COVINGTON -- Time was when the annual Coon Supper hosted by Jimmy Naifeh and other members of the current House speaker's extended family at Covington was an end-of-legislative-session affair, a time for the hundreds of pols, junkies, and hangers-on present to take stock and let it hang.
For the last couple of years, the event, held on the grounds and in the clubhouse of Covington Country Club, has come more or less mid-session, since mid-April these days is a full month or two (or maybe even three) short of adjournment.
And letting it hang anymore coincides with a sort of gallows humor appropriate to a state fiscal crisis that is still nowhere near solution.
At this year's version, last Thursday night, state Representative Tre Hargett, a Bartlett Republican and a native of Ripley, was discussing the work-groups Naifeh has divided the House membership into, in an effort to come up with some sort of a budget solution before hell freezes over this summer.
As Hargett noted, the core groups are arranged according to party membership, but there is a periodic coming together of Republican groups with their Democratic counterparts to compare notes. "You could call it a merging of the tribes, except that nobody gets voted off the island -- not until next year anyhow," deadpanned Hargett, referring to the hit TV show Survivor.
Governor Don Sundquist was on the grounds, of course, wearing a patterned sport coat that was atypical for the normally blue- or gray-suited gov. Even when dressed down casually in the past, the governor has managed to look preternaturally tidy, but of late both his manner and his dress seem to have loosened up, as if suggesting that he has come to that point of his life that permits a loosening up or letting go or maybe just some out-and-out que sera sera fatalism.
Potential successors to Sundquist were on the grounds, too. A Democratic pair -- U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville and former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen -- provided an interesting contrast, to each other as well as to Sundquist.
Both Clement and Bredesen seem (even more than the incumbent) to be restrained by a tightly wound internal leash, although the former mayor seems to have progressed more rapidly than the congressman at the art of ravelling out his personality to the end of personal contact. That's impressive, in that Clement had something of a head start at the people game.
Bredesen (clad in sport coat and open collar) acknowledged that he felt able to be more laid back than once upon a time -- say, during that first governor's race seven years ago, when you could sometimes sense that his internal cables had locked up unpredictably.
"I was raised to keep a certain reserve," said Bredesen, a Midwestern-born Scandinavian like Sundquist, "but as I've served in public life, I've really gotten to enjoy dealing with people more." Okay, so that's boilerplate, but it seems to be true in his case.
An interesting thing about Bredesen is that he's preparing to run for governor, if he does ("and it's no secret that I'm thinking about it"), as a fiscal conservative.
Just as when he played Scrooge to Sundquist's first tax-reform proposals back in 1999, Bredesen is still saying that the belts, nuts, and bolts of state government need to be tightened first and that there has been enough growth in revenue to keep the state going.
"Of course, I've always said that, as far as the type of taxes we might employ are concerned, the income tax is fairer than the sales tax. But it's still an open question as to whether we might not have enough revenues to operate on without new taxes."
Clement, who walked the grounds in a casual short-sleeve shirt, seemed -- ironically and inconveniently enough -- to be in one of his more introverted moods.
In answer to a question as to whether it was still likely that he and GOP congressman Van Hilleary would be squaring off against each other next year, the still formally undeclared Clement allowed as how he guessed that might be the case, though he seemed troubled by the act of thinking about it -- more, perhaps, out of concerns about Bredesen or his own fund-raising than about the relatively distant threat of Hilleary (who, for the record, seems to be running a model campaign so far, at least organizationally).
If the Nashville congressman ever feels dominated by the shade of his famously more charismatic and oratorical late father, former Governor Frank Clement, it didn't show in the way he beamed at being reminded of his illustrious antecedent (although it could be possible that the wide smile and the professions of being "very, very proud" to be a scion of the line had more to do with a reckoning of the Clement name's residual effect on voters; for the record, some doubt that much remains).
Note to both Clement and Bredesen: A supporter of the potential gubernatorial candidacy of former Democratic chairman Doug Horne of Knoxville was on hand to point out that Horne had an event planned for Jackson on Friday morning and confided: "Don't be surprised if he runs regardless of who else might be running." The former chairman, of course, has pledged not to be a candidate if a Democratic candidate of stature (either Clement or Bredesen would qualify) chose to formally announce by next month.
Other aspirants for various position showed up at the Coon Supper -- like Terry Harris , the deserving assistant district attorney from Shelby County who thought he was going to win a Criminal Court judgeship in Memphis three years ago and discovered too late that the man he was matched against, Judge Joe Brown, was evolving into a national TV star.
(The victor has since resigned from the bench but continues to perform in the highly successful syndicated show that bears his name. Ironically, Brown, who passes for a hard-nosed judge on television, was a relative pussycat in Shelby County Criminal Court, bending over backward to design innovative and quite often lenient sentences.)
Things may look up for Harris at any time; he is probably the ranking candidate for U.S. district attorney in the Western District. "That's my situation," he said when reminded (as if he needed it) that waiting for an appointment is more nerve-wracking than conducting an election campaign. In the latter situation, one has at least some theoretical control over events.
"When and if he's named, we're going to start having joint press conferences, like the old 'Ev and Gerry Show,' joked Harris' boss, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, whose reference was to the weekly press briefings conducted in the '60s by the late U.S. Senate majority leader Everett Dirksen with then House majority leader (and later president) Gerald Ford.
Gibbons insisted, of course, that he was joking. (Actually, it's not a bad idea; if the appointment comes through, watch for "The Bill and Terry Show," and remember who told you.)
Harris has also received some mention for the vacant U.S. district judgeship still unfilled after the death of the late JeromeTurner. The leading candidate for that position was also on hand in Covington. This was former Sundquist legal adviser and CAO Hardy Mays of Memphis who also uses jests to fend off the tension of waiting. "Sometimes ... when I think about [the job], I think, 'Judge not, lest you be judged,'" Mays quipped.
Naifeh was still clearly nettled by the way he was characterized by the media in the Big Story which bubbled up mid-week -- his session-eve receipt of $26,000 for his "Speaker's PAC" from representatives of the cash-advance industry, the same cash-advance industry which profited from a bill (supported by Naifeh and a majority of other legislators) which got passed in March, allowing the collection of bad-check fees on top of towering interest rates.
The speaker repeated Thursday evening, as he had during a session with the Capitol Hill press that morning, that his PAC was meant to collect funds, not for himself, but for "pro-business" Democratic candidates.
And he reiterated as well that he would personally call in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation if he thought that members were being improperly influenced by the cash-advance industry or any other.
But the speaker felt obliged as well to chastise individual members of the media who, he thought, had tried to show him up -- saying of one, the Nashville Tennessean's Sheila Wisner, "[S]he's somebody I don't even know, and she has to be pretty damn dumb to try to call me at my Covington office on Wednesday when the legislature is in session. She ought to at least know I'm in Nashville and try to find me there instead of calling me where I'm not going to be and then saying that I 'couldn't be reached.'"
(Wisner, who normally doesn't cover the legislature, had left her forwarding number at what she thought was Naifeh's Covington home; she had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the speaker in Nashville).
You can e-mail Jackson Baker at email@example.com.
Shelby County Commissioner Michael Hooks Sr. made his first public appearance in well over a month Monday, sitting in briefly at a regularly scheduled meeting of the commission, where he cast two votes (both seemingly in favor of an expedited pursuit of a National Basketball Association franchise) and seconded another key NBA-related motion.
It was the first appearance by Hooks at a commission meeting or anywhere else since March 21st, when the commissioner -- flanked by wife Janet Hooks, a member of the Memphis City Council, and his children, including Memphis school board member Michael Hooks Jr. -- confessed an addiction to crack cocaine.
Hooks had been arrested the week before by Memphis police who had arrived at his residence to serve a traffic warrant on Michael Hooks Jr. and found drug paraphernalia and crack cocaine residue in the senior Hooks' possession.
In the aftermath of his arrest, which resulted in a misdemeanor citation, Hooks volunteered for rehabilitation at Charter Lakeside Hospital, and word was passed by a family friend last week that he had served 28 days in rehab and had been discharged. (He may be continuing therapy on an out-patient basis.)
Hooks, who entered Monday's commission meeting midway during a discussion of a resolution from Commissioner Walter Bailey to sponsor a $31,000 poll of Shelby Countians about their attitudes toward the NBA matter, made no remarks but voted twice.
On a motion by Commissioner Linda Rendtorff to delay voting on Bailey's motion for three months, Hooks voted yes; it lost 4-6. On a motion by Commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf to delay implementation of the poll until May 21st (a strategem that, in effect, started the disclosure clock on NBA Now, the local pursuit team), Hooks voted no; the motion passed overwhelmingly.
It would seem that Hooks, who voted identically with Chairman James Ford, a fervid supporter of building a new NBA-worthy arena, thereby aligned himself with fast-track proponents of securing the NBA franchise.
Hooks later seconded a motion to postpone naming a commission liaison person to work with NBA Now. (Chairman Ford confided that he would probably appoint himself to the post at the commission's next meeting.)
During the meeting, Hooks made one call out from a telephone adjoining the commissioners' meeting area. After the meeting, he raced backstage to an area which normally is open and where commissioners, during a meeting, are served refreshments and may avail themselves of restroom facilities.
As soon as Hooks passed through the door to the backstage area, the doors were locked from within, long enough to allow him to avoid the sizeable media on hand and vacate the building via an elevator. -- J.B.