Van's Dual Role

U.S. Senate candidate challenges the state GOP on keeping his party function.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Fri, Apr 15, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Former 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, one of four declared Republican candidates in next year's U.S. Senate race, responded over the weekend to a potentially vexing problem. Faced with grumbling in party ranks -- especially among supporters of his opponents -- Hilleary stood fast on the issue of retaining his current position as GOP national committeeman from Tennessee.

Hilleary continues to hold that position while preparing to run in a contested primary against former Congressman Ed Bryant; state representative Beth Harwell; and Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker.

Addressing the regular quarterly meeting of the state Republican executive committee at the Holiday Inn Select at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Hilleary said he had "heard rumors" about opposition to his dual role of candidate and committeeman and challenged the committee to pass a resolution at its next meeting against his continued service. Otherwise, he said, he intended to continue in the role of committeeman.

No action was taken on that issue Saturday by the committee, which did effect another change, however -- amending the party by-laws governing intervention in party primaries by Republican Party officials. The by-laws, which preclude such action, have up until now allowed for one exception -- allowing intervention against Republican legislative incumbents who have opposed the party's legal position or supported that of the Democrats on redistricting matters.

Mindful of the controversy concerning the speakership elections in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, the committee on Saturday amended the by-laws to allow public opposition by party officials to those incumbent Republican legislators who cast votes in January for either Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, reelected as Senate speaker, or state representative Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, who was renamed Speaker of the House.

Two Republicans cast votes for Wilder -- enough to ensure his election over Republican Ron Ramsey -- and 11 Republican House members voted for Naifeh.

The by-laws change in effect ratified a resolution introduced at the committee's December meeting by Memphis member Layne Provine. As it happens, Provine has an opinion about the Hilleary issue too. "I don't have a dog in the hunt," Provine, a professional political consultant, pointed out Tuesday. "I'm not representing anybody as of now in the Senate race, and I'm wide open on which candidate to support. But I think Van's a smart enough fellow, having been a congressman and a candidate for governor, to figure out the committeeman thing without needing a resolution by the party."

Provine said he agreed with those people, "including a couple of prominent supporters of Van," who find it "awkward" for the former congressman to continue in his official party role while running against other Republicans in a primary. If a resolution of the sort mentioned by Hilleary came before the committee at a future meeting, Provine said he would support it.

n Jim Balentine, former reporter for United Press International and longtime political writer for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, was the recipient two weekends ago of a heart transplant at Baptist East Hospital. Balentine has experienced complications since the operation, but doctors are said to be "guardedly optimistic" about his prospects for a full recovery.

n The elections of 2006 are now officially upon us. Although several potential candidates have floated their intentions to compete for a county commission seat in next year's countywide elections, the first actual declaration has come from Mike Ritz of Germantown.

Ritz, who will seek the District 1, Position 1 seat now held by Marilyn Loeffel, made a formal announcement of candidacy in a release this week, stressing "a need to control rising property taxes" and emphasizing his experience in financial management.

"If elected, I'll use my financial and budget analysis experience to review the County's fiscal and debt situation and assist the Mayor and fellow Commissioners in finding solutions to the County's massive debt and over reliance on the property tax," said Ritz in the statement.

Ritz had been among several applicants seeking a commission vacancy last year that was ultimately awarded to Dr. George Flinn. Since then, Ritz has made a point of attending the commission's regular meetings and committee sessions as an observer.

For her part, Loeffel is said to be eyeing the county clerk's job now held by Jayne Creson, who is considering retirement. Like several fellow commissioners, Loeffel is term-limited as a consequence of a 2002 countywide referendum.

Commissioners Walter Bailey, Cleo Kirk, and Julian Bolton have sued to invalidate those results, and a ruling on the issue by Chancellor Tene Alissandratos has been long expected.

n The Tennessee General Assembly is not only a venue for important public business. It can also be, for all the parliamentary minutiae and dead air of its daily proceedings, an improv theater of surpassing eloquence -- one in which, every now and then, a speech can actually influence the outcome of a vote.

Here's a recent example: State senator Steve Cohen protested in the Senate against a measure floated by Governor Phil Bredesen (often the object of Cohen's ire) that would tap state government's Rainy Day (reserve) fund rather than resort to new taxes, like one proposed by Cohen and state representative Kathryn Bowers that would raise the state cigarette tax to help fund TennCare.

"They want to live off the taxes that Senator [Jerry] Cooper [D-Smartt] sponsors, and they want to live off the revenue the lottery created," Cohen said. "It's not a bad thing, ladies and gentlemen. Some of you voted for it, and those of you who didn't should have. It's kept the schools going, it's kept the high schools open, it's kept the prisons going, the jails.

"It's the government and taxes that educate the children, give healthcare to your people. It gives law enforcement money, gives correction, public safety, public welfare. And you can't operate without revenue. You can't do it. And if you want to live on the work of the past generation, you're poaching. You need to show some backbone and courage. Not just here, the first floor [governor's office] needs to show it!

"They're living off that billion dollars the General Assembly voted on, and they're living off that lottery money the General Assembly passed. And now they're trying to tell you, We want to spend it all. We don't want to create any of it. This General Assembly created it. This General Assembly, this Senate, needs to stand up and do a little bit on its own and realize that some of the ideas that we passed are worthwhile. And that's what this is about."

The bottom line: The Senate evidently heeded Cohen and opted to keep the Rainy Day fund at its current level.

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