asked to forgo their share of a potential local-option sales-tax increase in the interests of the county schools. As part of the deal, county school superintendent Jim Mitchell and school board president David Pickler agreed to urge the municipal governments to accept such an arrangement.

On Monday, both Bolton and Chisholm professed for some while to believe that only a 33-cent property-tax increase had been agreed upon. Ultimately, budget chairman Cleo Kirk, in a whispered conversation, convinced Chisholm otherwise, and she reversed an earlier vote against the 43- cent figure so as to finally pass and activate the combination tax package.

Wellford -- who, with Hart, Kirk, and Commissioner Walter Bailey, was cited for positive leadership by Pickler -- said later he found it a strange reversal that two Democratic commissioners had tried to take a stand in favor of holding down the property tax. "Usually that's a Republican cause," Wellford said.

In subsequently making his case against the 43-cent increase, Bolton -- who was hooted by the audience early in the meeting when he seemed to say he would support a property-tax increase at that level -- told the crowd, "Some of them [commissioners] have not heard you. I have."

Wellford made it clear he did not regard the crowd, which frequently unloosed catcalls and interrupted commissioners' remarks, in the same positive light. "It was obvious some of them came just to put on a show and were there to humiliate the commission," he said. It was Wellford, in fact, who -- after referring to the crowd disturbances in Nashville which frustrated an effort on behalf of a state income tax at the end of the legislative session last month -- called for a five-minute recess and asked chairman James Ford to summon a complement of county police and sheriff's deputies to maintain order.

* Aside from mutual admiration and their both being the objects of speculation about the 2002 Shelby County Mayor's race, former city councilman John Bobango and current District Attorney General Bill Gibbons have something else in common -- a belief in the relative powerlessness of the county mayor's job.

"I'm not even sure you could regard it as a stepping stone up in the political world," opined Gibbons during his annual fish fry fund-raiser at the East Memphis Catholic Club Saturday. And Bobango, who introduced Gibbons to the sizeable (and somewhat bipartisan) crowd on hand, had similar sentiments. "It [the position of county mayor] is not even close to being as powerful as Mayor Herenton's job," said the ex- councilman.

Nevertheless, the two remain the favorites for the Republican nomination for county mayor. Other Republicans whose names continue to receive some play are Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, city councilman Jack Sammons, Probate clerk Chris Thomas, and Circuit Court clerk Jimmy Moore. (Moore is also considering a sheriff's race, as well as one for reelection.)

* Eyebrows have been raised here and there concerning the increasingly overt support being given the possible mayoral candidacy of Democrat A C Wharton by Bobby Lanier, who is chief administrative aide to county mayor Jim Rout as he was for Rout's predecessor, Bill Morris.

The situation has caused speculation in the camp of Democratic mayoral candidate Harold Byrd that Rout is secretly pushing Wharton's candidacy. Others allege that Lanier and Rout have had a minor falling-out and that Lanier is acting as a free agent. Both explanations strain credibility, but the central fact prompting them -- Lanier's support for Wharton -- is quite real.

* In two appearances here over the weekend, U.S. Senator Fred Thompson shed no light on the question of the day in state politics: Will he or won't he run for reelection? Appearing on Saturday at the Gibbons fish fry, Thompson made only one jesting remark about the subject. Pointing to his old friend, 90-year-old John T. Williams, whose unsuccessful 1970s- vintage congressional race Thompson had managed, the senator said, "Now, John T there is gearing up for a Senate race, I hear."

However, Thompson did minimize a suggestion made earlier last week by his Tennessee GOP senatorial colleague, Bill Frist. While acknowledging that Thompson goes "up and down" on his willingness to pursue a reelection race in 2002, Frist had said in an interview here last week that there was "a 70-percent probability" that Thompson would run next year.

"I don't know where he got that. It didn't come from me," Thompson insisted during a conversation at the fish fry.

Frist had made his remarks while in Memphis as guest of honor at a fund-raiser at the downtown Plaza Club for U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, who has senatorial ambitions that can be shelved in favor of a congressional reelection race.

In apparent response to what many took to be a senatorial-race trial ballon floated by former Governor Lamar Alexander last week, Frist said, "In the event that Senator Thompson does not run for reelection, I have no doubt that Ed Bryant has far and away more support to succeed him than anyone else."

Frist's presence, coupled with his interview statement, had to be regarded as a huge boost for Bryant, who had reacted to Alexander's collaboration with former Vice President Al Gore in a Nashville-based political seminar and a subsequent item in the Wall Street Journal on Alexander's potential Senate candidacy, "I wondered what he [Lamar] was doing giving all that free publicity to Al Gore. Now it seems obvious he had another motive."

Any statement about senatorial prospects counts especially heavy coming from Frist, who is considered as close to President George W. Bush as any member of Congress and is both the president's liaison with the Senate and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

* In case Thompson doesn't run, there's a surprising addition to the usual laundry list of possible candidates to vie for the open seat. State Senator Steve Cohen, whose name still figures in speculation for Shelby County Mayor, said this week that he might give the race a try if the Senate seat comes open.

Since U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is always mentioned in speculation about Democratic Senate candidates, Cohen's statement of interest is a reminder of 1996, when both men sought the 9th District congressional seat.

* In an interview before he addressed an audience of the East Shelby County Republican Party at the group's annual "Master Meal" at Woodland Hills Country Club Friday night, 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary shied away from loosing any broadsides at a possible general election opponent, Democrat Phil Bredesen, and gave the former Nashville mayor credit for sincerity in his recent espousal of a no-new-taxes policy toward state government.

Hilleary was somewhat more grudging in his attitude toward a GOP partymate, Governor Don Sundquist, declining to say that, if nominated, he expected the governor's support in a general election contest, other than to say, "I would anticipate having the support of every elected Republican in the state." Would he seek Sundquist's support? he was asked. "I seek everybody's support," the congressman replied.

Hilleary made it clear that the twain were far from meeting on the issue of tax reform.

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