Politics » Politics Feature

A Matter of Timelines

Two key Democrats, Cohen and Kyle, disagree on when to name an interim state senator.



Jim Kyle is watching the calendar. The state Senate's Democratic leader wants his Memphis colleague, state senator and 9th District congressman-elect Steve Cohen, to go ahead and resign his District 30 seat -- "hopefully before the end of the month" -- so that whoever ends up being appointed Cohen's successor will have a chance to start raising money for reelection.

Cohen, whose relations with Kyle over the years have ranged from chilly to formally correct, disagrees. "I think anybody who's seriously interested in running for senator ought to start raising money now. There's plenty of time," Cohen insists.

The deadline that Kyle is looking at is January 9th, the start of next year's session of the Tennessee General Assembly. After that date, state law prohibits sitting legislators from doing any fund-raising until the end of the session -- traditionally, at some point between late April and mid-summer.

Kyle figures the Shelby County Commission, which has a 7-6 Democratic majority, will -- and should -- appoint a viable Democrat who will be a candidate for reelection in a special election next year. But if Cohen delays his resignation -- until sometime in mid-December, say -- Kyle fears the commission won't be able to start and complete the appointment process in time for the new senator to do any fund-raising before the start of the legislative session.

His reasoning is that, once a vacancy exists (and not until it does), the commission must use one meeting for advertising a vacancy, allow time for applications, and then devote time at the next commission meeting, two weeks later, for a vote on an interim successor to Cohen. The commission has two meetings set for December -- on the 4th and 18th.

Kyle's concern: If Cohen delays his resignation until late in December, as he has indicated he might, the interim senator will have to wait on raising any campaign money for several months, while, presumably, a prospective opponent from the other party can use the time to hold any number of perfectly legal fund-raising events.

Cohen -- pleading leftover legislative duties, among other considerations -- is unmoved, noting the precedent set in 2004 by then state senator Lincoln Davis, who had been elected to Congress from the state's 4th District.

Disagreement between the two Shelby County Democrats has not been uncommon over the years. They have frequently taken issue with each other both in private and in public -- and over both private and public matters. A case involving both at once was Cohen's 1995 vote supportive of then Governor Don Sundquist's successful move to eliminate the state Public Service Commission -- one of whose freshly elected members was Sara Kyle, the senator's wife. (She later was appointed to the substitute Tennessee Regulatory Authority.)

Kyle's tongue-in-cheek statement of support for Cohen during the latter's successful run for Congress this year reflects the ambivalent nature of their relationship: "Nobody in the state Senate will be happier than me to see Senator Cohen in the U.S. House of Representatives."

Meanwhile, Cohen has so far declined to indicate a preference among the potential Democratic candidates to succeed him. At least two -- Kevin Gallagher, Cohen's congressional campaign manager, and David Upton, his longtime political ally -- are personally close.

Kyle, who met with several county commissioners on Monday, limits his preference to several general criteria -- among them, that whoever is chosen by the commission should support Democratic senator John Wilder of Somerville for reelection as Senate presiding officer/lieutenant governor and be able to run a capable race for reelection.

Other Senate hopeful names in the hopper: former city attorney Robert Spence and state representative Beverly Marrero (another Cohen friend) among Democrats; and businessman Kemp Conrad and lawyer D. Jack Smith among Republicans.

• Cohen spent last week in Washington undergoing freshman orientation along with 49 other newcomers to the U.S. House, including 41 Democrats. On his weekend return at Memphis International Airport, the congressman-elect clarified two matters previously reported elsewhere.

He said he had never indicated that he intended to seek outright membership, as a white, in the Congressional Black Caucus and that he had decided to shelve any plans to push a national lottery. "I'd end up competing with myself," said the 12-term state senator who is credited with creating the state lottery in Tennessee.

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