Thursday, June 28, 2001

Getting In Front

Kyle has decided that taking some risks could help in his county mayor's race.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2001 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- As the legislature grunts and groans its way toward what may or may not be a finish in this last week before the formal end of the state's fiscal year, one figure from Shelby County has acquired new stature for his efforts, both on stage and behind the scenes, in trying to establish enough revenue to meet Tennessee's budgetary needs.

That is Jim Kyle, the Democratic state senator from the Frayser-Raleigh area who, until recently, had seemed to have come out the public-relations loser in several of his legislative initiatives -- notably in an early call for a countywide referendum on funding a new NBA arena and, most of all, in his sponsorship of a bill inhibiting discount gasoline sales.

The latter bill, enacted just as gasoline sales took another huge upward bump, was later vetoed by Governor Don Sundquist -- a fact which was not necessarily greeted with dismay by the beleaguered Kyle, who saw it as a convenient reason to lay that particular burden down.

Twice bitten did not make Kyle shy, however. When the legislature veered into late May with no agreement in sight on tax legislation needed to finish out a budget that, as of now, threatens to be hundreds of millions dollars out of balance, Kyle volunteered to head the joint House-Senate Conference Committee charged with resolving the issue.

He has received kudos in several quarters for his shepherding of that committee's efforts. The gerund in question is well chosen: Not a day goes by that Kyle isn't quoted in the state press for some drill-sergeant phrase used to keep his reluctant herd moving toward a resolution of the difficult tax question.

"We've been talking the talk, now it's time to walk the walk" was a typical Kyle utterance, and he has done numerous variations on it as he has continued to prod the committee into doing its work. When the choices became clear -- an income tax, a sales-tax-based solution, or simply doing nothing at all other than a possible "continuation" budget that would leave basic questions unresolved -- Chairman Kyle kept the pressure on.

One sales-tax adherent grumbled, "I don't know what he's talking about. I don't have anything ready," but found something specific to propose a day or two later.

By now, with only days left until June 30th, when a choice of some sort will be forced, Kyle has worked to prepare the legislature for a choice which, to many of his fellow legislators, is the most unpalatable (if, in the long run, most inevitable) option of all: a state income tax.

When Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer, made a long, rambling presentation to the Conference Committee on Sunday, it was Kyle who later (by prearrangement with Wilder, he would say) came before the press with a translation: The venerable Senate speaker, who had taken an anti-income tax pledge last year, was willing to accept such a tax this year.

And it was Kyle who, in the wake of the committee's deliberations Monday, formally established the income tax as the question legislators would surely have to hazard a vote on. "I just don't know whether it'll be a flat tax or a graduated version," he said.

When asked whether he isn't taking a risk by being so up front in his efforts, given the fact that horn-honking zealots who oppose an income tax were preparing another set of demonstrations in Nashville as of mid-week, demonstrations that might well be imitated back home in Shelby County during his county mayor's race, Kyle shook his head.

"At this point," he said, "I think I can make the case that I'm not afraid to take on the hard questions. That's what leadership is." And the income tax is an easier albatross to bear, he indicated, than the gas-price issue would have been.

n As of this writing, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout has not exercised his prerogative, secured last week by agreement with his city-government counterpart, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, to name a member of the state House of Representatives to the Public Building Authority that will oversee construction of the new NBA arena.

The county mayor, who was taken by surprise when Herenton unilaterally named state senator John Ford to the Authority, promptly insisted on the right to name a House member. Legislation mandating a member from each chamber went virtually unnoticed through the House and Senate recently and was signed into law by Governor Don Sundquist.

Ford had been recommended, as it turns out, by Lt. Governor John Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer. But his appointment by Herenton can also be regarded as a further sign of rapprochement between the Memphis mayor and the still politically influential Ford family, as well as recognition that Ford has frequently been a confidante for prominent Memphis developers who maintain an interest in where and how the new arena is built. (State senator Steve Cohen, a longtime booster of both collegiate and professional sports in Memphis, had also wanted the Senate appointment.)

Almost as soon as Rout's right to name a House member -- in tandem with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington -- had been established, state rep. Paul Stanley publicly recommended his House GOP colleague Tre Hargett of Bartlett in a letter to Rout which Stanley made public. Another House member, Rep. Larry Miller, a North Memphis Democrat and an African American, also made it known he wants to serve on the PBA.

Hargett's candidacy has not sat well with state rep. Kathryn Bowers and other Shelby House members who were active in passing enabling legislation to get state aid for the arena. Hargett, as Bowers and others note, was an opponent of the legislation, as he is of a good many other proposals that involve additional financial commitment on the part of state government. (Hargett was recently co-chair of a special House committee looking into budget-cutting possibilities.)

It may not sit well, either, with Rout, who put himself on the line for the arena and worked mightily to work out acceptable funding sources for it.

It surely doesn't sit well with Naifeh, who with Rout will make the choice once the two of them sit down to review possibilities. The senate speaker made a point of walking down the aisle in the aftermath of the unprecedented Sunday session and, clearly aware that Miller and Bowers were discussing the matter with a visitor, saying in a loud voice, "Larry, you're my man! You're my man!"

Since matters of political and racial balance are important in determining the PBA's membership, however, and since Hargett is regarded as unacceptable by Bowers and others, a compromise solution may emerge. As Bowers sees it, Rep. Joe Kent, a moderate white Republican from Southeast Memphis, would be an acceptable member, and she foresees a resolution whereby both Kent and Miller get named to the Authority.

"After all," she notes, "the legislation says at least one House member has to be on the PBA. It doesn't say more than one can't be."

n Rep. Henri Brooks is trying to live down the furor started a couple of weeks back when she failed to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a legislative session and was asked by House speaker Jimmy Naifeh to remain outside the chamber henceforth until after the pledge.

Brooks' immediate (and defensive) reaction was to justify her act on the basis that the American flag stood for a past that included slavery. And she criticized Naifeh for talking to her "like a master to a slave" -- an interpretation disputed by several nearby legislators, many of them African Americans like Brooks.

What came of it all was a first-class imbroglio with all manner of symbolic content. Talk-show hosts and editorialists throughout the state (including ourselves) thrived on it for a week or so, ringing up every change imaginable on the theme.

It's over with now. For the record, Brooks has dutifully stood at attention for every subsequent Pledge of Allegiance. "I have for every day for each of the six years since I was elected," she insists. "It was just that on that day I was wrapped up in some legislation I was working on at my desk for child-safety restraints."

Brooks made it clear this week that she doesn't want to see the issue revived or to make any more of a case for her actions that she already did.

A wag once said of Brooks that she was so dedicated to the idea of public service that she decided to skip charm school altogether. An unceasing advocate for all manner of civil rights issues -- ranging from her insistence that all state programs funded with federal aid observe Title VI non-discrimination strictures to a recent demand for reparations to the descendants of slaves -- she is aware that she has a reputation as a zealot.

Yet she has another side to her nature, one which is not so unyielding as the familiar portrait. Years ago, she unbent during an end-of-session party and bopped at some length with then Rep. Tim Joyce -- who, as a white and a Republican conservative, was close to being her philosophical opposite.

A photograph, which ran at the time in the Flyer, chronicles the event.

Reminded of it, she made a request. "I wish you would burn that. In effigy!"

But she grinned when she said it.

n State senator Cohen, whose penchant for taking stands on controversial issues was manifested most recently by his vigorous effort – in vain, as it turned out – to turn back mandatory thumbprint legislation for pawnshops in Shelby and Knox counties, is not one to hide his light under a bushel.

But he has made no attempt to publicize one of his more commendable recent efforts. Cohen, along with House Finance Committee chairman Matt Kisber (D-Jackson), pushed through legislation renaming the Legislative Plaza press room for veteran free-lance reporter Drue Smith.

Smith fell ill recently, and Cohen and Kisber wasted little time in rushing the name-change through. Even more gratifying to the sponsors (as well as, no doubt, to Smith) is the fact that her partial recovery now allows her to work in a chamber named for herself, plaque on the door and all.

Thursday, June 7, 2001

The Gwatney Gambit

The plot thickens for the mayor's race as another candidate waits in the wings.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Although there are still three active candidates for the Democratic nomination for Shelby County mayor -- state representative Carol Chumney, state senator Jim Kyle, and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd -- and Byrd's momentum, especially, is gathering, yet a fourth significant public figure is thinking strongly of making a mayoral race as a Democrat.

This is Russell Gwatney, owner of several automobile dealerships and a recent chamber of commerce chairman who focused on evangelizing for educational needs.

Gwatney, whose previous foray into politics was an unsuccessful race as an independent candidate for the county commission in 1994, is reading from the same primer as other Democratic countywide candidates who see the county's demographics, notably a technical black majority, favoring them in 2002 but who understand that swing voters have developed the habit in recent years of voting Republican in Shelby County races.

With some exceptions, such as county assessor Rita Clark's two winning campaigns in 1996 and 2000, Democrats haven't fared well in such races. But Clark's success with suburban swing voters has encouraged Democrats to believe they can win with candidates who have sufficient middle-of-the-road appeal.

Hence, the high hopes invested in the likes of Byrd, whose indisputable Democratic identity -- from his service a generation ago in the state legislature and from two 7th District congressional races, in 1982 and 1994 -- is fortified by across-the-board business relationships and by his long identification as a booster and fund-raiser for the University of Memphis and other community causes.

Most party cadres see Byrd beginning to take the play away from Chumney, whose candidacy has to fly in the face of stereotypes, and Kyle, whose legislative efforts have saddled him with some difficult issues. But Byrd has a major liability, too -- notably his recent alienation from a Democratic faction, mostly made up of longtime Ford-organization cadres, who thought he undermined the chances of party nominee John Freeman in last year's special election for register.

Byrd's critics point to a $1,000 financial donation he gave independent candidate Otis Jackson, a former U of M basketballer, in a three-cornered race involving Freeman and the eventual winner, Republican nominee Tom Leatherwood, and suggest that Byrd organized even more support for Jackson after Freeman upset Byrd's choice, former U of M basketball coach Larry Finch, in a nomination session of the Democratic executive committee.

Byrd, who was a co-chairman of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, says all he did was give the donation to Jackson, a personal friend, after which he kept his distance from the local race. Since then, Byrd has made a point of helping Freeman defray his campaign debt, and, though known to be the personal choice for county mayor of Sidney Chism, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's chief political aide, the Bartlett banker has kept his lines of communication open to the Ford family and its allies.

"You still mad at me?" Byrd asked longtime Freeman friend and veteran Fordite David Upton at a recent party gathering. "Well, a little," said Upton, "but you're doing some of the right things now, no question."

Meanwhile, there's Gwatney, whose history of noninvolvement with intra-party disputes somewhat balances his minimal past participation in party affairs. "I want to see how Harold does" is the businessman's frank statement about his short-term strategy. If Gwatney sees Byrd faltering to any major degree, he has made it clear that he will enter the race.

Gwatney's problem is that Byrd already draws on much of his would-be constituency, and Byrd's chances of nailing down a base in both the business community and among mainstream Democrats will be greatly enhanced if a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser, scheduled for June 28th at Central Station, a day before the county Democrats' annual Kennedy Dinner, is a huge success.

The Hooper Factor

Like the mayor's race, the one for sheriff also has a dark horse -- or possibly two --waiting in the wings.

Henry Hooper, now a State Farm insurance agent but once both a Sheriff's Department employee and a Secret Service agent, has indicated that he intended to run for sheriff as an independent. Now, there is some thought in Democratic ranks to persuade him to run as a Democrat.

Hooper, who was Mayor Willie Herenton's first choice to be police director back in 1992 before former congressman Harold Ford Sr. exerted his influence on behalf of Melvin Burgess, is an imposing figure who as an independent could draw votes away from Randy Wade, the likely Democratic nominee.

Recently Hooper's stock took a bounce when he became the subject of an admiring, ostensibly nonpolitical, feature article in The Commercial Appeal.

Hooper is close to former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris, who has begun to actively plead his cause.

The situation has prompted a few Democrats to suggest to Chism that he might rethink his preferences and throw his authority -- and, by implication, that of Mayor Herenton -- behind Hooper in a Democratic primary. So far that scenario is considered unlikely.

As an alternative, some Democrats are recommending that Wade A) persuade former U.S. marshal Buck Wood to agree to serve as his chief deputy and B) announce the fact as part of his campaign.

The idea behind that proposal is two-fold -- to enhance Wade's potential in the general election and to keep Wood, who also has talked up a race for sheriff, from complicating that race any further.

Other observers see a scenario whereby both Wood and Hooper become independent candidates, creating a four-way race in which Democrat Wade and independent Hooper, both African Americans, vie with two white candidates: independent Wood and the Republican nominee (current Chief Deputy Don Wright or department administrators Bobby Simmons or Mike Jewell).

The Thompson Puzzle

Speculation about the 2002 electoral intentions of U.S. senator Fred Thompson was compounded this week with brand-new commentary in the national media and with the naming of a new chief of staff for the senator -- lobbyist and former law partner Howard Liebengood.

Some wondered if Liebengood, who was assistant minority counsel to Thompson on the Senate Watergate committee in the early '70s and who was the chief lobbyist for the Philip Morris Companies in recent years, means a focus on the administrative -- as against electoral -- aspects of Thompson's office.

Others wondered if it meant Thompson was gearing up for a major campaign -- either for reelection or, as The New York Times speculated this week, for governor.

Most observers saw the Times article, by B. Drummond Ayres Jr., to be something out of a time warp, since Thompson conspicuously swore off a gubernatorial bid back in February.

But, says Ayres: "To hear some of the rumor-mongers talk in Tennessee, Senator Fred Thompson is fed up with Washington and may return to run for governor, especially now that Senate Republicans are back in the minority."

The idea that Thompson will be a Senate candidate again is indeed subject to increased doubt around the state; yet the notion that he would, at this stage, return to the gubernatorial wars is regarded as far-fetched.

(But watch this space.)

A Beleaguered Pair

Two Memphis members of the state House of Representatives -- Bartlett Republican Tre Hargett and Memphis Democrat Henri Brooks -- have become the focus of increased attention in the last week, in ways not altogether to their liking.

Hargett -- who, with Nashville Democrat Sherry Jones, chaired a special committee appointed by House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) that was charged with making specific recommendations for budget reductions -- has taken some flak in the process.

Though the representative noted that his lengthy list of possible cuts were not recommendations as such but merely a compilation of the suggestions made by members of his committee, some observers were aggrieved by them.

After a testy conversation in Legislative Plaza with Tennessee State Employees Association director Linda McCarty, Hargett found it necessary to dispatch an all-points e-mail denying that he and State rep. Paul Stanley (R-Germantown) were recommending a reduction in the state's contributions to medical insurance for state employees, though a recommendation to that effect had been on the committee's list of possibilities.

"I am extremely disappointed that someone would take the committee comment and distort it so horribly in an attempt to use you and your colleagues by misrepresenting the actual details of what is happening in the Tennessee General Assembly," Hargett's e-mail said.

Brooks has become the focus of a continuing controversy over her public refusal to rise with other members when the pledge of allegiance is recited at the beginning of legislative sessions.

When she failed to do so one day last week House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh made a pointed request that she remain outside the chamber until after the daily pledge was finished. She declined and complained that the conversation had been one of "a master talking to a slave."

Brooks, an African American, gave as her stated reason for not standing during the pledge the fact that she regards the American flag as representing "those colonies that formerly enslaved our ancestors," contending, "For me to pledge allegiance would be a slap in the face and a dishonor to them."

Her actions and statements drew an unusual response from one Jim Boyd of Hendersonville, a self-proclaimed "Patriot Party" candidate for governor, who stated his intention of burning an effigy of Brooks outside the state Capitol this week. Boyd declared that Brooks was guilty of "treason."

How so? he was asked. "I know treason when I see it," he declared.

Box Score

The Memorandum of Agreement enabling the building of a new arena and the shifting of the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis may be voted on at a special meeting of the Shelby County Commission next Tuesday after members heard a preliminary presentation of the MOA from Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and others Monday.

If so, the plan is likely to pass -- with potential swing voters Clair Vander Schaaf and Tom Moss having indicated they will vote yes if some tweaking is performed -- particularly a loosening of the agreement's provisions, under a "competition" clause, that the team's proprietors would have first dibs to hold major money-making events at the new arena.

A sure no vote will come from Commissioner Walter Bailey who achieved a commission first Monday when he played for his colleagues and the overflow audience a recording from his voice-mail of a Memphis woman who opposed the arena.

Chairman James Ford, an arena supporter, denounced Bailey's action as "inappropriate" and "a stunt," but Mayor Rout lightened up the mood later by offering to share some of his own voice-mail favoring the arena. One call, he confided, had come from "an 82-year-old lady" -- his mother. -- JB


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