Friday, March 14, 2003

Riding the Tiger

Governmental figures confront the specter of hard times and harder choices.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 14, 2003 at 4:00 AM

One of the things that makes Lois DeBerry, longtime speaker pro tem of the state House of Representatives, so effective a spokesperson for her party in Nashville is that she has the range to tell it like it is, be it grand or be it simple.

That partly stems, no doubt, from her secure place in the affections of her mainly working-class and predominantly African-American constituency in central/southeast Memphis. And it comes as well from her long and secure tenure as a member of the political establishment in Nashville. She has always been both Madame Inside and Madame Outside -- the vox populi as well as ear to the confidences of the mighty, be they Democratic or Republican.

In recent years, DeBerry had been unusually close to the governor of the opposite party, Republican Don Sundquist, a fellow Memphian, and as Sundquist kept declining in political clout and in the polls under the burden of his unflagging campaign for income-tax legislation, DeBerry was one of the very few the beleaguered governor could absolutely count on for tactical and moral support.

On the very night last November when Sundquist's former opponent and longtime nemesis, Democrat Phil Bredesen, was elected to succeed him, DeBerry made a point of throwing a bouquet to the forgotten man. Amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding the winner and Man of the Hour, she had this thought for the man whose time had so obviously passed: "When you try so hard to do the right thing, your recognition will come. It may not come tomorrow, but it will come! In history, for our posterity, Don Sundquist will be a hero. I want him to know that."

That was then; now was last Friday, when Bredesen and members of his cabinet came to Memphis and held a press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum. The contrasts were abounding. Whereas the former governor had alienated his G.O.P. constituency by struggling to shore up expensive government programs like TennCare, the state-run system for the medically uninsured and uninsurable, the new governor was asking for cuts of 9 percent across the board of state government agencies, and he had served notice that TennCare would at some point have to be trimmed, perhaps even truncated, in order to save it.

One of the cabinet members on hand Friday was Gus Hargett, Tennessee's adjutant general and the father of Bartlett state Rep. Tre Hargett, the new Republican leader in the House and a relative hard-liner. The senior Hargett marveled to this reporter: "You know, it's amazing the degree to which he [Bredesen] has co-opted the Republican program. I told him that just the other day." Bredesen, said Hargett, had beamed and agreed with the thesis. The younger Hargett had expressed similar sentiments last week.

And, yes, Bredesen himself would acknowledge just before he made his public remarks, "Van Hilleary couldn't be doing what I'm doing." Not that Bredesen's erstwhile Republican opponent for the governorship wouldn't have wanted to pare down government the way his (barely) victorious conquerer of last fall has undertaken to, but he would have lacked the leverage that Bredesen has with the Democratic majority in the legislature.

It's a variation on the Nixon-goes-to-China syndrome, whereby major political change is so often initiated by a figure from the partisan force which has historically opposed the change. Sundquist had stood a chance, observers had once thought, of profiting from the phenomenon. A conspicuous fiscal conservative during both his 10-years-plus of congressional service and his first gubernatorial term, Sundquist might have been expected to have overcome resistance to his tax-reform program on that bona fides alone.

He didn't. Even with the likes of DeBerry and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh on board, even with the hand-in-glove support of Senator Bob Rochelle, the Democratic legislative lion from Lebanon whom Sundquist once campaigned to defeat, the GOP governor simply couldn't persuade enough Republicans -- or enough squeamish Democrats, for that matter -- to back a program of revenue enhancement and unhampered government operations.

Now came Bredesen, who had criticized Sundquist's program, both while serving as Nashville's mayor and afterward, as a full-time candidate for governor, and who had debunked the value of a state income tax -- even promising, like Hilleary, to seek the repeal of one if it ever got enacted. Now came an era of governmental austerity, of cutbacks in programs and budget cuts across the board.

At a superficial level, it seemed that the state had exchanged a Republican governor who functioned like a Democrat for a Democratic governor who behaved like a Republican. But there was more to it than that. History itself had taken a right turn, as Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who had backed Sundquist and now backed Bredesen, noted, and, arguably, partisanship of any kind had very little to do with it. "He didn't create the problems," Herenton said of the current governor. And Shelby County mayor A C Wharton concurred that the current age of scarcity was unavoidable.

Asked earlier who was closer to being right -- Sundquist or Bredesen -- DeBerry had furrowed her brow, reflected, and finally could not choose. For all of their apparent oppositeness, she might have said, each man had been asked to ride a tiger, and it was the tiger who had changed course.

In her own public remarks Friday, DeBerry offered this advice for the coming age, a distillation of what Bredesen and the two mayors, each also struggling with budgetary hard times, ended up saying in different words: "Free the heart of hatred and the mind from worry, live simply, do more and expect less." As a summing-up of the moment, it was hard to beat.

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