Apprentice to Power 

Schooled in adversity and triumph, Memphis' Jim Kyle wants to be governor.

In 1982, as a young, ambitious Memphis lawyer getting his feet wet in politics, Jim Kyle managed the upstart but unsuccessful campaign of fellow Shelby Countian Harold Byrd in a hard-fought Democratic primary race for Congress in Tennessee's 7th District. A year later, having won a special election for a state Senate seat on his second try, Kyle found himself assigned to a Nashville office suite whose occupants included veteran legislator Annabelle Clement O'Brien of Crossville.

O'Brien was the sister of the late legendary governor Frank Goad Clement and the aunt of Bob Clement, who had defeated Byrd but was upset by Republican Don Sundquist in a general election campaign that was doubtless made closer by residual bitterness from the Clement-Byrd race.

The 32-year-old Kyle was being shown around his new digs by the sprightly young divorcée who served as secretary for the office suite. How did Kyle think he would like things, she asked. Fine, he quipped sardonically, except for having to share an office with a Clement.

Only later would Kyle discover that the secretary, Sara Pair, was a Clement on her mother's side. Indeed, Bob Clement was her cousin, and state senator O'Brien was her aunt. "She went back there and told Annabelle what I'd said," Kyle remembers ruefully. "And Annabelle said, 'We'll just kill him with kindness, honey.' And they did." Neither Pair nor the famously gracious O'Brien were ever anything but helpful and accommodating to Kyle, and not long thereafter their relations with him would become unexpectedly closer.

That was following a tragic event which all but undid the fledgling state senator from the Frayser/Raleigh area. Not long after he was reelected in 1984, Kyle's wife Donna, who had had a melanoma removed from her lower back the year before, had been given a clean bill of health and, in fact, had given birth to the couple's second daughter, Mary.

Then, just after the close of the 1985 legislative session, the Kyles got the ominous news that the cancer had returned, virulently, and three months later, in July 1985, Donna Kyle, still in her 20s, died. Senator Kyle was a young widower. To make matters worse, the stepson he and Donna were raising was claimed by his birth father.

"It's something I still think about every day — a cloud that can block the sun," Kyle says of his first wife's death.

It was a situation calling for a ray of light, and that light would come from Pair, who in the course of time would be spending more and more time with Kyle.

"Only later did I come to see that Annabelle was steering us together," Kyle reflects. "I didn't see it at the time." In any case, the couple became an item and were married on November 7, 1987. ("Always an election day," the groom says.)

Sara Kyle had confidence, vivacity, and the compassion that would enable her to bring a successful political and governmental career of her own to the newly formed family. (Sara would later win elections for Memphis city judge and the Tennessee Public Service Commissioner and is now the senior member and chairperson of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.) She gave birth to son James Kyle III in 1989 and daughter Caroline in 1997. "Looking back, we were always having an election or a new baby, it seems," Kyle says.

Sara Kyle also would cement a political alliance that Kyle believes is one of several assets he brings to his current quest to become governor of Tennessee in next year's election. As Jim Kyle likes to tell it, he has bases in Shelby County; in Dickson, the ancestral home of the Clements; and along the Cumberland, in the area served for so long by Annabelle.

Kyle does not lack for advantages altogether his own. He is Senate Democratic leader and is coming off a term as chairman of the Shelby County legislative delegation. For years, he was a key member of the influential Senate Finance Committee and, even before taking charge of the Senate Democrats in 2004, was known to be a confidant of Governor Phil Bredesen.

He almost got sidetracked at the beginning of his career in the state Senate, which was ruled then by the deceptively twinkly autocrat John Wilder, who for the next quarter-century would survive two major challenges to his authority as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor and several lesser ones.

Kyle, young and brash, got involved in the two big putsch attempts — the first occurring in 1985 during Kyle's first full term. He and a majority of other Democrats backed Riley Darnell of Clarksville to supplant Wilder but were flummoxed when Wilder did the unexpected and put together a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans to keep his leadership post.

"I had underestimated the extent to which he wanted to be speaker. There was nothing that he wouldn't do, within the law," Kyle says. "I learned something about power from that."

But not enough to keep from joining in again in 1989, when a second purge attempt occurred behind Milton Hamilton of Union City. Like the first one, this too failed narrowly — at least partly because Kyle's Senate colleague from Memphis, Steve Cohen, perhaps a quicker learner, switched from the dissidents over to Wilder. It was the first of several disagreements that would permanently strain the relationship, once close, of two Democratic stalwarts from Memphis.

The ultimate break between them came when Cohen sided with newly elected Republican governor Don Sundquist in 1995 and provided the decisive vote to abolish the Public Service Commission, to which Sara Kyle had just been elected. Kyle acknowledges that the commission had its problems, mainly related to alleged favoritism to various public interests. But he thought his newly elected wife was entitled to take a crack at resolving them, and it seemed self-evident to him that Sundquist's aversion had more to do with his sense that the commission was a hotbed of ambitious Democrats than with any taint of impropriety.

Longtime House speaker Jimmy Naifeh then named Sara Kyle to the successor organization, the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, something which commands Kyle's gratitude to this day.

Meanwhile, after the failure of the second coup attempt against Wilder, Kyle had uncomplainingly taken his place in the doghouse, thereupon to learn his second major lesson from the venerable speaker. "He knew what it takes most legislators awhile to learn: The next vote is the important vote."

When lawyer Lewis Donelson, a venerable Memphis Republican, won a court ruling requiring reallocation of state funds to previously deprived rural school districts, Kyle found himself drafted onto the Senate education committee and became one of the architects of Governor Ned McWherter's Basic Education Plan (BEP).

He also began to win the friendship of Wilder, the man he had twice tried to depose. "I basically forged the final compromise that passed the BEP bill, and Wilder was very pleased with me for that," Kyle recalls.

Later, after the federal government had temporarily taken over the state prison system, Kyle was drafted to serve on the ad hoc Corrections Oversight Committee and served with distinction there. Another move put him on the Finance Committee, where, he says, "I began the process of learning the budget."

So convincing was Kyle's demonstration of proficiency that he made himself indispensable to Wilder and earned a place in the Senate's inner circle. Ironically enough, when Wilder finally came to the end of the road in January 2007, it was Kyle, by then ensconced as Senate Democratic leader, who was his chief defender and chief avenger too, in the sense that he orchestrated the ostracism of renegade Democrat Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, whose vote for Republican Ron Ramsey had finally cost Wilder his leadership perch.

By 2009, after years of toying with the idea of running for Shelby County mayor or governor of Tennessee, Kyle felt he was primed and ready, and there was no doubt in his mind which of the two jobs, as a longtime man of the legislature, he was most suited for.

Kyle's immediate concerns are with two opponents: Roy Herron, a charismatic fellow state senator from Dresden, and Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman whose primary (though not only) asset is the formidable one of owning the same last name as his father, the still widely admired former governor, Ned Ray McWherter.

There are two other announced Democratic candidates: Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, a former Republican and a multi-millionaire from the investment world who is progressively restyling himself as the race's "green" candidate, and former legislator Kim McMillan of Clarksville, who earlier in this decade served as Democratic leader in the House, the first woman to hold that position.

McWherter's oratorical style has so far left something to be desired, though, depending on who one talks to, it may be improving. In any case, he has been notable at recent all-candidate meetings as much for his absence as his presence. Kyle suspects that McWherter's strategy may be to lay back as long as possible, waiting in the hope that neither Kyle nor Herron establishes himself as the prevailing favorite. McWherter would then step forward relatively late next year, fully bankrolled, as the legitimate Democratic spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Kyle and Herron seem to be involved in something of a mano-a-mano. As longtime partymates in the Senate, they maintain friendly surface relations, though their different legislative styles — Kyle's methodical and somewhat wonky, Herron's alternately theatrical and close to the vest — have sometimes led to tension.

At a Democratic event last weekend in Kingsport, Kyle's speech was sandwiched between that of Cammack and Herron.

The three of them couldn't have been more different in delivery. More anecdotal than usual, Cammack still got down to brass tacks about Tennessee's need to become a leader in ecologically inventive industries and to keep its energy expenditures inside the state.

Cammack is realist enough to have responded, when someone mentioned the conventional wisdom that he didn't have a chance: "Oh, I knew that when I got in. That just means I can say exactly what I think."

Herron's tack is very quickly to establish rapport with a crowd with a joke or a tall tale before turning serious. It is a habit that derives as much from his former occupation as a Methodist minister as from his current one as a lawyer.

Kyle, too, is a lawyer, a graduate of the University of Memphis Law School (after Oakhaven High School and Arkansas State University), and his professional career has been divided into halves — first, as he puts it, as a litigator who sued people, later as one who defended them. In between, he learned to do some transactional work as well.

All of this experience has served him well in the legislature, and traces of all of it can be seen in his basic stump speech. After a moment of recollection about his working-class, union-member parents, Kyle said, "Let me talk to you a minute about Tennessee," whereupon he gave his audience a profile of the state as one characterized by low taxes and low wages, with "a great road system and a tremendous climate." Why is it, he asked rhetorically, that "one person in 10 doesn't have a job?" Then he suggested an answer: "What we don't have is an educated work force that can do the job that needs to be done. We need to start preparing citizens for the world economy."

Kyle noted the sad statistic that Tennessee was "43rd in the nation in what people call educational attainment." There are around 36,000 students who have dropped out of college, he said, proposing to take some of the $300 million of state lottery funds to entice them into returning to school. "If only 10,000 took us up on it, we wouldn't be 43rd any longer." And he made a promise to all students pursuing secondary education. "If you make progress toward graduation, we will never, ever raise your tuition."

He closed with a joke about the extended speaking style of Herron, who would follow, suggesting that while his rival spoke he would take time to go out and find a few hundred votes for the straw vote being held at the event. (That was a double dig at Herron, who has been focusing on the straw votes being held at various events.)

Beyond the Democratic field itself, there is the issue of how Kyle might do as his party's nominee in a state that has been swinging Republican of late. Both chambers of the legislature now have Republican majorities, with the GOP securing a majority of one in the House after the 2008 election.

Kyle's bailiwick, the Senate, was already in Republican hands but became further so in 2008, when Republicans gained a 19-14 edge. That fact might lead one to theorize that Kyle, who once had legitimate aspirations to be Senate speaker and ergo lieutenant governor, has seen his legislative ambitions chilled by virtue of the handwriting on the wall.

Not so, Kyle maintains. Noting the close U.S. Senate race in 2006 between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and eventual Republican winner Bob Corker, Kyle says, "It's hard to believe that [if nominated] I won't get all of the votes that Harold Ford got and that I won't get many of those that, for good reasons or bad, he lost."

As Kyle well knows, fellow Memphian Ford's ambitions came to naught — but just barely — because of vote deficiencies in two traditionally Democratic strongholds: rural West Tennessee areas where either Ford's African-American identity or his family associations may have retarded his total or a few liberal enclaves where he may have suffered some attrition due to his increasingly conservative public pronouncements and voting record, circa 2006.

Kyle is unlikely to have the same problem. His modest childhood beginnings on Lamar Avenue in Capleville and his adult trajectory in Frayser-Raleigh jibe comfortably with the lifestyle of most West Tennesseans. And, depending on the yardstick, Kyle is arguably the most congenial extant candidate to the state's left-of-center blogging community (several of whom were lukewarm about Ford).

Like most Democrats these days, Kyle eschews the label of "liberal" and prefers to say, "I'm more moderate than any potential Republican nominee." He opines that the term liberal might better describe rival Herron, though on at least one key issue — the controversial one of guns in public parks and restaurants that dominated the General Assembly session of 2009 — Herron's path coincided precisely with that of the Republican majority, while party leader Kyle was firmly with the minority, mainly Democratic, who resisted the easing up on gun-carry restrictions.

"If the election comes down to guns in parks or guns in restaurants, I will proudly stand on my position," Kyle insists. "I hope the Republicans do go after me on guns. They're wrong on guns. We have some of the safest parks in the whole United States of America. ... If this race comes down to a race between me and the Republicans on guns, I will win that race."

It all comes down to leadership, Kyle says. "Can you say no to the NRA? I can." As Kyle notes, he himself is an inveterate duck-hunter, who put his son Jim on the path to winning the state trap-shooting championship. "If they make an issue in 2010 over guns, the Republicans will be viewed as extremists," Kyle contends. "Jobs and health care are what's on people's minds."

Kyle doesn't spell out all the details, but he proposes to buttress the state's health-care system, providing a "reasonable standard of care," a workable mean between the cut-to-the-bone ideas of ideologically minded Republicans and the ever-proliferating bureaucracy that TennCare became under the doubtless well-intentioned but overwhelmed Sundquist.

Discreetly he avoids any criticism of the cutbacks on TennCare imposed by his mentor Bredesen but suggests that he will find the budgetarily responsible means to expand state health services and provide "a reasonable standard of care."

What Kyle intends to focus on as governor is the state's system of higher education. He quotes Bredesen as telling him, "You don't just run for governor, you run for governor to do something."

Among other things, Kyle wants to enhance the credentials of the University of Memphis, making it a "top research institution," and to "decouple" what he sees as an overlap between the state's community colleges and its four-year institutions.

Looking into a future when, as he hopes, his fellow Tennesseans will have entrusted him with their hopes and dreams for perhaps the constitutionally permitted maximum of two terms as governor, Kyle imagines his legacy in terms of how it will impact his four children in their own developed adulthoods.

When all is said and done, Kyle likes to imagine his fellow Tennesseans saying to his progeny, "There goes Jim Kyle. He treated us fair. Your father is a good man.' That is the light I have walked toward."

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