The Political Silly Season 

Of Coon Suppers, Dutch Treats, and Tea Parties

click to enlarge coonskin_cap.jpg

The late literary sage Kurt Vonnegut once drew a distinction between what he called a "kerass," which he defined as a legitimate, even spontaneous and inevitable gathering of kindred souls, and a "granfalloon," a totally concocted and artificial commingling of people.

Arguably, a specimen of the former is ex-House speaker Jimmy Naifeh's annual Coon Supper, which takes place on the grounds of the Covington Country Club each April, in anticipation of a looming adjournment of the state legislature. (Increasingly, though, the events occur well in advance of the final gavel.)

Attending are a veritable horde of politicians, hangers-on, and media types from across the state — grateful for a chance to shmooze, booze, or cruise, whichever is their pleasure. It is a good-natured event, a caesura from toil. This year's version took place on April 16th, after weeks of legislative stress over the issue of legalizing gun-toting into bars, restaurants, and even the state capitol itself.

Unresolved and barely even touched have been larger policy matters, including the crucial ones of determining budget and priorities in a time of economic severity, alleviated by a dose of stimulus money from Washington.

Also last week was an out-and-out granfalloon, a nationwide Fox News-generated "protest" against — just what? The local event was as much a gathering of cranks and ideologues responding to a news conglomerate's marching orders as it was a bona fide conclave over the issue of taxation.

But to the events:

Coon Suppers and Dutch Treats by Jackson Baker

click to enlarge Bloggers Steve Ross and Trace Sharp sample barbecued raccoon meat at the Coon Supper - JACKSON BAKER
  • jackson baker
  • Bloggers Steve Ross and Trace Sharp sample barbecued raccoon meat at the Coon Supper

Despite his fall from grace in Nashville, former state House of Representives speaker Jimmy Naifeh was able to command the usual mass attendance for his annual Coon Supper on the grounds of the Covington Country Club.

Most of the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls were in attendance. Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, Dresden state senator Roy Herron, and former House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarsksville were all on hand, among declared candidates. And among the still undeclared were Jackson businessman Mike McWherter (along with Papa Ned Ray, the former governor), Memphian Jim Kyle, Democratic leader in the Senate, and state senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga.

Knoxville-based publisher and developer Doug Horne didn't make it because of an illness in his extended family, said his pal Randy Button, like Horne himself a former party chairman. (As it turned out, Horne was even then on the cusp of announcing that he wouldn't run after all. Horne would reveal that the next morning, along with the illuminating disclosure that, if he had run, he would have made tax reform a major plank. He would say he had determined that the federal stimulus program had deferred the urgency of the issue.)

click to enlarge barbecued raccoon meat at the Coon Supper - JACKSON BAKER

A remark of McMillan's attested to Naifeh's continuing clout. Asked if she'd actually eaten the barbecued raccoon meat (mercifully, fried chicken and standard pork barbecue were also on hand, in abundance), McMillan said she had. "I told Jimmy Naifeh it was good!" As no great admirer of coon meat myself (it tasted acidy and rancid the one time I tried it years ago), I was somewhat disbelieving.

A parenthesis: Raccoons are refuse-eaters, nasty in disposition and even nastier in their hunger for evil spoils. No wonder they are considered proper fare at a feast for political folks.

"You thought it was good?" I asked. Whereupon McMillan backtracked: "No. Speaker Naifeh asked me if it was good, and I said it was."

That bit of politesse was in keeping with the respect paid to the former speaker at his long-established annual event. Indeed, Naifeh never looked more the grandee than he did strolling from group to group, collecting gossip, trade talk, and deference.

click to enlarge Chip Forrester and Don Farmer meet and greet - JACKSON BAKER

I asked him about his successor as speaker, Kent Williams (another absentee, due to a death in the family). "He's doing fine," Naifeh said. "He asks me to help him, and I do."

What about House Democratic leader Gary Odom? Naifeh's face changed a little. After a pause, he gave a perceptibly muted response: "He's doing all right." Then after another pause, Naifeh said, "He sure told you wrong back then." That was an obvious reference to what would appear to be Naifeh's still-simmering resentment of Nashvillian Odom's having claimed credit, rather than Naifeh, for the elevation of Williams, an independent-minded Republican from East Tennessee, as well as for the majority leader's outspokenly negative view of Naifeh's erstwhile support of a state income tax.

Perhaps not incidentally, Odom — also a rumored gubernatorial hopeful — was among the non-attendees at the Coon Supper.

Beleaguered state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester was there, however, conspicuously making nice with state party committee member Don Farmer, who had nominated Charles Robert Bone, Forrester's opponent, at the January meeting of the party executive committee that named Forrester chairman.

Unconfirmed rumors spread around the grounds that the Chipper has made a truce with his party opposition — which is led by Governor Phil Bredesen, no less — and agreed to accept an executive director acceptable to the governor (also an attendee in Covington) and other members of the camp, which has kept its distance thus far.

Republicans? The Coon Supper had a few but then again too few to mention. (Apologies to Frank Sinatra. Or rather songwriter Paul Anka.) In fact, there were several — among them the irrepressible Terry Roland of not-so-far-away Millington, who at one point bestowed one of his patented extended hugs on state senator Ophelia Ford, to whom he narrowly lost a bitterly contested special election in 2005 — partly through the votes of dead people who had somehow managed to rise again and cast a vote for Ford.

"I'm open to everybody. I don't hold a person's party against them," Roland explained to a group of Democrats. As for himself, he said, "I'm not a bad man." No, they agreed. He wasn't. Ready to try his luck again, Roland had some campaign cards to pass around, identifying himself as a candidate for Shelby County commissioner in District 4. That election takes place in 2010.

Alas, two of the most outspoken Republicans on Capitol Hill were absent from Naifeh's coonfest.

One was Brian Kelsey, a Republican House member from Germantown and something of a meat vendor himself. A couple of years ago, when the state was actually running a pre-recession, pre-stimulus surplus and both houses of the General Assembly were still under the command of the Democrats, enough legislators were rounded up to provide "community development grants" for each House and Senate district. Each member received a certain amount of money to distribute as he or she chose, and most members, Democrat and Republican alike, gladly did as they were enabled.

What Kelsey did instead was stuff some uncooked bacon slices into an envelope and take the floor of the House, telling then Speaker Naifeh that he was returning his share of the "pork" to the state. That caper earned him the a.k.a. of "Stuntbaby of Germantown" among the state's liberal bloggers, and the name has stuck — reinforced by other extraordinary acts of defiance by this would-be cynosure, who, as an equal-opportunity offender, has publicly feuded with fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats.

Kelsey suffered some embarrassment early in this year's session at a time when he was garnering considerable publicity as a leading critic of the minority Democrats' parliamentary sleight of hand that landed maverick Republican Kent Williams in the speaker's chair rather than the G.O.P. majority leader, Jason Mumpower. Kelsey's crusade against Williams was somewhat tainted when the new speaker leaked the text of a computer message he received from Kelsey, seeming to propose sweetness and light for Williams in return for a committee chairmanship the Germantown legislator coveted.

Undaunted, Kelsey continues to wage partisan warfare, telling the ultraconservative members of Memphis' Dutch Treat Luncheon group last weekend that he intended to roam far and wide in the state next year, campaigning against the election or reelection of selected Democrats and renegade Republicans.

Kelsey, though, is a piker in the eccentricity sweeptstakes compared to fellow Republican House member Stacey Campfield of Knoxville, who, by Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey's actual measure in a recent article, is the apparent object of more Google searches than any other legislator.

The reason why is not hard to discern. Though he is a benevolent, almost beatific presence in person, Campfield is a raccoonish prankster par excellence, and Democrats regard his deeds as incendiary.

In the current session alone, Campfield has proposed bills to require the issuance of death certificates for aborted fetuses, to deny birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants, and to limit lottery winnings for recipients of federal assistance to $600.

So far as is known, Campfield has never attended a Coon Supper. He got into a wrangle with then Speaker Naifeh last year when, in support of his bill to ban alcohol at receptions for legislators, he cited the Jack Daniel's part-sponsorship of the Coon Supper. This year, Campfield voted in favor of carrying guns into bars. Go figure.

White Rabbits at the Tea Party by Chris Davis

I was only taking pictures at the April 15th tax-day "tea party" in Audubon Park, when an aggressive middle-aged woman scolded me with firm instructions to put my recording equipment away.

click to enlarge About 1,000 people congregated at Audubon Park April 15th for a local "tea party," part of a national protest against taxes promoted by Fox News. - CHRIS DAVIS
  • chris davis
  • About 1,000 people congregated at Audubon Park April 15th for a local "tea party," part of a national protest against taxes promoted by Fox News.

"This is a public event," I answered politely, if a bit dismayed, "and I'm media. This is what I do."

"I don't give a fuck who you are," the woman snapped back. That was just the preamble to an angry, out-of-the-blue monologue about my apparent lack of gratitude for something I never completely understood. "You should go thank that man," she commanded, gesturing toward a fellow who was standing a few feet away behind a huge sign bearing the garbled message: "Honest, in God we trust taxation VS Obama, Biden, Geitner, Napolitano Representation."

"Why me," I asked the woman. "Why did you single me out for this?" But she didn't answer and kept scolding me like I'd done something wrong. People started staring at us. And there were actual pitchforks in this crowd so I put away my recording equipment and left Audubon Park, where 1,000 or so people protested unfair taxation on a day when 95 percent of all Americans got a tax cut.

click to enlarge CHRIS DAVIS

These tea parties, which took place all across the country on April 15th, have been identified — mostly on Fox News — as a nonpartisan grassroots phenomenon. But that description is pretty meaningless in light of Fox's cheerleading for the event and the cable channel's apparent, if not actual, partnership with tea-party organizers. As Fox anchor Megyn Kelly quipped to Brent Bozell, "Fox [was] ... one of the only organizations to give [the tea parties] any publicity or PR prior to the fact that it happened."

Media Matters, a web-based media research center, showed that Kelly wasn't kidding. The conservative cable news channel treated the tea parties like the Super Bowl of protests: 107 promotions for its coverage over 10 days.

click to enlarge CHRIS DAVIS

FreedomWorks, the lobbyist-funded organization that has organized against health-care reform and worked with oil companies to promote petroleum interests, also helped to coordinate the protests.

At Memphis' tea party, a Boy Scout leader got on the microphone and bragged about how scouting stresses responsibility over entitlement. Another speaker worried over the Obama administration's incentivizing of green energy initiatives and drew wild applause when he announced, "We're not getting off oil anytime soon!"

"I love being radical. Amen!" declared speaker Mark Skoda, who has been described by bloggers and commenters on the Flyer's website as a Democrat but who has a long history of donating money to causes like the Republican Congressional Committee, George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, and the Bush-Cheney Compliance Committee.

click to enlarge CHRIS DAVIS

The declaration of radicalism prompted loud cheers and echoes of "Radical!" from an audience where signs bearing revolutionary slogans waved and one man stood with an American flag draped around his shoulders, wearing a shirt depicting President Obama caught in a rifle's crosshairs, his face full of bullet holes.

"Tea Party Today Tar & Feather Tomorrow," read one sign, while another proclaimed, "Tax the illegal Mexican." All around, posters warned that change had come to America, and its name was socialism.

The energized and responsive crowd was asked not to vilify CEOs or their awesome bonus packages and warned about how long the waits for treatment can be in countries that have given themselves over to the temptations of socialized medicine. Coincidently or not, many of FreedomWorks' pet causes — none of which might easily be described as mainstream — made their way onto the stage in some form or another during the event's first hour and received enthusiastic ovations.

Before leaving the park, I stopped and snapped a picture of an older gentleman with a sign reading, "Where is Senator Joe McCarthy now that we really need him?" That pretty much said it all.

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