Politics » Politics Feature

A Kinder, Gentler Tea Party?

Mark Skoda uses his usual fire and brimstone to brew some, er, moderation (?)

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Spending an evening with Mark Skoda, the president of the Memphis Tea Party and a force in both the statewide and national Tea Party movements, can be instructive.

Skoda was the featured speaker at last week's regular monthly meeting of the East Shelby County Republican Club, and I went to the Pickering Center to hear him out.

For those who fear that there is a nativist or even racist edge to the Tea Party's efforts, Skoda arguably provided some grist for that mill.

There's this: "We now have the king of Saudi Arabia. He came into the United States today. Did you know that? Do you know why he came into America?" A medical problem, Skoda noted.

"He wanted the very best health care. I wonder if he got his junk touched. But you as an American, as a white citizen, as an old person, get your junk touched every day, but the Saudi king can come over here and gets right through customs and gets into his private jet with all his gold stuff and enjoys all the benefit of our health-care system."

And, for those who see Tea Partiers as barn burners in general, there's this: "We're at the point now where a little anarchy can go a long way. Not suggesting violence, but we have to no longer trust our federal government."

But Skoda, who acknowledges having gone all out to see conservative purist Glen Casada of Franklin named speaker of the new Republican-dominated state House of Representatives, was restrained in his statements about the surprise nominee of the GOP House caucus, the more moderate Beth Harwell of Nashville.

"I hope that she'll be true now to her conservative values and evidence that in her appointments," Skoda said, and he professed to be equally open-minded about Governor-elect Bill Haslam of Knoxville, also regarded as more moderate than Skoda's erstwhile candidate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

And in what may have been Skoda's most surprising comment of the night, he declined to support calls for abolishing the state's current requirements for gun-carry permits. This was an issue that during the late campaign bedeviled Haslam, who told a persistent gun-rights advocate he would sign legislation doing away with permits and then spent two weeks trying to modify that position.

Skoda was forthright. He said he favored the continuation of permits based upon approved training (though with "fees as low as possible").

"Firearms have responsibility just like a car," he said, and while the Second Amendment "absolutely" guaranteed the right to purchase and own a weapon, a "responsible process" was in order.

Skoda, who had much to do with last February's national Tea Party Convention in Nashville, keynoted by Sarah Palin, said the next one would be held in Memphis, April 9th to 11th, and would feature such luminaries of the right as Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham.

• Back in October, a coalition of Shelby County commissioners combined to put the county commission on record as opposing the then pending November 2nd referendum on city/county consolidation.

This was the same county commission which (though differently constituted) had combined with the Memphis City Council a year earlier to create and subsidize the Metro Charter Commission, which developed and proposed the referendum in the first place.

And, of course, the voters on November 2nd pretty much obliterated the consolidation concept. The referendum lost by a majority of 85 percent in the outer county, and though it passed muster in the city, it was only by the barest of margins, 51 percent. Decisive? Enough to put the issue on hold for the generation that usually passes before wiped-out consolidation proponents decide to try again?

Nah! Not by Steve Mulroy, the intrepid and decidedly un-bashful commissioner from District 5, an East Memphis-based swing district on the seam of city and county. Mulroy believes that what was defeated so badly was not consolidation per se but only the somewhat feckless variety that was proposed by the 2009-2010 version of a charter commission, one that was basically put together by Memphis mayor A C Wharton, who transitioned from county mayor to city mayor during its formation and thereby was able to name all its members.

So Mulroy, less than a month after consolidation was rejected, has a brand-new resolution proposing that the county commission (yep, the same county commission that said no in October) give its approval to — are you sitting down? — a "Resolution in Support of the Concept of Consolidation," which would provide for a new charter commission.

The measure was scheduled for discussion in committee this Wednesday and, presumably, will be taken to the county commission's regular biweekly public meeting on Monday for a vote.

Mulroy professes to believe that the commission will be open-minded, particularly his fellow Democrats — several of whom joined the majority of the commission's Republicans in October to reject consolidation.

At the time there was an ongoing backlash against the referendum among African Americans in the inner city, and both Sidney Chism, the current commission chairman, and James Harvey joined newcomer Justin Ford in voting no to consolidation, along with GOP members Wyatt Bunker, Terry Roland, Heidi Shafer, and Chris Thomas — the latter three being new members representing suburban areas outside the city.

Mulroy's resolution suggests that the commission's October vote, like that of the voters in November, "could be misinterpreted as opposition to metro consolidation generally," which is described as "appropriate and inevitable."

The resolution proposes that "the city council and county commission have greater input into the selection of members of any appointed Metro Charter Commission"; that "[g]reater efforts are made to achieve racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity among any charter commission appointees"; and that "[a]ppropriate efforts are made to avoid any undue influence of corporate interests on the process."

Lastly, the resolution declares, "The issue of school consolidation, if still applicable, should be given weight equal to that of any other major issue in charter commission deliberations."

That, of course, is an allusion to the currently raging controversy between the city and county school boards, which seem locked in a race to transform the relationship between the two school systems of Shelby County. The Shelby County school board may seek legislative approval in January for a separate county school district for county schools, while the city board is considering a proposal to surrender its charter, a move which, if approved by city voters in a referendum, would automatically consolidate the two systems.

One of the ironies of the current situation is that the issue of school consolidation, carefully sundered from the November 2nd vote, is now front and center, and Mulroy's more inclusive resolution clearly acknowledges the issue as relevant to his proposal for a new Metro Charter Commission.

Mulroy's resolution had already prompted a response by one prominent opponent of consolidation, Tom Guleff of Save Shelby County, an organization formed to combat the consolidation effort.

Guleff has e-mailed his network of consolidation foes, alerting them to Wednesday's committee meeting and proclaiming the following:

"The pro-consolidation forces are back. To be honest, the cult-like fascination with consolidation is creepy. After being soundly defeated by an 85 percent margin in the county, the losing side wants to rewrite the narrative of its demise and bring it back to life. I could understand the current effort, if the vote was close, but it wasn't. This small group appears disconnected from political reality. This is just plain weird."

The fat, as they say, is once again in the fire.

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