"Mr. Controlling Legal Authority"

Charles Burson's famous -- or notorious -- phrase may someday describe him for real.

by Jackson Baker

e would surely have willed it otherwise, but Memphian Charles Burson's most recent claim to fame among political insiders was as the author of the phrase that now hangs, like an albatross, around the neck of Vice President Al Gore.

"No controlling legal authority" had prohibited his ventures into big-ticket political fund-raising last year (some of it evidently from his White House office), the Veep kept robotically repeating at a press conference he called earlier this year in order to deal with the issue.

Gore has a habit in his public appearances of hanging tight with a mantra of the moment, repeating it ad infinitum. When he does it well, as in the vice-presidential debate last year with the Republicans' Jack Kemp, when Gore's verbal ritual was "Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment," it is called Staying On Message.

When done poorly, as with "no controlling legal authority," the results are correspondingly abysmal, and the national press corps wore Gore out for the evasive sound of the formula.

It was a bona fide baptism of fire for Burson, who had just left the office of Tennessee Attorney General and arrived in Washington to serve as the vice president's legal aide just in time for the fund-raising controversy.

From a legal point of view, "no controlling legal authority" -- a phrase whose authorship Burson never tried to deny -- may have split a hair, but it also expressed a legal nuance, which is one of the things that good lawyers are supposed to be concerned with.

And Charles Burson is undeniably a good lawyer. His reign as state AG -- from 1988 until late last year, when he was succeeded by his former deputy and law partner Knox Walkup -- drew universal plaudits from members of both major political parties.

And Burson's reputation beforehand was also reckoned as exceptional -- whether as a partner in the firm of Wildman, Harold, Allen, Dixon & McConnell or as a member of such bodies as the Tennessee Code Commission and the Commission on the Future of the Judicial System.

He served also as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1977 and was president of the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners. Shelby County historian Ed Williams, formerly a Republican state representative and a Shelby County commissioner, likes to boast that he was opposed by Democrat Burson for the legislature in 1978, making the point not so much that he beat Burson as that he had such a quality opponent.

"He came to see me personally to concede," Williams still remembers, in some awe, of his hair's-breadth victory over Burson for the right to serve East Memphis in the House of Representatives.

Had Burson won that seat, there's no telling what subsequent offices he might have held, but, in the event, he went the lawyer's route to prominence, not the legislator's.

When he returned to Memphis last Friday night to address the Shelby County Democrats' second annual "John F. Kennedy Dinner" at the East Memphis Hilton, Burson was clearly on his way to becoming Attorney General during a putative Gore administration. The other major possibility generally acknowledged as possible down the line is that of a position on the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Burson rose to speak to his fellow Democrats -- freed now from the burden of legal impartiality he bore for almost a decade -- he had included in his prepared text some self-deprecating remarks employing the phrase Vice President Gore had so recently made famous.

But, as Burson noted, he'd been beat to it by U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who had introduced him to the substantial audience at the Hilton as, among other things, "Mr. Controlling Legal Authority."

Everybody laughed, but everybody also knew that somewhere down the line the phrase could very likely be applied, in all seriousness, to this son of Shelby County, whose parents, Leo Burson and Josie Burson, can also claim to have been citizens of distinction in a variety of public and civic causes.

One way or another, Charles Burson is destined to be a Controlling Legal Authority. Call this a prediction, if you will, and mark it down on my scorecard.

* Shelby County's Republicans, who not too long ago were laying confident claim to most of the county's aspiring white officeholders, may be seeing a bit of a pendulum shift back the other way.

Not only has momentum gathered among the county's judges to resist conscription by either the GOP or the Shelby County Democrats, but some of next year's potential non-judicial candidates are slipping loose of the Republican embrace.

For example, city councilman E.C. Jones, one of several potential 1998 candidates attending the Democrats' Kennedy dinner. Jones is known to be contemplating a run for sheriff next year, and there was a spell when he was reckoned as incumbent Sheriff A.C. Gilless' chief competitor in the 1998 Republican countywide primary.

Not any longer. Jones is still hoping to accede to the role of Shelby County's chief law enforcement officer, but he has let it be known that his thoughts have shifted over to the idea of running in the Democratic primary, where his main opponent would be former Memphis police director Melvin Burgess.

Jones, however, who was heavily recruited by the Democrats in 1996 to run for the assessor's position later won by Rita Clark, has not yet made a decision.

* Current Democratic chairman Bill Farris, who is widely presumed to be ready to hang it up as head of the local party, might be pardoned for believing that his recent accomplishments have received short shrift in the media of late.

As he noted at Friday night's banquet, which swelled the party coffers by the impressive total of $30,000, not only did the Democratic presidential ticket win Shelby County on his watch last year, but arguably the single most compelling -- and initially unexpected -- victory by a Democratic candidate was of his devising.

This was the successful race of current Shelby County Assessor Rita Clark against her Republican predecessor, Harold Sterling. Clark, a political intimate of the Farris clan, was considered a long shot when she first filed -- lacking even the name recognition of her Democratic primary opponent, perennial candidate Mark Flanagan -- but her victory would become the model for many subsequent Democratic hopefuls -- including State Senator Jim Kyle, a potential candidate for Shelby County mayor, who cites Clark's upset win over Sterling as proof of a demographic tide that might assist him in a race against the GOP's Jim Rout next year.

* Kyle's chances took something of a tumble last week when Governor Don Sundquist did what he'd said he would -- vetoing the special legislation, passed at Kyle's behest during the waning days of the late General Assembly, that would have enabled the senator's wife, Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, to campaign with him next year.

One of the governor's successes in 1995, his first year in office, was to pry enough Democratic votes loose in the State Senate to abolish the state Public Service Commission, a longtime Democratic bastion. The TRA, a body with somewhat lesser scope, was established in its place, along with strict prohibitions against members' taking part in political activity.

At the time, Sara Kyle, a member of the Clement family with known gubernatorial ambitions, was a newly elected PSC member, committed to reform. She had the support of House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Lieutenant Governor John Wilder in getting reappointed to the new TRA, but, in the trade-off, she had to sacrifice her political mobility.

Just as in 1995, Governor Sundquist couched his remarks on the TRA question in high-minded terms. In his veto message, he said, "The Tennessee Regulatory Authority was established so that it could function as an independent regulatory agency, free of politics. HB 612, if signed into law, would represent an erosion of one of the basic principles behind [its] establishment. . . ."

Senator Kyle, who always maintained that HB 612 would do nothing more than allow his wife to campaign alongside him, was understandably skeptical about the governor's motives.

He attended the Kennedy dinner with his daughter from another marriage, Sarah, introducing her thusly: "Meet the only Sarah Kyle who can campaign with me next year."

* Another attendee at the Kennedy dinner will be restricted in his political activity on behalf of Democratic candidates next year, but this one, Lt. Gov. Wilder, is tying his own hands.

"It would be awfully hard for me to go out there and campaign for Democrats against some of those fellows," Wilder said of the Republican senators who, along with a handful of Democrats, have kept him the presiding officer of the State Senate and have constituted his working majority in that body.

Wilder, whose Senate speakership survived two would-be purges by party-line Democrats in the 1980s, has flirted with the idea of renouncing his Democratic Party allegiance but has so far not done so.

Senators John Ford (twice) and Steve Cohen (once) were key Democrats supporting Wilder in the battles of a decade ago.

* Rare it is that a state party chairman risks the authority of his office in a losing cause; rarer still in something like a state Young Democrats election.

But that's precisely what Tennessee Democratic chairman Houston Gordon did last week when the state YDs met in Nashville for their annual convention. Gordon endorsed one of the candidates for YD president, Nashville's Ginger Hausser, in a video shown to the delegates. Also apparently ready to go along with the arrangement were the Shelby County Young Democrats, headed by Isaac Fordjour.

The problem was that a group of ad hoc Shelby County Democrats who called themselves the "Greater Memphis Area Young Democrats" organized and attended the convention in such force that they dictated a different result -- the election of Memphis' Joseph Kyles, a political-science instructor at Shelby State Community College.

Fordjour's group would get one of the offices, though; Katherine Abraham, a University of Memphis student, was elected state YD treasurer.

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