Even as the president and Congress hunker down in Washington this week to take on questions of war and peace, so are newly inaugurated Governor Phil Bredesen and members of the state legislature constrained to address some intractable problems at the state level.
Just as George W. Bush made his annual report to the nation this week via his State of the Union address, so will Bredesen be obliged to clarify Tennessee issues in a State of the State address, probably next week.
Although perspectives necessarily differ, what the two executives and their respective legislatures have in common is a situation of multiplying demands and diminishing fiscal base.
It was only last year that former Governor Don Sundquist, who had fought unsuccessfully for a tax-reform package based on a state income tax, reluctantly signed into law a mammoth $933 million sales-tax increase -- the largest tax increase in Tennessee history. Now comes word from Bredesen that the state is still short by more than half a billion dollars -- and the shortage is especially pronounced in the case of the state's revamped (but still costly) TennCare insurance program.
Meeting with his cabinet for the first time last week in Nashville, Bredesen announced that the state looked to have a $511 million shortfall. Meeting with cabinet members again this week, the governor said he'd identified an additional shortfall which could be attributed directly to TennCare.
"We've found two flat errors," Bredesen said. TennCare is the problem -- with an anticipated shortfall of $259 million for this year and a larger one for next year. As the governor explained, the state has begun paying $100 million to hospitals bearing a disproportionate load of TennCare patients. Moreover, the state miscalculated the reduction in federal payments resulting from the terms of the latest federal waiver under which the Tennessee program -- a substitute for Medicaid -- operates. That could mean another $80 million in unforeseen costs.
Accordingly, former healthcare entrepreneur Bredesen seems inclined to follow through on his campaign promise -- businesslike but hardly inspirational -- to apply his "management" skills to the state's fiscal problem. In the short run, that means downsizing.
The new governor promised in his inaugural address of two weekends ago -- relatively brief and delivered to a shivering, undersized crowd of auditors in War Memorial Plaza -- to find some practical middle between the state's needs and what it can afford. He now says he wants to cut the number of state employees -- excluding educational employees -- to about 37,200, a figure equivalent to the number on the state payroll three years ago.
Sweetening the pill with a promise to forgo his own $89,000 annual salary, mega-millionaire Bredesen also instructed his department heads to reduce their budget requests for the new year by some 7.5 percent. He foresaw, however, that several departments -- TennCare, Corrections, Children's Services, and Mental Health and Mental Retardation -- might not be able to toe that line.
The state financial crunch is likely to cut quite close to home, of course. Or so believes Rufus Jones, the able city lobbyist who served more than a decade in the state House of Representatives before leaving to make an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1996.
"If we don't heal this split, we're going to be losing dollars. Every which way," said Jones at a Tuesday lunch at the University of Memphis, which followed a meeting of the Shelby County delegation with various government officials.
The "split," as Jones defined it, is the widening gap in opinion between spokespersons for the city of Memphis on one hand and various county entities on the other over the issue of education -- specifically, how to amend relations between the Memphis school system and the Shelby County system.
Both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and county mayor A C Wharton were heard from by the legislators, as were various suburban mayors, speaking more or less as a body. Neither the twain nor the triad met, and that is more or less what Jones had in mind. Disunity over the school-reorganization issue -- Herenton proposes consolidation, the suburban mayors are adamant against it, and Wharton splits the difference -- is an impediment to agreements on a variety of other issues for which the city and county need state aid.
The newly elected chair of the legislative delegation, Rep. Carol Chumney of Midtown, is still hopeful that the various conflicts can evolve into a regional consensus, however. To this end she has proposed broadening delegation contacts in Nashville with those of adjoining Tennessee counties and in Memphis with those of counties in adjoining states.
"We need more people sitting at the table. From all around," Chumney said this week. "We need a combined urban-suburban consensus on the school issue." Though she ran for county mayor last year on a platform which emphasized city/county consolidation, she is leery of solutions -- like that proposed by Herenton -- which emphasize a sudden dissolution of divisions into one unitary school system.
"It's always a good idea to get the facts out before rushing forward with something," said Chumney, who noted that Herenton had proposed many dramatic initiatives in the past, only to "drop them like a hot potato." Of the Memphis mayor's current proposal to unify the schools by abolishing the Memphis school board by referendum, legislative action, or whatever other means proves necessary -- Chumney observed skeptically, "Is this a serious thing? Or just the idea of the week.?"
Economic ideas like the desirability of impact or development fees should get a fair hearing before consolidation, lest the city and county property tax be counted on to pay for increased short-term costs, Chumney said.
In contemporary politics, nobody in either major political party owns up to the label "liberal" anymore, and that term's second cousin, "moderate," has scarcely many more takers, though more Democrats than Republicans are willing to be called by the name.
If there is a moderate among the newly sworn-in class of Republicans, however, Tennessee's junior U.S. senator Lamar Alexander certainly is that person -- at least on the issue of race. Alexander's vote percentages among African Americans -- variously estimated at between 10 and 20 percent in the election just concluded -- are unrivaled among his partymates and contributed heavily to his margin over Democrat Bob Clement.
Alexander claims to have supported the 1961 Nashville sit-ins and the desegregation of Vanderbilt University, where he was a student political leader. And, as governor during the '70s, Alexander earned much credit among Tennessee blacks by the appointment of an African American, George Brown of Memphis, to the state Supreme Court and by naming several blacks to top administrative positions at state colleges and universities.
How, then, has Alexander reacted to his party's Trent Lott debacle and to two recent controversial moves by George W. Bush -- the president's insistence on renominating U.S. Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi for a federal appeals courts position and Bush's declared opposition to a University of Michigan affirmative-action policy now being adjudicated?
Pointedly, Alexander spent the whole of Monday -- the Martin Luther King national holiday -- in Memphis, holding a press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum and touring the facility during the morning. Later, along with J. Pitt Hyde, AutoZone founder and chairman of the museum's executive committee, Senator Alexander attended the afternoon's nationally televised Grizzlies-Portland Trailblazers game, whose halftime ceremonies honored several black pioneers in the NBA. Each of the ex-athletes was accompanied into the arena by a local civil rights figure, and the most moving episode involved NBA great Bill Russell guiding local University of Memphis basketball legend Larry Finch, recently felled by a stroke and heart attack, onto the floor in a wheelchair.
Interviewed courtside after the half-time ceremony, Alexander gave these reactions to the above-mentioned situations:
On change in Memphis: "It was a sight seeing how many principals of the civil rights movement of the '60s are still here. I mean, there's Ben Hooks. There's Maxine Smith. To think of what's happened in Memphis in the last 35 years is very positive. It takes a long time to get a big freight train moving, but after it gets going, it's hard to stop. And Memphis is like a big freight train. The Grizzlies coming, the new arena coming -- I just think so much good has happened the last 20 years."
On Judge Pickering, whose prior nomination by Bush was turned away last year by Senate Democrats on grounds of possible racist decisions by the jurist: "There are lots of my former colleagues at Vanderbilt University who are very good people who voted to keep it segregated in 1962 and who are now distinguished judges and lawyers and reformers. Judge Pickering was way out ahead of them. In the late 1960s, he was active in his own community in support of civil rights, and he had his own children in public schools in the late 1960s in northern Mississippi. I think the greatest suggestion that there's an unfair smear is when William Winter, the former [Democratic] governor of Mississippi, attests to Judge Pickering's credentials. I think that's a great statement. I think we should quit trying to look back into the past and characterize people who lived in a different era. I think we need to look ahead and think about how we can respect each other as individuals. I'm for Judge Pickering. I said that in the campaign. I've known him for 25 years. I would not want to vote against [him]. He has a better record than many people who have already been confirmed, some of whom are Democrats."
On Mississippi's Lott, recently replaced as Senate majority leader by Tennessee's other senator, Bill Frist, after Lott's remarks praising the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond: "I don't condemn Trent Lott as a person. I've known him a long time. I condemn his words. Those are the wrong words, the wrong attitude for our countrymen and for the Republican Party. But I don't condemn him."
On Bush's opposition to the Michigan affirmative-action program: "I worked hard as a student at Vanderbilt University in 1961 to support sit-ins and in 1962 to integrate the student body, because I thought distinctions based on race are wrong. And I think they're wrong today. I think they're poison to our country, and we need to reach out and help everyone who needs help without regard to race. So you might say I'm for affirmative action without regard to race. I'm for college scholarships for Cambodian Americans and African Americans and Scotch-Irish Americans, and I don't see how in our country we can have admissions policies and college scholarships that are solely based on race. It may take awhile for us to move away from that, but I think we'll be a better country when we make our distinctions based on almost anything other than race. It's hard for me to support the government making distinctions based on race for any reason, even if it's to be helpful."
AND STEFFENS REPLIES: Well, that didn't take long.... It depends a lot on how you define racism. Personally, I don't define racism as having an innate dislike of other races, I believe that racism is an inate preference of one's own race. The only way you overcome that is by actively trying to overcome that. Affirmative action helps remedy that situation, especially in academic situations, by bringing people of different races and cultures together. It forces you to learn about other people; the best year of my life was my 9th grade year at Geeter Junior High School, where I was a minority for the first time, and it gives you a new perspective. If the playing field were level, then we would not need affirmative action. However, it's not, and I don't know how long it will take, but, we have to go there. Remember, the only people who don't truly understand the advantage of being white in this society ARE white.
NASHVILLE -- TennCare will end the stateâs budget year next June with at least a $258 million shortfall despite the largest tax increase in Tennessee history, the programâs director told legislators Wednesday.
The shortfall is expected largely because reforms failed to generate the expected savings, and payments to managed care organizations (MCOs) and for drugs are higher than expected, TennCare Director Manny Martins told House members during the second day of their organizational session.
âWeâre looking at a $258 million problem,â Martins said.Worst case: an additional $300 million shortage. Martinsâ appearance was the first of three days worth of presentations to House members by officials dealing with the stateâs three biggest -- and most immediate -- financial headaches: TennCare, teacher pay equity and setting up a state lottery.
Sponsors of the lottery legislation made their case in the Senate on Wednesday and will discuss the matter in the House on Thursday.
State Attorney General Paul G. Summers will make a presentation on teacher pay equity in the Senate on Thursday and in the House on Friday.
In his presentation to House members, Martins noted that medical services account for about half of the $6 billion TennCare program. âIn the first six months of this year, weâre going to spend $593 million more than we budgeted in dental, $43 million more in pharmacy and $4 million more in supplemental provider payments,â Martins said.
Aggravating the problem is a severe difference between real and anticipated savings expected from TennCare reforms, such as the reverification of who is eligible and who is not.
TennCare spends an average of $158 per enrollee every month. But the enrollees booted from the program were largely a healthy group, leaving the state to pay an average of $200 a month for most of its enrollees, who are a sicker group, Martins said.
âIt was quite an eye-opener,â House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh said later during his weekly news conference.âWe have a real problem with TennCare, (but) if something is doing good, it
ought to survive.â
Naifeh said he wants to wait for a TennCare solution from incoming Gov. Phil Bredesen, who made millions of dollars in health care, mainly in managing health maintenance organizations. âI hope to manage our way out of this mess,â Naifeh said. âI think it was an innovative program. Itâs something thatâs needed.â
House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, said TennCare has been underfunded, an argument made by health care providers who say theyâre underpaid, since its inception in 1994.
âThe bottom line is we need a miracle,â she said.
Sentiment on the Shelby County Commission, where beleaguered commission administrator Calvin Williams had reason to believe he had seven sure votes for retention, shifted this week in response to the tide of public opinion, which had unmistakably turned against Williams in the three weeks since the commission last met.
The result? A Williams departure under fire.
Back on December 16th, a motion to dismiss Williams on conflict-of-interest matters relating to his temporary-employment business was turned back, but so animated and widespread was the reaction against one Williams defender in particular, Republican commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, that the commission's general government committee, by a 6-1 vote on Monday, signaled to Williams that he would be fired at the commission's afternoon meeting.
Understandably, Williams did not wait for that but announced his resignation at the beginning of the meeting. He had entered the commission auditorium with Loeffel at his side, and it was she who had announced his intentions and read the text of a formal letter of resignation.
Addressing the commission in a manner that was, under the circumstances, remarkably poised, Williams made a point of thanking five commissioners -- all supporters from last month. They were Loeffel, Michael Hooks, Julian Bolton, Tom Moss, and Cleo Kirk. Not included in Williams' tributes were Chairman Walter Bailey, who had voted against dismissal last month but had rhetorically prepared the way for stronger action on grounds of lost "confidence," and Deidre Malone, who supported Williams before but made it clear she would change her vote if the issue came up Monday.
Williams' place as administrator was quickly filled by his deputy, Grace Hutchinson, but the fallout from the affair will not end with this fact of internal housekeeping. Loeffel in particular has seen her political universe upended.
Only last year she was the lone member of the commission so staunchly entrenched as to draw no electoral opposition. But since her vote on Williams' behalf last month she has seen herself assailed on all sides and is suddenly anything but invulnerable, even in her conservative Cordova bailiwick.
Loeffel has come in for severe criticism, in particular, from the Republican rank and file in Shelby County, who had begun looking askance at her from the time, last year, when the fact of her working alliance with Democratic commissioner Bailey became obvious. Since then, the GOP faithful had been circulating rumors of untoward dealings on Loeffel's part, and while these have not as yet been substantiated, they were echoed last weekend in published accounts alleging improper pressure on her part to secure a favorable financial and working environment for her husband, Mark Loeffel, a manager without portfolio at the county Corrections Center.
Compounding Republican resentment was not just the fact that she had broken ranks with most GOP members to vote on Williams' behalf last month but that she had acknowledged he was in apparent violation of the county charter when he arranged for his company to do business with county government. And her rhetorical coupling of Williams' predicament with that of slain Shelby County sheriff's deputy George Selby further antagonized Loeffel's critics, as did her statement that her vote was prompted by the dictates of her Christian faith.
Loeffel is now the subject of widespread grumbling amongst her fellow commissioners, and it is taken for granted that she will be opposed if she should seek reelection in 2006. In the meantime, she still faces a complaint from Dr. Howard Entman, a conservative activist, calling for her ouster because of her statements on the Williams matter last month.
n WASHINGTON -- Ostensibly, last week was a quiet one for Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Memphis congressman whose meteoric rise in the national consciousness has been counterpointed at home by long-term questions about his statewide electability. Congress reconvened last week but will not start its real business until late in the month, after President Bush's State of the Union address.
But, as previously reported here, there is new movement on the Ford front. This time it's not among his fellow Democrats, whom the 31-year-old congressman courted last fall in an unsuccessful race for House minority leader against the better-known Nancy Pelosi of California. It comes from Republicans, who -- well off the media radar screen -- have been carrying on a running courtship of Ford for some time now.
"I've had a number of approaches from them," Ford said last week of the overtures from the GOP, both national and Tennessee-based, and he confirmed that, in response to their invitation, he would be sitting down this week with area businessmen who presumably have interests at large to discuss but who have made no secret of their belief that Ford should consider changing parties prior to any statewide run.
Considered a possible Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000 against Senator Bill Frist, Ford gave public consideration to running even long after his political base had been somewhat undermined by the defeat in the 1999 Memphis mayoral race of Uncle Joe Ford, then a city councilman, by incumbent Willie Herenton. In March of last year, the young congressman had also wanted to run for the seat which Fred Thompson, then the state's senior senator, announced that he would be vacating but was forced by party elders to defer to Bob Clement, his congressional counterpart from Nashville.
Clement's efforts proved futile against a political comeback by the self-assured former GOP governor Lamar Alexander, and many of his partymates thought the more dynamic Ford would have had better chances. Ford is known to be eyeing a race for the Senate in 2006 if Frist, the newly elected Senate majority leader, follows through on his longstanding pledge to serve two terms only. But there is a skeptical contingent among Tennessee Democrats who continue to doubt that Ford, as an African American, could prevail in a statewide race, especially considering that Tennessee Republicans have clearly established parity -- or better -- vis-à-vis Democrats.
The efforts by Republicans to entice Ford to their standard offer, at least on the surface, is a corrective of sorts to those doubts. The congressman's partisans, both in Tennessee and in Washington, have long insisted that his appeal transcends not only racial lines but the usual partisan divides as well. Though he occasionally makes an effort to distance himself from labels like that of "black centrist" (which The New York Times Magazine conferred on him in a profile a couple of years back), Ford obviously relishes the crossover image which such descriptions confer and frequently makes the point that his congressional friendships transcend party lines.
And Ford's ambitious bid for party leadership last year -- which crested at a disappointing 29 votes -- was widely interpreted as being aimed at Democratic moderates dissatisfied with the national party's left-of-center image.
All the same, it is beyond implausible that Harold Ford Jr. would ever consider any change of partisan address. Even if he were willing to do so, what his GOP suitors overlook is that not even he could hold on to the black Democratic voter base of Memphis -- source of the Ford family's political power -- if he should shift his party allegiance.
In any case, the congressman himself declared categorically last week, "I'm a Democrat." But, he said after a pause, "I sure don't mind getting some of those Republican votes!"
n If Ford's pace last week was somewhat restrained, it was otherwise for some of his fellow Tennesseans, notably several new congressmen -- the 7th District's Marsha Blackburn, the 4th District's Lincoln Davis, and the 5th District's Jim Cooper -- who underwent the bustle of orientation and swearing-in rituals. (Blackburn is a Republican; Davis and Cooper, who represented the 4th District himself before losing a 1994 Senate race to Thompson, are Democrats.)
And it was not exactly slack time, either, for Frist, a likely contender for the presidency in 2008 whose rapid rise to prominence in the GOP was crowned by his election as Senate majority leader last year to succeed the tarnished Trent Lott of Mississippi.
The press of Senate business kept Frist from attending when Alexander hosted a reception for Thompson and former Senator Howard Baker in the Russell Senate Office Building caucus room, where in 1973 Baker, then head of the Republicans on the Senate Watergate committee, and Thompson, his legal counsel, rose to national prominence.
Ironically, Lott showed up -- a fact which led some to speculate on what might have been the interchange with Frist, who not only succeeded him but had been one of the Mississippian's first intra-party critics when Lott uttered his fateful and impolitic praise last month of retiring South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign.
"I've seen better days," Lott acknowledged to one well-wisher. In his own remarks to the assemblage, Alexander made a point of acknowledging Lott, whom he termed an "old friend" that he'd frequently worked with, while serving as Tennessee governor, on regional issues.
Considering the circumstances of the GOP's switch from Lott to Frist, a presumed moderate on racial matters, President Bush's subsequent renomination of a Mississippi jurist, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, to serve on a federal appeals court left a number of political observers buffaloed.
The nomination of Pickering, a Lott protégé, was blocked in the Senate last year by Democrats who regarded several of his prior judicial actions as racially tinged, and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was majority leader in the last session, left no doubt that Pickering would face renewed opposition this year.
That more or less left Frist, as Bush's frontman in the Senate, holding the bag, and it was baggage that he clearly seemed less than delighted with, though in myriad appearances on TV talk shows, the new majority leader made an effort to toe the line on Pickering's behalf -- at least to the tune of giving the nominee a "fair hearing."
In a telephone chat with Tennessee reporters on Friday, Frist made an effort to sound upbeat about the duty of handling the Pickering case. "I look forward to making this an opportunity -- I don't want to call it an unprecedented opportunity -- to address issues surrounding race relations," he said, adding, "I'm pretty much where I have been. I believe he [Pickering] is imminently qualified for the job."
But having said that, he promptly gave himself some distance: "I will keep saying this, that my goal is to make sure there is a system in place to ensure a fair and equitable process. There have been many people in the U.S. Senate who have expressed feelings that Judge Pickering's hearing was unfair."
WASHINGTON -- Ostensibly, last week was a quiet one for Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Memphis congressman whose meteoric rise in the national consciousness has been counterpointed at home by long-term questions about his statewide electability. Congress reconvened last week but will not start its real business until late in the month, after President Bushâs State-of-the-Union address.
But, as previously reported here, there is new movement on the Ford front. This time itâs not among his fellow Democrats, whom the 31-year-old congressman courted last fall in an unsuccessful race for House minority leader against the better-known Nancy Pelosi of California. This time it comes from Republicans, who -- well off the media radar screen -- have been carrying on a running courtship of Ford for some time now.
âIâve had a number of approaches from them,â Ford said last week of the overtures from the GOP, both national and Tennessee-based, and he confirmed that, in response to their invitation, he would be sitting down this week with area businessmen who presumably have interests at large to discuss but who have made no secret of their belief that Ford should consider changing parties prior to any statewide run.
Considered a possible Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000 against Senator Bill Frist, Ford gave public consideration to running even long after his political base had been somewhat undermined by the defeat in the 1999 Memphis mayoral race of Uncle Joe Ford, then a city councilman, by incumbent Willie Herenton. In March of last year, the young congressman had also wanted to run for the seat which Fred Thompson, then the stateâs senior senator, announced that he would be vacating but was forced by party elders to defer to Bob Clement, his congressional counterpart from Nashville.
Clementâs efforts proved futile against a political comeback by the self-assured former GOP governor Lamar Alexander, and many of his partymates thought the more dynamic Ford would have had better chances. Ford is known to be eyeing a race for the Senate in 2006 if Frist, the newly elected Senate majority leader, follows through on his long-standing pledge to serve two terms only. But there is a skeptical contingent among Tennessee Democrats who continue to doubt that Ford, as an African-American, could prevail in a statewide race, especially considering that Tennessee Republicans have clearly established parity -- or better -- vis-Ë-vis Democrats.
The efforts by Republicans to entice Ford to their standard offer, at least on the surface, a corrective of sorts to those doubts. The congressmanâs partisans, both in Tennessee and in Washington, have long insisted that his appeal transcends not only racial lines but the usual partisan divides as well. Though he occasionally makes an effort to distance himself from labels like that of âblack centristâ (which the New York Times Magazine conferred on him in a notable profile a couple of years back), Ford obviously relishes the crossover image which such descriptions confer and frequently makes the point that his congressional friendships transcend party lines.
And Fordâs ambitious bid for party leadership last year -- which crested at a disappointing 29 votes -- was widely interpreted as being aimed at Democratic moderates dissatisfied with the national partyâs left-of-center image.
All the same, it is beyond implausible that Harold Ford Jr. would ever consider any change of partisan address. Even if he were willing to do so, what his GOP suitors overlook is that not even he could hold on to the black Democratic voter base of Memphis -- source of the Ford familyâs political power -- if he should shift his party allegiance.
Aside from that root fact, there is no reason to doubt Fordâs fidelity to the Democratic Party. In a lengthy letter-to-the-editor in the current New Republic, Fordâs chief of staff, Memphian Mark Schuermann, takes the magazine to task for its critical view of the congressman at the time of his recent leadership bid.
Citing fundraising activity and campaign appearances on behalf of both Tennessee and national Democratic campaigns this past year, Schuermann portrays his boss as a vital cog in issues like campaign finance reform as well as in his partyâs rebuilding efforts, generally. âFord's hurry to change things came after House Democrats were unsuccessful for the fourth straight election. However, he is committed to working with the current leadership and believes his unsuccessful bid will help push the party to work even harder to reclaim the majority in two years,â concludes Schuermann.
In any case, the congressman himself declared categorically last week, âIâm a Democrat.â But, he said after a pause, âI sure donât mind getting some of those Republican votes!â
And it was not exactly slack time, either, for Frist, a likely contender for the presidency in 2008 whose rapid rise to prominence in the GOP was crowned by his election as Senate Majority Leader last year to succeed the tarnished Trent Lott of Mississippi.
The press of Senate business kept Frist from attending when Alexander hosted a reception for Thompson and former Senator Howard Baker in the Russell Senate Office Building caucus room where in 1973 Baker, then head of the Republicans on the Senate Watergate committee, and Thompson, his legal counsel, rose to national prominence.
Ironically, Lott showed up -- a fact which led some to speculate on what might have been the interchange with Frist, who not only succeeded him but had been one of the Mississippianâs first intraparty critics when Lott uttered his fateful and impolitic praise last month of retiring South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmondâs 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign.
âIâve seen better days,â Lott acknowledged to one well-wisher. In his own remarks to the assemblage, Alexander made a point of acknowledging Lott, whom he termed an âold friendâ that heâd frequently worked with, while serving as Tennessee governor, on regional issues.
Considering the circumstances of the GOPâs switch from Lott to Frist, a presumed moderate on racial matters, President Bushâs subsequent renomination of a Mississippi jurist, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, to serve on a federal appeals court left a number of political observers buffaloed.
The nomination of Pickering, a Lott protÃ©gÃ©, was blocked in the Senate last year by Democrats who regarded several of his prior judicial actions as racially tinged, and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was Majority Leader in the last session, left no doubt that Pickering would face renewed opposition this year.
That more or less left Frist, as Bushâs front man in the Senate, holding the bag, and it was baggage that he clearly seemed less than delighted with, though in a myriad of appearances on TV talk shows, the new Majority Leader made an effort to toe the line on Pickeringâs behalf -- at least to the tune of giving the nominee a âfair hearing.â
In a telephone chat with Tennessee reporters on Friday, Frist made an effort to sound upbeat about the duty of handling the Pickering case. âI look forward to making this an opportunity -- I donât want to call it an unprecedented opportunity -- to address issues surrounding race relations,â he said, adding, âIâm pretty much where I have been.ÃI believe he (Pickering) is imminently qualified for the job.â
But, having said that, he promptly gave himself some distance: âI will keep saying this, that my goal is to make sure there is a system in place to ensure a fair an equitable process. There have been many people in the U.S. Senate who have expressed feelings that Judge Pickeringâs hearing was unfair.â
As 2003 begins, real changes are underway.
A new Tennessee governor will be inaugurated next week -- Democrat Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor, who will see his vaunted managerial skills sorely tested in shoring up TennCare and figuring out how to carry out a judicial mandate requiring equalization of state teacher salaries. Among other issues, legislators will concern themselves with the mechanics of establishing the state lottery authorized by voters in November.
The new state House Republican leader is state Rep. Tre Hargett of Bartlett, a member of his party's conservative wing. At the national level, the GOP's Bill Frist is the new Senate Majority Leader, succeeding Mississippi's Trent Lott in the wake of the latter's remarks extolling the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign of retiring centenarian Strom Thurmond.
Locally, the Shelby County Commission will decide next week on the fate of commission administrator Calvin Williams, under fire over conflict-of-interest matters as well as for intemperate remarks in a telephone conversation with Shelby County Assessor Rita Clark.
Johnnie B. Watson is out as city school superintendent, and the vexing issue of education clearly looms large on the agendas of both city and county. That became evident on the first day of 2003, in remarks by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton at city councilman Myron Lowery's annual New Year's prayer breakfast at The Peabody.
After a gracious introduction by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, Herenton rapidly got down to business, musing on the "deep-seated problems" in local education. He could not be pleased, he said, when there were "two governments and two separate school systems, neither with appropriate resources."
This was all on account of -- or the cause of -- too many "selfish agendas."
Referring to a recent suggestion by Shelby County schools superintendent Bobby Webb that new county schools should be built at a safe distance from the annexation areas of Memphis, the mayor said he had a "message" for the superintendent, noting parenthetically, "He's a newcomer. I've been around a long time."
Such thinking was "unacceptable to me," Herenton said, and so were the "reform" notions envisioned by Webb (and, by implication, Wharton, who recently suggested a plan of his own that would revise the funding formula, abhorred in the suburbs, that favors the city over the county by a ratio of three-to-one in the distribution of state capital-construction funds).
"I'm going to do all that I can to lobby the Memphis City Council and the Memphis board of education [against it]. And, Mr. Mayor [Wharton], that is no disrespect to your reform plan."
There were just some things he needed to "make clear" to the suburbanites, Herenton said. "They boast of having superior schools. They ought to pay for them."
The mayor said, "I came here today to put the gloves on and draw battle lines," because the aforesaid suburban mayors "don't want to do the right thing." And: "If they don't need Memphis, they don't need our tax dollars."
After promising that his own reform plan of a year ago -- one which envisioned single-source funding but separate school jurisdictions -- would be "back on the agenda" for the Memphis school board, Herenton said, "The school board is a disaster. It makes no sense."
Singling out member Hubert "Dutch" Sandridge, who "tore up my proposal," Herenton warned the board, "Your business is my business. ... There is no law that my signature is not on. That proposal he tore up is coming back."
He compared his own tenure as schools superintendent favorably with that of his successor, Dr. Gerry House, who, he said, "was a disaster," a dilettante who had loaded the school system with unnecessary programs and "got herself a lot of awards" and moved on, leaving the frequently beleaguered Watson to clean up after her.
Herenton accused the board of "spending our dollars with arrogance." Pledging again to draw "deep battle lines," he said, "I have tried compromise. I've tried everything. I worked with these officials to try to get them to do the right thing."
Promising to work with Wharton in devising a school-reform plan both could agree on, Herenton said, "These suburban mayors don't want to do the right thing. They like you [Wharton] better than they like me. Let their schools be overpopulated.".
The current two-headed educational structure and "piecemeal" approach to problems are not only ineffective but too expensive, he said, a constant goad to the city and county tax rates. "Ask the realtors; ask the homebuilders," he said.
The latter point drew a grudging assent from Wharton, who, however, left the room quickly when the mayor had finished. Seemingly baffled by that fact, Herenton insisted that his remarks were "not personal," that he had merely been trying to "challenge" Wharton and the other exemplars of local government.
At least one member of his audience, school board member Sara Lewis, took his remarks in that spirit. "Somebody should get the four units talking," she said, meaning the city/county legislative bodies and school boards. "Maybe it'll be me. Maybe I'll call a meeting."
Oh, and lest anyone out there hadn't known, Mayor Herenton said after his speech that "of course" he'd be running again in 2003.
· Barbara Lawing, a Democratic activist much loved by political friends and foes alike, died unexpectedly on Christmas Day and was remembered at a wake and funeral held at N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, followed by a reception at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building on Madison.
Among the many paying tribute were former Vice President Al Gore, who telephoned condolences, 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and State Representatives Mike Kernell and Carol Chumney.
That was the venue for the 1973 hearings of the Senate Watergate committee, which would bookmark a permanent place for both Tennesseans in American history. Baker, who served as chief Republican investigator on the committee, would make famous the phrase, What did the President know, and when did he know? And Thompson, a Baker protégé who served as the GOP members legal counsel, would ask the fateful question that unearthed the existence of Richard Nixons Oval Office tapes.
Baker and Thompson were revisiting the caucus room Tuesday night as the honored guests at a reception hosted by Tennessees newest senator, Lamar Alexander. Recalling the events of 30 years ago, Baker said he had been warned on the front end of the hearings of two things: that Richard Nixon was the meanest son of a bitch around, and that he was still alive.
But he made it through that minefield satisfactorily enough that he became for a spell a leading contender for the presidency himself, later serving as chief of staff for the man who bested him and other Republican contenders in 1980, Ronald Reagan.
Thompson, too, who attended the event with wife Jeri, recalled the moment of his first national attention in remarks that Alexander would characterize jocularly as Fred Thompsons last free speech. (The now former senator is resuming his acting career, as a member of the cast of TVs Law and Order.)
Tuesday nights event was one of several involving Alexander, who was the honoree himself at a Capitol Hill reception Monday night. On that occasion he was accompanied by his Tennessee Senate colleague, Bill Frist, who is the Man of the Hour these days, having ascended to the post of Senate Majority Leader in the wake of Mississippi Senator Trent Lotts resignation from that office.
Ironically, Frist was not able to make it to Tuesday nights reception, but Lott, whose remarks extolling the segregationist past of another retiring senator, centenarian Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, would eventually ensnare him and cause him to give up his leadership post, was present.
Ive seen better days, but youve been fine, the Mississippian told a female well-wisher. In his welcoming remarks later, host Alexander would make a point of acknowledging the presence of Lott, whom he termed an "old friend."
Also there Tuesday night was newly sworn-in 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, who has been named a GOP assistant whip and related with some awe the fact that she had been assigned two cell phones, two Blackberries [email devices] and a pager. (Blackburn was scheduled for a round Wednesday night on the Jim Lehrer News Report on PBS.)
Taking note of some partisan bickering on the Senate floor Tuesday (which, incidentally, Baker was visiting for the first time since he left that body in 1985), Alexander noted that he had toted his personal Bible in for the swearing-in and said, If it stays like this, maybe I should bring it every time.
Besides Alexander and Blackburn, other new members of the Tennessee congressional delegation sworn in Tuesday were the 4th Districts Lincoln Davis and the 5th Districts Jim Cooper, both Democrats. Cooper had previous represented the 6th District but vacated that post to make a 1994 run for the Senate against Thompson.
Among the Memphians on hand Tuesday night were District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, former Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, GOP patriarch Lewis Donelson, Ed Roberson, David Kustoff, and Jim and Kathy Priestley.