Wednesday, June 4, 2003

THE GAMBLER

Cohen throws in his cards on the lottery struggle but plays a trump in the process.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Give this to Steve Cohen: He knows when to hold up and knows when to fold up. Reluctantly but resignedly, the state senator from Midtown, locked in a struggle with Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen over the configuration of a state lottery, figured he had to do both late last week. Having put up the stiffest fight of anybody in this late legislative session -- otherwise a virtual lovefest in honor of Bredesen -- Cohen came down to the final week of the session still holding forth against gubernatorial dominance of a board of directors for the newly created Tennessee lottery. Cohen, who pursued the cause of a state lottery for two decades and saw his efforts crowned by last year’s voter referendum, had given in on various points during this year’s debate on how to enact the lottery, but drew a line in the sand on the issue of a board of directors -- insisting that, as “a creature of the legislature,” the lottery should be overseen by the General Assembly. Early on this year, he and his co-sponsors in his legislature put forth a plan for a five-member board -- two members appointed by the speakers of either legislative chamber and one (count Ôem, 1) named by the governor. Bredesen, who had just launched a budget-cutting regimen that proved popular on both sides of the aisle, said of that proposal, in essence, that Cohen and the others could fold it five times and put it somewhere dark and shady. Cohen went back to the drawing board and emerged with another plan -- for a nine-member board, divided three-three-three. Bredesen said No to that one, too. Thereafter the arguments went back and forth, and other controversies -- notably over the appropriate academic standards required of scholarship beneficiaries of lottery revenues -- affected the dialogue. Various plans were proposed, and Bredesen -- who, for reasons of his office, possessed more bargaining wherewithal than Cohen, gained ground in the struggle, finally winning over enough of Cohen’s support among key legislators to dictate a board membership favorable to himself. Some commentators have argued that Cohen, whose verbal wit can morph into vitriol in time of adversity, became part of the problem himself. Whatever the case, the senator entered what proved to be the session’s last week in a state of virtual isolation. “I did my best to hold on to prerogatives for the House leadership, and they undermined me,” said Cohen of such Democratic leaders in the other chamber as Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Majority Leader Kim McMillan. Crucial allies like State Rep. Larry Miller -- who had earlier held the fort -- now sided with Bredesen. He still reckoned Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the Senate speaker, as a supporter, but was disappointed when Wilder passed over such pro-Cohen senators as Jerry Cooper, “my best buddy in the Senate,” in his appointments to a joint House-Senate conference committee. The bottom line: Cohen was outflanked, former and potential allies having made their peace with gubernatorial dominance of the lottery board-to-be. In return for various trade-offs, including a specified number of appointments for the leadership of either house, they were prepared to accede to Bredesen’s insistence on appointing a majority of board appointees. However isolated, Cohen still retained enough clout to keep the fight going, if need be, past the consensus end-of-May deadline for adjournment. For his part, Naifeh indicated he was prepared to seek adjournment without a fully established lottery. Consulting with such longtime Memphis confidantes as developer Henry Turley and lawyer Irvin Salky, both of whom advised him to give in “for the sake of the lottery” if he could find a way to do so on his own terms, the Senator arrived upon a way to do just that. For months, Cohen, whose close relationship with former Governor Don Sundquist, a Republican, had permitted frequent one-on-ones, had sought in vain to hold a private conversation with fellow Democrat Bredesen. Making a last effort, he got one for the early hours of Thursday morning. The outcome surprised everybody. Cohen now proposed that the chief executive be empowered to make, not a majority, but all of the appointees, subject to ratification by the Senate and House. . He and Bredesen would agree on the number of seven -- enough, Cohen said afterward, “to ensure that each of the state’s grand divisions could be represented, with an African American from each grand division.” With that stroke, Cohen had played his trump card. Due to lose the power struggle anyhow, he had managed to concede fully and graciously -- and in the process to shortcut the remaining prerogatives of the legislative leaders who had failed to back him up. In the end, Cohen’s isolation had served him well. The very fact of the early-morning summit between himself and Bredesen had secured the senator’s legacy as father of the lottery. Cohen shrugged off some of the invective he had hurled at the governor -- including skepticism concerning Bredesen’s integrity. “That was just an effort to get him to the bargaining table,” said Cohen, who declared that he and the governor had arrived at “a new relationship.” Some of Cohen’s critics, in and out of the legislature, suspected the senator of having angled for perks, including a possible guarantee of future lottery-related employment for himself. Both Bredesen and Cohen made haste to spike such rumors. “I’m not getting anything out of this except the satisfaction of achieving something for the students of Tennessee,” said Cohen. That, plus the fact that in the final act of the drama he had adroitly changed places with his critics. In the end, it would be him, not them, on the inside of the event looking out. All in all, his twenty-year gamble had paid off.

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