In a near case of déjà vu (a highly serviceable French phrase meaning, literally, "already seen" and needing no redundant suffix like the odious and all too frequent "... all over again"), Tennessee politics recently hovered much too close to the Clinton-Lewinsky fixations of just over a decade ago.
There are still many in these parts who remember a remark made almost 11 years ago by former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant at the Shelby County Republicans' annual Lincoln Day Dinner. Bryant noted that the then president's poll ratings had been unaffected by the burgeoning sex scandal and opined somewhat sourly that Bill Clinton could get away with "adultery, sodomy, or even a little perjury" — but only "as long as the Dow Industrial Average stays over 7,000."
That drew laughs, but the unfortunate Bryant went on to press his luck. "Maybe he should get involved with some sheep, and he could go up to 100 percent," he said. Uh-oh.
Something like that same flattening out of mood occurred recently, when aggrieved Republicans in the General Assembly responded to being hoodwinked by one of their own, state representative Kent Williams of Elizabethton, a back-bencher from a reliable GOP county in East Tennessee. It was bad enough that Williams, then a freshman, had voted with a handful of other Republicans in 2007 to keep Democrat Jimmy Naifeh of Covington as speaker of the state House. It was beyond intolerable when, in conformity with a plot hatched by Nashvillian Gary Odom, Democratic leader in the House, the now second-termer added his vote last month to those of the 49 minority Democrats to make himself speaker instead of the presumptive speaker-designate, Jason Mumpower of Bristol, who had his mother on hand to watch him take the oath, and, to prepare souvenirs of the occasion for his numerous supporters in the galleries, had flown some 50-odd flags over the Capitol in anticipation.
Williams' act of perfidy to the GOP prompted House Republican leader Mumpower to leak to the media a two-year-old report of a hush-hush incident in which an inebriated Williams had reportedly made a couple of clumsy passes at a female Republican colleague, Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet, allegedly professing at one point, "I'd give a week's pay to see you naked!"
News reports of that incident were profoundly embarrassing to everybody concerned, not excluding Lynn herself, and it was touch-and-go when Germantown Republican House member Brian Kelsey offered a resolution demanding that the House Ethics Committee investigate. That might have gone somewhere had not Odom done some leaking of his own — of a text message which Kelsey, publicly an implacable foe of the new speaker, had sent to Williams apparently offering to make nice in exchange for chairmanship of a key committee.
Though many took Kelsey at his word — that the incriminating message had preceded his learning of Williams' problems with Lynn, his outrage, and his subsequent call for remedial justice — Odom and another Nashville Democrat, Mike Turner, felt emboldened to accuse Kelsey of "extortion," and his call for an investigation petered out when the Ethics Committee — four Democrats, four Republicans — unanimously turned it down.
Fade to last Wednesday, when the members of the Shelby County legislative delegation used their traditional weekly luncheon at the Tennessee Municipal League building, two blocks from the Capitol, as an opportunity to do their own reorganization. Kelsey furnished part of the entertainment there, as well.
After Jim Kyle of Memphis, the Senate Democrats' leader, pulled rank and got himself elected delegation chairman over Republican state representative Curry Todd of Collierville, presumably on a party-line vote, Todd became vice chairman by acclamation. ("And we know how he feels about vice!" cracked the very liberal Democratic senator Beverly Marrero about the very conservative Todd.)
When nominations were sought for delegation secretary, the following dialogue ensued:
Kelsey: "I'd like to nominate my good friend G.A. Hardaway."
Democratic state representative Ulysses Jones (pretending to mishear): "Your new friend? How many does that make? Three?"
Kelsey: "Oh, I'm up to at least six!"
The laughter around the tables, linked in a bipartisan semicircle, was both spontaneous and across party lines — but decidedly nervous.
And, oh yes, state representative Hardaway, a Democratic counterpart of sorts to GOP provocateur Kelsey (among other things, the fathers'-rights advocate intends to renew his call for mandatory paternity tests for all newborns and wants to reopen the battle against Memphis' Nathan Bedford Forrest statue), won.
Hint: At a time of horrendous shortages in most Tennesseans' lives, there will be no shortage of madcap legislation in this current session. A GOP state representative from Knoxville, Stacey Campfield, specializes in suchlike. He already has introduced one bill to require women who have abortions to obtain death certificates and another that would deny birth certificates to the children of illegal immigrants.
More troubling, perhaps, is that several putatively more mainstream Republicans, led by GOP House caucus chairman Glen Casada, have signed on to a goofy lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Barack Obama's election on grounds that the president is not a natural-born American citizen. Even Casada acknowledges that this one, which has already attracted a fair degree of national scorn, is a non-starter, but he wants, he says, merely to clear the air.
Meanwhile, back to reality (a highly relative term in Nashville): More than a few of the aforementioned Shelby delegation members, curious as to party leader Kyle's reasons for wanting the more mundane position of delegation chairman, speculated wryly along the lines of, "He wants to be in charge of something!"
Other possibilities: 1) The position will give Kyle, frustrated by GOP domination of the Senate but a potential candidate for either Shelby County mayor or governor, greater public visibility; 2) it might give him an edge up on consolidating delegation support for this or that legislation he chooses to push; 3) it might allow Governor Phil Bredesen, his patron, a little more leeway with the large Shelby contingent; or 4) all of the above.
As for Bredesen, whose State of the State address this year had — pending completion of Obama's stimulus package — been something of a placeholder, he, none too secretly, lobbied furiously to get up to Washington himself as secretary of health and human services. This was odd in a sense, since the governor had all too plainly attempted to intervene on behalf of Obama rival Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential primary race and had cautioned Obama against campaigning for Democratic legislative candidates.
Yet Bredesen's bid had moved him into real contention, until furious critics of the governor's notorious economies at the expense of TennCare managed, it would seem, to shoot down his balloon. (But hark! His chief rival, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, is suddenly presiding over an apparent state bankruptcy.)
Most statewide Democrats had been alarmed that Bredesen's departure would have elevated Republican lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville to the governorship. Other influential Democrats actually pushed for that outcome, either because they thought an incumbent Ramsey would be easier to beat in 2010 than his current GOP rivals or, less likely, in a burst of bipartisan fellow-feeling.
Oh, such good will between Democrats and Republicans does exist here and there on Capitol Hill. As one example, longtime Democratic state representative Mike Kernell of Memphis, who formerly headed the House Government Operations Committee, was forced by the shakeup to surrender its chairmanship to the aforesaid Lynn of the GOP, but the two have since — quite platonically, mind you — exchanged choruses of mutual confidence and admiration.
And then there were those nice things that rival candidates Kyle and Curry said about each other at last week's delegation luncheon.
Back to Ramsey: In January 2007, the then Senate Republican leader had been a surprise winner for the dual post of speaker/lieutenant governor, winning out over the venerable Democratic incumbent, John Wilder of Somerville, through the vote of a renegade Democrat, Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, who canceled out what would have been a pro-Wilder vote by a renegade from the other party, ex-Republican Micheal Williams of Maynardville.
Kurita and Williams each said bye-bye in the last election cycle, both purged by direct action of their partymates — though Williams, running as an independent, at least got a free shot at reelection, falling to GOP-backed establishment regular Mike Faulk. Kurita won her primary by a handful of votes over challenger Tim Barnes, who promptly challenged the vote. The state Democratic executive committee essentially cast Kurita out by turning the matter over as "incurably uncertain" to the county Democratic committees in her district, which all too predictably found that Barnes was the appropriate cure.
(The latest Williams to go irregular, Speaker Williams of Elizabethton, should be — and no doubt is — aware of these precedent punishments; he has already been stripped of his bona fides as a Republican and lists himself formally as a "Carter County Republican.")
In any case, the Senate is now, as indicated, under fairly complete domination by the ascendant Republican majority. (Another incidental trend in the legislature: East Tennesseans like Ramsey are taking over the reins of power from West Tennesseans.) When he first ascended to control of the chamber in January 2007, Ramsey had been forthcoming about his intentions to act as a "conservative Republican" on behalf of a "pro-business" agenda. Ramsey was somewhat less candid, however, about his attitude toward committee appointments. Though he at first indicated he would follow Wilder's longtime precedent of apportioning out committee chairmanships to members of both parties, the fact is, each and every Senate committee is now headed by a Republican.
The committee with clear potential to become the most "pro-business" of them all is the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee, now headed by a Shelby Countian, Paul Stanley of Germantown. The committee's membership juxtaposes six Republicans with three Democrats, a ratio somewhat out of kilter with the Senate's current 19-14 ratio of Republicans to Democrats.
Stanley himself is reasonably far right, but his vice chair, Dewayne Bunch of Cleveland, is so famously archconservative that, when the committee sat down for its first meeting of the session last week in a Legislative Plaza hearing room, Chairman Stanley joked about the odd fact that Bunch, who took a seat at his elbow, was for the first time ever situated "to my left."
For that first meeting, Stanley had invited four members of the state's banking community, representing institutions of varying size and regional influence. If he, Bunch, and the other committee members expected the bankers to denounce government interference and toe the line of free-market economics, they were soon disabused of any such notion (and, to their credit, seemed to assimilate what they learned).
First of all, three of the four bankers acknowledged asking for federal bailout funds provided under last year's Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), and the self-professed "odd man out," Anderson L. Smith of Jefferson Federal Bank in East Tennessee, had no ill to speak of it. And manfully, as it were, each of the four declined to blame the government or even the bad economy for the industry's misfortunes — which were largely due, said Smith, to "some factors that we as bankers should take responsibility for in not watching the ABCs."
The same note was struck when Stanley asked if the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), activated under the Clinton administration, had been a major cause of housing-loan defaults by telling financial institutions "to lend money to those they wouldn't ordinarily lend money to."
To a man, the bankers said no. As Tony Thompson of First Tennessee Bank said, "the crux" of CRA had been "to make credit available to all borrowers, regardless of race, color, or creed." He was emphatic: "We were not asked to make a loan to somebody who could not pay it back ... [but] to those people who are able to pay it back."
Bunch was incredulous: "Do you not already do that? Do you mean y'all put yourselves in the position of making all these bad loans?" Answered Thompson: "If bad loans are made, we're the ones who made them."
Even more emphatic was William S. Stuard, president and CEO of the Farmers and Merchant Bank, who had earlier summed up the economic moment this way: "We're not dealing with a lot of bad loans right now. I think we're dealing with a lot of good people in bad times." Stuard chimed in to say, "The loans we make are not driven by the CRA."
And what then might be the culprit of the case? Smith was blunt: "Competition creates a tendency to take risks." As for the putatively dead hand of government regulation, Thompson squelched that hypothesis as well. "The regulators have been tough but fair," he said.
Bunch was able to recoup only when he mentioned the controversial "cram-down" proposal advocated by some congressional liberals as a means of drastically reducing mortgage liabilities for distressed homeowners. "When you hear it from a newspaper reporter with an agenda, it looks really good," groused Bunch, invoking the so far overlooked media menace for the first time.
Yes, the bankers agreed, albeit tepidly. They, too, opposed "cram-down," which had thus far not been advocated by President Obama nor submitted to a vote in either branch of Congress.
This week, the Senate Commerce Committee was scheduled to hear from assorted homebuilders on their view of the current economic crisis. And if that hearing should go like the previous one, and, to press the case even further, if legislators at large in the next few weeks can ask the right questions and open their ears to the honest answers that follow, there is a fair chance that the current session might actually end with some serious and well-meant consequences, in much the way that the framers of American self-government intended.
But don't bet on it.