Friday, May 27, 2005

Gift Horse

Monday's County Commission vote to fund schools should be looked in the mouth.

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2005 at 4:00 AM

That unanimous vote on Monday by the Shelby County Commission to "fully fund" the educational needs of both the city and county school districts was a triumph of feel-good politics, but it remains to be seen what the lasting effect of it will be.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the vote, a glowing Carol Johnson, superintendent of Memphis schools, was cautious about claiming too much.
"I think that there's a high likelihood that we will get additional resources," the superintendent said. "Whether we'll get them at the level that we think we need them, I'm not sure about that. But I was truly encouraged today, and to see the unanimous feeling among the commissioners was really exciting." Asked whether the word "intent" should be interpreted liberally, Johnson answered, "Yes." She continued: "But I think the intent will result in additional funding, and I think that's good news for Memphis and Shelby County schools as well."

That was it in a nutshell. As Johnson's key words indicated, the outcome was wholly conditional, about as binding as my promise to gift each of you with some nice change for your Christmas socks if I happen to win the Tennessee lottery this week -- as I fully intend to do.

To be sure, there were those among the commissioners who intend, come what may, to vote for the additional sums -- $11.5 million for the city schools; $5.5 million for the county schools -- that the two systems evidently require.
There is Cleo Kirk, for example, the commission's longtime budget chairman, who made the motion for what was formally no more than a resolution of intent. There was commission veteran Walter Bailey, like Kirk a perennial champion of school-funding needs, who sought to reassure an auditorium packed with students, teachers, administrators, and other school supporters.

"You don't have to worry about me. I'm there," Bailey said.

But almost unnoticed amid the general celebration was the fact that such aye voters as Bruce Thompson and John Willingham put much of the onus on Shelby County mayor A C Wharton for following through on the funding requests.

Offering his congratulations to the two school systems for their "follow-through" on commitments made to the commission last year to hold down costs, Thompson went on to say that the commission's statement of intent was "not necessarily a commitment to new taxes." He went on: "What that means is more difficult decisions, more difficult efforts for us -- and cuts. We have to practice what we preach what we imposed on you."

Willingham was even more direct in an interview after the meeting: "If the mayor doesn't make some cuts in his budget, we can't do this," he said flatly.
Commissioner David Lillard had also offered his dose of cod-liver oil. To keep the promise, to fund the schools "at the levels that we all desire," required either raising taxes or cutting a general budget that has already been significantly pruned.

In any event, as everybody acknowledged later on, no part of Monday's vote required the commission to do anything or was binding in any respect whatsoever. In some ways, the affair was reminiscent of the ambitious state reading program proposed some years back by then Governor Don Sundquist, who hoped to use it as leverage to enact the income tax legislation he was then backing.

What happened was that the General Assembly indulged itself in happy-days rhetoric and endorsed the program with virtual unanimity, then went about its business, neither passing a tax increase that year nor bothering to fund the reading program -- which never came to be.
Still, as Thompson noted after the meeting, "There may be seven votes." Meaning seven commissioners (though not Thompson himself, in all probability) willing to vote at some point later on for a property tax increase to fulfill Monday's pledge.

That vote, if it happens at all, won't come nearly so easily as the one taken Monday.

n One spin-off of the commission vote was it seemed to offer encouragement to opponents of a current proposal to privatize the county's correction facilities.

Both Jeff Woodard and Warren Cole, spokesmen for the county's jail personnel, have become regular fixtures at commission meetings, making statements, usually at the end of the agenda, against the privatization proposal.

On Monday, Woodard and Cole joined in congratulating the two school systems for their budgetary efforts and suggested that similar economies practiced in Shelby County government at large would preclude a need for privatization.

Cole went so far as to blame much of the county's budget crisis on "these private contracts" and challenged a routine item on the commission's consent agenda, one calling for purchase of a tractor-flatbed that Cole suggested might be overpriced. (It turned out not to be, as he later acknowledged when figures were discussed, but Cole suggested that, even so, the commission was generally overlooking the need to vet such items.)

n Both Monday's commission meeting and last week's regular meeting of the Memphis school board were characterized by a challenge on another front, one not wholly substantiated by reality.

In testifying on behalf of school funding Monday, board member Stephanie Gatewood repeated a contention made last week by board president Wanda Halbert: That was the categorical statement that "no member of the media" had attended any of the city system's graduation events during the last two weeks.
Not true. Both as parents and reporters, media representatives were on hand for several of the ceremonies. A report by the Flyer's John Branston -- though perhaps not of the uncritical sort desired by the two board members -- is published in this week's issue. And The Commercial Appeal and several TV stations have provided coverage of graduation events as well.

n Though it ended with a predictable Democratic victory, the special election held earlier this month in Memphis' state Senate District 33 has ended up on the bragging board of the national Republican Party.

That contest, in which state representative Kathryn Bowers defeated the GOP's Mary Ann McNeil and two independents, was one of six special elections featured in a memo composed by Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

"Local races and, in particular, special elections, give the RNC the opportunity to test new and improved targeting and tactics that we have been working on to improve since the 2004 election," Mehlman wrote, in extolling the outcome in District 33, along with results in local races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, and Nebraska.
What made the District 33 race worth celebrating, according to Mehlman and RNC communications director Brian Jones (both quoted in the Washington insiders' publication The Hill), was that the GOP was able to up its vote in the predominantly Democratic district by 10 percent. Shelby County Republican chairman Bill Giannini had made the same claim in the local party's newsletter, Trunkline News.

Said Giannini: "Republican candidates have ranged between 21 percent and 24 percent within District 33, while Mary Ann was able to get 36% of the vote." Local Democrats had noticed the increased Republican effort, especially in District 33's Collierville precincts, and had intensified their own efforts.
Commenting on the RNC's nationwide effort in special elections, Jones said that the aim had been to "take what worked in 2004 and modify it and use some of these races where we can test new, best practices with an eye on 2006 and 2008. The goal is that when an individual becomes the nominee in 2008, we will be able to hand off to them a ground game."

n Former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Sr., who celebrated his 60th birthday last week, was cited by another Washington insider publication, Roll Call, as a principal in what the periodical termed one of the 10 most important congressional races to have taken place since 1955, when Roll Call began publishing.

That race, in 1974, pitted Democratic challenger Ford, then a state legislator, against Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall in what was Tennessee's 8th congressional district at the time and is now the 9th District. In 1974, African-American voters were 47 percent of the district's total -- still a minority.

Yet Ford was the winner by some 744 votes. "Observers said Ford probably would not have won had it not been for the Watergate scandal," Roll Call notes, though the periodical concludes, no doubt correctly, that a black Democrat would have won the seat shortly thereafter under any circumstances.

In any case, Ford, who went on to form a local political dynasty, became the first African-American congressman elected from Tennessee and only the third ever from a majority-white urban district in the South. Another milestone noted by Roll Call: "To this day, 1974 was the last time a Tennessee Congressman lost a re-election bid."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Situations and Circumstances

The White House press corps tries to get straight answers and gets anything but.

Posted on Fri, May 20, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Editor's note: Last week, more than 30,000 people -- including Vice President Cheney, first lady Laura Bush, and members of Congress -- were evacuated from their offices or homes in Washington, D.C., due to a perceived threat from a nearby small plane. President Bush, who was biking in Maryland, was not notified until the threat passed. Members of the White House press corps found this puzzling.

What follows are excerpts from press secretary Scott McClellan's briefing the next day. Make of it what you will. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

Question: Scott, yesterday the White House was on red alert, was evacuated. The first lady and Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure location. The vice president was evacuated from the grounds. The Capitol building was evacuated. The continuity-of-government plan was initiated. And yet the president wasn't told of yesterday's events until after he finished his bike ride, about 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. Is he satisfied with the fact that he wasn't notified about this?

McClellan: Yes. I think you just brought up a very good point -- the protocols that were in place after September 11th were followed. The president was never considered to be in danger because he was at an off-site location. The president has a tremendous amount of trust in his Secret Service detail.

The fact that the president wasn't in danger is one aspect of this, but he's also the commander in chief. There was a military operation under way. Shouldn't the commander in chief have been notified of what was going on?

The protocols that we put in place after September 11th were being followed. They did not require presidential authority for this situation. I think you have to look at each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation. And that's what officials here at the White House were doing.

Even on a personal level, did nobody think [about] calling the president to say, "By the way, your wife has been evacuated from the White House; we just want to let you know everything is okay"?

Actually, all the protocols were followed and people were ... officials that you point out were taken to secure locations or evacuated, in some cases. I think, again, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the situation, and it depends on the situation and the circumstance.

Nobody thought to say, "By the way, this is going on, but it's all under control"?

I think it depends on each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation when you're making those decisions.

Isn't there a bit of an appearance problem, notwithstanding the president's safety was not in question, protocols were followed? Has the president indicated that even if everything was followed that he would prefer to be notified, that if the choice is, tell the commander in chief or let him continue to exercise -- that he would prefer to be informed?

Again, it depends on the situation and the circumstances. And you have to take all that into account, and I think that's what people were doing here at the White House, as well as those people who were with the president.

I think there's a disconnect here because, I mean, yesterday you had more than 30,000 people who were evacuated, you had millions of people who were watching this on television, and there was a sense at some point ... a sense of fear. Was this not a moment for the president to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time?

The president did lead, and the president did that after September 11th, when we put the protocols in place to make sure that situations like this were addressed before it was too late. And that was the case in this situation.

Might there be something wrong with protocols that render the president unnecessary when the alarm is going off at his house?

That's not at all what occurred. And I would disagree strongly with the way you characterize it for the reasons I stated earlier. This was a situation where the president was in an off-site location. He was not in danger, a situation where protocols have been put in place to address the situation. The protocols were followed.

And those protocols are okay with the president, despite the fact that his wife was in a situation where she might have been endangered?

She was taken to a secure location, as were some other officials.

And wouldn't he want to know about that as it was happening?

He was briefed about the situation.

After it happened.

He was briefed about the situation. And I think that he wants to make sure that the protocols that are in place are followed. The protocols that were in place were followed.

Scott, if there is a possibility that a plane may have to be shot down over Washington, doesn't the president want to be involved in that type of decision?

Well, I think, again, it depends on the circumstances in the situation. You have to look at each individual situation and the circumstances surrounding that situation. There are protocols.

Doesn't the president want to be involved in what could be a decision to shoot down a plane over Washington?

I was just getting ready to address exactly what you're bringing up. The protocols that were put in place after September 11th include protocols for that as well. And there are protocols there. They're classified. But they do not require presidential authority.

Wouldn't he want to be involved?

It depends on the circumstances and it depends on the situation.

Wasn't there a possibility that a plane headed for the White House, that this was the leading edge of some broader attack? Isn't the president concerned that maybe he should have been alerted to the fact that this could have been the beginning of a general attack?

That was not the case, and I think the Department of Defense yesterday indicated that they didn't sense any hostile intent on the part of the plane, so again ...

How did they know this plane wasn't laden with WMD or some other type of weapons like that? Did they get reassurances from the pilot? Or how did they know that?

Well, again ... the protocols were followed. This situation turned out to be an accident. The Department of Defense pointed out yesterday that they didn't sense any hostile intent on the part of the plane. There were fighter jets scrambled. There was a Blackhawk helicopter scrambled as well, to get in contact with the plane.

So if it was assessed that there was no hostile intent on the part of this aircraft, can you tell us why 35,000 people were told to run for their lives?

Because of the protocols that are in place. We want to make sure that the people in the area of the threat are protected. We live in a very different world than we did before September 11th, and the president is going to do everything in his power to make sure we are protecting the American people and to make sure that the people in areas that could be high-risk areas are protected as well.

Right, but there seem to be so many disconnects here. You've got a plane that was assessed as not being a threat; you've got 35,000 people evacuated; you've got a person who you claim is a hands-on commander in chief who is left to go ride his bicycle through the rural wildlands of Maryland while his wife is in some secure location somewhere. It's just not adding up.

I disagree, and let me tell you why: You have highly skilled professionals who are involved in situations like this, in a variety of different fronts, from our Homeland Security officials to our National Security Council officials to our Secret Service officials and to others and to local officials, and they work very closely together. The protocols that were put in place were followed, and I think they were followed well.

Q

Chism Chills

Unfazed by late controversy, interim senator says sayonara after three months.

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Tennessee's most recent state senator -- save for one -- came to Nashville on Monday morning, just as he has for the last three months but left not long after he got there. This was Sidney Chism, the ex-Teamster leader and former Shelby County Democratic chairman, who officially became an ex-senator on Monday, after newly elected Kathryn Bowers, formerly state representative from District 97, was certified as his successor and sworn in.

Bowers had two swearing-in ceremonies, actually -- an informal one performed by state Criminal Court Appeals judge J.C. McLin before a group of supporters at Miracle Temple Ministries in Memphis on Monday morning, and another -- the one that counted -- on the floor of the Senate in Nashville later in the day. Meanwhile, Chism cleaned out his desk, said his goodbyes, and was gone.

The changeover was unexpectedly abrupt for both Bowers and Chism, who had been informed late last week by Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of an ad hoc ruling by the state attorney general's office. That ruling said that Bowers' election in last week's special District 33 general election would invalidate any further service by Chism.

That in turn caused an emergency meeting of the Shelby County Election Commission, which met early Monday morning to certify Bowers' win and clear the way for her accession to the office.

Bowers, who polled two-thirds of the vote to defeat Republican Mary Ann McNeil and two independents, had indicated she wanted to stay in the House long enough to finish up some bills she had under way. The attorney general's ruling put the quietus on that plan.

Bowers still intends to create a precedent by becoming a Senate sponsor of record for two bills that have already passed the House under her sponsorship. But there is some protocol to go through first. "I have to talk to the senators to work that out," she said Tuesday morning as she prepared for her first full day on the job.

Chism, meanwhile, was back in Memphis recollecting. "I considered my time up there fruitful," said the man who won a narrow vote on the County Commission to fill in for the departed Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to county mayor A C Wharton.

It was no secret that certain members of the Shelby County delegation -- including Bowers, state House speaker Lois DeBerry, and state senator Steve Cohen -- had not been happy with Chism's appointment by the commission and had lobbied against him. Mainly, this had to do with Democratic Party factionalism and Chism's role as a power broker.

Chism, though, claims to have no hard feelings -- not even toward Cohen, who recently sponsored a well-publicized bill to deny unelected interim members like Chism access to legislative pension and insurance benefits.

That bill, which would apply only to legislators appointed in the future, cleared the Senate but so far is bottled up in the House. Though members of the General Assembly have tended to be circumspect in discussing the bill, media focus has been on Chism, whose perks include what amounts to a substantial lifetime contribution by the taxpayers to defer the cost of his state insurance plan.

The well-to-do Chism has said he didn't seek such benefits and hadn't known of them beforehand but feels entitled to them now. But he's willing to grant bona fides on the part of Cohen and other critics.

"Steve's one of the most astute members of the Senate, and he's right on most of the issues," Chism said Tuesday, adding, however: "He's got no reverse switch on his transmission. He doesn't know when to back up once he gets going on something, even when it's obvious he's wrong."

Chism also had kind words for DeBerry, who, he said, had done her best to get him up to snuff on pending legislation. "The fact is, I didn't have any problems with any of them," Chism said, offering special praise for Kyle's Senate leadership and gratitude for what he said was the "helpful" attitude of members on the other side of the aisle, mentioning Senator Curtis Person of East Memphis, in particular.

"What I discovered was that Republicans are just people with a different philosophy. Other than that, they're trying to do the right thing too," Chism said.

As for the currently beleaguered Senator John Ford, Chism said, "John just used the system to his advantage, but not improperly under the rules. I don't think he did anything wrong to merit the kind of scrutiny he's getting now, and I don't know of another politician up there as astute as he is or as public-spirited."

Chism said he was astounded at the nature of the typical legislator's workload. "Most of them work all day and well into the night, on the floor, in committees, and at various affairs they have to go to. They don't pay those folks enough!"

Chism's next move? He intends to run for the County Commission seat now held by Cleo Kirk -- one that, incidentally, draws more pay ($30,000) than does a state senator ($16,500 plus expenses), whether elected or appointed.

Kirk, who is a party to a suit seeing to overturn current term-limits restrictions, confirmed last week that he did not intend to run again in 2006, regardless of the eventual ruling by Chancellor Tene Alissandratos.

Sullivan gets go-ahead: Cohen, incidentally, was among the senators who joined in an amendment to a Senate bill that cleared the way for Shelby County election commissioner Maura Black Sullivan's reappointment. The main import of that bill -- passed two weeks ago, largely in reaction to the ever-mounting saga of state senator John Ford -- was to prevent members from using their business address, as Ford had done, to fulfill residency requirements.

The amendment creates an exemption for school system employees in a state law that bars most government employees from serving on election commissions.

Citing that law, Cohen had objected last month to Sullivan's then-pending reappointment by the state Election Commission and secured a state attorney general's ruling backing his interpretation. •

ITICS by J

Broken Harmony

Only last Saturday, the presidents of Shelby County's two school boards -- Wanda Halbert of the city and David Pickler of Shelby County -- appeared to be singing from the same hymnbook. In a joint appearance before the Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Piccadilly restaurant Saturday, each endorsed the concept of special school districts contained in a bill which seemed on its way to passage in the Tennessee General Assembly.

That bill, by state senator Mark Norris of Collierville, passed the state Senate by a 31-0 vote and was on its way to apparent approval this week in the state House, where it was sponsored by Representative Paul Stanley. Pickler predicted as much Saturday, and Halbert, who had arrived late for the luncheon meeting, seemed to concur.

But that, Halbert said on Monday, was before she learned that the bill evidently contained a provision freezing the current boundaries of the two school districts. "That would be unacceptable to me and my board," she averred.

Pickler, reached later for comment, insisted that the bill did no such thing, leaving the boundary lines to be worked out by the two school boards acting in concert. "She evidently got a misleading impression from the article on Sunday," Pickler said, referring to a Commercial Appeal account of the pending legislation. "I think she's also gotten some flak from members of her board."

Halbert said that neither she nor the Memphis school board would be likely to support special school districts unless the boundary matter was settled to their satisfaction and other provisions favored by the Memphis board were accepted.

"I didn't even know that the bill had already passed the Senate," she said.

"I think we're still on track, and she'll realize that we are once she understands what the bill really does," Pickler said.

But that may be overly optimistic. The bill, which among other things would endow both the city and county districts with limited taxing power, became the focus of discussion and opposition during Monday night's regular meeting of the Memphis school board.

Attorney Percy Harvey, who lobbies the legislature for the board, told members he would attempt -- with some assurance of success -- to block the special-district bill during a meeting of a House education subcommittee scheduled to consider it on Tuesday. Harvey noted that representatives of both systems had indeed, as Pickler had indicated, come near to agreeing on a joint plan. But that accord, which Halbert said had involved considerable "give-and-take" by both districts, had come unhinged.

Both districts have been seeking an accommodation of some sort to deal with vexing problems of school funding, capital construction, and local autonomy.

Harvey stated the obvious during Monday night's board meeting: "There is no agreement at this point between the two boards." Nor, he said, would either the legislature or Shelby County mayor A C Wharton be likely to sign off on a plan without such an agreement. "It just will not happen." •

ACKSON BAKER

Friday, May 13, 2005

What Next?

Several political Rubicons are about to be crossed.

Posted on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

By the time this column hits the street, the special election for state Senate District 33 will be over with, and, unless some unforeseen extraterrestrial event occurs to influence things, Democrat Kathryn Bowers, currently a state representative, should be the winner.

That prognosis is based not just on the district's historical Democratic tilt but on Bowers' own track record as a highly visible public figure and scrappy campaigner.

To be sure, Shelby County Republicans waged a dedicated and resourceful get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of GOP nominee Mary Ann McNeil -- particularly in Collierville and other eastern precincts of the sprawling district, which stretches across southern Shelby County from Presidents Island in the west to the Fayette County line in the east. Early vote totals in the historically Republican areas were disproportionately high.

But Bowers and her cadre of supporters are no slouches at organization either and, once they got wind of the GOP efforts, redoubled their own. On the eve of voting, a top-heavy Bowers vote seemed the likely outcome.

If Bowers is the winner, she will try to expedite her Senate swearing-in -- both for its own sake (she desperately wants to pull off the hat trick of sponsoring in the Senate a hospital measure she initiated in the House) and to unseat interim senator Sidney Chism as fast as possible.

Chism, an ally of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and longtime political broker in his own right, is regarded by many as having been the political force behind recent Democratic primary opponents for Bowers, Representative Lois Deberry and others. Those House members, along with state senator Steve Cohen, lobbied county mayor A C Wharton and members of the Shelby County Commission against his appointment earlier this year. (Chism prevailed in the commission by one vote.)

Despite this background, Chism said Tuesday that he hoped Bowers would win. Chism did tell fellow legislators that if McNeil should prevail, she would probably be able to hang on in subsequent elections.

File that theory under the category "Moot."

By the way, former Teamster leader and Democratic chairman Chism confirmed reports that he intends to run for the Shelby County Commission seat now held by Cleo Kirk if Kirk's suit against term-limit restrictions does not succeed.

· Next question: Who will try to succeed Bowers as state representative from District 87? No doubt the newly energized Republicans will try to field a presentable candidate. But meanwhile, these are the Democratic names that have surfaced:

Greg Grant or Alonzo Grant: Both these political brothers have made races in the past, and Alonzo Grant made an unsuccessful bid for the District 87 seat as recently as 2002.

Rome Withers: This scion of a politically active and professionally illustrious clan (father Ernest Withers is a distinguished photographer) would like to follow in the footsteps of his late brother Teddy Withers, a former legislator.

Barry Myers: This well-regarded community activist is a protégé of Roscoe Dixon, the former senator in District 33, who resigned to become an aide to A C Wharton.

· And next question: Who will try to succeed Bowers as party chairman when the Democratic executive committee meets in July to reorganize?

The answer? It could be Kathryn Bowers.

That's according to David Upton, the veteran Democratic activist and behind-the-scenes presence who has worked in several of Bowers' campaigns over the years and has been a chief strategist in her Senate race.

"A lot of party people and public officials want that to happen," said Upton this week. Translation: Upton will try to make it happen.

Another candidate with good prospects is Joe Young, who served as spokesman for Jane Eskind during her tenure as state Democratic chair in the '90s. Supporters of Young held a well-attended reception for him this past weekend. "I like Joe. He'd be a good chairman if Kathryn doesn't do it," said Upton.

Gale Jones Carson, the former party chair who was narrowly defeated by Bowers in last year's party election, remains influential and is a spokeswoman of sorts for the current out-of-power faction in the Democratic Party. And who will that faction support for chairman?

"There's no sense in us saying anything until right before the election," Carson said coyly.

Meanwhile, the names Sondra Becton and Cherry Davis, both former Carson supporters, have got some traction.

And two can play at that game of "people-have-asked-me."Carson, who serves as Herenton's press secretary, said she's not interested in running again herself: "Been there, done that." But she adds she too has been sounded out about running again.

"Not by me," commented Upton waggishly.

· Oh, and one more question: Who will succeed John Ford as state senator from District 29 if the senator follows through on his statement, made to the Flyer last week, that he won't seek reelection in 2006?

Capitol Hill in Nashville was buzzing with speculation about that this week, and political circles in Memphis have begun to stir as well. Be assured: Among the names that will end up in the hat will be at least one spelled F-O-R-D.

Shelby County commissioner Joe Ford, a veteran of the Memphis City Council as well, has indicated a possible interest in running for another office, and it is well known that Jake Ford and Isaac Ford -- the youngest two sons of former congressman Harold Ford Sr. and the brothers of current congressman and U.S. Senate aspirant Harold Ford Jr. -- have a desire to run for public office as well.

· Out of commission: Members of the Shelby County Commission and regular attendees of the commission's meetings are long used to the biweekly protests from opponents of privatizing the county jail and corrections center.

These protests, led by county corrections officer Jeff Woodard, usually occur at the tag-end of commission meetings after completion of the regular agenda and, while they are doggedly, even relentlessly pressed, are well within the commission's usual protocol.

Monday's version of the protest was augmented by a group of supporters calling themselves "Coalition Against Private Prisons" and escalated the campaign, which is aimed at combating a process under which two private-prison organizations, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, are bidding to privatize county facilities.

Members of the coalition bestowed petitions and reams of other printed material on commissioners and took to the dock to argue heatedly against privatization. Commission vice chair Tom Moss, sitting in for Chairman Michael Hooks during that part of the proceedings, felt compelled to admonish the group at one point about respecting the commission's procedures.

That was in response, he said later, to two circumstances: a portion of the distributed materials that ended with the phrase, addressed to Commissioner David Lillard, "You suck," and an accusation by Woodard that Commissioner Bruce Thompson, who initiated the commission's call for bids on privatization, was influenced by his relationship with current CCA lobbyist Nathan Green, who had worked on behalf of Thompson's election in 2002. Moss made it clear he thought the accusation was a stretch.

Not for veteran pol Joe Cooper, though, the candidate who opposed Thompson in 2002 and says he intends to do so again in 2006. Said Cooper: "I think it's time for Commissioner Bruce Thompson to resign. It's hard for him to tell the truth. There's an obvious close relationship between the interests of CCA and his political cronies, notably Nathan Green." Cooper said Thompson had further "tainted" the issue by initiating a Request for Proposal (RFP) on his own and expressed solidarity with Woodard and the other jailers and corrections workers who have protested the prospect of privatization.

Thompson dismissed Cooper's remarks as stemming from political opportunism and dismissed as "absurd" allegations that he was in league with Green: "There's a difference between hiring somebody three years ago and working for them today. And should all 13 of us on the commission be held in conflict because we all know [former commissioners] Ed Williams and Charlie Perkins, who're working with the GEO group?"

Thompson acknowledged that he was sometimes made "uncomfortable" by the barrage of criticism he has received from privatization opponents but insisted that the county's revenue crunch was such that he was duty-bound to explore alternatives to the present county-managed corrections system.

· Cooper, incidentally, continues to urge that substantial portions of Shelby Farms be made available for commercial use. During his race as the Democratic nominee against Republican Thompson three years ago, he made such a proposal -- one that even he acknowledges aroused significant opposition and backfired on him.

But now he's actively campaigning for the concept again. In a recent op-ed for The Commercial Appeal and in an appearance before the Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville two weeks ago, Cooper proposed selling off all but a core 800 acres to create a ring of posh residence and office buildings, a "Central Park-like" environment. Doing so would net the hard-pressed county as much as $1 billion and solve the current revenue crisis, he said.

Cooper, who intends to take his proposal before the County Commission soon, drew several responses from the legislators, ranging from the suggestion of Representative Bubba Pleasants, a Bartlett Republican, that "we've got to do something," to that of Representative Mike Kernell, a Memphis Democrat, who wondered out loud if Cooper had in mind to sell Mud Island to Mississippi as well. ·

Friday, May 6, 2005

Making the State

Prospective Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. eschews Washington for a Tennessee tour.

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Harold Ford Jr. made several Tennessee stops last week to reinforce his seeming determination to make the U.S. Senate run in 2006 that some observers have become skeptical about -- perhaps recalling the elongated period of soul-searching that preceded an ultimate decision not to make such a race in 2000.

Appearing last Tuesday morning on Teddy Bart's Roundtable, a much listened-to Nashville radio show for political junkies, Ford addressed such doubts by noting that he was "traveling the state every weekend" and promised an announcement "soon," though he acknowledged that "some are doubting it."

The Senate race would be decided "not by 40 or 50 insiders but by people across the state," Ford said. "I'm running. I'm not hinting." He said he'd raised $800,000 in the last fiscal quarter, "the most of any member of Congress by far," and was on pace to raise $6 million for the Senate race. He observed that he would only need a half-million, "at most," to run for reelection to the House.

After addressing a Save Social Security rally at the Capitol later that day, Ford fielded some questions from reporters. These are some of his answers:

On state senator John Ford's current problems: I'm not going to trash my uncle. If he's done something wrong, he should be treated like everybody else. He makes decisions in his life. I make decisions in mine. I've never been arrested. I've never done a drug. I don't go to strip clubs. I'm proud of the way I've lived my life. He's my uncle, and I love him. Anybody who comes from a family with 15 aunts and uncles and 91 first cousins -- I put my family's accomplishments up against anyone's. When I ran for Congress the first time, in '96, my dad was my predecessor. I didn't expect people to go to the polls and vote for me because of all his good works, and I don't expect people to go to the polls and vote against me because of the questions, the real questions, they have about my uncle.
The ethics problems at various governmental levels: We have a challenge in Washington, personified by Tom DeLay. The Ethics Committee has tried to change its rules to make it -- easier is the wrong word -- but to provide a reasonable process for ethics complaints to be heard. I've supported every piece of ethics legislation that's come before the Congress to make it more likely that, if an investigation needs to occur, it does occur. We don't have the kind of issues that state legislatures have; I'm not allowed to work outside of my job.

Most state legislatures -- I don't know all the research -- have that challenge. We don't have that challenge in Congress. The only job I have is in Congress; it's the only income I can derive. I support any effort to make people disclose what they make and how they make it. If you work for the public, you have a responsibility to answer to the public. And everything in my life in politics -- I should say, my tenure in Congress, in politics -- is about that: If people have questions about any person, they should ask, and that person should answer.

On USA Today's finding that he ranks high in privately funded travel: Since I've been in Congress, I've taken 63 trips, most of them around the state of Tennessee, speaking to different organizations. There's no question about where the money is. It's all fully disclosed. I've gone to 63 different places in eight years -- five or six years, I think, since they've been doing the counting. One of them was to the University of Tennessee graduation in 2003, to which I paid my own way. But all of it's disclosed, and I think public officials should have to disclose everything. They know where the money is. They [USA Today] mentioned the number of trips that private groups paid for. But I don't go on overseas trips on private [funds]. I've been overseas three times, and you paid for it each time. The taxpayers.

I went to Iraq, to visit our troops. I went to Afghanistan to visit our troops. I went to Israel, to the Palestinian territories to see what little I could do as I come back here and vote on matters in Congress that would help us reach an agreement there fast. Because I think as quickly as the Palestinians can find some agreement, the faster these kids from Tennessee can come home. And, for that matter, the other 49 states. But all of that is -- you can go look it up -- I have to disclose it every year. There's not much about my life that hasn't been disclosed, about my finances.

On his reasons for supporting the Bush administration's bankruptcy bill: Twofold: One, I think the real issue with regard to credit in this nation has to do with credit agencies, reporting agencies that determine your credit worthiness. If you're a college student, and you're late paying your phone bill because you have no job or because you've been flooded with credit-card requests from banks and credit-card companies alike, I believe that after you've satisfied that debt, it should be erased from your credit history. Banks and other creditors base how much they will extend to you in credit and money on those numbers. The bankruptcy bill in a lot of ways just wanted to pin the blame on financial institutions. They are part of it.

And I thought that the idea of urging personal responsibility is a smart thing. The incidences of bankruptcy in Memphis and in this state are high. I've introduced legislation to make it a law where lenders have a responsibility to share with borrowers all of their rights and all of the legal responsibility that comes with taking out a loan or borrowing money from an institution. And that banks have a responsibility to know the payback power of those they lend to. That, I think, is the better route, because, even if we didn't have a bankruptcy bill, we would still have the problem of undereducated or uneducated borrowers in this country.

If it were up to me, we'd teach financial literacy, starting in elementary school, because I think kids understand that a dollar today, if you borrow it, really means a dollar-ten, a dollar-fifteen, a dollar-twenty-five. And I don't think most people appreciate that. We teach kids how to catch footballs, how to throw baseballs, how to jump over a hurdle in track at school. I think it would be equally important to teach them the value of money.

n One of Ford's Tennessee stops was noted in advance by the congressman in this passage from a letter to potential supporters: "[T]his Thursday and Friday, my travels take me to Covington, Tennessee for Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's coon supper. This annual Tennessee tradition is an integral part of Tennessee's storied political culture. I look forward to it every year having the chance to see old friends, see folks I see all the time and then eat a little something."

Some Democrats were complaining that Ford should have been in Washington on Thursday, voting on the Bush budget for fiscal 2005-6, which passed by a margin of 214-211. The congressman was one of 10 absentees.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

POLITICS

Prospective Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. eschews Washington for a Tennessee tour.

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2005 at 4:00 AM

MAKING THE STATE

The congressman meets the Nashville press.

Harold Ford Jr. made several Tennessee stops last week to reinforce his seeming determination to make the U.S. Senate run in 2006 that some observers have become skeptical about -- perhaps recalling the elongated period of soul-searching that preceded an ultimate decision not to make such a race in 2000.

Appearing last Tuesday morning on Teddy Bart’s Roundtable, a much listened-to Nashville radio show for political junkies, the 9th District Memphis congressman addressed such doubts by noting that he was “traveling the state every weekend” and promised an announcement “soon,” though he acknowledged that “some are doubting it.”

The Senate race would be decided “not by 40 or 50 insiders but by people across the state,” Ford said. “I’m running. I’m not hinting.” He said he’d raised $800,000 in the last fiscal quarter, “the most of any member of Congress by far” and was on pace to raise $6 million for the Senate race. He observed that he would only need a half-million, “at most,” to run for reelection to the House.

After addressing a Save Social Security rally at the Capitol later that day, Ford fielded some questions from reporters. These are some of his answers:

On state Senator John Ford’s current problems: "I’m not going to trash my uncle. If he’s done something wrong, he should be treated like everybody else. He makes decisions in his life, I make decisions in mine. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never done a drug. I don’t go to strip clubs. I’m proud of the way I’ve lived my life. He’s my uncle, and I love him. Anybody who comes from a family with 15 aunts and uncle and 91 first cousins -- I put my family’s accomplishments up against anyone’s. When I ran for Congress the first time, in ‘96, my Dad was my predecessor. I didn’t expect people to go to the polls and vote for me because of all his good works, and I don’t expect people to go to the polls and vote against me because of the questions, the real questions, they have about my uncle."

The ethics problems at various governmental levels: "We have a challenge in Washington, personified by Tom DeLay. The Ethics Committee has tried to change its rules to make it -- easier is the wrong word, but to provide a reasonable process for ethics complaints to be heard. I’ve supported every piece of ethics legislation that’s come before the Congress to make it more likely that, if an investigation needs to occur, it does occur. As you understand, we don’t have the kind of issues that state legislatures have. I’m not allowed to work outside of my job.

"Most state legislatures -- I don’t know all the research -- have that challenge. We don’t have that challenge in Congress. The only job I have is in Congress; it’s the only income I can derive. I support any effort to make people disclose what they make, how they make it, and if you work for the public, you have a responsibility to answer to the public. And everything in my life in politics -- I should say, my tenure in Congress in politics -- is about that: If people have questions about any person, they should ask, and that person should answer."

On USA Today‘s finding that he ranks high in privately funded travel: "Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve taken 63 trips, most of them around the state of Tennessee, speaking to different organizations. There’s no question about where the money is. It’s all fully disclosed. I’ve gone to 63 different places in eight years -- five or six years, I think, since they’ve been doing the counting. One of them was to the University of Tennessee graduation in 2003, to which I paid my own way. But all of it’s disclosed, and I think public officials should have to disclose everything. They know where the money is. They [USA Today}mentioned the number of trips that private groups paid for. But I don’t go overseas trip on private -- I’ve been overseas three times, and you paid for it each time. The taxpayers.

"I went to Iraq, to visit our troops. I went to Afghanistan to visit our troops. I went to Israel, to the Palestinian territories to see what little I could do as I come back here and vote on matters in Congress that would help us reach an agreement there fast, because I think as quickly as the Palestinians can find some agreement, the faster these kids from Tennessee can come home. And, for that matter, the other 49 states. But all of that is -- you can go look it -- I have to disclose it every year. There’s not much about my life that hasn’t been disclosed, about my finances.

On his reasons for supporting the Bush administration’s bankruptcy bill: "Two-fold: One, I think the real issue with regard to credit in this nation has to do with credit agencies, reporting agencies that determine your credit worthiness. If you’re a college student, and you’re late paying your phone bill because you have no job or because you’ve been flooded with credit-card requests from banks and credit-card companies alike, I believe that after you’ve satisfied that debt it should be erased from your credit history. Banks and other creditors base how much they will expend to you in credit and money on those numbers. The bankruptcy bill in a lot of ways just wanted to pin the blame on financial institutions. They are part of it.

"And I thought that the idea of urging personal responsibility is a smart thing. The incidences of bankruptcy in Memphis and in this state are high. I’ve introduced legislation to to make it a law where lenders have a responsibility to share with borrowers all of their rights and all of the legal responsibility that comes with taking out a loan or borrowing money from an institution. And that banks have a responsibility to know the payback power of those they lend to. That, I think, is the better route, because, even if we didn’t have a bankruptcy bill, we would still have the problem of under-educated or uneducated borrowers in this country.

"If it were up to me, we’d teach financial literacy, starting in elementary school, because I think kids understand that a dollar today, if you borrow it, really means a dollar-ten, a dollar-fifteen, a dollar-twenty-five. And I don’t think most people appreciate that. We teach kids how to catch footballs, how to throw baseballs how to jump over a hurdle in track at school. I think it would be equally important to teach them the value of money."

One of Ford’s Tennessee stops was noted in advance by the congressman in this passage from a letter to potential supporters: “[T]his Thursday and Friday, my travels take me to Covington, Tennessee for Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's coon supper. This annual Tennessee tradition is an integral part of Tennessee's storied political culture. I look forward to it every year having the chance to see old friends, see folks I see all the time and then eat a little something.”

Some Democrats were complaining that Ford should have been in Washington on Thursday, voting on the Bush budget for fiscal 2005-6, which passed by a margin of 214-211. The congressman was one of ten absentees.

What Round Is It, Steve?

The continuing adventures of the forever embattled Steve Cohen took another turn last week. Already involved in combats of various kinds with Governor Phil Bredesen and a variety of Memphis-area political figures, Cohen escalated his running argument with state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh last week, charging the speaker with bottling up his bills in the House.

And, during Senate debate last week on an anti-stalking measure, Cohen rose to ask, tongue-in-cheek, to ask whether the bill contained a clause that prohibited “House members” from engaging in stalking. Nobody missed his meaning.

Until two weeks ago, when state Attorney General Paul Summers ruled “unconstitutional” a provision of then-pending ethics legislation that prohibited legislators’ spouses from lobbying the General Assembly, Cohen had been among those continuing to press for such a clause. (Naifeh’s wife Betty Anderson is a lobbyist.)

At his annual Coon Supper in Covington last week, Naifeh responded succinctly and angrily to Cohen’s accusations: “I don’t pay a bit of attention to that little son-of-a-bitch. He’s insignificant!”

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