Power Grab 

Democratic establishment takes the keys away from Chairman Chip Forrester.

It didn't take long for the rumors of the intra-Democratic-Party "truce" that were rampant at ex-state House speaker Jimmy Naifeh's Coon Supper in Covington last week to be confirmed.

It's now official: By agreement with Governor Phil Bredesen, state party chairman Chip Forrester will handle publicity and grass-roots organization for the party, while fund-raising and candidate recruitment will be the province of an executive director to be named by — and responsible to — the governor and the rest of the state party's power establishment.

Almost everybody considers the truce to be a surrender imposed on Forrester by that establishment, which, in theory, consists of Bredesen plus four of the five Democratic congressmen from Tennessee (everybody but Memphis' Steve Cohen, who has been studiously neutral during the last three moths of intra-party strife). In reality, it comes down to 4th District congressman Lincoln Davis and, in particular, his administrative aide Beecher Frasier.

Yes, the same Beecher Frasier who opined during last year's presidential campaign that he couldn't be sure that then candidate Barack Obama didn't have terrorist ties. The same Beecher Frazier who has spearheaded the battle against Forrester almost from the moment the Chipper announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship last November. That was in the wake of the electoral debacle in which the Democrats managed to lose both houses of the Tennessee legislature.

Forrester was a longtime rank-and-file man with close ties to the liberal blogosphere, including several bloggers in Memphis, and he was able to decisively beat Charles Robert Bone, the hand-picked candidate of the establishment at the January meeting of the state party executive committee.

Things went downhill from there, with the governor, the congressional Big Four, and residual party star Harold Ford Jr. all keeping their distance from Forrester.

Not that the would-be reform chairman didn't commit some mischances. The most notorious (and probably the most harmful) of these was Forrester's hiring of Bill Freeman as the official party fund-raiser in February.

Freeman had indeed raised a carload of cash for the Obama presidential campaign last year, and that was a major credential in Forrester's eyes. It seemed at first to satisfy the new chairman's grass-root supporters, most of whom thought the state party establishment had blown opportunities in 2008 to tap the momentum and enthusiasm of the nationwide Obama movement.

Rightly or wrongly, Bredesen was believed to have asked Obama to stay away from Tennessee during the general election. It was certainly the case that few Democratic Party campaigns for legislative seats paid anything more than lip service to the party's presidential nominee — if that.

This fact by itself angered Forrester's supporters, most of whom had been enthusiastic for Obama and thought too many of the party's candidates in Tennessee spent more time me-tooing the Republicans than establishing ideological distance from them.

These same progressive cadres were scandalized, and their support somewhat neutralized, however, when word got around that Freeman had played around on the other side of the street as well — having raised money for numerous Republican persons and causes, including the erstwhile Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns.

Worse, from the standpoint of maintaining statewide Democratic unity, was the fact that Freeman had raised substantial cash for both of Bredesen's two GOP election opponents, Van Hilleary in 2002 and Jim Bryson in 2006.

Already alienated from Forrester, the party's core power group, especially the governor, now became virtually estranged.

Unable to pry anything loose from the usual suspects among Democratic donors and realizing that he had become a liability, Freeman eventually resigned — a fact that caused Forrester as much embarrassment on the back end as his hiring of Freeman had on the front end.

Something had to give, and in the end it was Forrester. The new arrangement makes him a de facto auxiliary to the Big Boys, who will run the state party according to their wont.

Their governing philosophy was perhaps best expressed by a statement from state representative John Litz, a Morristown Democrat who achieved some clout of his own this year as one of the brokers of the Democratic ploy that resulted in the election of maverick Republican Kent Williams as speaker of the state House.

Said Litz, by way of approving the terms of the truce: "I don't think the Tennessee Democratic Party that I'm a part of is like a California Democrat. We're not baby-killing, gun-stealing tree-huggers."

• Legal uncertainty as to the status of holdover administrators on county election commissions has complicated the plans of the suddenly majority Republicans.

A case in point is right here in Shelby County, where the enlarged GOP lineup was set to include Robert Meyers, already a commission member; Bill Giannini, the immediate past chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party; and community activist Brian Stephens. Republican Rich Holden, the GOP's longest-serving member, was scheduled to depart the commission and become its administrator, replacing long-serving Democratic appointee James Johnson.

That last part was the catch: Litigation developed when the newly Republicanized election commission of Sullivan County attempted to depose the longtime administrator there, a Democrat. State attorney general Robert Cooper subsequently advised caution pending judicial resolution of such issues.

When word came down from Secretary of State Tre Hargett, advising county commissions to put a hold on administrative change-overs, the GOP figures huddled (in sequential combinations of current and prospective commission members that technically avoided violations of the state's Sunshine law).

The outcome: Stephens would come aboard, as would Giannini, as chairman. Holden would stay on. Meyers would have to depart but will return when definitive word from Hargett or state attorney general Robert Cooper comes down enabling an administrative shuffle. At that point, Johnson would go, and Holden will take his place. Got all that?

Meanwhile, returning Democrats Myra Stiles and Shep Wilbun will join Giannini, Stephens, and Holden to make up the five-member commission. All were seated at last Wednesday's first meeting of the newly reconstituted SCEC.

• On the campaign trail: Paul Mattila, the current Shelby County trustee, professes himself to be in fine fettle following recent chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Mattila, who held a successful fund-raiser in Millington weekend before last, has spiffed up his dress, adding some new suits to his inventory.

That fact, coupled with the hair loss that accompanied his treatment, gave him a fashionable-appearing baldness to go with his dapper new look — encouraging a friend or two to recommend that he keep on shaving his head as his hair grows back. Mattila says he'll think about it.

On the same weekend that saw Mattila's fund-raiser, the Shelby County Young Republicans presided, for the second year in a row, over a reprise of the Bob Patterson Barbecue at Kirby Farms, formerly an annual event held by the late county trustee. As was the case on Patterson's watch, Republican candidates and activists turned out for the event.

And also, on the same weekend, Norma Lester, a longtime Democratic activist and professional consultant on medical and nursing issues, was the subject of both a meet-and-greet affair and fund-raiser in support of her candidacy for the District 2, Position 3 county commission seat now held by commission chair Deidre Malone, a candidate for county mayor next year.

Malone had her own fund-raiser scheduled for Thursday of this week at the Racquet Club, with current county mayor A C Wharton as one of her sponsors. District Attorney General Bill Gibbons also had a fund-raiser scheduled for this week in support of his campaign for governor.

Circuit Court clerk Jimmy Moore had a successful fund-raiser at friend Billy Babb's house this past weekend, and a fair number of pols, including candidates and wannabes, also turned up at former judicial candidate Regina Newman's annual crayfish broil.

Herenton vs. Cohen: Real Deal or No Deal?

As even nonpolitical junkies know by now, the political seismograph went off big-time last week when Memphis mayor Willie Herenton followed his budget presentation to the City Council by having an aide distribute copies of a brief statement announcing his interest in a 2010 congressional race.

The two basic questions prompted by the surprise announcement were: Will it happen? And can he win? The answers are: Who knows? And, of course. In good times and bad, Herenton always has commanded a huge turnout in the District 9 portion of the city's electoral base — though incumbent Steve Cohen, a sometime Herenton ally, has demonstrated impressive support there as well.

The Flyer covered the bombshell at memphisflyer.com and will keep on doing so, in print and online, as circumstances develop.

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