State Democrats Down But Not Out 

The tiny but reorganized Democratic leaderships in the House and Senate could be just the help that Governor Haslam needs.

Conservative Republican Brian Kelsey, here cutting a rug at Democrat David Upton’s birthday party, could manage to upstage Governor Bill Haslam in the forthcoming

Jackson Baker

Conservative Republican Brian Kelsey, here cutting a rug at Democrat David Upton’s birthday party, could manage to upstage Governor Bill Haslam in the forthcoming

Even as the members of Shelby County's legislative delegation were conferring with community leaders and governmental figures at the Pink Palace Tuesday about the shape of things to come in Nashville, the balance of power there has undergone further shifts.

The corps of Democrats in the 33-member Tennessee General Assembly may have been winnowed down to five, as of the November 4th election, but of those five, three are brand-new members with a reputation for focused activism and a love for political hurly-burly.

The three are Memphians Lee Harris and Sara Kyle, and Nashvillian Jeff Yarbro. It is no accident that two of them — Harris and Yarbro — gained leadership function in a party caucus held last Tuesday in Nashville, while the third, Kyle, took the lead in nominating them both. Harris was elected Senate minority leader (to succeed Kyle's husband and District 30 predecessor Jim Kyle, now a Shelby County chancellor), and Yarbro was named Democratic caucus chair.

State Senator Reginald Tate, who had counted on winning one of the two leadership positions, nominated himself for leader but deferred to Harris when it became obvious that he had the votes. Yarbro was unopposed for caucus chair. The only Democratic senator who aspired to no leadership position was Nashville's Thelma Harper.

House Democrats had their own reorganization last week in Nashville, reelecting Representative Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley as minority leader and electing as caucus chair Representative Mike Stewart of Nashville, who replaces the now retired Representative Mike Turner in the party's number two leadership position. Fitzhugh and Stewart had no opposition.

The situation in the House, where Democrats hold 26 of 99 seats, is somewhat less dire than for Democrats in the Senate, at least percentage-wise, though in both chambers a Republican super-majority prevails, enabling the GOP to pass whatever legislation its members agree on. The number of cases in which Democrats can cast significant votes in either body will be rare indeed.

As recently as 2008, Democrats held a majority in the Senate, though even then long-serving Speaker John Wilder had for several years been governing the body with a coalition of committee heads from both parties. The six minority Democrats in the Senate will have no such arrangement with Wilder's successor, Senator Ron Ramsey of Blountville, whose power over the Senate is virtually complete.

So did it use to be for the Democrats' long-serving Democratic Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, a back-bencher for his last two terms and now retired. Naifeh saw his Democrats fall into a one-vote minority after the election of 2008, and while the House Democrats managed something of a coup in early 2009 by electing as speaker an independent-minded Republican, Kent Williams of Carter County, that expedient only held off the GOP deluge for two years.

The Tea Party elections of 2010 further enlarged the GOP majority in both House and Senate, and Republican-controlled redistricting made the divide even more disproportionate after the elections of 2012, which created the current GOP super-majority in both houses, made even more secure by the election results of 2014.

There is reason to believe that this disproportion is as uncomfortable for Republican Governor Bill Haslam as it is for the truncated and disempowered groups of Democrats. Though Haslam would shy away from the kiss-of-death term "moderate," preferring to call himself a "conservative" like every other Tennessee Republican these days, he has found his hands tied in his efforts to pursue certain policies that might be regarded as centrist.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the case of Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which early on the governor seemed willing to accept, especially since to do so would mean an influx of substantial federal ACA monies to bolster Tennessee's long-suffering hospitals, several of which are teetering on the edge of insolvency.

Faced with intense resistance to dealing with the ACA in any of its forms, Haslam temporized on the issue as long as he could, then said no to expansion in 2012, holding out hope at the time that he could negotiate a waiver with the feds for some privatized and localized version of Medicaid expansion to which he gave the name "Tennessee Plan." Meanwhile, the chances for even that shadow plan, which never was developed in any real sense, were later undermined by statutes passed by the General Assembly giving the legislature veto power over anything Haslam and the feds might come up with.

Similarly, the governor has seen his ongoing educational reforms blocked and/or transformed by legislative resistance. Haslam has been committed to Common Core educational standards, for example, and has seen the implementation of Common Core blocked or retarded by an ad hoc alliance of teachers and right-wing legislators. Meanwhile, his chosen Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman, the embodiment of Haslam's educational reforms, has essentially been forced into retirement.

Most recently, the governor has made a point of trying to brake the tax-cuts-at-all-costs-mania that has gained a hold in the Republican legislative majority and is just now aimed at the outright abolition of the Hall income tax. A bill introduced in the Senate by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey would provide the means for eliminating the tax by stages in the next few years.

Haslam's response, made in a speech to the Nashville Rotary club last week: "I don't see that happening. But there will be legislators who will bring that up and want to repeal it. ... That's fine; show me the $280 to $300 million." That's the amount of state revenue that would be reduced by the abolition of the Hall tax, which is levied on dividends and investment.

The governor has pointed out that besides the amount of Hall tax proceeds that go to state operations, the relatively upscale localities where the tax is collected are largely dependent on their share of it to maintain their level of services, and to make up lost revenues from the Hall tax by shifting money from general state funds would penalize the relatively poorer parts of the state that would be denied such funds.

The bottom line is that Democratic assistance, such as it is, could be of at least marginal assistance to Haslam as he attempts to restrain the overzealous ambitions of his House and Senate super-majorities in the forthcoming session.


• 'Tis the season: David Upton is 50 years old. The veteran pol, after a decades-long career of influence (mainly behind the scenes) in collegiate local, state, and party politics, celebrated his 50th birthday Saturday night at a karaoke party at the Memphis Made Brewing Company on South Cooper.

And, while the well-attended affair had a disproportionately Democratic cast of characters — as befits the birthday boy's long-established political center of gravity — it did not lack for an ecumenical aspect.

As an example, one of the celebrants, who did a dead-on version of Billy Idol's "White Wedding," was Kelsey, the very Republican state Senator from Germantown.

Democratic state Representative Joe Towns did his best to match Kelsey with maybe his thousandth public rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," which Towns performs with a suitably gravel voice.

It is uncertain if all the advertised performers actually took the microphone, but some of them listed in advance information about the event were (along with the titles of their featured tunes): City Councilmember Janis Fullilove ("Respect"); County Commissioner Steve Basar ("Born in the USA"); State Senator Reginald Tate ("My Girl"); recent judicial candidate David Pool ("I Want You to Want Me"); restaurateur Felicia Suzanne Willett ("Proud Mary"); and Congressman Steve Cohen ("All Shook Up").

There were scads more — some of whom can sing and some who can't. Among the former were at least two professionals — R&B artist Valerie June and opera diva Kallen Esperian. 

Esperian did a selection from Carmen and graciously joined Upton, a close friend, in a duet of "Unforgettable." June led the crowd in a medley of songs, including Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."

Upton's proud mother Dina had a front-row seat for all the festivities.

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