Not since the great showdown of 1991 -- when two almost equally matched Shelby County Republican factions battled to a virtual draw over control of the party machinery -- has the local GOP had a serious internal schism. The signs are there again, however -- in a year when the party's decade-long dominance of countywide political affairs is under serious challenge.
The catalyst is Memphis lawyer John Ryder
, a former party chairman, a GOP national committeeman from Tennessee, the local (and state) party's chief litigator (especially on redistricting issues), and a veteran kingmaker whose recruiting efforts were most recently employed in the effort to find an acceptable Republican candidate for Shelby County mayor.
In a move that has surprised most of his partymates, Ryder now plans a run of his own -- for a newly vacated seat on the Shelby County Commission.
He won't walk into the nomination, however. He'll have to run hard, and he'll have to do so in a way that avoids reopening old wounds from an old intra-party conflict.
That fight eleven years ago was over the party chairmanship, but it had larger overtones. After an extended all-day convention of county cadres Memphis lawyer David Lillard
, who represented what was then regarded as the old-line Republican establishment, was the loser in 1991, by a scant few votes, to Dr. Phillip Langsdon
, the champion of a suburban-based insurgency.
Langsdon, -- now retired from party affairs but a possible contender for future office -- was at the helm for the institution of local party primaries and during the subsequent Republican sweep of county offices in 1994.
At some point, the two contending elements of 1991 joined forces, more or less (victory making for easy bedfellows), but another fight could be stirred up by the newly formulated plans of Ryder, a Lillard partisan back then, to run for the Shelby County Commission's 5th district seat, which is being vacated by Republican incumbent Buck Wellford
The problem is that there is already a "mainstream" Republican candidate for the seat -- financial planner Bruce Thompson
, a Wellford-style opponent of urban sprawl who, up until now, had faced primary competition only from builder Jerry Cobb
, a spokesperson of sorts for what has been an outnumbered -- if defiant -- group of GOP dissidents. One of Thompson's main men, coincidentally or not, is lobbyist Nathan Green
, a former close aide to outgoing Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout
and a prime booster also of Lillard's run for yet another vacant commission seat.
(Lillard, who on Tuesday formally resigned his position as one of two Republican members of the county Election Commission, is focusing on his own race -- for the seat being vacated by outgoing Commissioner Tommy Hart
The contest for the District 5 seat, which comprises a large chunk of East and Southeast Memphis, has major implications. Of the commission's other 12 seats, six are heavily Democratic and African-American, and six are predominantly white and Republican. District 5, which is the commission's only single-member district, emerged from reapportionment discussions as the body's swing seat -- that which will determine who holds the balance of power on the commission, and perhaps in county government as a whole
The most active Democrat now seeking the seat is veteran pol Joe Cooper
, although lawyer Guthrie Castle
has also acknowledged an interest in running. When last contacted, Clay Perry
, local office manager for U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.
, had not decided whether to make a race. Perry and some other Democrats -- notably including local party chairperson Gale Jones Carson
-- believe that District 5 emerged from reapportionment discussions as something less than the racial and political "tossup" district it was billed as.
If Republicans do indeed hold an edge in the district, that edge could be blunted by a divisive three-way primary, which at root is a potential contest between individuals but which could inflame old wounds and become something more than that.
Ryder has been a key figure in Republican affairs, both locally and statewide, and it was largely through his efforts that the GOP was able of late to settle on a candidate for Shelby County Mayor, State Representative Larry Scroggs
. But Scroggs, whose ability to raise money is hampered by a state law prohibiting legislators from raising money while the General Assembly is in session, faces what already appears to be an uphill battle against the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary (whose major contestants are Public Defender A C Wharton
, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd
, and State Representative Carol Chumney
Countywide, the demographic edge has turned in favor of the Democrats, and Shelby County Republicans would seem to require a united front at all costs.
Perhaps a shootout for the 5th District commission seat would leave that unity intact, and perhaps not. Perhaps the contest will not even come to pass. But if it does, Green professes confidence. "He [Ryder] may not think so, but we'll beat him. He's going to be badly surprised."
Ryder, a longtime kingmaker turned candidate, owns more IOU's than almost any other Memphis Republican. It remains to be seen whether he has rubbed a few party members' hard edges, as well, and, if so, what the ratio of the two camps is to each other.