Friday, January 28, 2005

Harper v. Herenton

Old news, actually, but still

Posted on Fri, Jan 28, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Last week the good folks at WPTY-TV chose to air some comments of mine concerning the recent run-in between Mayor Herenton and ABC-24 anchor Cameron Harper.

I have to say, as I did in a portion of my remarks which didn't make the cut, that Herenton is my favorite interview subject. In several longish conversations over the last 15 years or so, he has never lacked for candor.

Lookit, Harper is a classy guy, and I definitely have admiration for his gumption as a guest at the Rotary luncheon, in deciding to pick up the cudgels for his station, join up with a WPTY cameraman who was covering the affair solitaire, and turn into an on-the-spot interviewer. But -- how to put it? -- I don't think asking Herenton if his resignation would benefit the goal of consolidation is the kind of thing that a Freedom of Information suit could be built on.

Cameron certainly had a right to ask the question. We'd all have been pleased to hear the answer. But just as certainly, the mayor had a right, after a short spell of back-and-forth, to brush it aside. There's no law saying you have to answer something so clearly hypothetical. And to deny the implied challenge in the question would be disingenuous. Sometimes a question can be simultaneously pertinent and impertinent.

So it's six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-another on the first count. Continuing to press the question as other reporters attempted their own interviews, which is what a reporter for another station contends on his personal blog and which some of the raw videos of the occasion suggest may have happened, is something else again.

As for continuing to insist on an answer by putting his hand on the mayor's arm (which Harper denies and which the various videos are unclear on) well, what we know is that the mayor is heard to tell Harper, "Don't put your hands on me!" in an unmistakably imperative tone, followed by a softer, "Please don't touch me. No. Don't touch me. You're way off base." Which was followed, some time and distance later, by the macho line, "For him to put his hands on me, I'm going to drop him, okay?"

Meanwhile Harper is insisting to the mayoral press secretary and to a member of the mayor's security detail, "I can ask him any question I want to ask him. I can ask him anything I want. I will ask him what I want to ask him."

One is reminded of the scene in Henry IV: Part One in which the Welsh mystic Owen Glendower boasts, "I can call spirits from the very deep," and the cynical Harry Hotspur responds, "Aye, so can I, and so can any man, but will they come?"

In a later statement on the incident, the mayor contended that "an observed media employee made physical contact" with him and "had to be restrained and prevented from making further unwanted and offensive contact." He went on to assert that "under no circumstances" would "the office of the mayor accept the media's behavior in the future that is of a harassing or abusive nature."

In its own statement, the station disputed the mayor's version: "We believe Mayor Herenton is doing this to disguise his efforts to avoid answering pertinent questions from the public and the media. We also feel the mayor falsified and invented the 'contact' in order to avoid Mr. Harper and further questioning." Further: "Mr. Harper did not touch Mayor Herenton deliberately. If there was any contact at all, it was incidental and unintentional and was caused by the close proximity of the media to the mayor. We believe no rational person would interpret any facet of the incident as 'threatening.'"

For what it's worth, I am reminded of an occasion in 1997, when we at the Flyer were probing what we saw as a potential conflict of interest regarding Herenton's awarding of a lucrative consultancy. As a good soldier, I had done my part on that project. Shortly thereafter, both Herenton and I attended a Chamber of Commerce event. Chamber publicist Allan Hester asked us to pose for a snapshot for the chamber's newsletter. There we are in the archives, both beaming. But the mayor, a former Golden Gloves champion, is saying to me under his breath: "Back when I was a boxer, Jackson, I would shake hands with a fellow and then whip his butt."

I thought about that in the wake of the current imbroglio: If Harper had really wanted to advance the sum of human knowledge, he might have gone ahead and touched the mayor after being warned. Horrified or fascinated, we'd all have watched that movie.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

POLITICS

POLITICS

Posted By on Wed, Jan 26, 2005 at 4:00 AM

HARPER V. HERENTON Last week the good folks at WPTY chose to air some comments of mine concerning the recent run-in, after a Rotary Club luncheon, between Mayor Herenton and ABC-24 anchor Cameron Harper.

I have to say, as I did in a portion of my remarks which, for better or for worse, didn’t make the cut, that Herenton is my favorite interview subject. In several longish conversations over the last 15 years or so, he has never lacked for candor -- which he has generally supplied with completeness and color. You can look it up. I think the same thing applies to mayoral interviews by my colleague John Branston, as well as to a few joint ones we’ve done.

Lookit, Harper is a classy guy, and I definitely have admiration for his gumption, as a luncheon guest at Rotary, in deciding, as he later explained, to pick up the cudgels for his station, join up with a WMPTY cameraman who was covering the affair solotaire, and turn on-the-spot interviewer. But -- how to put it? -- I don’t think asking Herenton if his resignation would benefit the goal of consolidation is the kind of thing that a Freedom of Information suit could be built on.

Cameron certainly had a right to ask the question. We’d all have been pleased to hear the answer. But just as certainly, the mayor had a right, after a short spell of back-and-forth, to brush it aside -- there’s no law saying you have to answer something so clearly hypothetical. And to deny the implied challenge in the question (which doesn’t, however, detract from its relevance) would be disingenuous. Sometimes a question can be simultaneously pertinent and impertinent.

So it’s a six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-another on the first count. Continuing to press the question as other reporters attempted their own interviews, which is what a reporter for another station contends on his personal blog and which some of the raw videos of the occasion suggest may have happened, is something else again.

As for continuing to insist on an answer by putting his hand on the mayor’s arm (which Harper denies and which the various videos are unclear on) well, what we know is that the mayor is heard to tell Harper, “Don’t put your hands on me!” in an unmistakably imperative tone, followed by a softer, “Please don’t touch me. No. Don’t touch me. You’re way off base,” which was followed, some time and distance later, by the macho line, “For him to put his hands on me, I’m going to drop him, okay?”

Meanwhile Harper is insisting to mayoral press secretary Gale Jones Carson and to a member of the mayor’s security detail, “I can ask him any question I want to ask him. I can ask him anything I want. I will ask him what I want to ask him.”

Well… one is reminded of the scene in Henry IV: Part One in which the Welsh mystic Owen Glendower boasts, “I can call spirits from the very deep,” and the cynical Harry Hotspur responds, “Aye, so can I, and so can any man, but will they come?”

In a statement on the incident later on, the mayor contended that “an observed media employee made physical contact” with him and “had to be restrained and prevented from making further unwanted and offensive contact.” He went on to assert that “under no circumstances” would “the Office of the Mayor accept the media’s behavior in the future that is of a harassing or abusive nature.”

In its own statement, the station disputed the mayor’s version and said, “We believe Mayor Herenton is doing this to disguise his efforts to avoid answering pertinent questions from the public and the media. We also feel the Mayor falsified and invented the 'contact' in order to avoid Mr. Harper and further questioning.” Further: “Mr. Harper did not touch Mayor Herenton deliberately. If there was any contact at all, it was incidental and unintentional and was caused by the close proximity of the media to the Mayor. We believe no rational person would interpret any facet of the incident as 'threatening.'"

The mayor suggested that his office would shortly be promulgating a formal media policy, governing all future rules of engagement, and press secretary Carson said this week that effort is still under way.

For what it’s worth, I am reminded of an occasion in 1997, at a time when we at the Flyer were probing into what we saw as a potential conflict of interest regarding Mayor Herenton’s awarding of a lucrative consultancy. As a good soldier, I had done my part on that project. Later, both Mayor Herenton and I attended a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, and then Chamber publicist Allan Hester asked us to pose for a snapshot for the Chamber’s newsletter. There we are in the archives, both beaming, but the mayor, a former Golden Gloves champion, is saying to me under his breath: “Back when I was a boxer, Jackson, I would shake hands with a fellow and then whip his butt.”

I thought about that in the wake of the current imbroglio: If Cameron had really wanted to advance the sum of human knowledge, he might have gone ahead and touched the mayor after being warned. Horrified or fascinated, we’d all have watched that movie.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Same Old

Shelby's Dems can't seem to stop in-fighting.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 21, 2005 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- Everybody knows the famous Will Rogers line: "I don't belong to an organized political party; I'm a Democrat." And, sure enough, Democrats sometimes appear to regard the fact of discontent in their ranks as cause for pride. As of last weekend, however, that portion of the party's honor was being upheld in Tennessee almost exclusively by Democrats from Shelby County.

Consider: Normally, there's enough ruckus to go around at the biennial meetings of the party's executive committee, the ones that elect party chairs. Six years ago, when then Vice President Al Gore, about to embark on his presidential run, requested the election of his man Doug Horne, a Knoxville publisher relatively unknown to party members at large, as state party chairman, there was grumbling amongst the rank and file, but they acceded to Gore's wishes. Four years ago, there were three contenders for the chairmanship (eventually won that year by lawyer William Farmer of Lebanon), as well as a demand that party leaders account for the failure of the Gore campaign to win Tennessee's electoral votes in 2000.

Then there was the contentious meeting last summer to select delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston. Said state committee member David Upton of Memphis: "That was a tough one. Sometimes we have to play Solomon."

But last Saturday's meeting was, by contrast, the kind of namby-pamby affair that would have left Will Rogers yawning. Party chair Randy Button of Knoxville was reelected to a second term without opposition or even a breath of complaint, and there was a raft of resolutions -- some harmless, some noble -- that were passed by acclamation.

The only discord came from Shelby Countians, who took one of their never-ending private disputes before the full committee.

The issue was whether the Shelby County Democratic committee would be permitted to hold its reorganization meeting this year at a different time than Democratic committees elsewhere in the state, which by state party resolution, will be holding local conventions in April, as they did in 2003 and 2001. In those years, Shelby County Democrats also convened in April, though it had been the local party's practice in previous years to hold their conventions in October.

In Nashville on Saturday, Upton formally requested that Shelby County be allowed to hold its two-part convention (first a round of caucuses, then, a week later, the convention) on the dates of July 16th and July 23rd. And he passed out copies of a letter to Button from state representative Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, the current Shelby County Democratic chair, requesting the change. Since Shelby County is one of five counties in Tennessee empowered both by state law and by party sanction to make such requests, it was a routine matter, right?

Wrong! Gale Jones Carson, the Memphian who serves as state party secretary (and was reelected to that role Saturday), objected that Bowers' request and Upton's motion did not represent the will of the Shelby County Democratic committee, which had never voted to put it forth, she said. And Carson, who serves as Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's press secretary, also took umbrage at some of Upton's rhetoric about her boss, who had, as Upton pointed out in his remarks, chosen to support Republican Lamar Alexander for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

After some back-and-forth on the point, it became clear, even to delegates from remote counties in the far corners of Tennessee, that Shelby County Democrats comprised at least two, bitterly competitive factions. There was the one represented by Herentonian Carson, who lost the Shelby County chairmanship to Bowers two years ago by a single vote. And there was the one represented by Upton, Bowers, and other Democrats, who happen -- coincidentally or not -- to be close to U.S. representative Harold Ford. One of the reasons for the date-change request, as Upton noted, was that April was an inconvenient time for members of the state legislature, who would be in session, to take part in the local convention process. Bowers presumably could expect the support of a majority of her legislative colleagues.

No doubt, as both factions contend, some principle is involved in the disagreement, but mainly it comes down to hardball politics and simple head-counting.

For its part, the state Democratic committee played Solomon, voting by acclamation to accommodate Bowers' request -- so long as the Shelby County executive committee approves the change at its next meeting. Members of the two Shelby County factions disagree as to whether and to what extent the matter got broached at the local committee's January meeting. There won't be any doubt that the matter's up for a vote at the next meeting on February 3rd when heads will be counted.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

CITY BEAT

CITY BEAT

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2005 at 4:00 AM

THE URGE TO MERGE Consolidation proposals in Memphis are like Super Bowls. They come along every year, generate lots of publicity, and get everyone stirred up for a few weeks. Except the outcome of the Super Bowl is unknown.

In his latest pitch, Mayor Willie Herenton praised the consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky, which occurred in 2003.

On the surface, Memphis and Louisville are alike. Louisville has UPS, an urban university, Rick Pitino, the Cardinals, Ali, and the Ohio River. Memphis has FedEx, an urban university, John Calipari, the Tigers, Elvis, and the Mississippi River. Louisville's mayor, Jerry Abramson, has served 14 years; Herenton has served 13 years. Louisville is the nation's 16th largest city; Memphis is the 18th largest. Louisville and Memphis competed for the Grizzlies.

Ed Glasscock, a Louisville attorney closely involved with the consolidation and NBA drives, has only nice things to say about Memphis.

"I was in the middle of the NBA war and you won," he said. "You're doing a very good job with that."

He also praised Memphis for entertaining 25,000 Louisville fans a few weeks ago at the Liberty Bowl. But details of Louisville's merger supplied by Glasscock and deputy mayor Joan Riehm show how far Herenton has to go and how unlikely he is to get there. The main reason is that Louisville and Memphis actually are not much alike at all.

The biggest difference is race, which trumps everything short of a municipal bankruptcy. Memphis has a population of about 650,000 and is 62 percent black and 34 percent white. Shelby County (including Memphis) is 49 percent black and 47 percent white. Louisville, before consolidation, had a population of about 250,000 and was 63 percent white and 33 percent black. Metro Louisville (excluding 83 suburban towns left intact) now has a population of 693,000 and is 19 percent black and 77 percent white.

The three peer cities within 600 miles of Memphis that have consolidated since 1960 Louisville, Indianapolis (which consolidated by legislative action, not referendum), and Nashville have majority-white populations. White suburbanites don't merge with black urbanites unless the numbers are in their favor.

If that's not the end of the story, there's more.

Louisville's biggest revenue source is a payroll tax; Memphis' is a property tax.

Louisville's and Jefferson County's public school systems (both majority white) merged back in 1975. "That wasn't an issue here," said Glasscock.

It is in Memphis. Neither the Memphis Board of Education nor the Shelby County Board of Education has shown any willingness to bump itself off. And Memphis superintendent Carol Johnson and Shelby County superintendent Bobby Webb have not backed Herenton.

Louisville's consolidation effort started in 1997, following two failed consolidation votes in the 1980s. Backers plotted strategy for three years and spent $1.6 million in a carefully monitored campaign of advertising, door-to-door visits, direct mail, and polling.

"We spoke with one voice," said Glasscock, whose law firm was the wheelhorse of a united front that included the business community, every living mayor and county executive (all white), and state and federal politicians. Consolidation in Memphis-Shelby County also has one voice: Herenton's.

"With all due respect, it takes the whole community," Glasscock said. "It can't be one person."

Something called Greater Louisville Inc. seized the moral high ground and successfully portrayed political opponents as "only interested in their own elected positions." Herenton has tried to do that too but is losing the PR war in forums such as the letters page of The Commercial Appeal and the all-white county school board. And by his own admission, the mayor let his critics get under his skin and dictate his agenda in 2004. That's another big mistake.

"The antis can say anything," Glasscock noted. "We had to tell the truth."

Louisville's merger team targeted the two-thirds of Jefferson County residents that polls showed were either favorably inclined or undecided. They promised no change in taxes or services. They spent $300,000 on television ads in the two weeks before the referendum.

The referendum passed by only a 54-46 margin, about the same as a Cardinals football score.

You can have some fun and kill time playing with consolidation numbers but don't make any bets. For that, take Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

POLITICS: Same Old...

POLITICS

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2005 at 4:00 AM

SAME OLD... NASHVILLE -- Everybody knows the famous Will Rogers line: “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” And, sure enough, Democrats sometimes appear to regard the fact of discontent in their ranks as cause for pride. As of the weekend, however, that portion of the party’s honor was being upheld almost exclusively in Tennessee by Democrats from Shelby County.

Consider: Normally, there’s enough ruckus to go around at the biennial meetings of the party’s executive committee, the ones that elect party chairs. Six years ago, when then Vice President Al Gore, about to embark on his presidential run, requested the election of his man Doug Horne, a Knoxville publisher relatively unknown to party members at large, as state party chairman, there was grumbling amongst the rank and file, but they acceded to Gore’s wishes. Four years ago, there were three contenders for the chairmanship (eventually won that year by lawyer William Farmer of Lebanon), as well as a demand that party leaders account for the failure of the Gore campaign to win Tennessee’s electoral votes in 2000.

Then there was the contentious meeting last summer to select delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston. Said state committee member David Upton of Memphis. “That was a tough one. Sometimes we have to play Solomon.”

But Saturday’s meeting was, by contrast, the kind of namby-pamby affair that would have left Will Rogers yawning. Party chair Randy Button of Knoxville was reelected to a second term without opposition or even a breath of complaint, and there was a raft of resolutions -- some harmless, some noble -- that were passed by acclamation.

The only discord came from Shelby Countians, who took one of their never-ending private disputes before the full committee.

The issue was whether the Shelby County Democratic committee would be permitted to hold its reorganization meeting this year at a different time than Democratic committees elsewhere in the state, who by state party resolution, will be holding local conventions in April, as they did in 2003 and 2001. In those years, Shelby County Democrats also convened in April -- though it had been the local party’s practice in previous years to hold their conventions in October.

In Nashville on Saturday, Upton formally requested that Shelby County be allowed to hold its two-part convention (first a round of caucuses; then, a week later, the convention per se) on the dates of July 16th and July 23rd. And he passed out copies of a letter to Button from state Representative Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, the current Shelby County Democratic chair, requesting the change. Since Shelby County is one of five counties in Tennessee empowered both by state law and by party sanction to make such requests, it was a routine matter, right?

Wrong! Gale Jones Carson, the Memphian who serves as state party secretary (and was reelected in that role Saturday), objected that Bowers’ request and Upton’s motion did not represent the will of the Shelby County Democratic committee, who had never voted to put it forth, she said. And Carson, who serves as Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s press secretary, also took umbrage at some of Upton’s rhetoric about her boss, who had, as Upton pointed out in his remarks, chosen to support Republican Lamar Alexander for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

After some back-and-forth on the point, it became clear, even to delegates from remote counties in the far corners of Tennessee, that Shelby County Democrats comprised at least two, bitterly competitive factions. There was the one represented by Herentonian Carson, who lost the Shelby County chairmanship to Bowers two years ago by a single vote. And there was the one represented by Upton, Bowers, and other Democrats, who happen -- coincidentally or not -- to be close to U.S. Rep. Harold Ford. One of the reasons for the date-change request, as Upton noted, was that April was an inconvenient time for members of the state legislature, who would be in session, to take part in the local convention process. Bowers presumably could expect the support of a majority of her legislative colleagues.

No doubt, as both factions contend, some principle is involved in the disagreement, but mainly it comes down to hardball politics and simple head-counting.

For its part, the state Democratic committee played Solomon, voting by acclamation to accommodate Bowers’ request -- so long as the Shelby County executive committee, at its next meeting, approves the change. Members of the two Shelby County factions disagree as to whether, and to what extent, the matter got broached at the local committee’s January meeting. There won’t be any doubt that the matter’s up for a vote at the next meeting, on February 3rd, when heads will be counted.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Ford's Way

Whatever his position on Social Security, the congressman has a plan of his own.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

U .S. representative Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Democrat and prospective U.S. Senate candidate who has been under fire this week for his positions, real or alleged, on Social Security, is at pains to distance himself from various proposals to create private investment accounts from the Social Security fund.

Ford suggests (see "Tilting Right?") that his positions have been misunderstood or misrepresented and offers as an example of the kind of innovative entitlement reform he does support a bill he introduced last July, entitled "The America Saving for Personal Investment, Retirement, and Education Act (ASPIRE)."

What the act would do is establish a "KIDS" saving account for every newborn, who would be issued a Social Security number. Accounts in the amount of $500 each would be opened for them automatically, with children below the national median income eligible for a supplementary grant of up to another $500.

The accounts, indexed for inflation, would be paid out of the government's general revenues fund, and provisions would be established allowing for matching grants from private sources.

In the language of the bill, the purpose of the measure would be "to encourage savings, promote financial literacy, and expand opportunities for young adults." Although hardship exceptions could be applied, the bill calls for repayment of the initial investment at the time the recipient reaches the age of 30.

The bill would also establish "a range of investment options similar to those offered by the Thrift Savings Plan, including a government securities fund, a fixed income investment fund, a common stock fund, and other funds that may be created by the Board."

No action was taken on the bill last summer, but the bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, the Republican Conference chair, will be re-introduced in the current session, said Ford's spokesperson, Mark Schuermann.

Ford, who, as this week's cover story documents, suffered some direct hits from various members of the blogosphere last week, also got some indirect -- and presumably undeserved -- shrapnel from the revelation that black commentator Armstrong Williams had been paid $240,000 in federal funds for shilling for the Bush administraton's No Child Left Behind program.

Though Ford had no relation to that circumstance, his name ended up being mentioned on some of the established blogs and e-mail networks by virtue of the fact that Williams had from time to time praised the Memphis congressman. As they say, with friends like that ... .

At the precise moment that members of the Shelby County Commission were locked into a debate Monday on partial privatization of local corrections services, Governor Phil Bredesen was holding a press conference in Nashville to announce significant reductions in the scope of TennCare, the state's medical insurance system.

There was an eerie parallel between the two situations. In the same half-hour that an audience member in the county building was pleading that the privatization measure would cost "1,500 union jobs, affecting 1,500 families," Bredesen was detailing his plans for cutting 323,000 adult Tennesseans off the TennCare rolls -- a fact which was duly announced to the commission by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton in his somewhat later testimony concerning what he saw as an urgent need for the commission to approve a local privilege tax for legislative consideration.

The two situations had a common bottom line: namely, that revenues for public services are drying up.

During commission debate, a proposal was advanced by Cleo Kirk that state senator Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to Wharton, be prevailed upon not to resign his Senate seat this Friday, as commission chairman Michael Hooks had announced. Kirk said it was because of Dixon's expertise and the fact that legislators with his precise knowledge of the county's proposals don't grow on trees.

Hooks, who wishes to run for the seat when it becomes vacant but doesn't seek an interim appointment, said he would take the matter up with Kirk and Wharton.

State representative Kathryn Bowers, another aspirant for Dixon's District 33 seat, was the beneficiary of a busy round of four fund-raisers held in Memphis and in Nashville over the weekend. After the beginning of the legislative session this week, fund-raising by members of the General Assembly is prohibited -- yet another reason why Hooks doesn't covet an appointment just now.

Quote of the week: "Get some devastation in the back," said by Tennessee senator Bill Frist to a staff photographer getting a picture of him as he prepared to leave a tsunami-devastated region of Sri Lanka. The photographer had easy pickings.

WILDER LEAVES DEMS IN CONTROL OF SENATE

WILDER LEAVES DEMS IN CONTROL OF SENATE

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

As it turned out, John Wilder did less blinking in the eyeball-to-eyball confrontation with state Senate Republicans than they did. Having gained reelection on Tuesday as Senate speaker (and, therefore, as Lt. Governor) despite their one-vote majority in the chamber, Wilder deigned on Thursday not to honor an on-again, off-again commitment to give the GOP majority status among committee chairmen nor in the membership of two key committees.

At the end of the day Democrats still headed five of the body's nine committees-- the same ones as before, in fact. Most importantly, Finance and Commerce, the two blue-chip committees, remained in Democratic hands, chaired by Doug Henry of Nashville and Jerry Cooper of Morrison, respectively. Finance and Commerce also retained their previous Democratic majorities. The sole concession made to the Senate Republicans by Wilder was to give them majority status on the remaining seven committees.

Wilder had won reelection with the aid of two Republican votes-- those of Micheal Williams of Maynardville and Tim Burchett of Knoxville. Williams had, late in the game, become a lateral substitution of sorts of Memphis senator Curtis Person, a longtime Wilder loyalist who voted with the majority of his partymates Tuesday to name Ron Ramsey of Bluntville to the speakership. Person contended that Wilder had reneged on a pledge to appoint across-the-board GOP majorities, and Wilder more or less confirmed that fact. Person retained his chairmanship of Judiciary, all the same.

Two newly appointed Republican chairs are Mark Norris of Memphisw, Transportation, and freshman senator Jamie Hagood of Knoxville, Education. Hagood had been the subject of much pre-session speculation as a possible reserve GOP vote for Wilder.

The complete list of Senate chairs announced Thursday by Wilder is as follows.

á Commerce - Chairman Jerry Cooper, D-Morrison.

á Environment and Conservation - Chairman David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain.

á Education - Chairman Jamie Hagood, R-Knoxville.

á Finance - Chairman Douglas Henry, D-Nashville.

á General Welfare - Chairman John Ford, D-Memphis.

á Judiciary - Chairman Curtis Person, R-Memphis.

á Transportation - Chairman Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

áá Government Operations - Chairman Thelma Harper, D-Nashville.

á State and Local Government - Chairman Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

POLITICS

POLITICS

Posted By on Thu, Jan 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

FORD'S WAY U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Democrat and prospective U.S. Senate candidate who has been under fire this week for his positions, real or alleged, on Social Security, is at pains to distance himself from various proposals to create private investment accounts from the Social Security fund.

Ford suggests that his positions have been misunderstood or misrepresented and offers as an example of the kind of innovative entitlement reform he does support a bill he introduced last July, entitled “The America Saving for Personal Investment, Retirement, and Education Act (ASPIRE) Act”

What the act would do is establish a “KIDS” saving account for every newborn child, who would be issued a Social Security number. Accounts in the amount of $500 each would be opened for them automatically, with children below the national median income eligible for a supplementary grant of up to another $500.

The accounts, indexed for inflation, would be paid of the government’s general revenues fund, and provisions would be established allowing for matching grants from private sources.

In the language of the bill, the purpose of the measure would be “to encourage savings, promote financial literacy, and expand opportunities for young adults.” Although hardship exceptions could be applied, the bill calls for repayment of the initial investment at the time the recipient reaches the age of 30. No withdraw could occur, except for legitimate educational expenses, until the age of 18.

The bill would also establish “a range of investment options similar to those offered by the Thrift Savings Plan, including a government securities fund, a fixed income investment fund, a common stock fund, and other funds that may be created by the Board.”

No action was taken on the bill last summer, but the bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, the Republican Conference chair, will be re-introduced in the current session, said Ford’s spokesperson, Mark Schuermann.

Ford, who, as this week’s cover documents, suffered some direct hits from various members of the blogosphere last week, also got some indirect-- and presumably undeserved-- shrapnel from the revelation that black commentator Armstrong Williams ahd been paid $240,000 in federal funds for shilling for the Bush administraton’s No Child Left Behind program.

Though Ford had no relation to that circumstance, his name ended up being mentioned along some of the estalbished blogs and email networks by virtue of the fact that Williams had from time to time praised the Memphis congressman. As they say, with friends like that --

At the precise moment that members of the Shelby County Commission were locked into a debate Monday on partial privataization of local corrections services (the matter ended up being deferred), Governor Phil Bredesen was holding a press conference in Nashville to announce significant reductions in the scope of TennCare, the state’s medical insurance system.

There was an eerie parallel between the two situatons. In the same half-hour that an audience member in the county building auditorium was pleading that the privatization measure would cost “1500 union jobs, affecting 1500 families,” Bredesen was detailing his plans for cutting 323,00 adult Tennesseans off the TennCare rolls-- a fact which was duly announced to the commission by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton in his somewhat later testimony concerning what he saw as an urgent need for the commission to approve a local privilege tax for legislative consideration.

The two situations had a common bottom line: namely, that revenues for public services are drying up.

During commission debate, a proposal was advanced by member Cleo Kirk that state Senator Roscoe Dixon, now an administrative aide to Wharton, be prevailed upon not to resign his senate seat this Friday, as commission chairman Michael Hooks had previously announced. That was, said Kirk, given Dixon’s expertise and given the fact that legislators with precise knowledge of the county’s proposals this year don’t grow on trees.

Hooks, who wishes to run for the seat when it becomes vacant but doesn’t seek an interim appointment, said he would take the up with Kirk and Wharton.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, another aspirant for Dixon’s District 33 seat, was the beneficiary of a busy round of four fundraisers, held both in Memphis and in Nashville over the weekend. After the beginning of the legislative session this week, fundraising by members of the General Assembly is prohibited-- yet another reason why Hooks doesn’t covet an appointment just now.

Quote of the week: “Get some devastation in the back,” said by Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, according to the Associated Press, to a staff photographer getting a picture of him as he prepared to leave a tsunami-devastated region of Sri Lanka. The photographer had easy pickings.

Monday, January 10, 2005

GOVERNOR ANNOUNCES TennCare OVERHAUL

GOVERNOR ANNOUNCES TennCare OVERHAUL

Posted By on Mon, Jan 10, 2005 at 4:00 AM

After months of expectations, Governor Phil Bredesen outlined his plan for TennCare on Monday, one which calls for severe a severe reduction in enrollment and benefits, while maintaining full coverage for children.

Bredesen announced the “basic TennCare” plan in Nashville, less than a month after the Christmas deadline previously set for deciding the program’s future. When talks with public interest groups involving consent decrees in effect against the state’s healthcare program broke down, Governor Bredesen predicted the cuts as the only solution to the program’s survival.

Under the basic TennCare plan 323,000 adults will be cut from the plan. The remaining 396,000 individuals eligible for Medicaid will continue to receive "reasonable" but reduced benefits. The reductions do not affect the 612,000 children on the plan.

“It might not be the level of care we want to provide, but it’s the level of care we can afford without bankrupting our state,” said Bredesen. “We’re putting limits into what has been the most generous healthcare program in the nation.”

Bredesen had long maintained that many of TennCare’s problems were the result of extensive pharmacy and hospital allowances granted to attendees. Doctor visits, prescriptions, and in-patient hospital stays, which had been unlimited under the original TennCare plan, have been reduced significantly under the basic plan. Enrollees will now be limited to 12 doctor visits a year, four prescriptions a month, and 20 days of in-patient hospital care. These and other reductions are expected to save the state $575 million during the next fiscal year.

Enrollee advocate and attorney Gordon Bonnyman,who has long opposed reductions to TennCare, called the “basic” plan cuts “worse than any natural disaster that the state has ever experienced.” Bonnyman, a lawyer with the Tennessee Justice Center, has argued that the TennCare cost problems could be fixed in part by soliciting additional federal funds for the program.

“Instead of very drastic and dramatic cuts, there are other things that other states have done that we haven’t, said Bonnyman. “I would work with the federal government ... and if it means making the case for federal relief, then I would do it and I wouldn’t be bashful.”

The governor’s plan also calls for managed care organizations (MCOs) to assume more financial risk in the delivery of TennCare benefits. This is one of the few solutions both Bredesen and advocates like Bonnyman had agreed on.

Bredesen hopes to have the “basic TennCare” plan substantially in place by 2006, with changes beginning as early as April, pending federal approval.

Saturday, January 8, 2005

NORRIS DISBELIEVES WILDER PLEDGE TO G.O.P.

NORRIS DISBELIEVES WILDER PLEDGE TO G.O.P.

Posted By on Sat, Jan 8, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Despite a statement last week from state Senator Curtis Person that Lt. Governor John Wilder is committed to appointing a majority Republican committee structure if reelected as the senate’s presiding officer, Person’s Shelby County colleague Mark Norris remains doubtful.

“I don’t think he’ll do it,” Norris told an audience at the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon at Piccadilly’s Cafeteria Saturday. Norris said afterward that even if nominal Democrat Wilder responded as Person suggested to the GOP’s new one-vote majority in the 33-member body, he might do so by creating new and relatively unimportant committees. “Anyhow, he’ll leave Democrats in control of the big committees like Finance and Commerce,” Norrris insisted.

Person, who has withstood intense lobbying from fellow Republicans in recent weeks, is one of what seems to be a growing bloc of GOP senators pledged to support Wilder’s claim to the speakership against that of GOP caucus chair Ron Ramsey of Blountville. He confided what he said was Wilder’s firm pledge on the committee issue during a break at last week’s pre-session meeting of Shelby legislators with other Shelby County public officials.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

PERSON SAYS WILDER WILL FAVOR G.O.P ON COMMITTEES

PERSON SAYS WILDER WILL FAVOR G.O.P ON COMMITTEES

Posted By on Thu, Jan 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Amid reports that the number of Republican senators ready to reelect John Wilder as Senate Speaker is actually growing, State Senator Curtis Person (R-East Memphis, Germantown) reaffirmed his support of octogenarian Wilder Thursday and said he had a firm commitment from the state’s venerable lieutenant governor that Wilder, a nominal Democrat, would reverse current committee ratios favoring Democrats.

“He has assured me he will appoint a majority of Republicans,” insisted Person, who has been hotboxed relentlessly by fellow Republicans favoring the speakership candidacy of senate Republican caucus chair Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

Person, a longtime Wilder ally, owns one of four senate chairmanships held by Republicans at present. The Democrats, as of now, have five chairmanships of the nine standing senate committees., as well as majority memberships on the committees. The divided authority, unlike the wall-to-wall Democratic chairmanships in the state House, is a consequence of the bipartisan coalition Wilder put together back in the mid-‘80s when dissident Democrats tried to unseat him as speaker.

Person, along with Republican senator Tim Burchett of Knoxville, has stood by his allegiance to Wilder, though other Republicans have suggested that the two GOP senators should feel released from their pledges of loyalty if Wilder, who is certain of reelection next Tuesday, did not commit himself to a majority-Republican committee structure. The GOP achieved a majority of one in the Senate after last November’s elections. Wilder is not expected to make any formal statements about the body’s committee structure until Thursday when he will release committee lists.

Various ranking Republicans, as well as GOP grass-roots organizations, have promised to see to primary opposition for Person, who is up for reelection himself in 2006 and affirmed Thursday that he would run again.

Among other Republican senators reported as possibly ready to vote for Wilder on Tuesday are Micheal Williams of Maynardville, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, and the newly elected Jamie Hagood, formerly a state representative, also from Knoxville.

If Wilder does indeed end up naming five Republicans as committee chairs, one of the currently serving five Democratic chairmen will have to step down -- a fact that has prompted a good deal of speculation by observers, as well as nervousness on the part of the Democratic chairmen. The five Democrats now chairing committees are: Doug Henry of Nashville, Finance; Thelma Harper of Nashville, Government Operations; Jerry Cooper of Morrison, Commerce; Steve Cohen of Memphis, State and Local Government; and John Ford of Memphis, General Welfare.

Among the rumored solutions is the proposed shifting of one of the Democrats from his or her chairmanship to the face-saving position of Senate Speaker Pro Tem, which came open when Gallatin Democrat Jo Ann Graves, who held the title, was defeated in November.

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

COUNCIL STAFF RAISES MAY BE IN JEOPARDY

COUNCIL STAFF RAISES MAY BE IN JEOPARDY

Posted By on Tue, Jan 4, 2005 at 4:00 AM

A source familiar with behind-the-scenes deliberations on the Memphis city council says a council majority will act Tuesday to rescind raises for two council staffers rushed through last month by outgoing council chairman Joe Brown and new council chairman Edmund Ford.

The raises -- for staffers Lisa Geater and Pamela Crislip -- were announced to surprised council members by Mayor Willie Herenton at a December 21st meeting of the council's budget committee.

Chief administrator Geater, who also received a new title, staff director, was raised from $87,420 to $99,999, while assistant administrator Crisplip, who would acquire the title of deputy director, went from $57,519 to $75,000.

Other raises of lesser magnitude received by other staffers are also subject to being rescinded, the source said. Returning to status quo ante on the raises would apparently require a change in council rules, which now permit arbitrary action on such matters by the reigning chairman. If a change in the rules is made Tuesday, it would have to be made retroactive to reverse the raises.

News of the raises came amid year-end grumblings concerning a severe revenue shortfall -- one that has occasioned talk of both employee layoffs and a significant tax increase.

Sunday, January 2, 2005

FOR 2005, WILLIE HERENTON SPEAKS MORE SOFTLY

FOR 2005, WILLIE HERENTON SPEAKS MORE SOFTLY

Posted By on Sun, Jan 2, 2005 at 4:00 AM

So Mayor Willie Herenton has spoken, signifying -- as is the custom -- that a New Year has begun. But those of the Memphis chief executive’s sometime intimates who predicted a “bombshell” -- read in particular: Reginald French -- were mistaken. Even the pallid fireworks that dotted the city’s landscape the night before did not merit such a name; still less did the few pro forma firecrackers (a scolding of The Commercial Appeal and a ritual swipe at the white suburbs among them) that the mayor dutifully set off.

As for the oval silver-and-dark blue stickers that mayoral helpers passed out to attendees leaving Herenton’s Convention Center “prayer breakfast” ('WW/The Mayor/2007,' they said): those auguries of a fifth term hardly add up to a bombshell, despite French’s claim that this is what he had meant. Considering that the mayor still has a decent-sized campaign kitty left from his last campaign and his last fundraiser, the printing costs to prepare such a feint don’t add up to much. We’ll believe it when we see it. (Which is not, of course, to say that we won’t!)

The proper way to read Herenton’s New Year’s Day remarks is as a return to form ante-2004 -- before the genuinely pyrotechnic exhibition of last year in the same venue. That was when Herenton likened himself to a Biblical prophet and aimed verbal thunderbolts at both his City Council as an institution and particular -- if unnamed -- members as individuals. What came of that was a yearlong struggle between the chief executive and his legislature, punctuated with multiple crisies , and ending with the warring parties united in an awkward dŽtente as common budgetary and admninistrative concerns suggested they find a common strategy.

After being introduced by Black Business Association president Roby Williams (who likened him to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” macho archetype), Herenton actually began his 2005 remarks with something of an apology for his tsunami of a year ago. “Last year,” he said, to a roomful of nervous chuckles, “I was in a different mood. Thank God that mood has passed on over. We’ve been through a storm. Thank God storms pass over.” He paid tribute to the clergymen and elected officials present, as well as to “members of the Memphis city council” -- of whom perhaps two -- sometime critic E.C. Jones and dependable supporter Barbara Swearengen Holt -- were conspicuous. A few blocks away at The Peabody, councilman Myron Lowery was holding his own annual prayer breakfast, which until last year had been the occasion for the mayor’s New Year’s Day remarks, or, as he himself referred to them, his “State of the City” address.

The messianic self-description of last year was gone. In its place was a modest homage by Herenton to the Lord who had delivered him from a segregated childhood of “slop jars” and “Number Two tubs.” He quoted the encouragements of his grandmother: “Willie, you’re God’s child, and that makes you just as good as anybody else’s child.” As for the past year of discord, “I got distracted; I lost focus.” He hearkened back to earlier years in his mayoralty when, as the city’s first elected black mayor, he set about demonstrating that, as a “transitional” mayor, he could manage the city into prosperity, “bring us together,” and secure positive achievements -- notably the resurrection of downtown. As has always been his custom, Herenton boasted about economic development and the city’s improved bond rating under his tenure -- though the bragsheet that was passed out on tabletops this year also contained warnings about the currently pending revenue crisis.

Like Nehemiah, the builder/prophet who had also been distracted, Herenton vowed that he, too, had “great goals, and I can’t come down.” (That was his way, in advance of the reelection stickers, of suggesting that a fifth mayoral campaign was in order.)

“Now, my style gets me in trouble from time to time, and I understand that; Please understand that I am not perfect. I have all the frailties that all of you have here. They just don’t show yours on Channel 5, 13, and 3,” said Herenton, who promised that in the future, “you’re going to see this mayor and the city council work hand in glove.”

Then came a dose of cold water, “We’re going to reduce expenditures,” he promised, but he warned his constituents to “reduce your expectations.” In his speech, Herenton mentioned one ongoing economy -- the reduction of city garbage runs. (In a chat with reporters later, he suggested that the city’s police presencxe might also have to be scaled down.) “We can’t be all things to all people and keep your tax rate where you expect it to be,” Herenton told the prayer-breakfast attendees.. Hence his proposal (one alternative among several floated last month) for eliminating the city’s $86 million in contributions for its public schools -- an action which would make Shelby County government responsible for all education expenditures and allow the city to balance its budget while reducing its tax rate. Other municipalities avoided such budgetary commitments, the mayor noted. “Why should we be treated differently?” Herenton expressed his hopes for consensus on this stratagem. : “I hope I can convince the city council to stand with me. It’s a hardball play on my part. That’s what it is.”

He pumped for consolidation again this year, as he has in most previous ones. “Public officials need to step up,” he insisted. “They’re going to break the bank with two separate governments. I’ve been saying that!; I want some elected officials to look themselves in the mirror and ask, are they making a difference? Or are they just so happy to be there that you won’t make hard decisions, because you think you won’t be reelected.” Iif city officials "don't break ranks," Herenton said, they can force county government to deal with the issue of financing the public schools.

That, his acknowledgement that he wasn’t the “Number One Fan” of "selfish" suburban municipalities, and his reminder that county officials would be on the line in the election of 2006, were as close as he came to fire and brimstone this year, unless one counted some relatively dark musings about the “highs and lows” of the past year, during which he thought “very seriously,” he said, about possibly departing office for the sake of some “real estate ventures.” After reprising the Nehemiah comparison, he said, “Now, I’m back on focus; .If the Lord keeps me healthy, I intend to fulfill this term and am even looking beyond.” He said his adversaries should attempt to win the mayor’s office “at the ballot box” not, as he seemed to suggest, by arranging to make him the target of investigations.

As for any probes being conducted by the FBI or the Attorney General’s office or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation -- all based, according to reports, on suspect aspects of the brokering of Memphis Light Gas & Water’s $1.5 billion prepayment deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority last year., the mayor made his line of defense -- politically and, mayhap, legally -- perfectly clear: African Americans are “getting a fraction, a minute fraction” of public business.

And if he intervened “appropriately” on behalf of minority firms (various reports suggest his having done so in the MLGW/TVA deal, even for firms that may have benefited his mayoral campaigns), that was in line with his general campaign to improve the economic lot of his fellow African Americans. “I want to send a message: If we are serious about raising the socio-economic status of this community, you’ve got to include African American businesses in the total equation.” Doing so, he affirmed, would remain “a priority” in the coming year. “If that means I’m going to be investigated, they can just keep on investigating; I’m going to open the doors of opportunity for black principals and black entrepreneurs. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” On that note, more defensive and exhortatory than confrontational, Herenton concluded.

Reactions from most of those present were as ambiguous and as muted (relatively) as the remarks themselves had been. Councilman Jones expressed satisfaction that the mayor’s tone had been more conciliatory than last year (though he noted that some of the thunder was still there and, further, that consolidation would likely remain a pipe dream). District Attorney General Bill Gibbons allowed as how Herenton’s speech might merit a ‘5’ on a Richter scale measuring provocation but likened the mayor’s forthrightness to that of his party’s president, George W. Bush. The most interesting suggeston came from a friend of the mayor’s in the judiciary. “Write something nice about him,” she said, adding, after a pause, “Leave out the quotes!” Then she laughed. Somewhat nervously.

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