Nonpartisan Event Stirs Partisans 

In politics, as in everything else (maybe more so in politics!), no good deed goes unpunished. When state Representative Mark White (R-Memphis) and Senator John Stephens (R-Huntington), co-chairs of the Tennessee legislature's West Tennessee Economic Development Caucus (WTEDC), decided to schedule four nonpartisan events in the weeks prior to the November 6th election, they seem not to have anticipated negative feedback.

But they got some. Big-time.

When White aide Paul Marsh, on behalf of the two co-chairs, recently sent out a letter to a network of civic and governmental leaders announcing a series of four regional meetings of the WTEDC with the candidates for governor and U.S. senator, he conscientiously specified that all four — gubernatorial candidates Karl Dean (Democrat) and Bill Lee (Republican) would take part, sequentially. Ditto with the two candidates for Senate — Phil Bredesen (Democrat) and Marsha Blackburn (Republican).

GOP’s White and Democrat Craig Fitzhugh at WTEDC event - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • GOP’s White and Democrat Craig Fitzhugh at WTEDC event

As planned, the schedule called for Dean on Monday of this week in Jackson; Bredesen on October 18th, also in Jackson; Lee on October 22nd in Martin; and Blackburn, back in Jackson on October 23rd. Monday's meeting with Dean, the former mayor of Nashville, took place as scheduled at the offices of the Southwest Tennessee Economic District, which will be the site for the other Jackson meetings as well.

Members of both political parties and presumably some independents as well were on hand Monday, as, with White presiding, Dean and others discussed the status of the West Tennessee Megasite in Haywood County and other ongoing or potential development projects in the region. The group conversation was collegial, focused, and nonpartisan, a veritable object lesson in civic responsibiliity.

It remains to be seen, however, if that kind of comity holds up for the next go-round — the meeting with Bredesen. Upon receipt of Marsh's original letter, at least two recipients — both Republicans — responded with curt and identical refusals: "No, thank you" regarding the Bredesen meeting. And it became clear that both decliners, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald and state Representative Jim Coley, represented the tip of an iceberg. Several other Republicans found ways of conveying their displeasure, apparently seeing the planned occasion as some sort of partisan disloyalty.

Undiscouraged, White took pains to reassure his party brethren that no such treason was afoot, that the series of meetings with contenders for statewide office were part of no political agenda but were merely intended to be disinterested occasions for sharing ideas and information.

On Wednesday of last week, however, The Tennessean of Nashville carried a report of a hostile reaction to the scheduled Bredesen appearance from the famously partisan and unbashful state Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden), a legislator famous (or infamous) for such capers as an anti-whistleblower bill that Governor Bill Haslam vetoed as unconstitutional and for dumping hog waste into fresh-water streams, an offense that earned him a fine from the EPA.

Holt vaunts his position on the rightward fringe of the Republican Party, too, and was quoted by the Tennessean as denouncing the WTEDC's plans to meet with Bredesen.

Said Holt: "I'm a member of this Caucus, but I want it to be VERY CLEAR, that I am not, and have no intention of EVER hosting Phil Bredesen at any event with which I'm associated!" Holt wondered, "Who's [sic] idea was this?" He called the Bredesen scheduling and the public invitation to it  "egregious political miscalculations" and threatened to resign from the caucus. 

Several of the Republicans present at Monday's WTEDC meeting with Dean expressed dismay at Holt's attitude. State Representative Jimmy Eldridge, currently a candidate for mayor of Jackson, was particularly vexed. "Can you believe that? We're trying to have a meeting of minds here. This is completely nonpartisan!" And Eldridge was seconded by several others.

Count it as a healthy omen, even a sign of potential redemption for state government, that such was the prevailing reaction toward a nonpartisan event in a highly charged political year among the Democrats and Republicans gathered in Jackson, all of whom practiced the most elaborate courtesies toward each other.

• As it happens, Bredesen has been the focus of attention in numerous other ways of late. The former governor, whose innate centrism and willingness to reach out across the political aisle had previously been serving him well, took a good deal of flack last week from his fellow Democrats, who judged him to be overdoing it.

Many Democrats expressed displeasure that Bredesen had reacted to taunts from GOP opponent Blackburn by publicly disowning Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York during the two Senate candidates' recent televised debate. But that reaction was nothing compared to the outrage that greeted Bredesen's statement endorsing President Donald Trump's designation of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court after an abbreviated FBI investigation of Kavanaugh for alleged sexual misconduct and before the final party-line vote in his favor in the Senate.

Meanwhile, whatever the reason for it, the polls, which had been showing Bredesen with a significant single-digit lead reversed course, and Blackburn began to top such samplings as were made public.

No doubt compounding the Democratic candidate's discomfort was a series of hard-hitting TV attack ads from the Blackburn camp. Some of these were patently misleading — notably one which attempted to connect the former governor with the current opioid-addiction problem (apparently based on the fact that, among other things, his stock portfolio includes some shares of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical group). That approach is a blatant attempt to do a turn-around on the fact that Blackburn was the author of Pharma-friendly legislation that 60 Minutes identified as a major factor in inhibiting the DEA's ability to control the proliferation of opioids.

• The campaign of Democrat Gabby Salinas for the District 31 state Senate seat is calling foul on a mailer sent out by her opponent, Republican incumbent Brian Kelsey. Headed by a picture of Kelsey and his wife, Amanda, with a family dog and replete with other domestic themes and references, the mailer states, "Brian Kelsey's Family Has Called Shelby County Home for Seven Generations. He's From Here. He's One of Us."

Salinas is a cancer survivor whose family emigrated here from Colombia during her childhood to pursue treatment for her at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. A spokesman for her campaign maintains that the "nasty" mailer, a "not-so-subtle dog whistle" is "attempting to raise the question of Gabby's heritage and background as an immigrant and naturalized citizen."

Kelsey's response (via Kelsey's campaign manager, Jackson Darr): "It's very simple. It means that Brian lives in Shelby County. Senator Kelsey has deep roots here. ... Brian participates daily in Shelby County life. That's what it means to be one of us."

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