Friday, January 17, 2003

Battle Flares

Calvin Williams surrenders on the commission front, while Loeffel remains embattled. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Tennessee legislators prepare for

Posted by on Fri, Jan 17, 2003 at 4:00 AM

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."

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