NASHVILLE — To judge by their success in completing action on Governor Phil Bredesen's education-boosting tobacco-tax increase this week, the General Assembly's Democrats — like Tiny Tim in the Dickens fable — aren't dead, after all.
The Democrats — often prone to chessboard blunders in recent years — were able to checkmate the rival Republicans in both legislative chambers this week and last. In the Senate last week, Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis kept his rank-and-file in line, and that, along with the long-held espousal of tobacco taxes by Speaker Pro Tem Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, a nominal Democrat but a de facto independent, provided a one-vote margin for a 42-cent tax increase on cigarette-pack sales.
The proceeds of the tax increase, estimated at $230 million annually, will be distributed between K-12 and higher education, agricultural enhancement grants, and state trauma centers.
In the House on Monday, party leaders were able to shepherd wayward members back in line to avoid what Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, majority leader Gary Odom of Nashville, and others considered traps in the form of reasonable-appearing Republican amendments (including one that would have allocated additional funding for the state's Iraq war veterans).
Noting the absence of some key Democratic senators this week (nope, Memphis' Ophelia Ford, quietly on the case and voting with her party colleagues, was not one of them), Odom warned that returning an amended bill to the Senate would, in effect, kill it. The bill carried 60-34 and awaits only the governor's signature to become law.
This, possibly the session's final week, will be devoted mainly to passage of the state budget, though some other key measures, including one affecting changes in state lottery scholarships, remain to be acted on.
• Though there remain Democrats who choose not to acknowledge the prowess of party activist David Upton (and Upton returns the favor by declining to concede any gravitas or political effectiveness to his detractors), the fact is that the ubiquitous behind-the-scenes player is on something of a roll.
In special elections, particularly, Upton has done well of late, and he is filling a power vacuum created by the decline of the old Farris and Ford power blocs as such. In intramural Democratic matters, he is consistently outvoted by factions represented by Sidney Chism and Desi Franklin, but he keeps finding candidates to beat their candidates in public elections.
The latest example was last week's two-to-one vote margin of victory of Jeannie Richardson over Kevin Gallagher in the special Democratic primary for state House District 89. Richardson has a long record of involvement in community affairs and, as a mental-health activist, knew her way around Nashville as well, but her name hadn't surfaced as a legislative candidate until Upton started promoting her as an alternative to Gallagher, considered at the time to be the heir apparent to the seat.
Gallagher, campaign manager of Steve Cohen's successful congressional campaign last year, thought he had been promised a free run for the District 89 seat after dropping out of the race for Cohen's old District 30 state Senate seat in deference to ultimate winner Beverly Marrero.
It didn't turn out that way. Cohen gave at least nominal support to Gallagher, but the previous District 89 House members, Carol Chumney, Marrero, and current interim representative Mary Wilder all supported Richardson, who had a funding edge as well.
Richardson won't have much trouble in the July 17th special general election with her Republican opponent, the previously unknown Dave Wicker, but it could have been, and almost was, a much more competitive affair.
Former Memphis school board member Lora Jobe had been seriously courted as a Republican candidate for the seat by ranking members of the state and national GOP hierarchies, who promised her ample backing and organizational help. Jobe thought seriously about it and almost took the plunge but opted out for family reasons, a scant few days before the filing deadline.
• Armed with support from a prominent African-American former official, Juvenile Court judge Curtis Person issued his harshest attack yet last week against the Shelby County Commission for its ongoing effort to create a second court judgeship.
Speaking to the downtown Kiwanis Club last Wednesday at The Peabody, Person said the commission majority had voted to create another Juvenile Court judge for "political" reasons only and had caused serious "disruptions" in the work of the court. "Employees have been assaulted, they have been demoralized, they have been discredited with misinformation," Person said.
"To have two judges at the Juvenile Court who have competing personalities and conflicting personalities will do nothing but result in chaos. Absolute chaos," Person said, going on to insist that "every major Juvenile Court in the state of Tennessee" had, like Shelby County at present, "one judge and multiple referees."
Person countered the argument that Juvenile Court should have multiple judges like other local court jurisdictions by saying there were differences that made Juvenile Court "unique" — namely, several administrative responsibilities that are currently entrusted to the elected judge.
Defending his thesis about political motivations on the part of the commission, Person said, "I was elected with a 24,000-vote majority over the closest of my opponents. I was sworn in on September 1st , and on September 6th, the commission voted to establish a second court." He said he received no advance word of the two-judgeship proposal, which the commission majority (seven Democrats and Republican member Mike Carpenter) refused to defer — though minor proposals presented on the same day were deferred, Person said.
Subsequently, Person filed suit to block the creation of a second judgeship. After a temporary withdrawal of its action, the commission ultimately voted again in favor of a second court, and its action has been upheld in Chancery Court. Person appealed that ruling and has asked the state Supreme Court to intervene directly and hear the case. Ironically, the commission itself voted in a special meeting Wednesday to petition the court for the same action.
After his remarks were concluded, Person got an immediate boost from Fred Davis, who was the first African American elected to the City Council back in the '70s. Noting his own involvement over the years in support activities for Juvenile Court, Davis accused "certain people" on the County Commission of supporting the second judgeship for "absolutely self-serving" reasons.
"I'm going to hang with you on this," Davis assured Person. Afterward, the former councilman made a point of telling Person and several bystanders that Commissioner Henri Brooks, a leader in the second-judgeship push who, among other things, has called for a Justice Department investigation of Juvenile Court, was "the biggest crock of crap I've ever seen."