The Mapmaker

Why John Ryder just might be the most influential politician in Memphis in 2011.



John Ryder is one of Memphis' most prominent bankruptcy lawyers, but if you should chance upon the bespectacled, fastidiously dressed attorney on the elevator as he heads up to his firm's offices (Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh) in the Commerce Square building downtown, he might remind you of nobody so much as Clark Kent. In another, parallel life, however, Ryder is fast becoming known as a Superman, especially as 2011 begins, with the Republican Party once again in the ascendant across the country.

Perhaps the definitive characterization of Ryder, the chairman of the GOP's national redistricting efforts, no less, came from Randle Richardson, a state chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party back in the mid-Nineties. Of Ryder, then as now the state party's point man on redistricting, Richardson joked, "That's his idea of good sex!" It should have come as no great surprise, then, when Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, tapped Ryder in May 2009 to chair the party's national redistricting committee — a designation which gave the disarmingly unassuming lawyer his biggest boost in a long political career spent mainly behind the scenes.

So it was that when it fell Ryder's lot, as a longtime assistant county attorney, to defend the GOP-dominated Shelby County Election Commission against a suit brought by the losing Democrats in the August 5th county general election, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a rising political star in the local Democratic firmament, felt entitled to challenge the bona fides of the man he called "Mr. Republican." Nor was Mulroy the only Democrat so concerned, despite the fact that Ryder had in earlier years represented Democratically controlled versions of the Election Commission.

After all, politics is politics, and Ryder has served as the Republican Party's national committeeman from Tennessee nonstop since 1996, with the exception of the four-term period (2004-2008) when former GOP congressman Van Hilleary invoked the state party's term-limits rule to assume the position from Ryder, who doggedly won it back from Hilleary two years ago. "By a single vote," Ryder says, with his not quite sheepish Cheshire-cat grin. "We tied on the first round, and one of his people went home after lunch."

With 2010 census results soon to provide the opportunity for state legislators, in Tennessee as elsewhere, to redraw the district lines for legislative and congressional seats, and in the context of the recent Republican electoral landslide that gave the GOP huge working majorities to determine the shape of things to come, Ryder, who stands ready to guide the process, has inspired more than a little apprehension among Democrats.

Yet, as he acknowledged in a recent talk to members of the Tipton County Republican Women's Club, the very scale of the GOP victory — which gave Republicans an almost 2-to-1 majority in the state House of Representatives and further broadened their already impressive margin in the state Senate — may limit the scope of the changes he can help wreak.

Which of the 20-odd new Republican state representatives will be eager for drastic changes in the outlines of the districts which just elected them so handily, for example? And it is generally conceded that, under any reconfiguration, Democrats would be likely to control the two congressional seats the 2010 tsunami left them with — the 9th District in Memphis, now occupied by third-termer Steve Cohen, and the 5th District in Nashville, occupied by Jim Cooper since 2003. He still must conjure with population shifts and federal civil-rights requirements that minority districts be maintained wherever possible.

"There's not much left for me to do but just try to be fair," Ryder said, his straight-faced pronouncement offset somewhat by the gleam in his eye. "Fairer," he amended, having acknowledged the fact that gerrymandering for partisan purposes is a reigning principle in political redistricting.

★★★

For all his prominence in GOP ranks, Ryder can claim numerous friends across party lines — a fact depending less on any ideological indistinctness than on the courtly way in which he spins his politics or phrases disagreements with the political opposition. In formal debate with Democrats or in conversation, he often prefaces his rebuttals with a soft-spoken, "I see your point, but —" and after the "but," often as not, comes a zinger meant to obliterate the aforesaid point.

"Some people think I'm a moderate, and some people think I'm an ultra-conservative," Ryder says. "The fact is, I'm politically conservative and rhetorically moderate." He recognizes that, as he puts it, "conservatives sometimes have a rhetorical problem" and seem "insensitive to the need to persuade people." He starts from two premises: "Number One, the acknowledgement that I could be wrong. I'm not so arrogant to imagine that I'm infallible or to think that my certainties are absolute." A verbal grace note becomes thereby "an invitation to somebody to persuade me, show me the facts that lead to his conclusion."

Impishly, Ryder, a member of the debate teams at both Memphis' White Station High School and Wabash College, an academically upscale institution in Indiana, notes, "I haven't been persuaded yet."

"You need to get to the center.  You need to find your way to the center of the court, where you have the greatest ability to respond to whatever the other side is shooting at you."

Premise Number Two? "Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and you need to find those points on which we agree and move from these points."

A week or so earlier, Ryder had employed a more concrete metaphor to make the same point. He had just finished an hour's worth of midday handball at the downtown YMCA, rotating rounds with such fellow inhabitants of the local legal world as U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla; Bill Bullock, manager of economic development for Memphis Light, Gas & Water; Bill Jenkins, a Social Security administrative judge; and former acting U.S. attorney Gene Laurenzi, now in private practice.

For a 61-year-old, Ryder had moved adroitly, rarely failing to return volley in his swoops back and forth across the congested interior canyon that is a handball court. During a break McCalla, no slouch himself, said he had been playing handball with Ryder since the early '70s, when they were at Vanderbilt Law School together, and Ryder's game had been uncannily consistent for all of that time.

An onlooker teased Ryder: "Your left hand seems a bit undeveloped in comparison to your right." Reflecting on what he took to be a serious diagnosis (rather than a riff on his political inclinations), Ryder paused thoughtfully and said, "That's true," though in fact he had been reasonably ambidextrous.

The observation prompted him to reveal the core strategy governing his game. "You need to get to the center. You need to find your way to the center of the court, where you have the greatest ability to respond to whatever the other side is shooting at you."

★★★

While clearly both gratfiying and useful to him, Ryder's presence in the center of the political universe has caused him some grief as well. It isn't just the other side he has to worry about. A confidante and close adviser of both former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout and former Governor Don Sundquist, Ryder has come in for a certain measure of hostile suspicion in certain quarters of the Republican bailiwick, where Rout's involvement in the public/private deal that created FedExForum and brought the NBA's Grizzlies to Memphis and Sundquist's espousal of a state income tax in his beleaguered second term (1999-2003) were decidedly unpopular.

Former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham and longtime party cadre Jerry Cobb were two members of an entrenched Republican minority that looked askance at Ryder over the years. Opines Ryder: "They saw me as an establishment guy. They ascribed to me more influence than I think I have. I think they see me as the guy in the back room."

The persistence of such views may well have been a contributing factor to the reverse Ryder suffered on his one foray into active politics as a candidate. That was in 2002 when he declared for the Republican nomination for Shelby County Commissioner in District 5, a political swing area which comprises much of east and southeast Memphis, including the White Station area, where Ryder, the son of a CPA transplanted from northern Indiana, grew up and where he still maintains his residence with his wife, Lain, with whom he has raised two daughters.

Despite his long pedigree in local Republican politics, dating from his service as Young Republican chairman in 1977 and continuing through stints as county GOP chairman and national committeeman, Ryder found himself engaged in an uphill struggle against Bruce Thompson, then an impressive new face on the Republican scene. Thompson would win, going away, and Ryder was forced to take stock.

"I was shocked by how poorly I did. It was a great disappointment. It sort of disturbed my equilibrium for a while," he recalls. Eventually, after a brief period of licking his wounds, Ryder resurfaced on the GOP circuit, having resolved to accept his destiny as "somebody who is better as an adviser and consultant, somebody who can help others."

★★★

Those others turn out to comprise a fairly eclectic selection of beneficiaries. Many is the local political hopeful who has sought out Ryder for campaign help and advice — city council and county commission candidates, aspirants to Congress, to the Senate, and the governorship.

It was Ryder who brokered the council candidacy of John Bobango to turn out Jack Sammons in 1995 for the sin of running as an independent against Republican nominee Rout in the 1994 county mayor's race. And it was Ryder who brokered a repentant Sammons back in four years later when Bobango decided against reelection. Even as we speak, Ryder is being touted on the political blog FrumForum as a player in the race to succeed current GOP national chairman Steele of Maryland:

"Former Missouri state GOP chair Ann Wagner. Watch for Tennessee National Committeeman John Ryder to be a crucial ally in her campaign. 'John Ryder from Tennessee . . . was one of the first key folks to contact me and talk to me about considering going forward with a look at the chairmanship,' Wagner told FrumForum."

These days Ryder's political clientele runs mainly to Republican hopefuls, for obvious reasons. But it was not ever so. Time was, during the era there were no partisan elections for county offices, that he supported a Democrat by the name of A C Wharton for the office of District Attorney General.

And Ryder is attracting statewide attention these days as an opponent on the state Republican committee of a move to close Republican primaries. The effect of that, at a time of GOP pre-eminence in local and state affairs, might be to force voters to declare themselves Republicans if they want to have any effect at all on who gets elected.

Ryder's opposition to that would seem to be based on relatively pure motives. "This is a democratic republic in which the will of the people manifests itself in elections. Political parties have to adapt to the changing moods of the body politic. And I'm for giving voters the widest possible latitude to make their choices. It keeps the parties honest," he said in a recent conversation.

Or, as he told AP writer Eric Schelzig, who covered a brief debate on the subject at a mid-December meeting of the state Republican executive committee: "I think the people of Tennessee enjoy having the freedom to move at will to the party that is most attractive to them."

★★★

Ryder considers himself a process man, immersing himself in the particulars and figures and demographics associated with actual political races. Not for him the shouters on cable TV, regardless of party or ideology. "I don't watch the jabbering types — the O'Reillys, the Glen Becks, the Olbermanns and Maddows. Just give me the facts."

He also eschews both political theory as such and fiction as such, though he has a certain predilection for the late British novelist Graham Greene. Besides handball and hunting ("I eat what I shoot. And I clean it and cook it myself."), he has an affinity for chamber music and fine wine. He is also a devotee of grand opera, having served as past chairman of Opera Memphis.

Ryder's fascination with opera derives from a chance circumstance. In 1967, while he was a senior at White Station, he was hanging around the school cafeteria with other members of the school debate team when a representative of the renowned Metropolitan Opera troupe of New York, which used to make annual appearances in Memphis, requisitioned as many of the students who wanted, to serve as "supernumeraries" in Puccini's Turandot, then about to open in the North Hall of old Ellis Auditorium.

"Political parties have to adapt to the changing moods of the body politic.  And I'm for giving voters the wildest possible latitude to make their choices.  It keeps the parties honest."

The young Ryder accepted a stipend for the princely sum of $2 and found himself decked out as one Chinese soldier among many, bearing a spear and hovering on the walls of a make-believe castle as celebrated vocal artists performed on the stage below. One was the legendary soprano Birgitt Nilsson, whose voice made an "indelible" impression on the high school senior.

"It was the natural human voice but taken to another level. When she sang, you could feel the sound. It was that strong!" the still-awed Ryder recalls. It is fair to say he was transfixed, both by Nilsson's magnificent voice and by the sense of powerful human drama created by the opera itself.

As Ryder recapped the drama of Turandot on a recent afternoon, he was seated in his corner office on the 28th floor of One Commerce Square, the impressive downtown tower once dominated by the National Bank of Commerce and soon to be the headquarters of Pinnacle Airlines. Ryder's office looks out on the majestic Memphis riverfront, and he is surrounded by artifacts from both his professional career and his private life.

A table bears mountains of baseball caps, some bearing the logos of major-league teams — the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Cardinals (to whose international fandom Ryder happily belongs), and many more. Other caps are from minor-league venues, like AutoZone Park, where Ryder disappears for many an afternoon during the warm weather months, to catch the hometown Redbirds as time and circumstances permit. (Many a client, checking in after hours via Ryder's cell phone, has heard the crack of a bat connecting with a speedily thrown baseball.)

On the walls are mementoes from politics, photographs of Ryder with GOP eminences — Bush 43, Cheney, Sundquist, Lamar Alexander, Howard Baker, fill-in-the-blanks with whom you will — most of these pictures signed, some effusively. And there, hard by Ryder's desk, is the large mapstand from which hang broadside pages bearing tables and numerals relating to the task before him — redistricting in the wake of the 2010 census and the 2010 election cycle.

"They saw me as an establishment guy.  They ascribed to me more influence than I think I have.  I think they see me as the guy in the back room."

But just now Ryder is intent on searching for a box-set recording of Turandot, from which he selects the disk containing the famous tenor set-piece "Nessun Dorma," arguably the most stirring of all operatic arias, in which the knight-questor seeking to win and woo Princess Turandot, at the risk of his life and fortune, booms out his heroic resolve.

Ryder silently mouths the climactic lyrics along with the recorded tenor, who is backed by swelling orchestra and chorus. Barely audible at first, Ryder raises his voice in a modest singalong on the climactic final phrase, repeated three times.

Dilegua, o notte!,/ Tramontate, stelle! /Tramontate, stelle!/All'alba vincerò!/vincerò, vincerò!

(Vanish, o night! / Set, stars!/ Set, stars! At dawn, I will win!/ I will win!/ I will win!)

Political opponents, be forewarned. This is what you're up against. 

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