"Mere Anarchy" in Nashville 

Pistol-packing barhops, bad science, and turning back the clock.


...Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. ...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. ...

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

It was late last Wednesday afternoon, and state House speaker Kent Williams plainly had his dander up. He had just listened to lengthy speeches by his predecessor as speaker, Jimmy Naifeh, and Memphis Democrat G.A. Hardaway. Both were defending Governor Phil Bredesen's veto of HB0962, sponsored in the House by Collierville Republican Curry Todd and in the Senate by Democrat Doug Jackson of Dickson.

Naifeh and Hardaway had largely covered the same ground, each quoting at length from Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell and Memphis police director Larry Godwin, who had been among the phalanx of lawmen, most in full-dress uniform, who had stood behind Bredesen the week before as he signed his veto of the bill which famously (or infamously) allows the holders of gun-carry permits to take their weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

By the time Hardaway was halfway through his remarks, members of the House had become restless, and so had Williams.

"I don't know how long we've got to discuss this," he said. "The district attorneys, the city councils, the preachers — they're not going to decide if this veto passes or fails. This body will decide. And to rehash the same arguments over and over I think are [sic] ridiculous. I've heard it all for six months, almost. And I think it's time to move on with this legislation. You're not going to change anybody's vote, and if you're here to showboat, you're in the wrong place. So I would decide we move on with this legislation."

After that, almost anticlimactically, came the vote, 69 to 27 to override the veto. The bill had, in fact, gained three favorable votes since its original House passage almost a month before. Todd, an ordinarily mild-mannered legislator, had greeted Bredesen's veto by saying that the governor knew "where he could put it." Now, he held court in the lobby, where he was congratulated by Chris Cox, spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, who had come from Washington especially to monitor the epochal vote.

Like most other advocates of the legislation, Todd persisted in calling it a "crime-prevention" measure. This was notwithstanding the massive resistance to the bill by law enforcement authorities — and, for that matter, by the association representing most of the state's restaurants, who were left the option of posting signs prohibiting weapons on their premises.

Todd was asked: Would he apologize to the governor for his remarks of the week before? "I'm still waiting for his apology," was Todd's response — one which echoed a series of contemptuous references to "this governor" made on the floor of the House that day by proponents of the gun bill, who saw it as a triumph for grass-roots sentiment.

Naifeh characterized it all as the work of the NRA, which, he said, had dominated this session of the legislature. A variety of critics in the media and elsewhere wondered if the override, which would be echoed the next day by the Senate, was a case of the inmates taking over the asylum.

The legislative week that ended on June 4th was intended to be the penultimate one of this, the current session of the Tennessee General Assembly. But, as is the case with other governmental jurisdictions in Tennessee — including Memphis and Shelby County — uncertainty over budgetary matters prevails, and, for the 132 men and women of the legislature, the uncertainty may prolong the agony.

Had things wound up this week, as planned, it would have been a session in which many long-dormant issues were taken to the brink of radical change, as it were, some of them being held just short of the cliff's edge and others — the gun bill, most notably — going all the way over. As things now stand, with legislators contemplating at least one more week in session, the precipice still beckons.

Barely hanging on the lip of extinction, for example, is the Tennessee Ethics Commission, a watchdog body created in the wake of the infamous "Tennessee Waltz" FBI sting of 2005. A bill to extend the commission had apparently been shelved in the state House of Representatives, but state senator Jim Kyle, the Memphian who serves as the Democratic leader in the state Senate, has publicly urged reconsideration, and it may get another look-see before the session is finally over and out.

Even if that save should occur — a prospect that seems unlikely — it has been a session in which several other long-term assumptions of state government already have been nudged in the direction of the abyss or into the maw itself.

It has been a session, for example, in which a majority of members voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that, if brought to term and fully ratified in a statewide referendum, would bring the state of Tennessee as close to repudiating Roe v. Wade as is legally possible — putting the state on record as being officially "neutral" on the long-thorny abortion-rights issue and thereby mandating its judiciary to follow suit.

It remains to be seen whether that one goes all the way. Having passed both the House and the Senate in this session, it needs to repeat the feat next year — by a two-thirds majority, no less — and then must face the verdict of the state's voters in 2012. Should it ultimately pass, state legal protections for abortion that have actually been stronger than those mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court would be over and done with.

click to enlarge Collierville Republican Curry Todd talks to the press - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Collierville Republican Curry Todd talks to the press

On another controversial measure, the legislature stopped just short of transforming the state's appellate courts by requiring its members to run for office at regular intervals in contested elections, a process that, for better or for worse, would have compelled judges and would-be judges, including members and aspiring members of the state Supreme Court, to raise money and go stumping against their rivals like aspirants for any other office.

Proponents saw all this as called for in the state Constitution and as the triumph of pure democracy. Opponents regarded it as the corruption of justice and an invitation to venality and the control of special interests.

In the end, what had been called the "Tennessee Plan," in which appellate judges were recommended to the governor after screening by a state Judicial Commission and submitted to regular Yes or No retention elections, was retained more or less but with significantly more hands-on control by members of the legislature.

Bills to felonize the wearing of baggy pants and to permit even more radical freedoms for holders of carry permits were turned back. But it ain't over with.

Scheduled for House action this week is a vote on a measure, which passed the Senate last month, that, in the language of the legislative abstract, "prohibits the commissioner of health, and any county or metropolitan board of health or political subdivision, from enacting an ordinance or issuing any rule or regulation pertaining to the provision of food nutritional information at food service establishments."

That one is the pride and joy of state senator Paul Stanley (R-Cordova, Germantown), who also sponsored — and got through the Senate — a bill that would have invalidated the right of local governments to enact "living-wage" provisions, like those recently passed by the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission.

That bill failed in a House committee — incurring a fate that used to befall all manner of provocative or controversial or questionable legislation that had managed to get through the Senate. And such carry-overs from the Senate can still get bottled up in the House — just not with the same consistency as before, during the reign of Covington Democrat Naifeh, who was adept at keeping controversial measures — like previous variants of the gun bill and the constitutional amendment on abortion — off the House floor.

click to enlarge The scene inside the    Tennessee state Senate - JACKSON BAKER

Naifeh's tenure as speaker (deemed autocratic even by some of his Democratic colleagues) was doomed by the surprise Republican conquest of the House in the 2008 election — by a single vote. In what was a sensation at the time, Naifeh's presumed successor, current House Republican leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, was denied the speakership in January when the House Democrats pulled off a surprise coup, voting along with another East Tennessee Republican, Kent Williams of Elizabethtown, to elect Williams — a maverick or a moderate, depending on one's vantage point, as speaker.

The fallout from that act, and the resultant equal distribution of committee chairmanships to Democrats and Republicans alike, has balkanized the House — resulting in what one veteran Capitol Hill reporter calls a division of power into "the five tribes." Asked to elaborate, he ended up naming at least six separate enclaves, all functioning independently of each other — and of party discipline, for that matter.

Watching the House in action is a revelation. In theory, the Democrats are led by majority leader Gary Odom of Nashville; the Republicans, by Mumpower. But both sit quietly, for the most part, while others marshal the troops and control action on the floor.

Odom overplayed his hand after the Williams coup, claiming too much credit for it at the expense of Naifeh and incurring the wrath of the former speaker's still-loyal legion of House Democrats. Coupled with his pre-existing estrangement from Democratic governor Phil Bredesen over other issues, that fact ended up hobbling Odom, and the actual power on his side of the aisle is wielded by another Nashvillian, Democratic caucus chair Mike Turner, who has handled the entirety of the governor's legislative package.

Mumpower, too, has seen his hands tied. He was embarrassed by his failure to anticipate the Democrats' Williams coup — and by the disclosure that he had already ordered up a score or two of state flags to be flown over the capitol to commemorate his triumph and be distributed as gifts to his supporters. On top of that, he presumed to speak for the entire Republican membership and to deny Williams the right to attend meetings of the party caucus. Mindful of the new speaker's power, a majority of the House Republicans voted to overrule Mumpower, and, like Odom, he, too, has never recovered from the rebuff.

So Glen Casada of Franklin, the GOP caucus chair, directs most of the action for his side, though other party members exercise power, too — sometimes to a disproportionate degree. Take Joe McCord of Maryville, for example — a member of several key committees and, importantly this last week, chair of the House Conservation and Environment Committee.

click to enlarge Chris Cox, spokesman for the NRA, and Republican representative Curry Todd - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Chris Cox, spokesman for the NRA, and Republican representative Curry Todd

The most contested measure on the House floor last Wednesday was not the gun bill, but the House's consideration of HB1204, which, as SB1331, had passed the Senate in April by the comfortable margin of 26 to 6. The bill would allow a significant increase in levels of selenium — a naturally occurring substance but a potentially toxic one — as an industrial byproduct that could be dumped into the state's riverways. It had been sponsored in the Senate by Ken Yager (R-Harriman), who, critics had charged, was operating on behalf of the National Coal Company and had in fact received several sizable campaign contributions from representatives of the company.

In the course of the House debate, McCord had tried to discount environmental concerns. At one point, he pooh-poohed the notion of global warming by contending that, only a few years ago, "global cooling" had been a major issue. At one point, Memphis Democrat Jeanne Richardson had had enough. "We have had more bad science quoted today," she said. "If there were a group of scientists watching today, they can't hear us anymore because they are laughing so hard."

Bad science, indeed. But even good science was of little comfort. What, for example, could one make of remarks made the same day at noon over in War Memorial Auditorium, adjacent to Legislative Plaza, where Professor Jonathan Gilligan and other scientifically credentialed savants were holding forth under the auspices of the Papasan Public Policy Institute?

The affair was for the benefit of members of the General Assembly, who were baited by the offer of boxed barbecue lunches and a choice of pies. Most who drifted in drifted right back out. A few, a very few, stayed on to listen.

To hear pronouncements like this from Gilligan, whose official position is that of Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt: "We're very confident that, even if we stopped putting any greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, the temperature of the earth would continue to rise for the next 100 to 300 years." Gilligan used the analogy of boiling water. It takes a while for the heat to get the water to boil, but once it starts, it continues for a while.

It gets worse: "The full impact of global warming doesn't get felt for over a hundred years after you put greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." And worse: "We also know that if we stop putting any more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere what we've already put in there is going to stay there for thousands of years before natural processes can pull them back out."

Given that situation, what difference would it make, should it make to the McCords of the world what might happen to a few fish in a few streams?

click to enlarge Memphis Democrat G.A. Hardaway at the microphone - JACKSON BAKER

There would seem to have been just enough communicating with members of the House to stave off passage of HB1204 — but just barely. For two hours, members indulged in heated debate and considered innumerable amendments — including one by Harriman Democrat Dennis Ferguson that would have mandated toxoligical tests for every two miles of the Tennessee River and was put forth, semiseriously, as an economic "stimulus" measure.

Finally, the bill, which had already passed the Senate, failed to get the 50 votes it needed for passage. And so a proposition that would have served industrial interests at the expense of the planet — at least if we are to believe critics of the bill and the Jonathan Gilligans of the world — finished with 49 ayes and 42 nays and was routed back to Calendar and Rules, known in legislative parlance as the Black Hole.

The next morning, Memphian Jim Kyle, the Senate's Democratic leader, lumbered with staff members down the long hallway tunnel from the offices of Legislative Plaza to the elevator that would take them up to the capitol's second floor for another day's legislative action — including, importantly, the final shot, as it were, in the battle over guns in bars.

Kyle and his staff amused themselves along the walk with conjectures as to what the consequences would have been if the selenium bill had passed in the House. It was an exercise in can-you-top-this black humor, with the winning entry coming from a staffer who ventured, "Well, it would have solved the long-term-care problem."

All jokes aside, Kyle had tried unsuccessfully back in April to hold the bill back in his chamber, where it was SB1331 and was approved 26-6 by a membership top-heavy on the Republican side. Now he was awed, even a bit shaken, by how close-run a thing it had been. "A scintilla. Just a scintilla," he said quietly as the elevator doors closed around him and his entourage.

Later that day, the Senate, too, would override Bredesen's veto of the gun bill. The vote there was 21 to 9, with Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke making a solitary last appeal to uphold the veto.

Doug Jackson, the Dickson Democrat who was the gun bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, took the floor on its behalf one last time. The villain of his piece was not Bredesen but the media — which had somehow got the point of the bill wrong.

Contending that similar legislation was in effect in 36 other states, Jackson wondered rhetorically, Where are the shooting deaths? Where are the fatalities? Several in his audience — including many in the mischievous, errant media — listened in silence and, looking into the future, wondered the same thing.

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