Thursday, December 5, 2002

Silly Business

That's how Tennessee's outgoing governor saw the recent gubernatorial race.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

"Silly" is how outgoing Governor Don Sundquist this week characterized the negative use of his name and image by the competing candidates in the gubernatorial election which was concluded last month, with Democrat Phil Bredesen defeating Republican Van Hilleary.

In one of his TV commercials, Bredesen featured a still photo of Sundquist with his erstwhile U.S. House colleague Hilleary, suggesting in the voice-over that voters shouldn't once more elect an untested congressman as governor. One of Hilleary's commercials coined the term "Bredesundquist" to imply that both the current governor and the former Nashville mayor (who struggled hard to deny such a suggestion) were income tax partisans.

"That's the single most obvious thing that contributed to his defeat," the governor said about the Hilleary commercial in particular and the Republican candidate's efforts to distance himself from Sundquist in general.

The governor levied his judgment about the tone of the campaign on Tuesday, after he had addressed the members of the Memphis Rotary Club at The Peabody. The speech, which was something of a valedictory for the outgoing governor, saw Sundquist back up not an inch from his controversial -- and ultimately unsuccessful -- espousal of a state income tax.

Acknowledging that the controversy over his "flat tax" proposal had tended to obscure the rest of his gubernatorial tenure, Sundquist told the Rotarians that he had "no regrets." Afterward he predicted that the one-cent sales-tax increase enacted in the 2002 General Assembly "might not last even a year" as a stopgap against Tennessee's fiscal needs.

In any case, he said, Gov.-elect Bredesen will almost certainly have to reevaluate tax policy before the end of his first four-year term.

Tre Hargett of Bartlett, the newly elected leader of the Republicans in the state House of Representatives, eschewed crowing in favor of humility Monday night as he reflected on his victory over former minority leader Steve McDaniel of Parker's Crossroads and another challenger, Bobby Wood of Harrison. "When you run against a friend, whether you win or lose, it's never easy," Hargett said, and he was hesitant about an observation from a fellow Shelby Countian, GOP national committeeman John Ryder, who compared Hargett's victory to the ascension of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the U.S. House after the 1994 election.

"To tell you the truth, I don't like the analogy. I was never a Newt Gingrich kind of Republican. I consider myself more of a centrist, and I'm not about divisiveness," said the plainspoken Hargett, who loosened up and gratefully accepted the compliment when assured that Ryder was not commenting on what he perceived as similar political philosophies but on the likelihood that Hargett, like Gingrich, would refuse to accept the long-term inevitability of minority-party status for Republicans.

"It's an honor that the public granted us its trust by awarding us three more seats," said the man who succeeds McDaniel as the guide for a body of Republicans enlarged to 45 by last month's election.

Hargett, who won a second-ballot runoff against McDaniel, acknowledged that shifts brought about by the election may have aided his victory but deemphasized his differences with the former leader over a state income tax, which McDaniel supported and Hargett (like Wood) rejected.

"I think we'll have to concentrate in this next session on issues and not personalities," said Hargett, who named "the continuing fiscal strain" and implementation of a state lottery as two matters the legislature will need to address.

Also elected to significant positions in the Republican House leadership were two other Memphians -- Paul Stanley of Germantown, who became the treasurer of the GOP caucus, and Curry Todd of Collierville, who was named to the key Fiscal Review committee to replace Memphian Joe Kent.

However much Hargett chose to underplay the symbolic aspects of the caucus vote, it was clear that something of a sea change had occurred. The new leadership is conspicuously to the right of the old one. McDaniel was not only a supporter of Sundquist's flat tax, he was known as a moderate in general. As Ryder put it, "Steve seemed comfortable with the role of minority leader. It wasn't so much a matter of policy or even personal style. He just seemed content with his place in a known scheme of things."

By contrast, Hargett was a volunteer member of a House group that was formed two years ago in response to an exasperated House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's insistence that members uncomfortable with the flat income tax he and Governor Sundquist supported come up with something else or outline the drastic cuts that would be called for if no solution were in view.

Hargett did not blink at the demand; he proposed a series of far-ranging cuts -- few of which would be reflected in subsequent legislation, however. Still, he had made his mark as a budget hard-liner in a time of legislative conflict that would end up favoring the anti-income-tax hard-liners.

• Although the two books on the family recently published under the names of former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore have had disappointing sales nationwide, a decent-sized crowd turned out Saturday at Davis-Kidd Booksellers for the right to have their copies of the books signed.

In a conversation after the signing, Gore conceded that he had been too "scripted" in his 2002 presidential campaign and appeared to bask in a suggestion that his recent remarks on national policy seemed to have his "heart and mind in sync."

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