Friday, May 14, 2004

Late Flak

Democratic legislators increasingly begrudge the governor on a key issue.

Posted By on Fri, May 14, 2004 at 4:00 AM

NASHVILLE -- He may have public approval ratings upward of 70 percent, but Governor Phil Bredesen continues to displease many fellow Democrats. With the legislature in its last days, some of them were meditating seriously on how to fire a warning shot across the bow of a chief executive whose party loyalties they increasingly regard as suspect.

When Lebanon attorney William Farmer encountered fellow Democrat Bredesen on the grounds of the Hermitage the weekend before last at the state party's annual Jackson Day dinner, he buttonholed him thusly: "Governor, I wish I had voted for Van Hilleary two years ago instead of working to get you elected. He couldn't have done the damage to us that you've done." (This is the G-rated version of that part of the conversation.)

Perhaps understandably, Bredesen, who has been known to hold grudges, considered the approach "rude." Farmer, the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic Party, shrugged that off last week: "I wasn't trying to offend him. I was just trying to be honest and get him to understand. We don't have any business acting like the Democratic wing of the Republican Party."

What Farmer meant was that Republican Hilleary would have been unable to get bipartisan support for legislation pushed by Bredesen -- ranging from some reasonably Draconian budget cuts to the item that really stuck in trial lawyer Farmer's craw, a bill that would redesign state workers' compensation procedures and trim existing benefits.

That bill, or something very like it, was ready for action in the state House of Representatives last Thursday morning -- one day after Bredesen's TennCare reform bill, another potential hot potato, passed the House handily with only eight nay votes. But a funny thing happened on the way to passage. The workers' comp bill was held up in the state Senate, where Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), chairman of that body's Commerce Committee, declined to convene his committee to consider the administration bill.

That was after Cooper, other Commerce members, and members of a special workers' comp oversight committee had sat through an afternoon session in which various amendments to the bill were, one after another, voted down. Technically, the Commerce Committee, charged with reporting the bill to the Senate floor, was "adjourned until the call of the chairman" -- a formulation normally used when a committee closes down for good at the end of a session. It would take a two-thirds vote of the entire Senate membership to force a Senate vote without the committee's referral.

So the bill was, at least temporarily, blocked, despite the fact that Bredesen had enough Democrats lined up in the House -- notably including Speaker Jimmy Naifeh -- to go with the body's receptive Republicans and ensure passage. Observant of protocol, the House stalled on bringing the matter up, pending further action in the Senate.

Opponents of the administration bill were not optimistic about halting it in the House, where Democrats are by no means unified on the matter. As one example, state representative Mike Turner (D-Nashville), a labor official and severe critic of the workers' comp measure (who had walked out on the governor's speech at the Jackson Day Dinner), took some shots in an afternoon party caucus last week from fellow Democrats who chastised him for his public anti-abortion positions.

But there were rumors of a rival bill in the Senate, based on a formula more congenial to organized labor and the trial lawyers' lobby and Democrats in general -- one which, for example, might raise the Bredesen bill's "multiplier" cap of 1.5, the ratio beyond which doctors' estimates of compensation could not be raised legally.

(Republican senator Mark Norris of Collierville was meanwhile floating a compromise whereby a raised multiplier would be coupled with a stricter definition of injuries.)

Memphis Democrat John DeBerry spoke for many of his partymates when he remarked bitterly of the governor's general legislative approach: "It isn't fair, keeping the two most important bills of the session [TennCare reform, which passed easily, despite five nay votes from Shelby County Democrats, and workers' comp reform] until the very end like this!" And, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Tom Humphrey, another legislator critical of Bredesen quipped that there should be a bill prohibiting "impersonating a Democrat."

Naifeh and other allies of the governor may have their way in the House. But, in the words of a no-doubt apocryphal saying attributed to Yogi Berra, It Ain't Over Until It's Over. One member of the lobbying team opposed to the Bredesen bill offered a local variant of that when he draped an arm around the Senate's presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, last Wednesday, and cajoled him with one of Wilder's own favorite sayings. "Governor," he said, "let the Senate be the Senate!"

Driving, Not Flying: In the end, it was about a routine matter, handled routinely, but a brief dialogue in the state Senate last week clarified a matter that Shelby Countians (and Tennesseans at large) may have been curious about.

State senator Steve Cohen had introduced an amendment to a bill on travel reimbursements for state employees. It provided that "in emergency situations, purchase of air tickets in excess of the standard coach fare would be allowed if approved by the comptroller, but otherwise no state appropriated funds or university funds would be used to purchase air tickets in excess of standard coach fare."

To everyone's evident surprise, Cohen's Memphis colleague John Ford objected. He maintained that the provision assigning supervisory authority to the comptroller rather than, in a senator's case, to "the Speaker" (Lt. Gov. Wilder) would be "a slap in the face." Ford pointed out possible variations in applying the term "standard coach fare," expressed doubt that legislators charged taxpayers for flights where champagne was served, and said of Cohen's amendment, "You're really messing up the situation."

Finally, Ford disclaimed any personal interest in the matter. "I don't fly from here to Memphis," he said. "I drive -- though some of you may describe that as flying."

Ford's objections notwithstanding, the amendment passed handily.

Two Against Violence

Steve Moore (or "Stevie," as longtime friends call him) is a familiar presence in political affairs. He's worked for the Ford organization and numerous local politicians as a campaign manager and strategist, and he's especially close to Criminal Court Judge J.C. McLin, whom he helped to an upset victory in a 2000 special election.

McLin's name is first on a long list of luminaries -- including mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, numerous legislators, councilmen, county commissioners, and other public officials -- who have lined up to support Moore in a public campaign of his own.

Moore has organized a "Save Our Children Rally," set for the Overton Park Shell at 1 p.m. Saturday. The free event is, according to a flyer printed to support it, "designed to highlight the magnitude of youth violence and youth death in our communities" and "will feature leaders in government, law enforcement, religious leadership and entertainment from various gospel groups."

The rally is sponsored by an ad hoc organization founded by Moore, Freedom from Unnecessary Negatives (F.U.N.N.). The element of painful irony in that acronym is magnified by the powerful underlying reason for Moore's commitment to the project: His son Prentice Moore was shot to death a year ago as he left a now-shuttered trouble spot, the Denim and Diamonds club at Mendenhall and Winchester.

Steve Moore perseveres. And he understands that not only is no man an island, neither is any human being's tragedy an isolated event. So he's using his well-honed political skills to put together an event that promises, at the very least, to be a powerful consciousness-raiser.

"We strongly believe, 'enough is enough -- we must stop the killing.' There is far too much killing, crime and neglectful death in our community today. It is time to take action," says Moore in a letter.

The Angela Kyle Memorial Award, named in honor of the young woman slain in the parking garage at Oak Court Mall at Christmas of 1997, is annually given for "Commitment to Victims' Services" to a master's degree recipient by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, from which Kyle herself was a graduate.

This year's honoree is Kerry Fulmer, a transplant from New Jersey who happens also to be the first cousin, once removed, of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Fulmer, who received the award along with her clinical M.S. degree in social work at a UT commencement ceremony Monday night, has been working for the last three years with victims of domestic violence as a court advocate in criminal and civil court and with the Women's and Children's Program for children who have witnessed domestic violence. She also counsels victims of domestic violence at The Exchange Club Family Center.

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