Tuesday, July 31, 2001

BREDESEN: 'MANAGE, DON'T TAX'

BREDESEN: 'MANAGE, DON'T TAX'

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2001 at 4:00 AM

The current governor of Tennessee, Republican Don Sundquist, couldn't have been pleased to hear an old nemesis, Democrat Phil Bredesen, preach the virtues of a no-new-taxes budget Monday night. Neither could members of the Tennessee legislature -- including many, perhaps most, of the ex-Nashville mayor's own partymates -- who will have to hunker down in the state Capitol next week, along with Sundquist, to try to find a way out of just such a budget. The one passed hurriedly on the night of July 12th, amid crowd disorders in and around the Capitol, is generally regarded as an abomination, both because it starves a number of state services -- notably higher education -- and because it uses up one-time money, like all $560 million of the state's tobacco-settlement allowance, to pay for recurring expenses. Even hold-the-line conservatives are scandalized by the latter fact, and when the General Assembly reconvenes on Tuesday to deal with the governor's veto, it is generally supposed that it will be hard to find enough votes (only a majority is needed) to override Sundquist's veto. The Senate especially is considered iffy. That didn't stop Bredesen from indulging himself in a nod of solidarity to Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Frayser, Raleigh), who was in the crowd on hand at a meet-and-greet for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate at the home of Dean and Lisa White on Overton Park Drive. In the course of his public remarks in the Whites' living room, Bredesen hailed Kyle specifically and other legislators generally (Rep. Carol Chumney, like Kyle a candidate for Shelby County mayor, was also in the crowd, but Bredesen may not have seen her) for doing what they could "without much leadership from the governor." (Ironically, the politically influential Clement family, of which Kyle's wife, Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, is a member, is more or less publicly tilting toward Bredesen's chief Democratic opponent, former state party chief Doug Horne.) Most Tennessee politicians try to avoid discussing the fiscal problem. Not Bredesen. He didn't wait for a Q-and-A period but raised the issue himself at the very beginning of his remarks. "I'm going to disappoint some of you by saying that an income tax is not the answer," he said. "Management" was. Dependent on the sales tax for much of its revenue, the state would inevitably have both good times and bad times, more or less in rhythm with economic booms and slowdowns. In the latter case, "it's fair to ask the governor of our state to manage through the process" and "tighten up" where necessary. That specifically included TennCare, the state-run program for the uninsured and uninsurable which is the bane of conservatives and concering which Democrats usually comport themselves more gingerly. Bredesen not only pinpointed the program for a tightening-up, he boasted his background, as a self-made near-billionaire in the health-care business, as proof that he could do so. "Basically, what I did was take HMOs that were going under and put them back in shape," Bredesen told his audience. In a private interview before he made his public remarks, Bredesen had been even more explicit on the tax question. The budget passed on July 12th would "absolutely" serve the state through the next year, he said, and another no-new-taxes budget would do equally well for another year. Right up to the time he expects to be sworn in as governor himself, Bredesen acknowledged, smiling. The problem with Sundquist and his tax-reform efforts, Bredesen had said earlier, was the governor had been like a man who strapped himself into a fast-moving car and, heedless of reality, had headed straight toward a brick wall without slowing down or modifying course. Bredesen is moving pretty fast himself these days, and he will be much in evidence in Shelby County for months to come. He plans to touch base in Memphis "an average of two and a half times every two weeks" for the foreseeable future. For the time being he will focus on meet-and-greets like the one at the Whites, but Bredesen made it clear that later he will be calling on the attendees at such events for financial help. It is not that Bredesen can't run on his own fortune, as he virtually did in his 1994 run for governor. But one of the mistakes he thinks he made in that losing race, as the Democratic nominee against Sundquist, was not to involve as many other people in his campaign as he might have, and fund-raising was the key to that, Bredesen said. Aware that opponent Horne's game plan includes an appeal to the rural areas of Tennessee, where Bredesen -- Northern-born and, as he said, "a big-city mayor" -- might conceivably have weaknesses, the Nashvillian is targeting those same areas, where he will presumably point out, as he did at the Whites' Monday evening, that he was born in New York, yes, but the state, not the city. At a place called Shortville (pop., 1100), in fact, located "at mile-marker 340." And he will undoubtedly use the same line out on the hustings as he did Monday night. "I can't help where I was born, but I got here as fast as I could."

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Rout's Out!

The county mayor says no to a third term (but not to other possible offices).

Posted By on Thu, Jul 26, 2001 at 4:00 AM

PHOTO COURTESY OF SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR'S OFFICE
Jim Rout
It wasn't exactly a bombshell, because reports that Jim Rout might not run again for Shelby County mayor had been rife for some time, especially since the weekend, when the decision was evidently made and confided to some close friends and advisers.

The word got out definitively Tuesday morning. But it still came as something of a shock to see the tall, rawboned, still fit-looking mayor standing at the podium in his eighth-floor conference room in the county administrative building later in the morning and hear him declare, "I called this press conference this morning to announce that I will not be a candidate for county mayor of Shelby County in 2002."

His once reddish-blonde hair has shaded to gray and, as he said, nobody lasts forever. When he was in his 40s, as Rout told a throng of people from media and county government, he could envision a ripe old age of somewhere in the 80s or 90s. "But at 59, I don't see a lot of 118-year-olds around," he said -- meaning that if he was ever going to stop and spend the proverbial Time With Family that retiring politicians speak of, this was the time.

"Family" was the deciding factor, he told a questioner, but when he responded to a question from the Flyer's John Branston about his likely preoccupations for the next 13 months by naming them as the county jail and the question of school funding, he may have given another possible answer without intending to. Those are headaches which, along with the burgeoning county debt, won't go away.

As Rout said to somebody else, however, the increasingly overwhelming problems of government financing (which he is as much a master of as anybody else around) played a larger role in his decision, after a good deal of back-and-forthing, not to run for governor than they did in influencing his thinking about the mayoral race.

As an intimate or two had pointed out in the last few days as speculation began to mount about his intentions, Rout has logged enough time to command a decent county pension. And, as the mayor and former longtime county commissioner reminded people Tuesday, he had even spent six years as county coroner, holding that position at the time that Elvis Presley died in 1977.

Nobody was ever a more quintessential government hand than Rout, who began his political career in the '60s as a community activist fighting a piece of commercial zoning and is approaching the end of it (possibly) as an advocate of a substantial new commercial edifice, the arena-to-be that will, if court rulings proceed favorably, be built for the NBA's Grizzlies.

The word "possibly" in the preceding paragraph derives from the fact that, even now and even in making his farewell announcement, Rout manages to sound like an ambitious politician, ready for more government service (though the former operator of a health-care enterprise had made the obligatory reference to "opportunities" in the private sphere).

It took more than one question to get him to actually renounce a governor's race for next year, for example, and he made a point of professing himself open to "statewide or national possibilities." Accordingly, when he was asked late in the proceedings if he might run for the Senate in 2002 if incumbent Republican Senator Fred Thompson decided not to, he couldn't help saying that he would take a look at the race.

"I certainly wouldn't close the door on it," he said.

Meanwhile, he was opening the door to the mayor's office early enough so that, as he put it, others would have some lead time to try to plan their way into it.

"I'm interested," said former Memphis city councilman John Bobango. County Trustee Bob Patterson has previously indicated he'd like to go for it. Friends of Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas (who, like Patterson, was on hand for the announcement) leave no doubt that he's interested. Ditto for friends of Memphis city councilman Jack Sammons.

The name of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons is a natural, as are those of county commissioners Buck Wellford and (one hears) Tommy Hart. These are just some of the Republican names, and there will be others.

Meanwhile, Democrats are already running. Already there are state Senator Jim Kyle, who filed his initial campaign treasurer's report Tuesday, Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and state Representative Carol Chumney. State Senator Steve Cohen and automobile dealer Russell Gwatney may be just around the corner. And more names will be heard from here, too.


Look out, Shelby County. Here come the gubernatorial wannabes! Democrats Phil Bredesen and Doug Horne will be making frequent forays into the county during the next few weeks.

Knoxvillian Horne (whose campaign is being managed by the capable and rising Matt Kuhn of Memphis) had plans for a Germantown appearance this week, and starting next week Nashvillian Bredesen will be the guest at numerous local get-togethers. They are strictly that, says one of his chief advisers, the seasoned Karl Schledwitz: "get-togethers." The fund-raisers will come later on in the fall.

A Moment Of Reason

Speaker Jimmy Naifeh argued in vain for rising above politics and inaction.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 26, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Jimmy Naifeh
The 2001 session of the 102nd Tennessee General Assembly, which -- undermined by mob action and its own timidity -- left education and various other state services woefully underfunded, is likely to go down in history as one of the most disastrous of any state. But there were memorable moments in which this or that legislator rose above politics as usual. There simply weren't enough.

Here is state House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) on Wednesday, June 27th, as he exhorted members of a joint Senate/House Conference Committee to act on tax reform. The bills and personalities he mentions are transitory. His main argument is for principled action over politics as usual:

"All of you here Sunday know I was challenged publicly to let the Senate know what the House could pass. It was a talk to me, but it was said here publicly, from this very podium, which is fine because I'm the lieutenant governor's representative, and [Lt. Gov. John Wilder] can talk to me any way he wants to. I represent him in the General Assembly, and I represent Longtown, Tennessee. And he's my friend.

"We've talked about where we are. Well, I think Rep. [Ronnie] Cole [D-Dyersburg] has tried to put together the best parts of three different plans, plans that were put before us: the Head-Rochelle [graduated income-tax] plan, the flat-tax plan that Senator [John] Ford presented to us, and the plan that didn't get much conversation but the one that Rep. Larry Turner of Shelby County put before us.

"There has been a lot of work put into this. It was not just haphazardly put together. It was something that Rep. Cole has had a lot of thought about.

"I read a quote just the other day, and I shared it with the leadership this morning. It's from J.F. Clarke: 'A politician looks to the next election, a statesman looks to the next generation.'

"Ladies and gentlemen, that's where we are. We need to look to the next generation and not the next election.

"And I told the leadership and the governor this this morning: It is more important for me for us to pass this plan. And people talk about, 'Well, you're going to lose control of the House if you have 40 Democrats vote for that bill.' Well, so be it.

"What does it matter if our state's in the shape it's in today? Does it matter if the Republicans control or the Democrats? Who gives a damn?

"We need to pass the bill. I can work with [Republican leader] Steve McDaniel if he's the next Speaker of the House. That doesn't bother me at all. What is important to me is that we get this state on a sound footing. We have a proposal before us and it's time to act. It's time for us to do it.

"Quit thinking about the next election. What's important are our grandchildren. [Rep.] Matt [Kisber]'s child. I've got a grandchild about the same age as Matt's child. [Sen.] Roy Herron's got twins, plus.

"I'm serious about this. I debated whether to do this or not. I said it to the leadership. Let me assure you. I'm not grandstanding. I mean every word of what I'm saying.

"If it means passing this bill, and there are 58 Republicans and 40 Democrats, that's fine, but by gosh, we'll have a state that's on the way, a progressive state, where we can fund higher education properly, not lose 10 more percent of the staff at the University of Tennessee at Memphis like we did last year. We'll probably lose more than that this year -- 65 staff members left after last year. And K through 12.

"When we passed the BEP [Basic Education Program] and funded it with a half-cent sales tax increase, we had done something not many states had done. Billy Stair [aide to former Gov. Ned McWherter] said it was probably the most progressive educational package that had ever been before a legislature and passed in many years. And it still is working. But it's not going to work if we don't fund it properly.

"And safety. And welfare. Some of you hide behind the [allegation that] 'TennCare isn't right.' Ladies and gentlemen, we've had legislators working on TennCare for more than a year now, working with the governor's office, working with [director] John Tighe and others. And it's probably in better shape today than it's been in for some time, although we continue to criticize the shape that it is in.

"Chairman Gene Caldwell works on it daily. That's where Gene is every day, talking to doctors and talking to providers and talking to whoever he can talk to about making TennCare better.

"Just don't forget what I said. What's important is that we pass a budget that properly funds this state. I get sick at my stomach when I start hearing about a continuation budget, or an 'Armageddon' budget. My gosh, what kind of responsibility is that? If it gets down to it, the same ones willing to vote for an income tax are going to be the ones who have to do that, and that's not right.

"Face reality today. Do what needs to be done. Be responsible. ... Forget about the next election. Thank you."

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

A Night to Remember: State Government Under Siege

A Night to Remember: State Government Under Siege

Posted By on Wed, Jul 18, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Jim Henry of Kingston in East Tennessee, who back in the '70s and '80s was a mover and shaker in the relatively sacrosanct Tennessee legislature of that time, was in Memphis Saturday to promote himself as a centrist Republican alternative to U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, the Gingrich-style conservative who, many think, is close to having a lock on the Republican nomination for governor next year.

Henry -- who is cast in the square-jawed, white-haired mold of several other 2002 hopefuls (gubernatorial wannabe Randy Nichols, the Knox County D.A., for example, or state Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democratic aspirant for Hilleary's 4th District congressional seat) -- talked about a number of things to the members of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe.

Among them were taxes (he's for reform and isn't ready either to endorse or to rule out any version of it, including the income tax), TennCare (he's for reforming it, too, but supports the state-run insurance program as a financial and medical boon for Tennessee's citizens), and fiscal policy in general (he came out for prioritizing state needs, raising enough revenue to pay for them, and then eliminating any excess money -- presumably by tax cuts -- before government thought up a way to spend it).

But the one thing that seemed to preoccupy Henry, both in his public remarks and in private conversation afterward, was the debacle in Nashville last Thursday night. The state capitol which had been his home base for so many years had been attacked by protesters as, coincidentally or not, the lawmakers inside forsook a last-ditch good-faith effort to produce a long- term budget.

They had instead hastily adopted a bare-bones no-new-taxes version which leaves many needs unspoken for and which may be vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist -- leaving the funding process back where it started. (Actually somewhat further back, since mandated spending, cost-of-living increases, and the like have mounted.)

PHOTO BY JACKSON BAKER
Senator Marsha Blackburn e-mails the alarms that brought protestors to storm the capitol.
Not only epithets but rocks were thrown Thursday night by the throngs that materialized after repeated entreaties to do so by radio talk show hosts Phil Valentine and Steve Gill. Windows were broken in Governor Sundquist's first-floor office, and legislators were verbally abused and even manhandled.

Informed that Republican Senate Leader Ben Atchley, no supporter of the income-tax legislation that the crowd had turned out to protest, had been shoved two or three times as he made his way into the Senate chamber, Henry seemed especially troubled.

"That's dangerous for someone like Ben. He's had several bypass operations. We can't be having that," the GOP hopeful said, shaking his head and furrowing his brow. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we've got to find a way that will let us deal with important questions and, at the same time, return civility to state government!"

Neither of those goals seems anything but remote after Thursday night. Reel backward in time from Henry's weekend remarks, back beyond Thursday night itself, and you reenter a time frame, perhaps a full six months worth, when it was fashionable not to show compassion for this General Assembly but to ridicule, even condemn it, for its general fecklessness.

The legislature, faced with an estimated $250 million deficit that would grow to $800 million next year, had been meeting since January, availing itself of a technicality that allowed it to continue its protracted deliberations into a new fiscal year. There it sat in the muggy Nashville heat of mid-July, still unable to agree on a budget that wouldn't even allow the state to meet its current needs, much less make a few modest improvements.

PHOTO BY JACKSON BAKER
Sen. Blackburn
State Senator John Ford of Memphis, whose legislative achievements are often overlooked because of his sometimes outlandish private behavior, earned the admiration of many observers late in the session as he both tried to break the revenue impasse with a flat-tax version of the income tax and excoriated the leadership of his own party and his own Senate for not dealing with reality.

They needed to resign and step down if they wouldn't lead, he said in a memorable (and precedent-shattering) Sunday session. And, as the Senate bogged down Thursday and seemed likely to timidly accept some version of the bare-bones budget that they had more or less forced a frustrated House of Representatives to adopt because of the Senate's own inaction, Ford had had enough.

He stalked out of the chamber and strode down the long tunnel leading from the capitol back to his office, anouncing, "I'm leaving. They're not going to do anything worth staying around for."

And the flamboyant senator, famous for his fast driving, was soon enough hastening down I-40 back to Memphis.

But meanwhile, something of a miracle occurred. A group of senators from both sides of the aisle, determined to save something of their chamber's reputation and to get a budget measure passed that would not force the state to gut vital programs (education and health services prominent among them), stirred themselves Thursday afternoon to putting together a workable formula.

Senator Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, the Democrat who is the Senate's (nay, the legislature's) leading exponent of an income tax, and Republican Sen. David Fowler of Signal Mountain, a conservative's conservative, began working on a compromise that would include Fowler's insistence on allowing a statewide vote of some sort before an income tax could be legitimized.

Over time, Governor Don Sundquist, among others, had concluded (reluctantly, to be sure) that true tax reform could probably not be achieved any other way. A sales-tax increase had proved unpassable because almost everybody saw that Tennessee's sales tax was already too high relative to its neighbor states, was based on an outmoded economy, and increasingly was incapable of accommodating the state's future revenue needs.

For months, various hodgepodge formulas involving other measures -- services taxes, sales-tax extensions, "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, car-tag increases, etc., etc. -- had been shopped around and failed.

That left only the income tax, and Rochelle, Fowler, and various others -- thanks largely to the tireless helmsmanship of Sen. Jim Kyle, the Memphian who was co-chairman and motive force of the joint House-Senate committee charged with finding a solution -- had come close at this 11th hour to an agreement.

The House had already signaled its willingness to accept an income tax. All the Senate had to do was find a formula. At one point, with 14 votes in the bag for some version of an income tax, Rochelle came off his insistence on a graduated version (Republicans traditionally favor the flat- tax principle) and agreed on a statewide referendum that would either validate or sunset the tax one year after its institution.

Fowler, Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, and Collierville's Sen. Mark Norris -- who doubled as negotiators and as the three swing Republican voters who could make the proposal work -- then conditionally accepted the proposition, according to Kyle, and agreed to take it back to their caucus for it to approve or reject.

It was at that point that Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who represents the elite Nashville suburb of Franklin and who functions as the poster girl for all populist right-wing causes, sat at her legislative desk and began batting out e-mails on her taxpayer-provided laptop, informing all members of her ideological network -- including, crucially, Valentine and Gill -- that the pointy-headed scoundrels were at it again. They were about to pass an income tax.

The broadcasters -- competitors on the air but ideological allies -- soon took to the airwaves and, as they had done repeatedly every time in the last two or three years that the legislature took such legislation up, called on their audiences to respond. In years before, the response had been pickets and caravans of horn-honkers surrounding the capitol. Now the protest would take a more direct form -- mass invasion of the capitol grounds and its hallways.

The throngs began to gather even as the three Republican negotiators were running the plan by their party caucus. On a Senate telephone line, meanwhile, Lt. Governor John Wilder, who had been verbally savaged by Ford, his usual ally, for some undeniable back-and-forthing on the income tax, was trying to find the Memphis senator. It was an every-vote-counts situation.

He eventually reached the voice mail on the motoring Ford's busy cell phone, saying into the receiver, "John, this is John Wilder. You've got to be back here at 6:30 for us to vote. This is important. You've got to get back here." Under the circumstances, it was an Offer That Could Not Be Refused from the still-powerful 80-year-old presiding officer of the Senate.

PHOTO AP
Rep. Mike Kernell, a video buff, captures the action as he leaves the House chamber.
On his way up an escalator to the Senate chamber for the contemplated vote, Murfreesboro Democrat Larry Trail was accosted by three T- shirted youths who seemed to have come out of nowhere and looked out of place in the building (though, to be sure, they had the citizen's right to be there).

One of the young men warned Trail, formerly an income-tax opponent, not to waver on the issue. "If you do," he said, "I will make sure you lose in the next election. I will work to make sure you are defeated," his tone and demeanor more belligerent even than the words themselves.

"It's behavior like yours that makes me want to change my mind," the husky Trail responded in his best down-home Middle Tennessee brogue. "I don't take kindly to threats." With that, he turned his back and began walking briskly up the escalator steps. The scheduled vote was now only minutes away.

Behind Trail, as he entered the hallway leading to the capitol elevator that would take him to the second floor to the Senate chamber, the three young men seemed almost to multiply.

A trickle of citizens -- most casually clad, others in suits, some of them moms and dads toting their small children, most of them visibly inflamed either by anger or by zeal -- appeared instantly to have become a flood. The capitol building might have been some stricken Titanic which had suddenly sprung a leak.

Tennessee's elected senators and representatives (the House, too, had been summoned by its leader, Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, to stand ready for action) made their way as best they could to their chambers.

Instead of facing only the imperatives of a historic vote, though, they would soon be dealing with an unprecedented reaction from a fast- growing crowd which the conservative Republicans Fowler and Atchley would be the first to describe by another name: mob.

Tennessee's elected lawmakers would find themselves literally under siege.

Later on, it would get said that factors other than the pure intimidation of the mob caused the pending budget deal to break down in the state Senate Thursday night -- before a vote could be taken on an income tax- cum-referendum package that would fund present state priorities, including education and the state-run program for the uninsured and uninsurables known as TennCare, and pave the way for future ones.

So many variants got told by this or that key legislator that it's hard to determine which straw might have broken the camel's back. Depending on who was doing the explaining, it was either Democrat Rochelle's insistence that an income tax be in effect for at least a year before a statewide vote on it could be taken, or the House Democrats' insistence on the same thing, or Republican Fowler's refusal to yield on having a referendum (alternately, a Constitutional Convention) come first, or the GOP Senate Caucus' negative reaction to the deal brought them by Fowler, McNally, and Norris, or something to do with TennCare, or -- what you will.

Or maybe it wasn't a straw at all, maybe it was just hard for some to admit that they had been cowed by the sheer bludgeoning force of the huge and madding crowd that swarmed into and around the state capitol Thursday evening as the legislators were, in theory, scheduled to debate the income-tax issue like civics-text ladies and gentlemen and then vote on it.

Fowler was one of those who, hither and thither in the confusion of Thursday night, would suggest conventional parliamentary snafus as the key to the breakdown, but he expressed himself otherwise in the immediate aftermath of the failure, as Senator Kyle of Memphis (under urgent pressure from Lt. Governor Wilder, a realist's realist) finally had to cut his losses and rush through a resolution for a modified version of the same no-new-taxes stopgap budget passed by the House at the very end of the fiscal year almost two weeks earlier.

It was a plan that would spend Tennessee's entire portion of tobacco-settlement money in one year and still leave the state short of essential services, and it was taken for granted that the House -- always readier to move forward in this session than the Senate -- had passed it only to present a worst-case scenario to the other body and make it act.

Said Fowler on the floor to his colleagues and to the world at large, even as, amid a mounting cacophony out in the hallway, the final white- flag vote was about to be taken inside: "The activities of the talk-radio people and Senator Blackburn have killed the right of the people to vote. I think the mob effectively killed their opportunity to vote on this issue.'' (Norris would say that Blackburn's actions, in e-mailing her Paul Revere-like alarms to the denizens of the populist right, had been the legal equivalent of "yelling fire in a crowded theater.")

Fowler proceeded: "We discussed the possibility of a means by which people could have a say on the tax structure with their votes. Those people outside are protesting not knowing we were trying to give them a vote."

The "people outside" were at this point chanting "No Means No!" over and over and literally hammering at the heavy oak doors which -- closed and manned now by highway patrolmen and city police, who were called in to augment the normal contingent of legislative door guards -- were all that stood between them and the prospect of some unprecedented (for Tennessee) form of direct intervention.

Apologists for the demonstrators -- and there were some -- would see it all as pure participatory democracy, of course, and, indeed, for all the raucousness and shouting and booing and shoving and door-pounding and (later) window-breaking, most of the protesters kept a decorum of sorts.

A case in point: Well after the vote was taken and the parliamentary issue was settled in both the Senate and the House (which, resignedly this time, reenacted its similar vote of a week before), veteran Tennessean Capitol Hill reporter Duren Cheek and I decided to leave, eschewing the safety of the interior tunnel which, in the labyrinthine Capitol-Legislative Plaza complex, led back to the Plaza's press offices and, at a somewhat further remove, to the general vicinity where my car was parked. The unusual reason for this: Duren has a vision quirk whereby he simply sees better out of doors, night or day.

PHOTO : jackson baker
Senator Fowler condemns the mob.
People began to bait us almost as soon as we showed up outside, demanding to know if we were legislators as we threaded our way through them down the capitol steps. I suppressed the urge to say something waggish like, "What? Don't you recognize Bob Rochelle?" This crowd had, after all, been brought to the emotional edge or it wouldn't have been where it was, doing what it was.

Then came a potentially chilling moment. Of a sudden, Duren, a portly man well into his middle years, went down on the hard concrete of the first landing, and five or six men from the crowd lunged toward where he lay.

In one of the alternative, multiple universes that the late French fictionist Alain Robbe-Grillet might have concocted from such an image, the outcome could have been sinister. The reality was, in fact, quite benign. The visually challenged Duren had just tripped and fallen, that was all, and the crowd members who reached for him did so as Good Samaritans. They helped him to his feet, firmly but gently.

Earlier, Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) had played comic toreador with the crowd. At the height of its anger, he had entered the Senate chamber brandishing a large-size Planters can with the word "Nuts" in bold and held it high before the crowd, which howled in derision as Cohen, an incorrigible maverick, beamed.

The experience of the venerable Atchley of Knoxville lacked any such satisfying resolution. The fact that the Republican Senate Leader has been a consistent opponent of the income tax had put him in no good stead at all as he tried to make his way through the crowd. The suited and bespectacled Atchley could not be mistaken for anything but a legislator, almost an archetypal vision of one, and he had gotten shoved several times as he made his way through the crowds to get to the Senate chamber.

PHOTO : jackson baker
Senate leaders of both parties decide to throw in the towel as protestors storm the chamber doors.
"I don't mind expression, but that's mob rule," Atchley, a mild man normally given to understatement, would say later.

Elsewhere the crowd activity was even less gallant. After all, had these put-upon citizens of the (barely) middle class not heard, over and over again on talk radio, that an income tax would grab up fully 50 percent of their available funds? (And never mind that Senator Rochelle and others had released studies showing, for most Tennesseans, an income tax with corresponding reductions in the sales tax would result in a lesser tax burden overall.)

At some point, a few people in the crowd had begun throwing rocks and other ad hoc missiles, targeting the first-floor office of Governor Sundquist, who -- with Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rochelle and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- constituted what to the members of this crowd was an unholy trio bent on taxing them into personal insolvency.

"Thieves" was a word frequently heard from callers to the incendiary talk shows presided over by Messrs. Valentine and Gill -- which worthies continued to broadcast from the periphery of the capitol grounds Thursday night, with Valentine even suggesting to his auditors such questionable mischief as a nocturnal visit to the Lebanon residence of Senator Rochelle.

At some point in the evening, State Rep. John Mark Windle (D- Livingston) was in the capitol building walking back to his office when he was confronted by a rush of demonstrators. Thinking to find sanctuary, he stepped into the governor's first-floor suite and sat down on a couch in one of the inner offices. Then, as he would recall: "A rock came through the window about half the size of a football and landed at my feet. ... They were banging their fists on the windows and hollering. It was bizarre."

While all of this was going on, the normal inhabitant of the governor's office, Don Sundquist, was away making a speech at an economic development conference. Several times he was called away to the telephone to get an up-to-date report on the mayhem going on over at the capitol, and when a tobacco lobbyist in attendance at the governor's speech made ready to go over, out of curiosity, Sundquist bade him stay, advising that it wasn't safe.

The governor would eventually issue a statement: "I appreciate the right of all Americans to free speech and peaceful protest. I do not, however, approve of those who advocate violence and I regret that occurred at the capitol.

"State employees, legislators and law enforcement officers should be able to do their jobs in a safe, reasonable way. I am particularly critical of some radio talk show hosts and at least one legislator who encouraged disruptive behavior and destructive acts. I hope the budget debate will continue, but in a calm, reasonable way. My top priority has [been], and continues to be, the welfare of Tennessee's children."

If some of that sounded self-serving, it was a fact that Sundquist had for two years risked his political reputation to pursue tax reform and had, way back in February, proposed a widely admired education initiative. In the stopgap budget that got passed, not only was the plan itself utterly gutted, but short-term spending for the existing requirements of public education was threatened (not to mention its long-term prospects, since the $560 million tobacco windfall, once used up to fill out this year's bare-bones budget, would not be available for the year after).

State employees, who had lobbied hard for a cost-of-living pay raise, would get a modest increase of 2.5 percent. (Noting that the raise was being paid for during the next year with the one-time tobacco money, Norris said the pay raise might amount to so much "severance pay.")

TennCare would be held solvent for at least another year (after that, the wolf would be back at the door), and the Department of Transportation's roadbuilding funds -- untouchable pork, even in these straitened times -- would be preserved. But, all in all, a full $340 million had been cut from Sundquist's budget recommendations, and it wasn't over with. The governor would be required to find ways of paring at least another $100 million over the course of the coming year.

PHOTO : AP
Rep. Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, protected by police, negotiates a throng of demonstrators.
The immediate word from Sundquist was that the budget was "a likely candidate" for a veto, and, in preparation for such an eventuality, both houses passed resolutions obliging them to return on August 6th for an override or other action in case of a veto or to come back in January, if no veto occurred.

There were also rumors that the governor, should he let this budget pass for the moment, would call the legislature back in special session sometime this fall. Sundquist had already called two special sessions to plead for tax reform, in 1999 and in 2000, and there was Nothing Doing both times.

Even so, and the very real merits of the case aside, a gubernatorial aide conceded that Sundquist, who was being mocked as irrelevant in some circles and whose name, if it was used at all, had fallen to the bottom of news accounts of the budget impasse, might have to do something hard-nosed just to remain a player.

Whatever it portended, few of the legislators -- exhausted and, in some cases, shell-shocked -- had the heart for any more protracted battles.

Wilder had concluded the bizarre climactic Senate session of Thursday night with a public prayer from the Speaker's podium in which, against the ironic background noise of the continuing crowd mayhem outside, he proffered his standard Panglossian tribute ("You are good") both to the Almighty and to the Senate as a body for the process just completed.

It is fair to say that most legislators were of another mind. Late Thursday night, a group of them were licking their wounds at the bar of the nearby Sheraton, a traditional oasis for members of the General Assembly, and Murfreesboro's Larry Trail, the same Larry Trail who had stood down one of the first protesters on the scene earlier in the evening, was musing out loud.

"I just don't like the way it looked, the way it made us look," he said of videotaped footage of the evening, which had been shown and reshown on TV in Nashville and elsewhere and was even then undergoing another replay on the big TV set overhanging the Sheraton's bar area.

"It made us look like we were afraid, that they made us back down," he said, and then looked down at the floor, as if contemplating a future that, if anything, might be even bleaker than the mortifying present tense just experienced.

Abruptly, he brightened. "Let's go to Jimmy Kelly's," he suggested, naming the Vanderbilt-area watering hole where, from time immemorial, legislators had gathered in the late hours, to cut their deals or, as the case might be, to leave their troubles behind them.

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (PART TWO)

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (PART TWO)

Posted By on Wed, Jul 18, 2001 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- Later on, it would get said that factors other than the pure intimidation factor of the mob caused the pending budget deal to break down in the state Senate Thursday night, before a vote could be taken on an income tax-cum-referendum package that would fund present state priorities and lay the way for future ones. So many variants got told by this or that key legislator that it's hard to determine which straw might have broken the camel's back. Depending on who was doing the explaining, it was either Lebanon Democrat Bob Rochelle's insistence than an income tax be in effect for at least a year before a statewide vote on it could be taken, or the House Democrats' insistence on the same thing, or Republican Senator David Fowler's refusal to yield on having a referendum (alternately, a Constitutional Convention) come first, or the GOP Senate Caucus' negative reaction to the deal brought them by Fowler, Oak Ridge Senator Randy McNally, and Collierville Senator Mark Norris, or something to do with TennCare, or -- what you will. Or maybe it wasn't a straw at all, but the bludgeoning force of the huge and madding crowd that swarmed into and around the state Capitol Thursday evening as the legislators were, in theory, scheduled to debate the income tax issue, or, alternately, vote on it. Fowler was one of those who, hither and thither in the confusion of Thursday night, would suggest conventional parliamentary snafus as the key to the breakdown, but he expressed himself otherwise in the immediate aftermath of the failure, as Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, co-chairman of the House-Senate conference committee charged with finding a budget solution and the engine of such progress as could be made, was pressed by Lt. Governor John Wilder to cut his losses and rush through a resolution in favor of a no-new-taxes stopgap budget that would spend Tennessee's entire portion of tobacco-settlement money in one year and still leave the state short of essential services. Said Fowler on the floor to his colleagues (and, of course, to the world at large) even as the final vote was about to be taken: "The activities of the talk-radio people and Senator [Marsha] Blackburn have killed the right of the people to vote. I think the mob effectively killed their opportunity to vote on this issue.'' (Collierville's Mark Norris would say that Blackburn's actions, in e-mailing her Paul-Revere-like alarms to the denizens of the populist right, had been the legal equivalent of "yelling fire in a crowded theater.") Fowler said, "We discussed the possibility of a means by which people could have a say on the tax structure with their votes. Those people outside are protesting not knowing we were trying to give them a vote." The "people outside" were at this point chanting "No Means No!" over and over and literally hammering at the heavy oak doors which -- closed and manned by highway patrolmen and city police, who were called in to augment the normal contingent of legislative door guards -- were all that stood between them and the prospect of some unprecedented (for Tennessee) form of direct intervention. Apologists for the demonstrators, a breed who turned out not to be so scarce, would of course see it all as pure participatory democracy, and, indeed, for all the raucousness and shouting and booing and shoving and door-pounding and (later) window-breaking, most of the protesters kept a decorum of sorts. A case in point: well after the vote was taken and the parliamentary issue was settled in both the Senate and the House, which voted subsequently the no-new-tax budget, this journalist and veteran Tennessean Capitol Hill reporter Duren Cheek eschewed the safety of the interior tunnel which, in the labyrinthian Capitol-Legislative Plaza complex, leads back to the Plaza's press offices and, at a somewhat further remove, to the general vicinity where my car was parked. The unusual reason for this: Duren has a vision quirk whereby he simply sees better out of doors, night or day. The crowd began to bait us almost as soon as we showed up outside, demanding to know if we were legislators as we threaded our way through them down the Capitol steps. I suppressed the urge to say something waggish like, 'What? Don't you recognize Bob Rochelle?' This crowd had, after all, been brought to the emotional edge or it wouldn't be where it was, doing what it was. V. Then came a potentially chilling moment. Of a sudden, Duren, a portly man well into his middle years, went down on the hard concrete of the first landing, and five or six men from the crowd rushed to where he lay, lunging toward him. In one of the alternative, multiple universes that the late French fiction writer Alain Robbe-Grillet might have concocted from such an image, the outcome could have been sinister. The reality was, in fact, quite benign. Cheek (visually impaired, remember?) had just tripped and fallen, that was all, and the crowd members who reached for him did so as good Samaritans. They helped him to his feet, firmly but gently. Earlier, Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) had played comic toreador with the crowd. At the height of its anger, he had entered the Senate chamber brandishing a large-size Planters can with the word ÒNutsÓ in bold and held it high before the crowd, which howled in derision. The experience of the venerable Ben Atchley of Knoxville was not so happy. The fact that the Republican Senate Leader has been an consistent opponent of the income tax had stood him in no stead at all as he tried to make his way through the crowd. There was no mistaking the suited and bespectacled Atchley for anything but a legislator, and he had gotten shoved several times as he made his way through the crowds to get to the Senate chamber. ''I don't mind expression, but that's mob rule,Ó Atchley, a mild man normally given to understatement, would say later. And elsewhere the crowd activity was even less gallant. After all, had these put-upon citizens of the (barely) middle class not heard, over and over again on talk radio, that an income tax would grab up fully 50 percent of their available funds? (And never mind that Senator Rochelle and others had released studies showing, for most Tennesseans, an income tax with corresponding reductions in the sales tax would result in a lesser tax burden overall. At some point, a few people in the crowd had begun throwing rocks and other ad hoc missiles, targeting the first-floor office of Governor Sundquist, who -- with Senate Speaker Pro Tem Rochelle and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- constituted what to the members of this crowd was an unholy trio bent on taxing them into personal insolvency. "Thieves" was a word frequently heard from callers to the incendiary talk shows presided over by Messrs. Valentine and Gill -- which worthies continued to broadcast from the periphery of the Capitol grounds Thursday night, at least one of them suggesting to his auditors such questionable mischief as a nocturnal visit to the Lebanon residence of Senator Rochelle. At some point in the evening, State Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) was in the Capitol building walking back to his office when he was confronted by a rush of demonstrators. Thinking to find sanctuary, he stepped into the governorÕs first floor suite and sat down on a couch in one of the inner offices. Then, as he would recall: ÒA rock came through the window about half the size of a football and landed at my feet.. . .They were banging their firsts on the windows and hollering. It was bizarre." While all of this was going on, the normal inhabitant of the governor's office, Don Sundquist, was away making a speech at an economic development conference. Several times he was called away to the telephone to get an up-to-date report on the mayhem going on over at the Capitol, and when a tobacco lobbyist in attendance at the governor's speech made ready to go over, out of curiosity, Sundquist bade him stay, advising that it wasn't safe. VI. The governor would eventually issue a statement: "I appreciate the right of all Americans to free speech and peaceful protest. I do not, however, approve of those who advocate violence and I regret that occurred at the Capitol. "State employees, legislators and law enforcement officers should be able to do their jobs in a safe, reasonable way. I am particularly critical of some radio talk show hosts and at least one legislator who encouraged disruptive behavior and destructive acts. I hope the budget debate will continue, but in a calm, reasonable way. My top priority has [been], and continues to be, the welfare of Tennessee's children." If some of that sounded self-serving, it was a fact that Sundquist had, way back in February, proposed a widely admired education initiative. In the stopgap budget that got passed, not only was the plan itself utterly gutted, but short-term spending for the existing requirements of public education was threatened (not even to mention the long-term prospects, since the $560 tobacco windfall, once used up to fill out this year's bare-bones budget, would not be available for the year after. State employees, who had lobbied hard for a cost-of-living pay raise, would get a modest increase of 2.5 percent pay raise. (Noting that the raise was being paid for during the next year with the one-time tobacco money, Norris said the pay raise might amount to so much "severance pay.") TennCare would be held solvent for at least another year (after that, the wolf would be back at the door), and the Department of Transportation's road building funds -- untouchable pork, even in these dire times -- would be preserved. But, all in all, a full $340 million had been cut from Sundquist's budget recommendations, and it wasn't over with. The governor would be required to find ways of paring at least another $100 million over the course of the coming year. The immediate word from Sundquist was that the budget was "a likely candidate" for a veto, and, in preparation for such an eventuality, both houses passed resolutions obliging them to return on August 6th for an override or other action in case of a veto or to come back in January, if no veto occurred. There were also rumors that the governor, should he let this budget pass for the moment, would call the legislature back in special session sometime this fall. Sundquist had already called two special sessions to plead for tax reform, and there was Nothing Doing both times. Even so, and the very real merits of the case aside, a gubernatorial aide conceded that Sundquist, who was being mocked as irrelevant in some circles and whose name, if it was used at all, had fallen to the bottom of news accounts of the budget impasse, might have to do something hard-nosed just to keep his hand in. Whatever it portended for the future, few of the legislators -- exhausted and, in come cases, shell-shocked -- had the heart for any more protracted battles. Late Thursday night, a group of them were licking their wounds at the bar of the nearby Sheraton, a traditional oasis for members of the General Assembly, and Murfreesboro's Larry Trail, who had stood down a protester earlier in the evening, was musing out loud. "I just don't like the way it looked, the way it made us look," he said of videotaped footage of the evening, which had been shown and reshown on TV in Nashville and elsewhere and was even then undergoing another replay in the big TV set overhanging the Sheraton's bar area. "It made us look like we were afraid, that they made us back down," he said, and then looked at the floor, as if contemplating a future that might turn out even to be even bleaker than the mortifying present tense just experienced.

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (Part One)

STATE GOVERNMENT UNDER SIEGE (Part One)

Posted By on Tue, Jul 17, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Jim Henry of Kingston in East Tennessee, who back in the '70s and '80s was a mover and shaker in the relatively sacrosanct Tennessee legislature of that time, was in Memphis Saturday to promote himself as a centrist Republican alternative to U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, the Gingrich-style conservative who, many think, is close to having a lock on the Republican nomination for governor next year. Henry -- who is cast in the square-jawed, white-haired mold of several other 2002 hopefuls (gubernatorial wannabe Randy Nichols, the Knox County D.A., for example, or State Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democratic aspirant for Hilleary's 4th District congressional seat) -- talked about a number of things to the members of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe. Among them were taxes (he's for reform and isn't ready either to endorse or to rule out any version of it, including the income tax), TennCare (he's for reforming it, too, but endorses the state-run insurance program as a financial and medical boon for Tennessee's citizens), and fiscal policy in general (he came out for prioritizing state needs, raising enough revenue to pay for them, and then eliminating any excess money -- presumably by tax cuts Ñ before government though up a way to spend it). But the one thing that seemed to preoccupy Henry, both in his public remarks and in private conversation afterward, was the debacle in Nashville last Thursday night, which saw a state Capitol literally attacked by protesters as the lawmakers inside forsook a last-ditch good-faith effort to produce a long-term budget and instead hastily adopted a bare-bones no-new-taxes version which leaves many needs unspoken for and which may be vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist. Not only epithets but rocks were thrown Thursday night by the throngs that turned out at the command of radio talk show hosts Phil Valentine and Steve Gill. Windows were broken out in Governor Sundquist's first-floor office, and legislators were verbally abused and even manhandled. Informed that Republican Senate Leader Ben Atchley, no supporter of the income-tax legislation that the crowd had turned out to protest, had been shoved two or three times as he made his way into the Senate chamber, Henry seemed especially troubled. "That's dangerous for someone like Ben. He's had several bypass operations. We can't be having that," the GOP hopeful said, shaking his head and furrowing his brow. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we've got to find a way that will let us deal with important questions and, at the same time, return civility to state government!" II. Neither of those goals seems anything but remote after Thursday night. It had become fashionable in the preceding six months to ridicule, even condemn, the leadership of the current General Assembly for failing to agree on a budget that would allow the state to meet its current needs and make a few modest improvements. State Senator John Ford of Memphis, whose legislative achievements are often overlooked because of his sometimes outlandish private behavior, earned the admiration of many observers late in the session as he both tried to break the revenue impasse with a flat-tax version of the income tax and excoriated the leadership of his own party and his own Senate for not dealing with reality. They needed to resign and step down if they wouldn't lead, he said. And, as the Senate bogged down Thursday and seemed likely to timidly accept some version of the bare-bones budget Ñ some $800 million short of estimated needs ÑÊthat they had more or less forced the House to adopt because of their own inaction, Ford had had enough. He stalked out of the Chamber and strode down the long tunneled hallway leading from the Capitol back to his office, anouncing, "I'm leaving. They're not going to do anything worth staying around for." And the flamboyant senator, famous for his fast driving, was, soon enough, hastening down I-40 back to Memphis. But meanwhile, something of a miracle occurred. A group of senators from both sides of the aisle, determined to save something of their chamber's reputation and to get a budget measure passed that would not force the state to gut vital programs (education and health services prominent among them), stirred themselves Thursday afternoon to putting together a workable formula. Senator Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, the Democrat who is the Senate's (nay the legislature's) leading exponent of an income tax, and Republican Sen. David Fowler of Signal Mountain, a conservative's conservative, began working on a compromise that would include Fowler's insistence on allowing a statewide vote before an income tax could be legitimized. True tax reform, as Governor Sundquist had long since recognized, if but reluctantly, could probably not be achieved through any other means. A sales-tax increase had proved unpassable because almost everybody had come to realize that Tennessee's sales tax was already too high relative to its neighbor states, was based on an outmoded economy, and increasingly was incapable of accommodating the state's future revenue needs. For months, various hodgepodge formulas involving other measures -- services taxes, sales-tax extensions, "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, car-tag increases, etc., etc. Ñ had been shopped around and failed. That left only the income tax, and, thanks largely to the tireless helmsmanship of Sen. Jim Kyle, the Memphian who was co-chairman and motive force of the joint House-Senate committee charged with finding a solution, Rochelle, Fowler, and others got close to an agreement. The House had already signaled its willingness to accept an income tax. All the Senate had to do was find a formula. At one point, with 14 votes in the bag for some version of an income tax (of the 17 needed in the 33-member body), Rochelle came off his insistence on a graduated version (Republicans traditionally favor the flat-tax principle) and agreed on a statewide referendum that would either validate or sunset the tax one year after its institution. Fowler, Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, and Collierville's Mark Norris -- who doubled as negotiators and as the three swing Republican voters who could make the proposal work -- then accepted the proposition, according to Kyle, and headed back to their caucus at Rochelle's insistence to get its approval. III. It was at that point that Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who represents the elite Nashville suburb of Franklin and who functions as the poster girl for all populist right-wing causes, sat at her legislative desk and began batting out emails on her taxpayer-provided laptop, informing all members of her ideological network -- including, crucially, Valentine and Gill -- that the pointy-headed scoundrels were at it again. They were about to pass an income tax. The broadcasters -- competitors on the radio but ideological allies -- soon took to the airwaves and, as they done repeatedly every time in the last two or three years that the legislature came close to passing such legislation, called on their audiences to respond. In years before, the response had been caravans of horn-honkers surrounding the Capitol. Now the protest would take a more direct form -- mass invasion of the Capitol grounds and its hallways. The throngs began to gather even as the three Republican negotiators were pitchig the deal to their caucus. On a Senate telephone line, meanwhile, Lt. Governor John Wilder, who had been savaged by Ford for his back-and-forthing on the income tax, was trying to find the Memphis senator. He eventually reached the voice mail on the motoring Ford's busy cell phone, saying into the receiver, "John, this is John Wilder. You've got to be back here at 6:30 for us to vote. This is important. You've got to get back here." Under the circumstances, it was an Offer That Could Not Be Refused from the still powerful Senate presiding officer. On his way up an escalator to the Senate chamber for the contemplated vote, Murfreesboro Democrat Larry Trail was accosted by three tee-shirted youths who seemed to have come out of nowhere and looked out of place in the building (though, to be sure, they had the citizen's right to be there). One of the young men warned Trail, formerly an income tax opponent, not to waver on the issue. "If you do," he said, "I will make sure you lose in the next election. I will work to make sure you are defeated," he said, his tone and demeanor more belligerent even than the words themselves. "It's behavior like yours that makes me want to change my mind," the husky Trail responded in his best down-home Middle Tennessee drawl. ÒI donÕt take kindly to threats.Ó With that, he turned his back and began walking briskly up the escalator steps. The scheduled vote was now only minutes away. Behind Trail, as he entered the hallway leading to the Capitol elevator that would take him to the second floor to the Senate chamber, the three young men seemed almost to multiply. A trickle of ordinary citizens, some casually clad, others in suits, appeared instantly to have become a flood -- almost as if the Capitol building were some stricken Titanic which had suddenly sprung a fatal leak. Tennessee's elected senators and representatives (the House, too, had been summoned by its leader, Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, to stand ready for action) made their way as best they could to their chambers. Instead of facing only the imperatives of an historic vote, though, they would soon be dealing with an unprecedented reaction from a fast-growing crowd which the conservative Republicans Fowler and Atchley would be the first to describe by another name: mob. Tennesssee's elected lawmakers would find themselves literally under siege. (To Be Continued)

Thursday, July 5, 2001

Byrd On the Wing

A good payday kicks off the former Bartlett legislator's county mayoral race.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 5, 2001 at 4:00 AM

For some weeks, the conventional wisdom has been that Bartlett banker Harold Byrd was emerging as the front-runner in the Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor.

Partly this was on the strength of Byrd's support by Sidney Chism, known to be close to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and the closest thing in Shelby County just now to being a political kingmaker.

Partly, too, it was due to the supposition that Byrd, as a member of a family of prominent Democrats who thrived for years in the heavily Republican enclave of Bartlett, had significant crossover appeal. Neither Harold Byrd nor his brother Dan Byrd, who succeeded him as a state representative in the early '80s, ever lost a legislative race.

(Harold Byrd has, however, lost two races for the 7th District congressional seat -- one in 1982 in the Democratic primary to Bob Clement, who later lost to Republican Don Sundquist, and another in 1994 as the Democratic nominee against current congressman Ed Bryant.)

And partly Byrd's presumed lead among Democrats was based on his ability to raise money, honed over the years as a leading booster and fund-raiser for the University of Memphis and other civic causes.

That last consideration got a boost at Byrd's official opening last Thursday night at Central Station, where a crowd of some 300 gathered and a kitty of some $307,000 (some of it accountable to backers not present) was announced from the dais.

Byrd delivered a somewhat lengthy formal address, the thrust of which was that the current county administration had incurred too much debt without making enough progress.

He got appreciative applause from the crowd, which included several public officials, former U of M athletes, and participants in the recent drive to bring an NBA team to Memphis.

Other Democrats in the race are state senator Jim Kyle and state representative Carol Chumney. Possible entrants are automobile dealer Russell Gwatney and state senator Steve Cohen.

E.C. Makes His Move

Memphis city councilman E.C. Jones ended some weeks of speculation Monday by formally announcing his candidacy for sheriff as a Democrat. But the councilman, who has considerable support in the Frayser-Raleigh area and a knack for fund-raising, has been put on notice by various Democrats who are supporting the candidacy of Randy Wade, a ranking Sheriff's Department administrator who has the support of Herenton advisor Sidney Chism, who has turned into the city's leading political broker, at least among Democrats.

Jones can expect to see his voting record, which includes abundant participation in Republican primaries in recent years, publicized, and one Wade supporter, G.A. Hardaway, wants Jones put on notice that, if he follows through with his sheriff's race, Hardaway will promptly begin organizing an opposition to Jones' next council reelection bid. His ideal candidate is Memphis School Board member Lee Brown.

Meanwhile, friends of Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore say that he is likely to declare for sheriff as a Republican in the near future.

Is Jim Rout Still Thinking of a Governor's Race?

"It's amazing how persistent these rumors have been," said Shelby County mayor Jim Rout last week about reports that, having been a prime mover in securing the deal that will build a new arena in Memphis for the Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association, he was considering leaving his day job and taking up an executive position with the Grizzlies.

"There's nothing to them, I can assure you, but a lot of people seem to be talking about that," Rout said.

About another widely discussed matter, his electoral plans for 2002, the county mayor was less categorical.

Some have begun to wonder out loud whether Rout actually intended to run for reelection, and he is not ready yet to give a definitive answer. "Most probably, I will run again for mayor, but there are some people talking to me, I have to acknowledge, who still want me to run for governor and are asking me to reconsider," Rout said.

The county mayor ruled out such a race some months ago, and U.S. rep. Van Hilleary of Tennessee's 4th District quickly went on a fund-raising spree, signed up numerous party cadres for his campaign, and became the prohibitive favorite.

But state Republicans are still not united in their support for Hilleary, who, as a congressman, is suspect among those who think that Governor Don Sundquist's lack of success with the legislature owes something to his lack of prior administrative experience.

State rep. Larry Scroggs of Germantown is considering a race for governor, and former state representative Jim Henry of Kingston is beginning to organize a gubernatorial effort.

Rout, as an experienced county executive, is, as he says, being sounded out by various Republicans, and not just local ones, for a change of mind.

* Rout has, meanwhile, acquired a new deputy. Kelly Rayne-Brayton, who had been serving as executive assistant to Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson, has moved upstairs in the county administration building. She was recently named chief legislative assistant and special counsel to Mayor Rout.

The position is similar to, but not identical with, one formerly held by Nathan Green, a longtime Rout aide who is now in private business as a lobbyist and consultant.

* The issue of the composition of the Public Building Authority, which will oversee construction of the new NBA arena, remains unresolved -- but the withdrawal from consideration last week of state rep. Tre Hargett of Bartlett leaves the way open for state rep. Larry Miller of Memphis to complete the legislative component of the Authority.

A new state law, largely unnoticed at the time it was passed and signed into law this spring by Governor Sundquist, mandates that a member of the state Senate as well as a member of the state House of Representatives must be named to the PBA, whose former statutory membership of 9 was thus elevated to 11.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, under the impression that he had the right to name both legislative Authority members, named Memphis' John Ford from the state Senate. County mayor Rout then expressed concern about having his own input, and, armed with a legal opinion from County Attorney Wilson, worked out an arrangement with Herenton whereby he acquired the de facto right to name a member from the House.

Two House members -- state rep. Larry Miller, a North Memphis Democrat, and state rep. Tre Hargett, a Bartlett Republican, both expressed their interest in serving. But Hargett's candidacy picked up some active resistance from Memphis legislators, like Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who resented the GOP legislator's failure to vote for at least one of the enabling bills for the NBA arena in the legislature.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington made a point of endorsing Miller for the PBA, and Hargett, after a conversation on the floor last week with Naifeh, drafted a letter to Rout withdrawing his candidacy and praising Miller.

That gives Miller something of a definitive edge, and it is possible that Rout will name him to the Authority later this week.

After the 11 members are jointly proposed by both mayors, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission will have the opportunity to approve the choices and formally vote the newly reconstituted body into being.

Living the Dream

Hope-Springs-Eternal Department: Joe Cooper, who has held an office or two, worked for various office-holders, run for numerous positions in local government, and operated a number of businesses, many on Beale Street, is mainly functioning as a free-lance consultant these days.

And he has a new bee in his bonnet, which he hopes becomes a buzz in the ears of some of the public officials and private citizens who just labored so mightily to conceive and sell the idea of a new arena for the soon-to-be Memphis National Basketball Association franchise.

Operating on the supposition that the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League are shopping for a new home (a fact that team's owners are doing their best to bruit about, perhaps in an effort to jack up the level of financial support they're getting from the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans, where they currently play in the Superdome), Cooper wants the local movers and shakers to consider enlarging the proposed new basketball arena or, alternatively, renovating the Liberty Bowl so as to attract the Saints.

The team's owners are, in fact, being avidly courted just now by another suitor, Mississippi governor Ronnie Musgrove, who hopes to entice them to a site on the Magnolia State's gulf coast.

After running his idea by both Mayor Herenton and the architectural firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, which is undertaking to renovate The Pyramid for interim play by the transplanted Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA, Cooper hasn't yet made any converts.

The architects told him enlarging the proposed arena to make it multicapable would so vastly increase its costs as to make it prohibitively expensive (given that it took all the political wiles of Herenton and Shelby County mayor Rout to sell the $250 million package that will build the new NBA arena).

And Herenton in essence told Cooper that he has his hands full just following up on the NBA deal, but thanks anyhow.

And if there's one fact that sports-hungry Memphians remember full well, it is that the Liberty Bowl, even as potentially renovated, was long ago adjudged unsuited to the purposes of the National Football League by that league's potentates.

"Hey," says Cooper, perhaps beginning to realize the difficulties he'll have making his case, "what's wrong with proposing something else positive for Memphis? We're big-league now. We don't have to stay negative."

As good an object lesson as any of the heady mood that still lingers after the success of the recent NBA drive. (But don't hold your breath, Joe.)

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Most Commented On

Top Viewed Stories

ADVERTISEMENT

Flyer Flashback

Looking Back at the “Best Of Memphis” List That Started It All

Tidbits from the 1994 "Best of Memphis" list.

Read Story

© 1996-2014

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Memphis Business Quarterly
Powered by Foundation