Friday, September 23, 2005

Crossroads Politics

Roland's stunning showing indicates political flux -- in more directions than one.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Republicans could be forgiven for indulging in some bittersweet rejoicing last week. It had been back-and-forth for most of the evening, but when the final vote was totaled last Thursday night in the District 29 state Senate special election, Democrat Ophelia Ford was ahead by only 13 votes -- count 'em, 13.

Final unofficial totals, including early voting and absentee ballots and all 60 precincts were 4,333 votes for Ford and 4,320 for Republican Terry Roland, the Millington service-station owner who had carried his unlikely underdog challenge to the very brink of success. (Perennial nuisance candidate Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, running as an independent, polled 89 votes, leading some to wonder if he had influenced the outcome and, if so, in whose direction.)

Understandably, Roland refused to concede, telling a group of supporters at his Millington headquarters on election night, "We're still in the race," and promising to "turn things over to the people who know how to handle things like this" -- presumably a team of political and legal advisers.

A spokesman for the Roland campaign would subsequently promise to contest the outcome, saying, "We're going to bring in a shitload of attorneys" from Tennessee and Washington. And, sure enough, as of this week, Roland's gathering battery of lawyers and political advisers was actively pursuing a challenge through various appeals to state and local election officials.

Much statewide attention had been focused on the Ford-Roland race for the light it might shed on a variety of looming political subjects: the state of the Ford-family campaign apparatus; the possible shift of power in the General Assembly, where Republicans had hoped to build on their current 18-15 majority in the Senate; the signals the outcome might send for races to come, including that of Senator-elect Ford's nephew, U.S. representative Harold Ford, Jr., now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Long considered a stronghold for the Ford family and for Democratic candidates in general, District 29, which hugs the Mississippi riverfront for almost the length of Shelby County, has a largely African-American population, but Roland's Republican team had put forth intense efforts, not just in his own Millington bailiwick, but, to some measurable effect, in the inner city itself.

But even as Republicans were taking heart at one of their number's showing in a predominantly Democratic district, other figures in the party were doing their best to move the GOP in an opposite direction.

There were two cases in point: one local, one statewide.

First, there was a pending change of the guard in state House District 97, soon to be vacated by incumbent Tre Hargett. Former House Republican leader Hargett ignited a storm last month by first accepting a job as chief lobbyist in Nashville for the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm, then rejecting it -- under pressure from Pfizer itself, some theorize -- when the "revolving-door" job offer became an issue in the legislature's still-festering ethics controversy.

Hargett would ultimately be offered a higher-paying job by his long-standing employer, Rural/Metro Ambulance Services, but he had meanwhile quit his leadership post and declared he would leave the legislature. Though some still believe that Hargett will reconsider and run for reelection next year, the main issue seems to be whether he will serve out his current term or resign his House seat outright, forcing the appointment of an interim successor.

If the latter turns out to be the case, both Shelby County GOP chairman Bill Giannini and other local Republicans have indicated their preference that the County Commission select a fill-in and not one of the several Republicans interested in running for the seat next year. ("I don't want to create a state representative," Giannini said bluntly this week.)

Several Republicans have signaled their intent to run for the seat, including three prominent middle-of-the-roaders -- Bartlett alderman Mike Morris, teacher/activist Jim Coley, and Shelby County school board member Anne Edmiston. Other candidates may be coming, and at least one who's already there has prompted some concern in the GOP mainstream.

That would be Austin Farley, the "Political Cesspool" broadcaster whose radio shows, like his Web site, focus on efforts, in Farley's words, "to preserve our Southern heritage and its symbols." Among other things, Farley has been a vigorous defender of the status quo in the simmering controversy over three Confederate-themed parks in downtown Memphis.

There are no runoffs in legislative races, and the more crowded the field gets, the better the chances for someone like Farley, whose hard-core constituency could give him a plurality.

Conventional wisdom, of course, holds that District 97, in the heart of Bartlett, is Republican for time to come, about as "red" on the political color chart as it's possible to be, the center of gravity for SUVs sporting the letter W. About as staunchly Republican a place, in other words, as Senate District 29 -- which just elected a candidate named Ford by 13 votes -- is staunchly Democratic.

And there's the rub. Last week's nip-and-tuck affair in District 29 is a lesson that cuts both ways, especially in special elections. If a bona fide Bubba like Terry Roland can do as well as he did in John Ford's bailiwick, then why, Democrats are beginning to ask themselves, shouldn't a Democrat be able to pull something off in Tre Hargett's?

District 97 was, after all, represented for decades by Democrats -- first Harold Byrd of the Bank of Bartlett Byrds, then his brother Dan. And there were mainstream Democrats discussing seriously last week the option of trying to talk Dan Byrd out of political retirement.

The issue of Republican identity is at stake on the statewide level, too -- notably in next year's governor's race, where Democratic incumbent Phil Bredesen's onetime aura of invincibility has been tarnished enough by the his budget-minded paring of the TennCare rolls that statewide Republicans have begun to dream of mounting a credible challenge.

Senate Republican leader Ron Ramsey of Blountville is one prospect, as is former legislator Jim Henry of Kingston, a well-liked centrist who ran for governor in the 2002 GOP primary. Most Republican hopes, though, have been vested in state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, the former state Republican chair.

But just as the specter of Farley bedevils the mainstream Republicans of Bartlett, so, on the statewide scene, does that of one Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker, an arch-conservative gubernatorial candidate and pillar of the Minuteman movement that has made an issue of thwarting illegal immigration from Mexico.

Whitaker claims Native American ancestry but also, as he light-heartedly told a recent meeting of the socially conservative Defenders of Freedom organization, has "some white" in him. Too much so, grumble some alarmed Republicans, mindful of several recent e-mails from Whitaker to his network of supporters alerting them to sex crimes allegedly committed by illegal aliens in Tennessee.

Though Whitaker is considered a long shot in the governor's race, to say the least, the very fact of his candidacy makes him a potential Republican nominee by default and intensifies the pressure on Harwell or some other mainstream GOP figure to declare.

The fear in Republican ranks is that anything resembling a race-based appeal could nullify the GOP's developing approach to traditional Democratic voters -- specifically to the middle-class, religiously conservative blacks so recently courted by Terry Roland and targeted for long-term outreach by Shelby County Republican chairman Giannini.

Complicating the picture is the fact that the GOP right is capable of making its own pitch to voters in the center of the political spectrum.

Republican crossover appeals have been based, locally as nationally, more on "values" issues than on economic ones, but a rough form of populism has lately begun to rear itself in the ranks of the Defenders of Freedom, a local group which occupies the rightward edge of local Republicanism and stresses religious and patriotic themes.

E-mailing his local network this week, DOF founder Angelo Cobrasci announced a memorial service for a man who, he said, had died after losing his TennCare prescription-drug benefits "as a result of these draconian cuts by Governor Phil Bredesen." And he wondered: "How many more?"

For that matter, when Whitaker himself addressed a meeting of the DOF a few weeks ago, he began his speech with solicitous-sounding reflections on the TennCare crisis.

Which is to say, the crossover lanes potentially run in more than one direction, for Republicans as well as for Democrats, and the two-way traffic could generate as many potential hazards as benefits.

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