A revealing exchange took place Monday night during a forum for Republican county commission candidates in Southeast Memphis.
District 4 commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf, who was already taking flak from GOP primary opponent Joyce Avery, began getting some, too, from attendees at the monthly meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club at Fox Ridge Pizza.
"Now, let's all go back to some Republican principles," VanderSchaaf kept trying to say.
"No, let's go back to your being an employee of mine and not doing something when I say, 'No!'" interrupted a persistent heckler.
The issue was the still controversial (and still unresolved) one of the proposed NBA arena, scheduled to be paid for at least partly by public funds. VanderSchaaf's position was that his ultimate vote for the arena last year was contingent upon ad valorem (i.e., property) taxes having been taken out of the funding mix, thanks in some measure to his own insistence when the project was being voted on by the commission.
His position was being treated, however, as little more than a quibble to cover what Avery and other arena opponents regard as a trade-off that enabled private interests (the Grizzlies, local investors, the umbrella organization HOOPS, et al.) to aggrandize themselves at public expense.
What they wanted was at the very least a referendum on the public component of arena financing, and, when VanderSchaaf finally overcame the interruptions to get his point across about what "Republican principles" were, he tried to distinguish between representative government -- i.e., the machinery created by the Founding Fathers that, in effect, established layers of deputies at the local, state, and federal levels of government -- and direct democratic action, whereby "we have a referendum on everything that comes along and we ignore the people we elect."
Time was -- say, back during the Power-to-the-People movements of the 1960s -- when the civics-book concept of government advanced by VanderSchaaf was the stuff of conservative rhetoric. The war cry was "We are a republic, not a democracy," and one would hear from the right side of the aisle fervent denunciations of the various demonstrations and other mass outpourings that were going down back then as a means of influencing national policy.
The fact is that the wheel has turned 180 degrees since then, as was recognized during the last year by no less a personage than state Senator Marsha Blackburn, the archconservative legislator from the archconservative Nashville suburb of Williamson County. It was Blackburn who fired off the e-mails from the Senate floor last summer that sparked the climactic anti-tax protests of July 12th at the Capitol in Nashville.
And it was Blackburn who, as a guest of the Shelby County Libertarians here last August, corrected one of her hosts who was quoting from the old "republic-not-a-democracy" gospel, informing him in as mild-mannered a way as possible that such talk had gone the way of eight-track tapes, that it was now the self-appointed guardians of liberty -- right-wing populists, as others might call them -- who had the duty and the mission to oppose channeled public policy by means of mass defiance and direct action.
In matters of state government, that took the form of the horn-honking cavalcades and picketers who surrounded the Capitol whenever a state income tax (or "tax reform," as those who favor it have learned to say, somewhat over-daintily) happened to be under consideration. The riotous circumstances of last July 12th whetted by radio talk-show hosts whom Blackburn had alerted, were the ultimate manifestation of this anti-tax intifada.
Windows were broken, legislators entering the Capitol were roughed up (ironically, the affected lawmakers, seemingly selected at random, tended to be Republicans opposed to the income tax), doors were battered, and constant shouting drowned out attempts to deliberate policy. Though there were face-saving explanations later on about how legislative negotiations to produce a compromise bill had broken down on their own, no one who was inside the state Senate chamber at the time can truthfully say that they had a fair chance of succeeding under such circumstances.
For the record, state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville would call the protesters a "mob" and would contend that they had, ironically, panicked the senate into voting more in the way of stopgap, one-time-only funding than he, as a conservative, felt was wonted. (Norris, incidentally, is now one of three Shelby Countians seeking the Republican nomination for the 7th District congressional seat vacated by U.S. Senate candidate Ed Bryant; Blackburn, less encumbered by rivals from her part of the elongated district, is also running for the seat.)
Though last year's county commission deliberations on the NBA arena and, later, on school funding attracted some overt protesters of the Nashville sort (who were, here as in Nashville, summoned to some degree by talk radio), much of the local antigovernment protest has been internalized within the election process.
This year's commission election has brought to the fore several exponents of the theory -- not uncommon these days -- that the best way to shut down government (or to keep it under control) is to run for a position in it and become a part of it. Fox running for the hen house, you might say, although candidates of this sort would tend to reverse the terms of the metaphor and say that the predators are the ones already inside.
A specimen is former Marine and Secret Service agent Mundy Quinn, a candidate for another District 4 position, who, at the same meeting where VanderSchaaf was taking his lumps, implied that his two primary opponents -- David Lillard and David Shirley -- were not to be trusted because one of them (Lillard) was a lawyer and the other (Shirley) was an ex-legislator. "Lawyers and doctors" were a class already over-represented on the commission and in government at large, said Quinn, who suggested that prior government experience was more a hindrance than a help in that it seemed to water down principle.
"No compromise!" thundered Quinn (who, in private conversation, is amiable and a good, apparently evenhanded listener). Both he and members of the audience at Fox Ridge expressed disgust at the way in which, they believed, "conservative" incumbents had learned to conceal their tacit collaboration with big-spending colleagues through trade-offs and misleading votes for the record.
(Even so impeccably credentialed a conservative as Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel of Cordova was hoist on this petard at a recent forum, where she came under hostile questioning for her vote on behalf of the latest pay raise for commissioners. Somewhat awkwardly, she tried to explain how her vote was linked to commission Democrats' approval of a reapportionment formula favored by Republicans. "It was a 'deal,' pure and simple," one of her colleagues would later say.)
As Quinn himself marveled out loud Monday night, he, a political newcomer, is finding his voice and may be finding an audience at large (although most observers still see the race for the position he seeks as being essentially between the better-known -- and better-financed -- Lillard and Shirley).
Quinn even improvised a de facto endorsement of other candidates whom he saw as pursuing the same purist mission as himself -- Avery, former Lakeland mayor Jim Bomprezzi (seeking to unseat Tom Moss, whom Bomprezzi accuses of cutting a deal with the Democrats whereby Moss was appointed to a commission vacancy and voted with them to appoint then-Commissioner Shep Wilbun to the position of Juvenile Court clerk) and Karla Templeton, who opposes incumbent Linda Rendtorff for a District 1 position.
He probably also would approve of Templeton's father, John Willingham, who filed against incumbent Morris Fair for another District 1 position the day after having a pacemaker implanted in his chest and whose condemnation at a recent forum of "taxes we don't want, development we don't want, an arena we don't want, and a fight we don't want" (the latter a reference to the pending Tyson-Lewis combat at The Pyramid) synopsized in its own way the nature of the present rebellion.
(The fight's increasing inclusion in the boo-boo lists of candidates may in some cases, however, arise from pro forma causes, rather than deeply held conviction. A recent forum of District 5 commission hopefuls saw all the candidates -- Democratic, Republican, and independent, all save would-be fight promoter Joe Cooper -- denounce the iniquities of Mike Tyson with such fervent uniformity as to make the occasion resemble a prayer meeting in Pilgrim times.)
Developers, wheelers, dealers, spenders, sports, and politicians -- these are all variants of the common enemy, an Establishment that acts on its own tack without regard to the folks out there on the (generally suburban) homestead. Increasingly, such disaffected candidates -- and their constituents -- are estranged from the idea of a common weal, one uniting city and county.
Theirs is a settler's perspective. Consolidation is anathema to these Republican rebels, since separation from the main is -- notwithstanding John Donne's admonition that "No Man Is an Island" -- precisely what they seek, and they are as distrustful of government as any of King George's minions ever were. (Even their own erstwhile leaders, Governor Don Sundquist and, increasingly, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, are regarded as "moderates" and, therefore, apostates. "The trouble with Don," mused a seasoned GOP political handler recently, is that he" -- the governor, mind you -- "has started to believe in government.")
The new breed of rebel never quite believes that the officials of government have made a genuine effort to squeeze waste out of the system. They tend to believe that people inside the citadel are merely trying to maintain their own positions, and all analyses that argue for "tax reform" are seen as new excuses to shake spare change out of taxpayers' pockets. They are oblivious to arguments that, just as inflation raises the cost of things elsewhere, revenue levels must be raised to pay for government services too.
A heroine of the moment -- whose decision not to seek office herself disappointed many in the burgeoning new movement -- is Heidi Shafer, the Memphis homemaker who did her best last year to organize public sentiment for the unrealized referendum on funding the NBA arena. This year, she has released a "Pick List," much in the manner of the old Ford Ballots put out by former congressman and power broker Harold Ford Sr. Her endorsements are in all commission races, and they cross party lines. In addition to several of the aforementioned candidates, Democrat Walter Bailey makes the list (District 2, Position 1), as does independent Claiborne Ferguson (District 2, Position 3). The usual determinant is listed as "Correct stance on Arena Issue" (or "Right vote on Arena" if an incumbent).
The extent to which Shafer's influence has grown -- along with that of the still not quite defined movement to which she plays Joan of Arc -- may be gathered from the fact that, when her list was first disseminated, several of the people omitted from it -- ranging from the Green Party's Scott Banbury to the well-established Republican John Ryder -- petitioned for inclusion on it. (Ryder, who thereby joined opponent Jerry Cobb on the list, saw his wish granted; Banbury so far has not been similarly favored.)
Where all this is going is hard to foresee, but one is put in mind of the late Arnold Toynbee's pronouncement at the time of Woodstock in 1969. Fear not, said Lord Toynbee of those in society who professed alarm: "If this is of God, it cannot be resisted; if it is not of God, it will perish of itself."