Despite his fall from grace in Nashville, former state House of Representives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh was able to command the usual mass attendance for his annual “Coon Supper” Thursday night on the grounds of the Covington Country Club.
Most of the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were in attendance. Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, Dresden state Senator Roy Herron, and former House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarsksville were all on hand, among declared candidates. And, among the still undeclared were Jackson businessman Mike McWherter (along with Papa Ned Ray, the former governor) Memphian Jim Kyle, Democratic leader in the Senate, and state Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga.
Knoxville-based publisher and developers Doug Horne didn’t make it because of an illness in his extended family, said Horne pal Randy Button, like Horne himself a former party chairman. (As it turned out, Horne was even then on the cusp of announcing that he wouldn’t run, after all. Horne would reveal that on Friday morning, along with the illuminating disclosure that, if he had run, the would have made tax reform a major plank; He would say he had determined that the federal stimulus program had deferred the urgency of the issue.)
A remark of McMillan’s attested to Naifeh’s continuing clout. Asked if she’d actually eaten the barbecued raccoon meat (mercifully, fried chicken and standard pork barbecue were also on hand, in abundance) , Kim said she had. “I told Jimmy Naifeh it was good!” As no great admirer of the coon meat myself (it tasted acidy and rancid the one time I tried it years ago), I was somewhat disbelievingl. “You thought it was good?” I asked. Whereupon she backtracked: “No. Speaker Naifeh asked me if it was good, and I said it was.”
That bit of politesse was in keeping with the respect paid to the former Speaker at his long established annual event. Indeed, Naifeh never looked more the grandee than he did strolling from group to group, collecting gossip, trade talk, and deference.
I asked him about his successor as Speaker, Kent Williams (another absentee, due to a death in the family). “He’s doing fine,” said Naifeh. “He asks me to help him, and I do.”
What about House Democratic leader Gary Odom? Naifeh’s face changed a little. After a pause, he gave a perceptibly muted response. “He’s doing all right.” Then after another pause, Naifeh said, “He sure told you wrong back then.” That was an obvious reference to what woud appear to be Naifeh’s still simmering resentment of Odom’s having claimed credit rather than himself for the elevation of Williams, an independent-minded Republican, as well as for the majority leader’s outspokenly negative view of Naifeh’s erstwhile support of a state income tax.
Perhaps not incidentally, Odom — also a rumored gubernatorial hopeful — was among the non-attendees at the Coon Supper.
Beleaguered state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester was there, however, conspicuously spending much friendly time with state party committee member Don Farmer, who had nominated Charles Robert Bone, Forrester’s opponent, at the January meeting of the party executive committee that named Forrester chairman.
Unconfirmed rumors spread around the grounds that Chip has made a truce with his party opposition — which is led by Governor Phil Bredesen, no less — and agreed to accept an executive director acceptable to the governor (also an attendee in Covington) and other members of the camp which has kept its distance thus far.
Republicans? The Coon Supper had a few, but then again too few to mention. (Apologies to Frank Sinatra. Or rather songwriter Paul Anka.) In fact, there were several — among them the irrepressible Terry Roland of not-so-far-away Millington, who at one point bestowed one of his patented extended hugs on state Senator Ophelia Ford, to whom he narrowly lost a bitterly contested special election in 2005.
“I’m open to everybody. I don’t hold a person’s party against them,” Roland explained to a group of Democrats. As for himself, “I’m not a bad man.” No, they agreed. He wasn’t. Ready to try his luck again, Roland had some campaign cards to pass around, identifying himself as a candidate for Shelby County commissioner in District 4. That election takes place in 2010.