Not unexpectedly, Shelby County had some players in the late legislative session. They ranged from perennial outsiders to relative (and actual) newcomers. These were some (more to come next week) of the moments from the 2004 session of the Tennessee General Assembly:
Ps and Qs: On the day in mid-May that the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a TennCare reform bill that trimmed the state health care system's budget, limited its benefits and beneficiaries, and established fraud-and-abuse controls, state Rep. Brenda Turner (D-Chattanooga) could not refrain from gloating that Democrat Bredesen had achieved this result, whereas TennCare costs had spiraled out of control during the administration of his Republican predecessor, Don Sundquist.
That brought the GOP's House leader, Tre Hargett of Bartlett, normally almost courtly in debate, out of his seat and into Rep. Turner's face. Standing directly in front of her seat at the front of the chamber, Hargett jawboned with her for some time.
At the end of a conversation that seemed largely one-way, Rep. Turner signaled House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh for permission to make "a point of personal privilege." Normally, this request signals a determination to plead one's case against a perceived affront from a colleague or a misrepresentation of one's position in debate.
In this case, Rep. Turner used the privilege to take a mea culpa, explaining that she hadn't meant to suggest that former Governor Sundquist hadn't also tried to reform TennCare and pare down its costs.
Hargett thanked his colleague for the admission. The irony here is that Hargett, like many of his House Republican colleagues, was often on the other side from the governor in a protracted struggle that focused on Sundquist's unsuccessful attempts to enact a state income tax.
It's an will wind ...
... that doesn't blow somebody some good. And when alarms arose this month about shortfalls in state lottery revenues, state Sen. Steve Cohen, universally regarded as the father of the program (one could almost say grandfather, since it took the senator 17 years to get a state lottery enacted) saw an opportunity.
"It gave me a chance to try to improve the scholarship program and make it less of an entitlement," said Cohen this week, reviewing his successful sponsorship, in the session's last days, of an amendment that raised scholarship requirements from last year's ACT-test standard of 19 (along with a grade-point average of 3.0) to the higher standard of 21 (also with 3.0 GPA).
"That brings us to slightly higher than the state average for our scholarship students, and it allows us both to award all the scholarships that students qualify for and to provide money for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs," said Cohen. Cohen estimated that leftover funds would translate to $20 million for pre-K programs and $5 million for after-school programs.
In an oblique comparison of his efforts this year to those of last year, when he and Governor Phil Bredesen butted heads on how to establish a control mechanism for the lottery (with the governor prevailing), Cohen said, "It was almost like the years of working without a lobbyist for the lottery amendment itself. It was a case of passing something without anybody on your side. The governor pretty much stayed out of this."
Stepping Up: One Shelby County legislator who consolidated his growing reputation as a serious player was state Senator Jim Kyle, who was already regarded as "the governor's man" in the Senate and did nothing to diminish that clout by moving, in the last days of the session, to sponsor an amended version of Bredesen's controversial workers' compensation reform, one that preserved the essentials that the governor wanted -- notably, a reduced "multiplier," the number establishing the maximum benefits for a workers' comp claim.
In effect, Kyle took over supervision of the legislation from Goodlettsville Democrat Joe Haynes, whose reservations about some of the provisions desired by the governor had grown in the course of debate. From Bredesen's point of view, it amounted to a rescue mission -- saving him from what could have been his first serious legislative defeat.
Making a Mark: Another local senator whose stature was enhanced during the session was Mark Norris of Collierville. Though Republican Norris was stymied in his perennial efforts to achieve malpractice legislation and other tort reforms, he played a significant liaison role in helping to barter a workers' comp bill that was satisfactory to Bredesen and various legislative factions.
Norris and state Rep. Bubba Pleasant (R-Bartlett) also succeeded in passing a bill -- ridiculed last year but suddenly in vogue -- prohibiting vehicles from playing pornographic videos that might be visible to others in traffic. But his foremost accomplishment was in taking the lead in beginning the constitutional-amendment process for a tax freeze on property owners 65 or over. The program would be subject to approval by city and county governments.
(More winners and spinners next week as space allows.) n
Out: Carol Coletta, the entrepreneur/activist whose well-received WKNO Smart City public-affairs program is syndicated nationwide, is not repeat, not entertaining the idea of starring in her own political act.
"I couldn't be elected dogcatcher! And I have no desire to run for anything," she said with a modesty and conviction which seemed unfeigned while categorically dissociating herself from an associate's sounding that was reported in this space last week concerning a potential 2005 city mayor's race by her. (The associate later acknowledged having acted without prior consultation or permission.)
Coletta said she had supported Mayor Willie Herenton in his last reelection bid, "and I expect to do so again."
In: A familiar name in local politics will be heard from again. Former county squire Joe Cooper, who has run for an abundance of offices and has served in a variety of appointed positions in county government, plans to make another run in 2006 for the District 5 county commission seat now occupied by Bruce Thompson, who, running as a Republican, beat Democrat Cooper in 2002.
Cooper, who has spent much of the last year recovering from a serious illness, insists that his candidacy is serious and that he is unlikely to make controversial proposals like his ill-fated call in his previous race for massive redevelopment on the grounds of Shelby Farms.
"I intend to listen to the people," he said. n
Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the 82-year-old dean of the Tennessee General Assembly and the longtime Speaker of the state Senate, was dishing through a plate of salmon and stir-fried vegetables at the Cumberland Club last Thursday, sitting at a window seat overlooking the state Capitol building and reflecting on some things, both hither and thither, that concern him these days.
They included (in no particular order) his forthcoming race for reelection against Republican opponent Ron Stallings, his relations with other state leaders (notably House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Governor Phil Bredesen), the fate of some significant last-minute legislation, the fuss he has kicked up of late concerning his views on such subjects as abortion and affirmative action ("My constituents aren't going to be bothered," he said cagily), and the nature of the universe.
On the latter subject, he proclaimed that "the cosmos is eternal," and dilated on such aspects of it as the oxidation/carbonation process that, paradoxically, underlies both life (as in the act of breathing) and death (as in the corrosion of surfaces). He inveighed against the excesses of environmentalists, pronouncing, "The solution to pollution is dilution," and ridiculed attempts at creating synthetic fuels when, as he said, "all the fuel we need is already there, and it's in the ground."
Wilder is, somewhat famously, a nominal Democrat who prides himself on his bipartisanship (his perennial elections to head the Senate depend on reliable backing from senators in both parties, and he appoints both Democrats and Republicans to head committees). He is distressed therefore to find himself once again, as in 2002, the target of a Republican opponent.
Of course, Wilder will probably be supported, this year as four years ago, by most members of the senate, Republicans as well as Democrats. His problem so far has been the current number one Democrat, Governor Bredesen. As Wilder observed, the governor has acquired an admirable level of public support by enacting Republican policy objectives (serious budget cuts coupled with reforms in such areas as workers' comp, TennCare, and driver's licenses) while performing fund-raising favors for Democrats.
"He's got his favorites," said Wilder about recipients of Bredesen's fund-raising favors. "So far," he added pontedly, "they haven't included Senator [Steve] Cohen and they haven't included me." He has hopes that the latter fact, at least, will change.
One Senate Democrat who can almost certainly call on the governor for help is Memphis' Roscoe Dixon, now a candidate for General Sessions Court clerk. Dixon received a thank-you call from the governor last Thursday, shortly after changing his mind (after abundant lobbying) and casting the decisive votes that allowed the governor's workers' comp legislation (opposed by organized labor, trial lawyers, and some key Democrats) to pass its final committee hurdle in the Senate.
Doubt that Bredesen is the political man of the hour? Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, last week cited the governor as a character reference of sorts for the RDC's agenda, which is due for a crucial hearing this week at city council.
According to Lendermon, the governor, while on a visit to Memphis last year, fell to wondering where might be a good place to eat lunch with a good view of the river. Told that the number of restaurant venues was limited, the governor reportedly said, "What! You have an asset like this [the river], and you leave it undeveloped! Unbelievable!"(Or words to that effect.)
The RDC would, in any case, probably have difficulty getting Bredesen to publicly endorse the riverfront project. With politics of his own to deal with, the governor has so far proved loath to get involved in local controversies of any sort.
Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who proved no political slouch in winning his own 2002 race with ease, is frequently asked to apply his skills to other people's efforts. Wharton, a native of Lebanon in middle Tennessee, was tapped this week to serve as keynote speaker at a West Tennessee Kerry for President rally in Jackson.
Two prominent Memphians who are meditating on a city mayor's race for 2007 are entrepreneur/activist Carol Coletta and city council member Carol Chumney. Both, either directly or through surrogates, have begun to take soundings of possible support.
Through each has other potential sources of support, each is clearly also counting on the gender factor which has propelled so many women, especially judicial candidates, to success in recent years.
Chumney, who has experienced a good deal of difficulty with her council colleagues since taking office, last week revisited the state capitol in Nashville, scene of her 13 years' service in the state legislature. Members of the city's African-American clergy report approaches from her about a potential mayor's race. n
As if being listed (Politics, April 1st issue) as a signer with prominent neocons on a 2001 letter calling for pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein weren't controversial enough, 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis has been identified in the conservative Washington Times -- owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church -- and in other media outlets as the recipient of a "Crown of Peace" award at a Moonie-sponsored event in Washington.
At the same event, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the Rev. Moon proclaimed himself a messiah and spoke of his role in the posthumous reformation of Hitler and Stalin. (No, we're not making this up!) Only problem: Ford -- one of eight congressmen supposedly honored at the event as an "Ambassador of Peace" -- said categorically he wasn't there, never heard of it, never got any such award, and has never met the Reverend Moon.
Unfortunately, said Ford, public officials' names often get used without their permission.
Not every moment in the Tennessee General Assembly is devoted to matters of high dudgeon. Every now and then lawmakers have been known to indulge in pranks -- especially as a session heads to a close (as the 2004 version of the legislature is scheduled to next week). A case in point was an official-looking "news release" issued Thursday on the floor of the state House of Representatives by Republican members of the Shelby County delegation, anxious to rib their GOP colleague, Curry Todd of Collierville.
Todd has acquired a primary opponent this year, one Dan Dickerson, about whom little is known but whose principal campaign plank so far has been a pledge -- in the manner of Governor Phil Bredesen, a wealthy former health-care entrepreneur -- to renounce his annual salary if elected.
That circumstance provided an irresisitble opening to Todd's Shelby County partymates, who put out the spoof release, one which seemed to identify them with the same kind of pledge. Under the heading "House of Representatives, State of Tennessee," it read:
Shelby County Lawmakers Announce Pledge to Return Legislative Salaries
For Immediate Release: May 10, 2004
Nashville -- Following the lead of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, a group of Republican legislators announced today if reelected they would refuse their legislative salary during the 104th General Assembly. After being sworn in for his first term, Governor Bredesen immediately announced he would forgo his state salary of $85,000.
Senate and House members are paid $16,500 annually for their service. Most Shelby County legislators surveyed said that although they appreciated what they received in compensation, they too agreed it would benefit the state if those precious dollars were returned to state coffers. "Serving the public is a unique honor," said retiring Representative Joe Kent of Memphis. "I've been in the legislature for 26 years. My only regret is not returning my legislative salary several years ago." Rep. Bubba Pleasant of Arlington stated he just wanted to serve the working people of his district. In lieu of accepting his salary, Rep. Pleasant plans to donate the money to Bellevue Baptist Church and St. Jude in Memphis. Rep. Tre Hargett, Rep. Paul Stanley, Sen. Curtis Person, and Sen. Mark Norris are among the group signing this new pledge. Rep. Curry Todd was unavailable for comment and refused to participate in this pledge of fiscal restraint.
Todd's response to all this? "Listen, my constituents are getting their money's worth." And he waxed philosophical: "You get what you pay for."
Yes, he was smiling. So were the pranksters. Kent, who is retiring, noted, "It would be hard for me to return my salary next year, since I won't be getting any!"
And, no, the others -- who presumably will be returning -- aren't giving their salaries back either. Er, just kidding, folks. n
Shelby County Lawmakers announce pledge to return legislative salaries For Immediate Release May 10, 2004 Nashville- Following the lead of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, a group of Republican legislators announced today if reelected they would refuse their legislative salary during the 104th General Assembly. After being sworn in for his first term, Governor Bredesen immediately announced he would forgo his state salary of $85,000. Senate and House members are paid $16,500 annually for their service. Most Shelby County legislators surveyed said that although they appreciated what they received in compensation, they too agreed it would benefit the state if those precious dollars were returned to state coffers. Serving the public is a unique honor said retiring Representative Joe Kent of Memphis. I've been in the legislature for twenty-six years. My only regret is not returning my legislative salary several years ago. Rep. Bubba Pleasant of Arlington stated he just wanted to serve the working people of his district. In lieu of accepting his salary, Rep. Pleasant plans to donate the money to Bellevue Baptist Church and St. Jude in Memphis. Rep. Tre' Hargett, Rep. Paul Stanley and Sen. Curtis Person and Sen. Mark Norris are among the group signing this new pledge. Rep. Curry Todd was unavailable for comment and refused to participate in this pledge of fiscal restraint.Todds response to all this? Listen, my constituents are getting their moneys worth. And he waxed philosophical: You get what you pay for. Yes, he was smiling. So were the pranksters. Kent, who is retiring, noted, It would be hard for me to return my salary next year, since I wont be getting any! And, no, the others -- who presumably will be returning -- aren't giving their salaries back either. Er, just kidding, folks.
NASHVILLE -- He may have public approval ratings upward of 70 percent, but Governor Phil Bredesen continues to displease many fellow Democrats. With the legislature in its last days, some of them were meditating seriously on how to fire a warning shot across the bow of a chief executive whose party loyalties they increasingly regard as suspect.
When Lebanon attorney William Farmer encountered fellow Democrat Bredesen on the grounds of the Hermitage the weekend before last at the state party's annual Jackson Day dinner, he buttonholed him thusly: "Governor, I wish I had voted for Van Hilleary two years ago instead of working to get you elected. He couldn't have done the damage to us that you've done." (This is the G-rated version of that part of the conversation.)
Perhaps understandably, Bredesen, who has been known to hold grudges, considered the approach "rude." Farmer, the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic Party, shrugged that off last week: "I wasn't trying to offend him. I was just trying to be honest and get him to understand. We don't have any business acting like the Democratic wing of the Republican Party."
What Farmer meant was that Republican Hilleary would have been unable to get bipartisan support for legislation pushed by Bredesen -- ranging from some reasonably Draconian budget cuts to the item that really stuck in trial lawyer Farmer's craw, a bill that would redesign state workers' compensation procedures and trim existing benefits.
That bill, or something very like it, was ready for action in the state House of Representatives last Thursday morning -- one day after Bredesen's TennCare reform bill, another potential hot potato, passed the House handily with only eight nay votes. But a funny thing happened on the way to passage. The workers' comp bill was held up in the state Senate, where Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), chairman of that body's Commerce Committee, declined to convene his committee to consider the administration bill.
That was after Cooper, other Commerce members, and members of a special workers' comp oversight committee had sat through an afternoon session in which various amendments to the bill were, one after another, voted down. Technically, the Commerce Committee, charged with reporting the bill to the Senate floor, was "adjourned until the call of the chairman" -- a formulation normally used when a committee closes down for good at the end of a session. It would take a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate membership to force a Senate vote without the committee's referral.
So the bill was, at least temporarily, blocked, despite the fact that Bredesen had enough Democrats lined up in the House -- notably including Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- to go with the body's receptive Republicans and ensure passage. Observant of protocol, the House stalled on bringing the matter up, pending further action in the Senate.
Opponents of the administration bill were not optimistic about halting it in the House, where Democrats are by no means unified on the matter. As one example, state representative Mike Turner (D-Nashville), a labor official and severe critic of the workers' comp measure (who had walked out on the governor's speech at the Jackson Day Dinner), took some shots in an afternoon party caucus last week from fellow Democrats who chastised him for his public anti-abortion positions.
But there were rumors of a rival bill in the Senate, based on a formula more congenial to organized labor and the trial lawyers' lobby and Democrats in general -- one which, for example, might raise the Bredesen bill's "multiplier" cap of 1.5, the ratio beyond which doctors' estimates of compensation could not be raised legally.
(Republican senator Mark Norris of Collierville was meanwhile floating a compromise whereby a raised multiplier would be coupled with a stricter definition of injuries.)
Memphis Democrat John DeBerry spoke for many of his partymates when he remarked bitterly of the governor's general legislative approach: "It isn't fair, keeping the two most important bills of the session [TennCare reform, which passed easily, despite five nay votes from Shelby County Democrats, and workers' comp reform] until the very end like this!" And, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Tom Humphrey, another legislator critical of Bredesen quipped that there should be a bill prohibiting "impersonating a Democrat."
Naifeh and other allies of the governor may have their way in the House. But, in the words of a no-doubt apocryphal saying attributed to Yogi Berra, It Ain't Over Until It's Over. One member of the lobbying team opposed to the Bredesen bill offered a local variant of that when he draped an arm around the Senate's presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, last Wednesday, and cajoled him with one of Wilder's own favorite sayings. "Governor," he said, "let the Senate be the Senate!"
Driving, Not Flying: In the end, it was about a routine matter, handled routinely, but a brief dialogue in the state Senate last week clarified a matter that Shelby Countians (and Tennesseans at large) may have been curious about.
State senator Steve Cohen had introduced an amendment to a bill on travel reimbursements for state employees. It provided that "in emergency situations, purchase of air tickets in excess of the standard coach fare would be allowed if approved by the comptroller, but otherwise no state appropriated funds or university funds would be used to purchase air tickets in excess of standard coach fare."
To everyone's evident surprise, Cohen's Memphis colleague John Ford objected. He maintained that the provision assigning supervisory authority to the comptroller rather than, in a senator's case, to "the Speaker" (Lt. Gov. Wilder) would be "a slap in the face." Ford pointed out possible variations in applying the term "standard coach fare," expressed doubt that legislators charged taxpayers for flights where champagne was served, and said of Cohen's amendment, "You're really messing up the situation."
Finally, Ford disclaimed any personal interest in the matter. "I don't fly from here to Memphis," he said. "I drive -- though some of you may describe that as flying."
Ford's objections notwithstanding, the amendment passed handily.
Steve Moore (or "Stevie," as longtime friends call him) is a familiar presence in political affairs. He's worked for the Ford organization and numerous local politicians as a campaign manager and strategist, and he's especially close to Criminal Court Judge J.C. McLin, whom he helped to an upset victory in a 2000 special election.
McLin's name is first on a long list of luminaries -- including mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, numerous legislators, councilmen, county commissioners, and other public officials -- who have lined up to support Moore in a public campaign of his own.
Moore has organized a "Save Our Children Rally," set for the Overton Park Shell at 1 p.m. Saturday. The free event is, according to a flyer printed to support it, "designed to highlight the magnitude of youth violence and youth death in our communities" and "will feature leaders in government, law enforcement, religious leadership and entertainment from various gospel groups."
The rally is sponsored by an ad hoc organization founded by Moore, Freedom from Unnecessary Negatives (F.U.N.N.). The element of painful irony in that acronym is magnified by the powerful underlying reason for Moore's commitment to the project: His son Prentice Moore was shot to death a year ago as he left a now-shuttered trouble spot, the Denim and Diamonds club at Mendenhall and Winchester.
Steve Moore perseveres. And he understands that not only is no man an island, neither is any human being's tragedy an isolated event. So he's using his well-honed political skills to put together an event that promises, at the very least, to be a powerful consciousness-raiser.
"We strongly believe, 'enough is enough -- we must stop the killing.' There is far too much killing, crime and neglectful death in our community today. It is time to take action," says Moore in a letter.
The Angela Kyle Memorial Award, named in honor of the young woman slain in the parking garage at Oak Court Mall at Christmas of 1997, is annually given for "Commitment to Victims' Services" to a master's degree recipient by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, from which Kyle herself was a graduate.
This year's honoree is Kerry Fulmer, a transplant from New Jersey who happens also to be the first cousin, once removed, of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Fulmer, who received the award along with her clinical M.S. degree in social work at a UT commencement ceremony Monday night, has been working for the last three years with victims of domestic violence as a court advocate in criminal and civil court and with the Women's and Children's Program for children who have witnessed domestic violence. She also counsels victims of domestic violence at The Exchange Club Family Center.
NASHVILLE -- Phil Bredesen has had more comfortable times.
Last Saturday afternoon, Tennessee's first-term governor was standing on the lawn of the Hermitage near Nashville and talking about the commencement address he had given that morning to the graduates of the University of Memphis at The Pyramid.
"That's an uncomfortable venue," the former Nashville mayor said. "There's a bad echo, and when you're talking, you have to pause every three words or so just to hear what you're saying."
An interloper told the governor that, where discomfort was concerned, he should try sitting up in the steep and cramped cheap seats of the now obsolescent facility, soon to be replaced by the new FedExForum.
"Oh, I know. I know," Bredesen answered.
Discomfort is not geographically bound, however, as both Bredesen and selected members of his audience gathered under a big tent on the grounds of the Hermitage, site of Tennessee Democrats' 2004 Jackson Day Dinner, would soon discover.
Primary speaker at the event was former U.S. senator Max Cleland of Georgia, the gallant Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs fighting for his country in that Asian war and who devoted much of his time to excoriating President George Bush for getting the nation into another tight spot in Iraq.
Cleland's address was completed just before the onset of torrential rains that complicated departure plans for the record 1,650 Democrats in attendance -- many of whom wrapped themselves in tablecloths as they scurried to get to their cars. But there had already been an uneasy moment or two.
One had come when the governor, who spoke before Cleland, got to that part of his remarks that concerned current legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly, scheduled to adjourn sometime this month.
"He better watch what he says about workmen's comp," mused Nashville state representative Mike Turner, sitting at one of the back tables with his wife Dinah. "I might have to boo or walk out on him."
For the fact is that the political honeymoon is finally coming to an end for Democrat Bredesen, who up until lately had been able to avoid the kind of storms that characterized the second term of his predecessor, Republican Don Sundquist.
Sundquist had come to grief in a futile quest to enact what that governor and his allies had called tax reform and which their opponents, who included a good many aroused ad-hoc activists around the state, called the income tax. Or sometimes "IT," for short.
Bredesen had gone the other direction in his own efforts to resolve the state's fiscal crisis -- insisting on drastic, across-the-board cuts in state spending, a strategy that Democrats seemed comfortable with and that Republicans had to go along with, since, in essence, it accorded with their own platform.
Indeed, there had been serious speculation that Bredesen, who barely nosed out Republican opponent Van Hilleary in 2002, might get to run unopposed in 2006. But, as is demonstrated by the grumbling from Turner, a state AFL-CIO executive, and other prominent Democrats, Bredesen now has problems within his own party ranks.
What he wants to do, in response to prompting from such legislators as Republican state senator Mark Norris, a Shelby County Republican, who has one of several bills to that effect, is reduce the levels of state workmen's compensation coverage so as to keep Tennessee's industrial recruitment competitive with that of its neighbor states.
As Bredesen got to that point of his speech, Turner was denying the need for such reductions to his tablemates. "We're already doing better than they [adjoining states] are," he said, citing statistics to make his point. He frowned. "Sundquist wouldn't try to pull this!"
Finally, Bredesen got to the subject of his workmen's comp proposals. "I know some of you are unhappy," he said. "But this is about jobs."
It may, for better or for worse, turn out to be about Bredesen's job, because Turner had heard enough. Shaking his head in disgust, he turned to his wife and said, "Let's go, babe." And the two of them rose and pointedly strode out of the tent -- just ahead of the storm clouds.
· Present at the Democrats' weekend fest were all the state's Democratic congressmen save one -- Memphis' 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., who had an emissary or two on hand at the Hermitage but opted to attend the Beale Street Music Festival.