Thursday, November 8, 2001

MR. SMITH COMES TO MEMPHIS

MR. SMITH COMES TO MEMPHIS

Posted By on Thu, Nov 8, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Memphis has become something of a battleground for the several Democrats -- at least three so far -- who hope to play Avis at the expense of Phil Bredesen‘s Hertz. They’ll try to try harder, in other words, so as to catch up with the former Nashville mayor, who is reckoned as Number One in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary on the strength of his name recognition, financial war-chest, and commitments from party cadres. It has to be said, of course, that Bredesen is trying pretty hard himself -- not only in Memphis, which he’s visited several times, but elsewhere in the state. As he’s confided, he considers a certain remoteness of style and of effort to have been a major fault of his losing 1994 effort as the Democratic nominee against Republican Don Sundquist. Consequently, Bredesen has not only made himself more available to the public and the media at what is still a fairly early stage of the governor’s race, but his personality has generally remained sunny as well -- without the sudden unexpected frosts (actually, they were probably just preoccupations) that were a feature of his campaign eight years ago. Moreover, Bredesen is keeping his rhetoric on the cautious side, especially where the issue of taxation is concerned. He has renounced a state income tax as a panacea and maintained consistently that he can “manage” the state out of its current fiscal doldrums. But, while that position serves to neutralize the tax issue vis-ˆ-vis potential Republican opponent Van Hilleary, the 4th District congressman who is adamantly against a tax increase, it leaves an opening of sorts for Bredesen’s Democratic opponents -- Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols, former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro, and Charles Smith, who served formerly as both state Education Commissioner and as chancellor of the state Board of Regents. Unlike Bredesen, none of the three have closed the door on the income tax, and Nichols has gone so far as to give a recent proposal for a 3.5 percent flat tax (coupled with a subsequent referendum) his conditional endorsement. All three were more critical of Bredesen than of Sundquist when the ex-Nashville mayor attacked the governor last weekend for some of Sundquist’s recent economies -- notably the closing of selected state parks, which Bredesen said was little more than a device to force acceptance of an income tax. In almost identical language, the three other Democrats said that they might have applied other priorities but that Sundquist had little choice in the matter of making significant cuts. Smith, the most recent visitor to Memphis (for a fundraiser on behalf of State Rep. Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis), went so far as to praise the governor for his “courage.” In one respect, Smith has to try a little harder to try harder. As he said Monday, “One big difference between me and the others is that, with the exception of the time I spent as Education Commissioner [for former Governor Ned McWherter], I’ve had very little experience on the partisan side of politics; so I’ve been doing my best to become acquainted with party people the last few months.” One measure of his success, according to Smith: a poll of state Democratic executive committee members and party chairs, meeting last month at Dickson, showed that he had doubled his support among them in less than a month’s time, going from 12 votes to 23, against Bredesen’s 43, with Nichols and Womack trailing.

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