Do not imagine that state senator Steve Cohen is ready to hang up the gloves just because he has shed a few hairs, gained a few pounds, and notched a few years. The 56-year-old Cohen, who began his career as a public official while a brash 20-something in the 1970s, is still nobody to mess with. Just ask Governor Phil Bredesen, he of the sky-high popularity figures and the latest Democrat from these parts to be lauded by the national media as a rising star and future-tense luminary.
The ink isn't quite dry on the copies of last week's New Republic, which featured Bredesen on its cover as quite possibly "the Future of the Democratic Party." Nor has the standing ovation which the governor received from a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly on Monday night yet subsided.
Even so, the combative Cohen has just presented the putatively triumphant governor with a bona fide second front. Bredesen is already involved in a give-no-quarter struggle over TennCare, which currently pits him against Gordon Bonnyman of the Tennessee Justice Center and a member of the federal judiciary who last week imposed a stay on the governor's planned reductions in the program. Now the governor can look forward to resumed warfare with Cohen over how to proceed with the Tennessee state lottery.
Though he is proud to be called "the father of the lottery" in Tennessee -- and has been honored as such by no less than Bredesen himself -- the senator, who labored for 19 years to get the lottery established via constitutional amendment, is hardly content to rest on that laurel.
Even as Bredesen was preparing to ask the Legislature to divert some of the year-old lottery's windfall proceeds to pre-school education, as he formally did in his State of the State address Monday night, Cohen and Representative Chris Newton, the Memphis Democrat's co-sponsor on lottery legislation in the recent past, proposed using the same better-than-expected swag to up the value of Hope scholarships for the state's college students.
In a Flyer op-ed column ("Keep the Faith," page 13), Cohen makes the case for his and Newton's proposal -- casting it as an instance of "a fiduciary duty based on a contract with the voters in the 2002 election" and contrasting the two legislators' position with that of "some officials" (read: Bredesen) who, Cohen alleges, erred on the side of caution and, influenced by negative revenue predictions, insisted last year on reducing the scale of the scholarships.
Largely as a result of Bredesen's insistence, the scholarships were capped in 2004 at $3,000. It was but one aspect of a power struggle between the senator and the state's chief executive over the shaping of the lottery. Cohen and Bredesen also sparred for most of last year over the composition of the state lottery board's directors. That outcome was in Bredesen's favor too, though Cohen managed some face-saving last-minute changes.
Early in his State of the State address, Bredesen proposed to establish a "voluntary pre-K program for every 4-year-old in Tennessee" and served notice to the assembled legislators that he would ask "for an additional $25 million, in this first year from the lottery excess funds, to take the first steps."
It is these "excess funds" that Cohen insists should go to raising the scholarship limits, and, in the wake of the governor's speech, the senator was widely quoted as comparing Bredesen to a cuckoo bird raiding the lottery nest in a less than "moral" manner.
n For the time being, the dustup with Cohen is likely to take second place to the governor's showdown with U.S. district judge William Haynes over TennCare. The state has indicated it will appeal last week's surprise decision by Haynes to stay Bredesen's plan to purge some 132,000 TennCare recipients from the program's rolls, pending a judicial review.
Bredesen got a standing ovation and his most sustained applause late in his address Monday night when he said, in an unmistakable reference both to TennCare advocates like Bonnyman and the federal judiciary: "There are many people who claim to represent the 'public interest' in this, but not one of them has ever stood before the voters. The people in this room tonight have earned a vastly stronger claim to represent the public interest than anyone else involved."
It is, of course, Bredesen's business-like, arguably conservative attitudes toward government -- evidenced, most notably, in his willingness to consider serious tax cuts to balance the budget without new taxes -- that has won him the kind of bipartisan support demonstrated in the House chamber Monday night. It is the same qualities, plus the mere fact that he is a ranking Democratic officeholder in a "red" (Bush-leaning) state that has some in the national media singing his praises.
Though it was once considered to occupy the same corner of the political left as The Nation did (and still does), The New Republic has been heavily influenced by neoconservative attitudes in recent years, both in foreign and in economic policy, and is "liberal" in the same carefully circumscribed sense as, say, TV pundits Mort Kondracke and Alan Colmes. Even so, the periodical's conspicuous boosting of Bredesen's stock, coupled with similar coverage from major national newspapers after last year's election, is bound to enhance his status among Democrats nationally.
Though he hasn't begun to catch up with the national media attention accorded 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford, the governor is certainly on his way there, and, as a statewide officeholder, he outranks Ford (who hopes in his turn to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2006). Either appropriately or ironically, both Bredesen and the congressman were to share a platform in Memphis this week at the Hope & Healing Center, on behalf of faith-based approaches to health care.
n Ford, by the way, has been formally excised from the "Fainthearted Faction" list of noted blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, whose talkingpointsmemo.com has kept running tabs on those congressional Democrats who are known or suspected supporters of President Bush's push to create private investment accounts, to be financed by a portion of the Social Security tax.
Marshall took his cue from comments made by Ford in the Flyer's cover story of January 13th -- "Tilting Right?" In that article, the congressman, who was pressed on the issue of such accounts, issued what seemed to be a categorical disavowal of them -- at least, of the sort that would be financed by the payroll tax itself. Ford has proposed add-on private accounts of some sort in order to create "wealth" for Social Security recipients.
In a Monday posting, Marshall began: "It's almost like the end of an era. Representative Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, former Dean of the Fainthearted Faction, now out of the Fainthearted Faction. Yes, I'm still trying to get my head around it too ... ."
Marshall went on to quote portions of the Flyer story, including these statements from Ford: "I do not favor privatizing Social Security. I am opposed to President Bush's attempt to do so. Categorically . The president's plan to privatize Social Security will not accomplish what he says he wants to accomplish. It will add too much debt and it will offset any gains that people would make from their accounts because interest rates would skyrocket and benefits would be reduced and the program would run out of money."
The blogger concluded his posting thusly: "So there you have it. Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, fainthearted no more."
n Another Ford, state senator John Ford, was accorded the honor, if that's the word, of a tongue-in-cheek mention by The Tonight Show's Jay Leno, who joked about Ford's child-support obligations, active and pending, in at least three households. That was followed by a somewhat more arch reference to Ford by right-wing radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
If Ford was embarrassed by such attention, you couldn't tell it by his demeanor Monday night. In the role of an official "escort" to Bredesen as the governor entered the House chamber to make his address, Ford sauntered down the aisle with a faintly discernible smile.
Perhaps the senator's good humor was owing to another matter -- the issue of his legitimacy as a representative of his South Memphis Senate district. Ford was challenged on the point by various members of the state Republican establishment last week after it was confirmed (as has long been known informally) that Ford maintains a residence -- or residences -- several miles further east than the limits of his district.
As Ford well knew, the law would seem -- for better or for worse -- to be on his side. In an opinion issued last year, state attorney general Paul Summers updated a 1990 finding by the attorney general's office, concurring with its judgment that "in a senate district which is part of a multi-district county, a candidate for the office of state senator need only be a resident of the county for more than one year prior to election as qualification for any one of the state senatorial districts which are part of that county."
As the court proceedings involving Ford would indicate, he may be a travelin' man, but, so far as is known, he hasn't yet pitched his tent outside the confines of multi-districted Shelby County.