VIEWPOINT: Sea Change 

The Democrats’ control of the state Senate is crumbling.

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With the conclusion this week of the special session on ethics, state legislators now are free to open, or reopen, any of several other Pandora’s boxes — the most immediate of which is the on-again/off-again question of who gets to sit in the state Senate representing Shelby County’s District 29.


Though Terry Roland, the Republican candidate in last fall’s special election, continues to press his case, and Democrat Ophelia Ford, declared the winner back then, still sits provisionally, resisting Republican senators’ efforts to void the election, two circumstances have blunted the edge of the drama and slowed its momentum.


One was last week’s ruling on the case by U.S. district judge Bernice Donald, which raised as many questions as it answered. Both sides immediately claimed victory: Ford’s side did so because Donald appeared to invalidate Roland’s numerous challenges based on residence and improper registration procedures. Donald’s ruling further mandated that any effort to void the election had to conform with statewide election practices that were observed before that special election — which was to determine a successor to Ford’s brother John Ford, a casualty of the Tennessee Waltz scandal.


But Roland’s side still possessed the trump card that Donald’s decision provisionally put in play: an up-or-down vote on voiding the election. Senate Republican leader Ron Ramsey, who prevailed in a preliminary vote of 17-14 some weeks back, has indicated he intends to proceed, presumably with his hand strengthened by the accession to Republican ranks last week of erstwhile Democrat Don McLeary of Humboldt.


The crossover vote of McLeary, then still a Democrat, in last month’s preliminary “Committee of 33” session is what gave Ramsey the majority he needed for a formal and final vote by the Senate. It was the imminence of such a climactic vote that resulted in a temporary injunction by Donald at Ford’s request. But the legal uncertainties still need to be sorted out before Ramsey, Roland, and the Republicans get to cross their Rubicon.


Another development that may have rendered the District 29 showdown somewhat moot is the political tide that has further eroded the Democrats’ position in the Senate. And though the issues of ethics in general and electoral reform in particular were, and continue to be, integral to the District 29 situation, those issues were always somewhat overshadowed by the pure politics of the case.


In the same week that McLeary made his surprise announcement of a party switch, a Republican state senator from Memphis, Curtis Person, announced that after 40 years as a legislator he would be vacating his seat this year — conceivably to run for judge of Juvenile Court, where Person is currently a part-time administrator.


In one sense, that would mean no change in the Senate lineup. Republican Person will almost certainly be succeeded by a partymate. In another sense, however, the exit of Person, a longtime friend and ally of Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, a nominal Democrat, will have seismic consequences. Even though he formally voted for Ramsey over Wilder for speaker in January of last year, Person did so knowing that two other Republicans were going Wilder’s way, assuring the venerable speaker a majority.


Whichever Republican ends up succeeding Person is unlikely to be so ambivalent. (Nor, presumably,  will the newly chastened, formerly  compliant pair of  GOPers.) It could be an opportune time for the long preeminent Wilder, who is presumably disinclined to be a back-bencher, to consider retirement.


In any case, the high likelihood is that octogenarian Wilder will not be a candidate for reelection in 2008. Worsening the Democrats’ predicament is the fact that Wilder’s rural West Tennessee district, which includes many new bedroom suburbs of Memphis, has been slowly tilting Republican, and it could be ripe for plucking by the GOP.


The bottom line: Even without an opportunity to avail themselves of District 29 by means of a possible interim Republican appointee by the Shelby County Commission (the Democrats would be heavily favored to win the seat back this fall), the Republicans appear very much in the ascendant as short- and maybe even long-term masters of the Senate. The magic figure of 20 seats, out of 33 overall, would seem to be within their reach.   


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