If he's elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, when he'll be making his second try, former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant will do what he can to get named to that body's Judiciary Committee. Why? "I want to make sure I can help President Bush. We've got to be careful to get the right kind of judges in there" is how Bryant put it to members of the Southeast Shelby County Republican Club last week.
The issue is crucial, Bryant told the audience at Fox Ridge Pizza last Tuesday night, and will remain so even if, and maybe especially if, Majority Leader Bill Frist can successfully follow through on his current threat to change Senate rules so as to prevent a Democratic filibuster on judicial appointees.
That's the so-called nuclear option, which, Bryant suggested, could be equally dangerous to both parties. There is the 2008 presidential election to think about, for example, and with it the specter of a certain Democratic senator from New York named Hillary. "If there's a second President Clinton," Bryant warned, "then we want to make sure that we look very closely at her judges to make sure they believe in the Constitution. Don't be thinking that we're going to be solving this very quickly if we go nuclear."
To distinguish himself from three other declared opponents for the Republican nomination, Bryant boasts his legal background, which includes service as a military J.A.G. officer, as a West Point instructor, and as U.S. attorney for West Tennessee, including Memphis, during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though he didn't mention it last week, he was also a House "manager" for President Clinton's impeachment in late 1998 and earned a certain fame -- or notoriety -- as the designated GOP interrogator of one Monica Lewinsky.
First elected to the House in 1992, Bryant represented Tennessee's 7th District, which stretches from the suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville. He hazarded his first run for the Senate in 2002, when the then Republican incumbent, Fred Thompson, made a surprise announcement of his withdrawal from politics. (Thompson went back to acting and can be seen weekly in installments of TV's Law and Order.)
It remains unproven, but there are many who believe that Thompson timed his announcement so that former Governor Lamar Alexander could get an early start on the race to succeed him. Bryant was reportedly one of those who thought so (his supporters certainly did), but he declared for the Senate anyway, despite further widespread reports that the Bush administration itself was promoting Alexander.
Bryant lost a hard-fought primary in 2002 but then loyally soldiered up in support of Alexander, the eventual winner over Democrat Bob Clement. He went back to his former residence in Jackson and settled down to a law practice. When Frist, who is expected to be a 2008 presidential candidate, confirmed that he would vacate the state's other Senate seat in 2006, Bryant was the first candidate of either party to hit the ground running.
"I apologize for spending so much time in East Tennessee," he said to the Southeast Shelby County club last week. "But," he noted wryly, "that's where the votes were down last time."
Bryant thinks the statewide name recognition he gained in 2002 puts him on equal terms with the other announced GOP candidates -- former 4th District congressman and 2002 gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary, now of Murfreesboro; Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker; and state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, the former chairperson of the Tennessee Republican Party.
"We're not running against Lamar Alexander this year," Bryant told his Republican audience last week. "We're running against mortal people, not a political superstar."
In an interview after his public remarks, Bryant indulged in some speculation that runs counter to conventional wisdom. "What happens if Governor [Phil] Bredesen doesn't run again?" he asked, noting that the governor, who has potential long-term problems with social "wedge" issues and TennCare, has been touted as a presidential prospect in the national media. "I think he might serve one term, declare victory, and try to get up in that league."
That would open the doors for a governor's race for his 7th District successor, Marsha Blackburn, as well as the aforesaid Hilleary, Corker, and Harwell. "I'm prepared to endorse them all, anybody that wants to run," he said with a grin, "to get them out of the [Senate] race." n