POLITICS: A Once and Future Senator? 

Taking her leave
  • Taking her leave

NASHVILLE - Memphis Democrat Ophelia Ford, who was sworn in as the apparent 13-vote winner in a special election in state Senate District 29 last September, became an ex-senator Wednesday afternoon when her colleagues voted 26-6 to void that election result as "incurably uncertain," but promised, in a last speech delivered from her Senate desk, to return after the general election in November.

The Republican contender in that election (as well as the one last year), Terry Roland, was in the Senate gallery as the historic ouster vote occurred and proposed afterward that public hearings be held before the Shelby County Commission meets, presumably next week, to vote on an interim successor.

There was no debate prior to the Senate vote, which ratified a 5-1 recommendation by a special Senate investigating committee that fraud and other unresolved irregularities made last year's outcome "incurably uncertain." But Memphis senator Steve Cohen spoke at length in opposition to the ouster, suggesting that conditions mandated last January by federal Judge Bernice Donald had not been properly met. (Donald herself had declined to issue an injunction in a second hearing on Tuesday.)

And at the end, after what everybody conceded was a dignified final address, in which Ford expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve thus far, she became the center of an organized hugfest on the Senate floor, one that involved members of both parties and voters on either side of the issue.

Through it all, she kept smiling, but it was hard not to imagine Ophelia's pain. Not only had she known, when she entered the Senate chamber Wednesday afternoon, that she was Dead Man Walking, she had to rise on her feet and do Smiling and Clapping, too, as various visitors from this or that part of the Volunteer State were cited by their home senators and asked to stand in the overhead gallery. It was the usual light-hearted let's-pretend-we're-having-fun run-up to a session, only more of it and more intense than usual.

Capping it all was the Memphis Tiger celebration in the chamber arranged by state Representative Joe Towns, chairman of the Shelby delegatgion, and presided over in the Senate by longtime Tiger booster Cohen. Involving Coach Tommy West, University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, and a group of U of M footballers, this one had various senators decked out in numbered blue-and-gray Tiger jerseys, including Cohen and the antique Senate speaker himself, Lt. Governor John Wilder.

Kathryn Bowers, the indicted Memphian who has her own Tennessee-Waltz ordeal coming just around the bend, was given one of the jerseys, and, as a fellow Shelby Countian, so was Ophelia. Afterward, she was commended here and there for having had the grace not to don it and go goofy like the others. Nor did she distance herself altogether from the general merriment. What she did was drape the garment around her shoulders for a prolonged spell as a gesture of solidarity. It was the kind of thing the British call a nice distinction.

click to enlarge Bowers commiserates
  • Bowers commiserates

Ultimately, all of that was over, people were back in their workaday garbs, and Wilder was banging his gavel to usher in the real business. Micheal Williams, chairman of the special Senate investigating committee that had been digging into the District 29 matter from way back in January, announced that the committee had duly made a determination - by that vote of 5-1, including two Democrats, one of them the Senate's Democratic leader, Jim Kyle of Memphis. The upshot was that last year's special election -- dogged by irregularities both suspected and real (two dead "voters")-- was found to have been "incurably uncertain." Williams thereupon asked for a favorable vote on the panel's findings to void the election.

It was a judicious and dignified-sounding statement in keeping with Williams' general conduct of the matter -- although, to be even-handed about it, some of his Republican brethren, notably GOP Senate leader Ron Ramsey, a committee member and a prime mover for voiding the election, thought Williams had been dogging it over the past few months, playing up to nominal Democrat Wilder, who had never, it was widely understood, wanted the issue to come around.

But Wilder had not held on the speakership of the Senate for so long as he had without being a realist, and now, with the result pre-ordained and with federal judge Bernice Donald of Memphis having declined to issue an injunction against Senate action on Tuesday, he dutifully called for the vote.

That was when Cohen had his moment as the lone and last stay against getting the process over with. "Is there not going to be a debate?" he asked. The senator would say later that he hadn't premeditated anything other than to explain his reasons for voting against voiding the election.

In the end he did more, sounding like the lawyer he is as he recapped (or spontaneously re-created))some of the arguments that Ford's attorneys David Cocke and Steve Mulroy had made on her behalf before Judge Donald on Tuesday.

click to enlarge Cohen on the warpath
  • Cohen on the warpath

And he did more, eventually summoning assistant state Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter and former judge Ben Cantrell, the special Senate committee's lawyer, onto the floor of the chamber to explain -- awkwardly, as it turned out -- the reasons for voiding the election.

It all came back to that issue of incurable uncertainty, though - as Cohen pointed out - neither Kleinfelter nor Cantrell was able to make the case for more than twelve suspect votes, one less than the margin by which Ford was certified the winner by the Shelby County Election Commission last year.

All in all, it was a spirited performance by the senator - at least as effective as the one made in court Tuesday by Cocke and Mulroy and one, incidentally, that will do Cohen no harm politically in his current campaign for Congress in the majority-black 9th District, in which two of a numerous field of opponents, one Democrat and one independent, happen to have the last name of Ford.

But in the end only six Democrats voted no against the resolution. Besides Cohen and Ford herself, the nay-voters were Bowers, Ward Crutchfield, the Chattanooga Democrat who himself faces trial in the Tennessee Waltz scandal, Democrat Thelma Harper of Nashville, and Joe Haynes, also of Nashville, the Senate Democratic caucus leader.

Haynes had also been the lone member of the special Senate committee to vote against the resolution eventually presented and acted on. Asked on Thursday why he had voted the other way, Kyle said that due process had, in his opinion and in that of most of his colleagues, been followed and that the legal advice they'd received was clear and unambiguous. He made a point of saying the vote was not intended as any kind of criticism of Ford herself.

"I expect to see her back after November," the party leader said. "She's been an effective senator." Kyle was careful to make one distinction. "A lot of the media has referred to this as an 'ouster," he noted. "It's anything but. Ophelia's done nothing wrong."

Who had? he was asked. "The whole election system," he said. "The election commission and county government both have something to answer for. And why haven't [District Attorney] Bill Gibbons and the T.B.I. [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] come up with legal recommendations. Somebody has done something wrong, and they need to be identified and dealt with."

As for whether the county commission should or shouldn't appoint an interim successor for the last few weeks of the session, Kyle said, "I won't presume to advise them, but I would hope they wouldn't take the risk of sending somebody up there whose presence would be volatile."

Since he'd made a point of saying, "If you'll notice, Roland never has claimed that he won," Kyle's meaning was clear.

click to enlarge greenbullet2.gif

As if the Republican Party’s conservatives were not divided enough by the dual presence of former congressmen Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant in this year’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, another fissure has developed in the ranks. Angelo Cobrasci, head of the Shelby County Conservative Republican Club, said this week he had decided to endorse former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, widely perceived as something of a moderate.

click to enlarge Corker and Cobrasci last week in Memphis
  • Corker and Cobrasci last week in Memphis

Apprised of this on Wednesday after a Nashville forum appearance alongside Bryant, Corker, and Democrat Harold Ford Jr., Hilleary shrugged and said the reason was probably his quick endorsement of the GOP gubernatorial candidacy state Senator Jim Bryson of Franklin. (Cobrasci was campaign manager for Carl “Two Feathers” Whitaker, the state Minuteman head who switched his own bid from the Republican primary to independent status when Bryson announced.)

“You will notice I’m the only Senate candidate who has endorsed Bryson. Corker and Bryant haven’t,” Hilleary contended, maintaining that all his GOP rivals had done was welcome the entry of Bryson, who was strongly urged to run by ranking state Republicans.

Several observers at Wednesday’s forum, held at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, noted that Ford, whom they credited with an effective and somewhat aggressive performance, delivered his own closing remarks and then upstaged Hilleary’s, either intentionally or otherwise, by exiting early, conspicuously shaking hands and making conversation with various attendees as he left during the former 4th District congressman’s attempts to sum up.

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