In his short, sweet address Tuesday to the Tennessee General Assembly convening a special session on ethics, Governor Phil Bredesen called the circumstance "an uncommon event." And, though the governor went on to assure his audience of 132 legislators that he assumed the chamber to be "chock full of honest, ethical, caring people," he knows -- as they do -- that many, perhaps most, members of the public might assume otherwise these days.
How could they not after the Tennessee Waltz scandal of last year and, for that matter, the continuing fallout from the Abramoff affair in Washington? And, even as the legislature convened, there were signs that the cure, such as can be passed in the three weeks allotted to the matter by Bredesen, may not be equal to the dimensions of the disease.
Though Democrat Ophelia Ford has been provisionally seated as the new state senator from Memphis' District 29, her former Republican opponent, Terry Roland, is still pressing his challenge, alleging that Ford's 13-vote margin of victory was padded by various frauds and illegalities. It has to be said that all members of the special Senate committee sitting in judgment on the matter, Republicans and Democrats alike, gave Ford herself a clean bill of health on Monday afternoon. But partisan differences persisted on the committee, and will in the body as a whole, as to whether two verifiable cases of Dead Man Voting, coupled with votes from four proven felons, are enough to cause the election to be voided.
Roland and his attorneys point to additional residence issues and improperly filled-out election forms, while Ford and her lawyers caution that unavoidable ambiguities and inadvertent human error, not outright chicanery, might explain most of those additional cases. Tellingly, they produced one questioned voter, Lavinia Hampton, who signed her election form once -- not twice as required -- because election workers didn't ask her for a second signature. It didn't hurt Ford's case that Hampton, who made an eloquent witness, was a Gold Star mother who lost a son in Vietnam.
There are other matters, even procedural ones governing the special session itself, that will need to be addressed. A spirited dispute broke out on the Senate floor Tuesday between two Memphis Democrats, minority leader Jim Kyle and Steve Cohen, on the question of whether the chamber's traditional committees will continue to function as such during the special session. Issues of turf, centralization, and open access are involved in that one, and working it out is no piece of cake, either.
Still, the special session is under way, and where there's a will, there's a way, right? The real question is whether such a will exists -- or can be generated in three short weeks.
All of us who believe in democracy have to be grateful for the dogged, decades-long efforts of Odell Baker, a furniture dealer and old-fashioned patriot, to enroll as many voters as he could in various registration efforts. The kindly Baker, who died this week, was a dedicated Republican, but he was just as avid about signing up Democrats. A citizen's citizen, he believed in the process. If only there were more like him.