Partisanship Matters 

Both Democrats and Republicans cope with changing attitudes toward “party.”

Besides possessing the kind of experience and political savvy which has made him the Democrats' leader in the Tennessee state Senate and which encouraged him in 2009 to become a candidate for governor for an extended spell, Jim Kyle is a behind-the-scenes political analyst par excellence — and something of a phrasemaker.

Commenting in a recent conversation on the current political climate in Tennessee, Kyle made several trenchant observations. "In a sense, ours is a microwave society," Kyle said, meaning that people are now accustomed through technology and other developments to seeing their needs and desires gratified quickly, while change in the economic and governmental spheres still proceeds gradually according to what is, by comparison, a snail's pace.

That was Kyle's way of accounting for the popular frustrations that caused disenchanted Americans to part company with Republican congressional rule in the 2006 election cycle, when the war in Iraq seemed a quagmire, and to transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama during the economically troubled year of 2008.

This impatience with delay is also, Kyle acknowledged, the specter confronting Democrats in the current election year, which sees an economy that may or may not be coming around depending on which forecast one chooses to believe. The point is that whoever is in power is held responsible by the electorate, and positive change that is slow in coming is almost as damning to incumbents as negative change.

That should be a point of consolation to Democrats in Tennessee, inasmuch as it is the Republicans who now control both houses of the state legislature, except for another phenomenon noted by Kyle — the de facto erosion of Tip O'Neill's old saw, "All politics is local." Once again, it's a revolution of consciousness spearheaded by technology.

As Kyle points out, the news cycle is not what it used to be. In a newspaper-dominated age, when content was gathered and distributed overnight, geographic factors loomed large, as did local variations in perspective. First television and then the Internet began a change that has proceeded to a circumstance today in which flashes of news and opinion flow with extreme rapidity, one close upon another, and distances between communities have virtually dissolved.

"You can make the case now that all politics is national," Kyle says. And thus whatever mood of satisfaction or dissatisfaction predominates at a given point in the nation at large tends to be replicated from place to place locally.

That would explain, for example, why Republican candidates this year, notably in the recent 8th District congressional primary, close to home — have harped so relentlessly on the surname of Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, as a symbol of whatever unease voters may be feeling about the current national climate. Increasingly, congressional elections, even legislative ones, tend to become referenda on national themes.

Elections still can be inflected by differences of personality and credentials, and it is on that basis that Kyle remains optimistic about the statewide chances of Democratic legislative candidates this year, agreeing with the public statements of other spokespersons, like state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester, that the stable of party candidates in 2010 is one of the best and most promising ever.

But he is realistic about the new set of challenges his partymates face.

In the 8th District Republican primary contest between Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, the ultimate winner; Ron Kirkland of Jackson; and George Flinn of Memphis, hardly a public statement was made or a commercial message aired that did not employ the word "Pelosi" in an attempt to imply that one or more opponents was somehow, by a sin of commission or one of omission, somehow furthering the cause of the House speaker.

Roy Herron, the longtime state senator from Dresden who carries the Democratic standard in the 8th District this fall, understands the problem, and his advertising has so far featured his down-home roots, his relatively conservative fiscal and social views, and his appealing personality.

Like Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee for governor against Republican Bill Haslam, Herron acknowledges he is unlikely to employ the words "Democrat" or "Democratic" in his campaign. And, like McWherter, he argues with some logic that primary time is over and he is seeking the votes of all citizens in his constituency, inasmuch as he would represent them all if elected.

So goes the rhetoric, anyhow, plausible in its way, but Herron can be sure that Fincher will attempt to yoke him to his party label and especially, mantra-like, to the name of Pelosi.

• As is well known, Democrats in Shelby County, regarded by many in the state as a reliable party enclave, suffered their own stunning reverses in the recent countywide general election.

Paradoxically, two ranking personages of the Shelby County Republican Party, whose candidates swept the election, journeyed to the chambers of the Shelby County Commission Monday to lobby on behalf of a resolution, introduced by outgoing Republican commissioner John Pellicciotti, urging both parties "to discontinue partisan primaries for county offices beginning in the 2012 election cycle."

As they waited to speak in the lobby of the county building, local GOP chair Lang Wiseman and former party chair Bill Giannini, who serves as the current chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, repeated their views, noted previously in the Flyer, that local partisan elections are ill-attended and disproportionately expensive to the electorate.

Standing nearby was another Republican, Probate Court clerk-elect Paul Boyd, who was asked his own views. Boyd essentially said he was uncertain but open to persuasion.

"Ask him again in three and a half years," jested Giannini — a clear reference to the fact that county Democrats, whatever their electoral reverses this year, will continue to be in the majority when Boyd's seat comes up again in 2014.

In any event, Giannini and Wiseman made their case before the commission, including an admission that the GOP itself, looking at what then looked to be a Republican majority in the county, had been short-sighted in taking the lead in instituting partisan primaries in the elections of 1992 and 1994.

Perhaps predictably, Pellicciotti's resolution failed on what was essentially a party-line vote — with Democrats perhaps heeding a written plea from their party chairman, Van Turner, asking for a no vote on the matter, questioning the timing of the matter, and pointing out that, in any case, it remained the province of each party to call for the holding of a primary.

Democrat Steve Mulroy, whose vote Pellicciotti had hoped to get, would say later that he "probably" should have voted for the resolution, thereby putting it over, but (a) would have preferred the resolution to be more specific in outlining a post-primary election scenario; and (b) was preoccupied with a pending debate on overriding outgoing interim mayor Joe Ford's veto of a recently enacted change in the county's paid-leave policy. (The override would fail, leaving the existing leave policy in place.)p>

• Partisan considerations were involved in several matters Monday, especially in the votes for both the partisan-primary resolution and the veto override, but the fact that this was the last commission meeting for six outgoing commissioners — three Republicans and three Democrats — a feeling of comity between members of all persuasions predominated.

GOP members Pellicciotti, George Flinn, and chairman Joyce Avery were honored with tributes and gifts from their commission colleagues, as were Democrats Edith Ann Moore, Deidre Malone, and J.W. Gibson. Mulroy, known for coining limericks on public occasions, wrote and delivered one for each departing colleague. He in turn was bequeathed the dilapidated cloth chair that Malone had kept, along with former commissioner Bruce Thompson, in protest against spending money on new chairs for commissioners in 2005.

Ford was also honored by his former commission colleagues and had plaques for each of them, as well.

Perhaps the most striking of the farewell gifts was the one bestowed on chairman-elect Sidney Chism, a Democrat, by outgoing chairman Avery, a Republican: a white cowboy hat to replace his favored black one so he could become the "good guy" in the movie. • But partisan warfare went on. Though the Election Commission had certified the countywide election results and fixed blame for an election-day glitch on human error (inadvertent feeding of incorrect early-voting data by IT director Dennis Boyce), Democratic litigants at press time continued to investigate election-day procedure and maintained their options for appealing the election results.

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