Friday, June 24, 2005

D-Days

The coming week will be a time of decision in local politics.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2005 at 4:00 AM

At Thursday noon of this week, the Election Commission's door was scheduled to shut to those wanting to file for the now-open state Senate District 29 and state House District 87. At Thursday noon of next week, another door will close with the passing of the withdrawal deadline for the forthcoming special elections called by Governor Phil Bredesen.

Primary date for both races will be August 4th, followed by a general election on September 15th.

The Senate seat came open after the recent resignation of longtime state senator John Ford, perhaps the best-known target of the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting, while the District 87 seat was vacated by Kathryn Bowers, who ran for and won the state Senate District 33 seat held by Roscoe Dixon before he became an aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.

Ironically, both Bowers and Dixon (who is now unemployed), were arrested and charged in the sting as well.

Although the list was sure to proliferate, those who had filed as of press time were:

State Senate District 29: Henri Brooks and Barbara Cooper (both now state representatives), LauraDavis, and Ophelia Ford (sister of former Senator Ford), Democrats; and John Farmer and Terry Roland, Republicans.

State House District 87: Omari Faulkner and Alonzo Grant, Democrats; (no Republicans as of yet).

n The other looming political choice is that of a Democratic chairman to replace Bowers. Democrats will caucus this Saturday at the University of Memphis to select delegates who will in turn gather at the same location on July 23rd to elect a new chairman and a new executive committee.

Candidates for the chairmanship so far include David Cocke, Cherry Davis, Joe Young, and (possibly) Talut Al-Amin, the current vice chair and acting chairman.

Cocke's candidacy -- reportedly made at the urging of 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr., now a U.S. Senate candidate -- has drawn the ire of Sidney Chism, a political broker who recently served as interim state senator for District 33 and is, like Cocke, a former party chairman.

"They've got a lot of nerve trying to shove David Cocke on us, when there are three other candidates, all African Americans, ready and willing to serve," said Chism last week. "David Cocke will never be chairman. I guarantee it! If it comes down to it, I'll put myself in the running rather than let him be elected."

That promptly drew criticism from party activist David Upton, a Cocke supporter, who accused Chism of "playing the race card" and of having run a poor chairmanship during his 1994-95 term.

n Okay, so Thaddeus Matthews can't spell, doesn't know what a paragraph is, and lets his pet conspiracy theories cloud his mind on occasion. But the former radio talk-show host is a damn good political gossip, though sometimes what he has to say on his blog, thaddeusmatthews.com, is old fish in new wrappers -- as when he suggests this week that Sheriff Mark Luttrell is mulling over a race for county mayor.

Luttrell's interest in such a race has been well known, assuming that a vacancy opens up. Matthews goes on to suggest that indeed it will, and that incumbent mayor Wharton is thinking of running for the 9th District congressional seat that Ford will be vacating. Other congressional possibilities mentioned by Matthews are the Rev. Ralph White and Joseph Kyles.

n Now that she would seem to be term-limited out of another term on the county commission, Marilyn Loeffel will have to decide whether she wants to confront Debbie Stamson in next year's Republican primary for county clerk.

If so, Loeffel will have her work cut out for her. Stamson, whose husband is Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson, was the beneficiary of a massive fund-raiser last week at the Germantown home of her brother, Wayne Mashburn. The several hundred attendees included a virtual Who's Who of local Republicans and a generous smattering of Democrats and independents as well.

"She was invited to come," said Debbie Stamson of potential opponent Loeffel, a no-show at the fund-raiser.

Not only is Debbie Stamson an employee of current clerk Jayne Creson, who is retiring and has endorsed her, she is the daughter of the late, longtime clerk, Richard C. "Sonny" Mashburn.

That would seem to give her an edge, but Democratic activist Upton cautioned not to sell Loeffel short, noting that an "army" of supporters had helped elect the former president of FLARE, a social-conservative activist group, to the commission. "And they'll be at her disposal again," said Upton.

n U.S. senator Lamar Alexander hasn't yet satisfied a variety of critics for his failure to co-sponsor a recent Senate resolution apologizing for filibusters in the '30s and '40s that obstructed anti-lynching legislation. (See Viewpoint, page 13, for more on that measure.)

Basically, the senator has said that he supports instead another Senate resolution that would "condemn" the practice of lynching along with other aspects of racism. 


Terry Harris on the Big Dance

Such is the level of public interest in the federal Tennessee Waltz sting that the very term has become a catchall. At Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission, county jailer Warren Cole, one of several opponents of privatizing the county's correction system, approached the dock toward the end of the meeting to address the commission, as is his wont.

After his usual anti-privatization speech, Cole weighed in on budgetary matters too -- targeting the expense of "private contracts" as a leading cause of the county's current fiscal woes. Then he uttered what seemed to be something of a non sequitur -- one, however, that was not only received well in the commission auditorium but would travel elsewhere by word of mouth.

"The Tennessee Waltz was something else," Cole said. "The Shelby County Shuffle's going to be …" And the rest of what he had in mind to say was drowned out by enthusiastic audience response.

Incomplete and cryptic as the statement was, it would be publicly cited at least twice later on Monday. First, Memphis school board member Patrice Robinson would reference it at the board auditorium during a discussion of maintenance contracts. And Shelby County commissioner John Willingham brought it up at a meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club that was being addressed by U.S. attorney Terry Harris. Harris responded that he had nothing to say concerning any additional sting arrests that might focus on Shelby County government.

After his fashion, Harris did have something to say about the Tennessee Waltz, however.

After establishing that, in order to ensure a "fair trial" for the several defendants caught in the sting, he would have to defer most comment, Harris offered a word about allegations, circulating on weblogs and elsewhere, that political motives were responsible for the fact that most of the defendants netted in the sting were Democrats.

"I can assure all the citizens of West Tennessee that political party affiliation was not and is not relevant to anything that has to do with the Tennessee Waltz, the indictments, or the investigation," Harris said.

Harris was asked why the Western District of Tennessee, his own jurisdiction, had become the venue for prosecuting East Tennesseans like state senator Ward Crutchfield and alleged "bagman" Charles Love, both Chattanoogans who were arraigned in federal court here last week.

He responded that he couldn't give specifics but noted that legal venue has to be relevant to the cause. "There has to be a connection to the crimes that were committed in the district where the case is brought," Harris said, adding, "I have no reason to believe that we can't have a fair trial in this district."

Harris also offered his endorsement of the Patriot Act, the controversial post-9/11 measure that afforded more latitude to law-enforcement agencies in apprehending terror suspects and, some alleged, curbed citizens' rights. "Where's the victim?" he asked. "We don't have one. The Patriot Act doesn't harm anybody's rights." It's subject, he maintained, to the Fourth Amendment, which already prohibits unlawful search and seizure. Some of the criticism of the measure was politically motivated, he said, coming "from some of those who opposed the president."

Recalling his unsuccessful 1998 race for a Criminal Court judgeship against Joe Brown, who went on to become a syndicated television "judge," Harris said, "I think I have the better job. I have no complaints about how things have worked out. I would rather be doing this job than the one I ran for." He allowed as how he was not a fan of Brown's TV show.

Asked if he intended to run for a position next year, when most judgeships will come open again, Harris smiled and said no. n

Friday, June 17, 2005

Red Meat

What's on the political hot stove this summer has some big-time sizzle.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2005 at 4:00 AM

This being a theme issue of the Flyer, I have weighed in elsewhere with a tongue-in-cheek take on the nature of political "cool." (As always: Don't shoot the messenger.)

The fact is, however, that politics -- local, statewide, national -- is headed in the opposite direction from cool. It's hot and will get hotter:

It seems clear that the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that Bill Frist is vacating next year will pile on the hot coals, rhetorically.

Three GOP Senate hopefuls were on hand for the annual Shelby County Republican Party picnic Monday at the conference grounds on Cherry Road. And all -- former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker -- cooked up some red meat.

Bryant began by saying that at election time in Tennessee there are "no moderate Republicans and no liberal Democrats." And not only did he lay out the litany of standard Republican issues -- traditional marriage, abortion, the Pledge of Allegiance, federal judges, the Second Amendment -- he went to the right of President George W. Bush on one issue, that of "illegal immigration and border security."

"I think he's misjudged on this one," said Bryant of what he considered Bush's over-lenient immigration proposals.

Hilleary, who finished a close second to Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2002 governor's race, noted frankly that, among Republicans anyhow, "Everybody will be making the same speech, saying the same thing." He emphasized the need for a "conservative, sincere Republican," stressed his background as a Desert Storm pilot, blasted "wobbly-kneed Republicans," gay marriage, and the federal judiciary as "the last bastion of liberalism."

Corker came off as the relative moderate, focusing on his background as construction executive, provider of low-income housing, and mayor. But he began with this catechism: "I believe in free markets, limited government, low taxes, balanced budgets, the entrepreneurial spirit, the power of prayer, and the importance of faith." And he too took issue with "judicial activism."

Absent from the picnic was state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, another prospective Senate candidate. One of the attendees, however, flashed a bumper sticker (reportedly provided by Chattanooga-area state representative Chris Clem) that read, "Harwell/Governor."

Even as two of the three GOP Senate candidates chose at this year’s party picnic to reference some variant of the gay issue, a test case of sorts was under way at a camp being run by the group Love in Action at a former church site on Yale Road in Raleigh.

Demonstrators turned up last week and this to protest against the camp's attempts to convert gay youths to a heterosexual lifestyle. (See also Viewpoint, page 13.)

Then, of course, there was the arraignment last week of Bowers and others arrested in the recent FBI sting -- including state senator John Ford, who in a post-arraignment press conference suggested that the fact and timing of his indictment might have something to do with A) nephew Harold Ford Jr.'s formal announcement for the U.S. Senate; and B) governor Phil Bredesen's paring of the TennCare rolls, which Ford had opposed.

In other words, Ford plans a political defense -- one not calculated, need we note, to lower local temperatures.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Red Meat

What's on the political hot stove this summer has some big-time sizzle.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2005 at 4:00 AM

This being a theme issue of the Flyer, I have weighed in elsewhere with a tongue-in-cheek take on the nature of political "cool." (As always: Don't shoot the messenger.)

The fact is, however, that politics - local, statewide, national - is headed in the opposite direction from cool. It's hot and will get hotter:

❥ It seems clear that the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that Bill Frist is vacating next year will pile on the hot coals, rhetorically.

Three GOP Senate hopefuls were on hand for the annual Shelby County Republican Party picnic Monday at the conference grounds on Cherry Road. And all - former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker - cooked up some red meat.

Bryant began by saying that at election time in Tennessee there are "no moderate Republicans and no liberal Democrats." And not only did he lay out the litany of standard Republican issues - traditional marriage, abortion, the Pledge of Allegiance, federal judges, the Second Amendment - he went to the right of President George W. Bush on one issue, that of "illegal immigration and border security."

"I think he's misjudged on this one," said Bryant of what he considered Bush's over-lenient immigration proposals.

Hilleary, who finished a close second to Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2002 governor's race, noted frankly that, among Republicans anyhow, "Everybody will be making the same speech, saying the same thing." He emphasized the need for a "conservative, sincere Republican," stressed his background as a Desert Storm pilot, blasted "wobbly-kneed Republicans," gay marriage, and the federal judiciary as "the last bastion of liberalism."

Corker came off as the relative moderate, focusing on his background as construction executive, provider of low-income housing, and mayor. But he began with this catechism: "I believe in free markets, limited government, low taxes, balanced budgets, the entrepreneurial spirit, the power of prayer, and the importance of faith." And he too took issue with "judicial activism."

Absent from the picnic was state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, another prospective Senate candidate. One of the attendees, however, flashed a bumper sticker (reportedly provided by Chattanooga-area state representative Chris Clem) that read, "Harwell/Governor."

❥ Even as two of the three GOP Senate candidates chose at this year's party picnic to reference some variant of the gay issue, a test case of sorts was under way at a camp being run by the group Love in Action at a former church site on Yale Road in Raleigh.

Demonstrators turned up last week and this to protest against the camp's attempts to convert gay youths to a heterosexual lifestyle. (See also Viewpoint, page 13.)

❥ Then, of course, there was the arraignment last week of Bowers and others arrested in the recent FBI sting - including state senator John Ford, who in a post-arraignment press conference suggested that the fact and timing of his indictment might have something to do with A) nephew Harold Ford Jr.'s formal announcement for the U.S. Senate; and B) governor Phil Bredesen's paring of the TennCare rolls, which Ford had opposed.

In other words, Ford plans a political defense - one not calculated, need we note, to lower local temperatures. ❥

Friday, June 10, 2005

A New Brew

In the post-sting ferment, local politics could end up looking, and tasting, different.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Nature famously abhors a vacuum, and so do Shelby County Democrats. In the aftermath of state senator Kathryn Bowers’ resignation last week from her position as local Democratic chairman, some well-known party names have resurfaced as possible successors.

One of them is David Cocke, a former party chairman on two prior occasions and a card-carrying member of the Ford party faction. (The Memphis lawyer is, in fact, the longtime attorney for former congressman Harold Ford Sr., though, as he rightly points out, has from time to time been on the opposite side from the Fords — notably during a dispute some years back concerning the desirability of local party primaries.)

Cocke, who acknowledges a serious interest in succeeding Bowers, is being encouraged to run for the now-vacant party chairmanship by none other than current 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., who launched his bid for a U.S. Senate seat the day before the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz arrests netted several prominent arrestees, including Bowers and the congressman’s uncle, state senator John Ford.

Another name being thrown into the hat is that of former chairman Gale Jones Carson, who serves as Memphis mayor Willie Herenton’s press secretary and has standing in the Democratic Party faction that is partial to the mayor.

“A lot of people have asked me to run, including people I don’t even know,” Carson said Thursday. “I have no intention of doing so,” she said, but declined to rule out a bid.

The names of the two well-known party warhorses have surfaced as a direct result of the FBI sting and its impact on the party. And not only Representative Ford but other ranking Democrats regard the naming of a known quantity as chairman to be one good way of stabilizing a shaken party on the eve of the 2006 election season.

Other names receiving some mention in party circles are those of former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman, Shelby County property assessor Rita Clark, and former chairman Jim Strickland.

The only two candidates for the Democratic chairmanship who have declared so far are Joe Young, who was a field director for the state Democratic Party under former chairman Jane Eskind, and Cherry Davis, currently a member of the party’s Shelby County executive committee. Though Young and Davis have some support in the Ford and Herenton wings of the party, respectively, neither yet commands the organized support of a faction.

Both spoke, however, at a weekend meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club, where they were well received. And they could be the beneficiaries of a growing momentum for new faces in party ranks — especially among those party cadres freshly recruited during last year’s presidential season.

A freshly minted group advocating such change is Mid-South Democrats in Action, an outgrowth of the Democratic presidential campaigns last year of both Howard Dean and eventual party nominee John Kerry.

Members of Mid-South Democrats were among those who turned up at local Democratic headquarters on Poplar Avenue for the regularly scheduled meeting of the party executive committee, at which Bowers tendered her resignation as chairman, effective June 25th.

Though professing her innocence of charges that she had accepted illicit funds from a dummy corporation operated by the FBI, Bowers acknowledged to party members that continuing in office would make her a lightning rod for criticism and would interfere with the party’s “progress” and preparations for next year’s political campaigns.

Although Bowers was politely received — even enthusiastically by what seemed to be a majority of those present, her support would have been shaky if she had opted to try to tough things out. As it turned out, the small contingent from Mid-South Democrats had been on hand to call for Bowers’ resignation if she hadn’t offered it. (Desi Franklin, a spokesperson for Mid-South, elaborates on the organization’s goals in this week’s Viewpoint on page 13.)

The G.O.P. Makes Its Move

And Democrats weren’t alone in stirring the newly turbulent waters. Meeting last Thursday night at the same time Bowers was tendering her resignation across town, the local Republican Party’s steering committee adopted a resolution formally asking the seven-member Republican majority on the Shelby County Commission to appoint Republican Terry Roland to the District 29 state Senate vacancy created by the resignation of John Ford.

Roland is a Millington businessman and a conservative who had made a strong feint some months back concerning a challenge for the GOP chairmanship. That job was subsequently won by Bill Giannini, whose chairmanship has been characterized by stepped-up Republican efforts in the Democrats’ electoral hinterland.

Backed stoutly by both the local and statewide Republican organizations, Mary Ann McNeil polled 36 percent as the Republican candidate in last month’s special election, won by Bowers, for the District 33 state Senate seat.

And, although Roland’s chances of prevailing were chancy, commission vice-chair Tom Moss, a Republican, indicated last week that the commission might depart from normal gentleman’s agreements requiring members of each party to vote for a representative of the other to fill vacancies in districts where the other party predominates.

Meanwhile, the new political climate was further demonstrated in a press release from Brian Kelsey, a freshman legislator from Germantown, who said that Bowers and the two other legislators arrested in the Tennessee Waltz sting (state senator Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga, a Democrat, and Representative Chris Newton of Cleveland, the lone Republican arrested) should follow Ford’s example and resign — assuming that audio- and videotapes were on handto back the charges.

If nothing else, that indicated that first-term representative Kelsey had not accidentally violated long-standing protocol two months ago when he issued an earlier press release directly challenging a ruling in the state House by Democratic speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

Clearly, political protocol is getting a working-over under the extreme circumstances now prevailing.

A Democrat Cautions

Representative Ford

One more time for the old French expression: The more things change, the more things remain the same. As if the Tennessee Waltz were not enough sour music for Congressman Ford, he was the recipient last weekend of an ode of sorts from John Jay Hooker.

Yes, that John Jay Hooker, the once-great party luminary and two-time party nominee for governor who in recent years has come off as something of a circus clown but still has a charismatic moment or two left in him. On his blog, Hooker vented a lyric to Ford that might have been entitled “Not Born To Run.” Or not this year, anyhow.

“Wait, Harold, Wait” was what it was actually entitled. After extolling the Memphis congressman as “a highly intelligent, capable public servant … a man of good character with a profound love of his country,” Hooker went on to say that “in my view, he should not run for the United States Senate, because I think it’s virtually impossible for him to be elected.”

Spelling that out, Hooker said, “I have talked to a good many people, most of whom are supporters of Congressman Ford, who would vote for him, and who think he would be a first-class United States senator, but who like me, think that the existing circumstance regarding his uncle and political bribery, make his election highly doubtful.

“I think the 2006 election is going to be difficult at best, as Governor Bredesen is now burdened with the TennCare problems. And therefore, I think the Democrats are going to have their hands full in re-electing Governor Bredesen.”

Hence, said Hooker, the congressman should wait.

As for the aforesaid Bredesen, whose reelection does in fact no longer look like the shoo-in it seemed to be a few scant months ago, the governor this week formally set August 4th as the primary election for ex-Senator Ford’s District 29 seat and ex-Representative Bowers’ District 87 seat. The general election date for both seats will be September 15th.

Those are dates to reckon with. But so are June 25th and July 23rd, dates of the first local Democratic Party caucuses and the party reorganization convention, respectively.

n David Pickler is too good a politician not to have been diplomatic when he announced publicly last week that which he had already confided privately some time back — namely, that he wouldn’t seek another term as president of the local conservative activist group Defenders of Freedom.

Consequently, his letter to DOF founder Angelo Cobrasci sounded a note familiar in other political leave-taking cases: “In light of the time commitments required by my new business, I do not feel I can give the appropriate level of time and energy to do the job properly.”

In a conversation after a recent appearance at the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon forum, Pickler, whose firm specializes in financial advice and estate planning, had indicated he would not serve another term as DOF president. He said then that DOF founder Cobrasci had approached him two years ago about taking the reins and he agreed — in the hope, he said, of moving the then nascent group “into the mainstream.”

Apparently, he succeeded in that aim. Several other mainstream figures, including Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell, were subsequently attracted into DOF. Pickler said in that conversation, as he repeated in last week’s letter, that he continues to support the aims of the group — though he said he disagreed with a recent mass e-mail from Cobrasci which suggested that DOF members should espouse a form of militant Christianity.

Cobrasci, who has become a fixture on the conservative and Republican circuits, was recently identified on a blog operated by Flyer staff writer Chris Davis (ThePeskyFly.com) as having once served a prison term for burglary, for which he was later pardoned by former Governor Don Sundquist. Cobrasci was then known as Greg Moore.

Pickler said he had been aware of Cobrasci’s past but still regarded him as a conscientious and public-spirited citizen.

Supporters of Pickler as the perennially reelected president of the Shelby County School Board need not fear, by the way: The line in his letter to Gobrasci that says, “I must respectfully decline any nomination to serve in any office,” applies only to DOF affairs. Pickler, an opponent of school consolidation and an advocate of special school districts, intends to continue in his current board role.

n Count A C Wharton, nominally a Democrat, as a backer of district attorney general Bill Gibbons, a Republican, for reelection next year. Wharton introduced Gibbons Monday afternoon at a well-attended fundraiser at Ronnie Grisanti’s restaurant and announced his support. ¥

Edwards Clarifies Tennessee Remarks

“Nonsense!” is the response this week of former North Carolina senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards to widespread reports that he, like Delaware senator Joe Biden, had attempted to distance himself from recent statements by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

Edwards was the featured speaker at last weekend’s annual Jackson Day Dinner for Tennessee Democrats on the grounds of the Hermitage, just outside Nashville. During a brief interview session with reporters, Edwards was asked about Dean’s recent remark that many Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives” and was quoted as responding that Dean was “not the spokesman for the party” but merely “a voice” that Edwards did not agree with.

The former senator’s remarks were coupled in mainstream coverage with Biden’s statement Sunday on ABC’s This Week program that the chairman “doesn’t speak for me with that kind of rhetoric and I don’t think he speaks for the majority of Democrats.”

But on his personal blog (oneamerica.com) this week, Edwards seemed to recant. Contending that he was quoted out of context, Edwards said, inter alia: “And then the flap arose: A chasm! A split! A revolt! Instead, how about: Nonsense!

“We are both talking about the Republicans and their failure to address the needs of working people. We both agree with this basic truth: This Republican president and this Republican majority are not doing what they should be doing for working people in this country. That’s a core belief we need to fight for. And what’s more, we agree that we — all Democrats and all working people — should be complaining, criticizing, and generally speaking out about this critical failure of the Republican Party and offering our positive vision for America. And we have.”

Among the other speakers at the Hermitage Saturday were the Democrats’ two declared U.S. Senate candidates, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. On Sunday Ford was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser at Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant.

Friday, June 3, 2005

Fallout

Now come the political aftershocks. Will Harold Ford¹s Senate prospects be affected?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Only a week ago, Kathryn Bowers was a newly sworn-in member of the Tennessee state Senate, and the spark-plug personality of this bantam-sized Memphis legislator was expected to be a major feature of the political landscape for years to come. In moving up to the Senate, Bowers, the winner in a special election held last month, had to vacate her seat in the state House of Representatives, of course, and, though eventually there would be a special election to fill that vacancy, in the meantime the seat was expected to be filled by an interim appointment made by the Shelby County Commission.

Word was passed from commission ranks that the likely interim appointee was Barry Myers, who had been a longtime aide for Roscoe Dixon, the former senator whose seat Bowers had won after Dixon resigned to become a high-ranking -- and highly paid -- aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. As for Dixon himself, the former senator was looking forward to making a difference in local affairs -- and in restoring the little bit of luster that was lost in Shelby County government when his predecessor, the venerable and respected Bobby Lanier, left during a mini-scandal involving pension rights for previously departed mayoral aide Tom Jones.

Jones had plea-bargained a modest federal sentence after being charged with mishandling credit-card expenditures while serving in county government.

As for Memphis state senator John Ford, the 31-year legislative veteran who had become the target of multiple investigations this year -- involving matters as wide-ranging as his campaign fund expenditures, his legal residence, and, most crucially, his potential conflict-of-interest contracts with state TennCare providers -- the future did not look so rosy as it did for Bowers, Dixon, and Myers.

Even so, the wily senator chose the middle of last week as an occasion to announce his intention of launching what he called a “counterattack” against his accusers -- threatening a barrage of lawsuits. His circumstances remained problematic, but it seemed premature to count out this long-term survivor, who had somehow managed to emerge unscathed for several previous legal challenges -- including one in 1991 in which he was charging with firing a pistol at truckers who hemmed him in on Interstate 40.

All of that was just days ago, but it now seems like an eternity. Ford, Bowers, Dixon, and Myers were four of the seven individuals arrested in a surprise sting mounted by the FBI, and, as the current week began, their very freedom and ability to provide for themselves were threatened -- not to mention something as insignificant under the circumstances as their political careers.

Clearly, Ford and Dixon seem done-for politically. The former resigned his seat via a dramatic and terse note to Lt. Governor John Wilder, who read it aloud to Ford’s state Senate colleagues on Saturday, the last day of this year’s legislative session. Dixon had wanted to hold on but saw the handwriting on the wall when asked by reporters after his release what came next. He answered that he would “hold off” for the time being on a return to his county job. Within hours, even that slim hope was gone, when Wharton asked for-- and got-- Dixon’s unconditional resignation.

Bowers stayed true to her plucky reputation -- returning to the legislative session on the very day of her arrest and completing work on an anti-stalking bill on which she had long counted on setting a precedent -- as someone who was both a House and Senate sponsor. Her colleagues were supportive -- though, as one fellow senator commented, “It would have been better if she’d had the House to return to. That’s where they know her better. She was a relative stranger to us, and we couldn’t give her the same kind of aid and comfort.”

Back in Memphis after the session ended, Bowers released a statement this week that said in part: “The last five days have been very trying for me in all of my 40 years of working hard and serving in the community. My health is well, my feet are steadfast, and I want you to know I will not stop working and fighting on your behalf for TennCare, education, our seniors and children and families. I have asked the question ‘why me LORD’ but I know and believe that this too shall pass. I believe in GOD and I believe in the judicial system. A person is innocent unless proven guilty.”

A Potential Seismic Shift

But the fate of individuals, whether guilty or innocent, was but one factor in the new equation of local -- and statewide -- politics. With Ford gone, and with Bowers’ own Senate seat in clear legal jeopardy, the Senate’s Republicans -- numerically superior to the body’s Democrats by one after last year’s election -- were finally in a position to solidify their majority status. Democrat Ford’s chairmanship of the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee was virtually certain to be transferred into GOP hands, and Senate Republicans had a much-enhanced prospect of turning over the speakership to Republican leader Ron Ramsey, who had lost out to Wilder in reorganization voting back in January. Two Republican defections cost him the chairmanship back then, and the odds of that happening again were seriously reduced.

But the power shift might even be greater than that. If Bowers’ seat has to be vacated, Shelby County Republicans will most certainly launch an intensified campaign on the part of a GOP candidate in whatever special election might result. They worked overtime just last month on behalf of the Republican nominee in the special election for Senate District 33, and their candidate, Mary Ann McNeil, finished with a relatively strong 36 percent against Bowers.

To be sure, one of the arrested legislators last week was Rep. Chris Newton of Newport, a Republican, but Dixon, who saw a political conspiracy behind the so-called Tennessee Waltz sting, was skeptical.

“This is just some politics,” Dixon said upon his release, and he amplified on that later on: “The main thing is, it [the Tennessee Waltz sting] was aimed at blacks.” And another factor was the circumstance that he, Bowers, and John Ford all had long-standing connections with the local Ford political organization. As for the involvement in the sting of East Tennesseans Newton and Chattanooga state senator Ward Crutchfield, a Democrat, Dixon said, “They have to throw somebody else in to make it look good.”

Harold Ford Jr./Rosalind

Kurita: “No Impact”

As it happened, both announced Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs next year were in Memphis on Thursday, the day of the arrests, and both -- 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr., nephew of state senator John Ford, and state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, longtime colleague of the accused legislators -- had a chance to respond to the indictments and arrests.

Neither professed to think that the events of last week would adversely affect their own campaign efforts, and both were foursquare for enforcing the letter of the law. Kurita went so far as to speculate that some of her Senate colleagues might end up being expelled. After recounting her own past efforts on behalf of ethics reform, Kurita said, “There aren’t enough words in the world to make somebody do right. If it isn’t in you, it isn’t in you. But there has to be a consequence.”

Said Ford, after addressing a graduation glass of Christ Methodist Day School on Thursday night: “It’s a sad day as a Tennessean and as a nephew of someone who has found himself accused of some pretty awful things. I think Tennesseans, and particularly those here in this community, have a right to expect that those of us in government are questioned about our ethics and our integrity. The process will go forward, and you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

As to the possible impact of his uncle’s arrest on the Senate campaign he announced only the day before, the congressman said, “I’ve been in Congress now for nine years, and I think throughout that time voters have had a chance to know me and my views. I think people will judge between me and other candidates in this race by who I am and what I believe in.”

Might some voters confuse him with his uncle? “I think people know the difference between the two of us, and people know the difference between the two of us here in Memphis. And we have 17 months in Middle and East Tennessee to get out in the community and talk about the issues. If I have the opportunity to get out in the state and touch voters and share their concerns, we can connect with voters anywhere in this state. I don’t think the outcome will be determined by anything anybody else does.”

Ford, who had formally launched his long-anticipated and much-ballyhooed Senate campaign only the day before, was asked if he thought politics had played a role in the timing of the arrests. Shaking his head dismissively, he said, “I think that’s way above my grade.” When asked what he might say to John Ford, whom he had not yet spoken to in the wake of the state senator’s arrest, he answered, “He’s my uncle. What would you say to your uncle?” 

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