Fair Sailing

That’s what the ill wind of political scandal may offer state Republicans.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Fri, Jul 8, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Speaking to the East Shelby Republican Club Tuesday, June 28th, two local GOP legislators made clear what the state Republican Party would make official a day later: The Tennessee Waltz scandal, along with all the publicity attendant to it over the next few months, will be a constant party talking point for the indefinite future.

“The fallout has been both good and bad,” said Representative Paul Stanley of Germantown, the GOP’s floor leader in the state House.

What’s bad (besides the corruption itself) is that, as both he and Representative Brian Kelsey of East Memphis pointed out, all legislators may have been tainted in the public’s eye. What’s good, as both legislators agreed, is that the scandal improves the climate for more and better ethics bills.

Governor Phil Bredesen has indicated he will call a special session this fall to deal with ethics legislation, and Stanley, while welcoming the opportunity, noted the controversy over the Democratic governor’s proposed reductions in TennCare rolls and suggested the special session might be a device to “ take attention away from it.”

Even so, said Stanley, “We need to be prepared.”

What’s also good about the ongoing scandal from the GOP point of view is that it gives Republicans a new opportunity to take the partisan gloves off, rhetorically. Example: In identifying the House State and Local Government Committee as a burial ground for ethics legislation, Stanley took aim at two committee members in particular. “Ulysses Jones and Larry Miller, two Shelby County Democrats, are infamous for killing these bills,” he said. (Jones is committee chairman.)

And freshman member Kelsey cast himself as an innocent in a Democratically controlled House that he made sound like a wicked place indeed. “It’s difficult to know what’s gong on in Nashville,” said Kelsey. “There’s a whole atmosphere of corruption that I didn’t know about personally.” He cited a time when he and numerous other Republicans offered a show of hands against a motion, only to hear House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington pronounce “no objection” and declare the motion passed.

Resignation asked of Newton; “no-shows” for Bowers

Miscreant Republicans did not escape the two legislators’ ire, though. Noting that nominal Democrat John Wilder had been reelected Senate speaker despite a technical Republican majority in that body, Stanley said, “We’re weak in the Senate,” and called East Tennessee Republican senators Tim Burchett and Mike Williams a “big embarrassment” for giving Wilder their votes, the decisive ones, over Republican Senate leader Ron Ramsey.

That was mild, however, compared to Kelsey’s condemnation of fellow GOP House member Chris Newton of Cleveland, one of the four legislators arrested in the Tennessee Waltz sting -- and the only Republican.

Following up on Stanley’s criticism of Newton for having been one of nine House Republicans to vote for Democrat Naifeh as speaker, Kelsey said, “I’m not saying that that vote leads to accepting bribes. But I am saying that the type of mentality in which you’re willing to get something in exchange -- which would be a subcommittee chairmanship on his part -- for a vote is the type of atmosphere of corruption that has taken place up there.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the next day would see the public release of a letter to Newton from state Republican chairman Bob Davis asking the beleaguered Cleveland legislator -- considered in conservative circles to be a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) -- to resign.

In apparent anticipation of that, Stanley had similar advice Tuesday night for the accused four legislators (besides Newton, they include state senator John Ford of Memphis, who has resigned, and two senators, Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga and Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, who have not).

“I would hope they would resign,” Stanley said. “It would do the body [the General Assembly] a great favor.”

Both Stanley and Kelsey professed to be offended by Bowers’ efforts last week to solicit funds from lobbyists and others -- ostensibly to defray her campaign debt from this year’s special Senate election.

As it turned out, Bowers had little luck with her two scheduled fund-raising affairs, in Nashville on Wednesday night and at the Embassy Suites in East Memphis on Thursday night.

With TV cameras on hand and ready to shoot in both places, only one visitor came to Bowers’ well-catered Nashville event, while an uncounted handful at best may have showed up at the Embassy Suites, skirting around the cameras and heading to an upstairs hotel room for a private rendezvous with Bowers.

 When Germantown Democrats gathered back in early June for their monthly meeting, there were two candidates on hand to offer themselves as successors to Bowers (who did resign that post) as local party chairman. By Saturday, when the club met again, the number of would-be chairmen had grown to five.

Or maybe just four. It depends on how you look at it. In addition to Joe Young and Cherry Davis, the original two wannabes, there were now David Cocke, a two-time former chairman, and Talut El-Amin, the current acting chairman.

The fifth prospect was Matt Kuhn, a seasoned -- if youngish -- party activist who introduced himself to the Germantown group as a willing draftee should factionalism prevent the consensus choice of one of the other four at the local party’s convention later this month. Kuhn declined, however, to join the others in a Q & A session following initial presentations by all five.

Anticipating a ritual protestation from other candidates that they did not themselves belong to factions, Young began his remarks with an acknowledgement that party factionalism did indeed exist.

Cocke, whom many think of as representing a “Ford” faction, and Davis, considered by several to belong to a “Herenton” faction, deplored both the rumor and the fact of factionalism in eloquent, seemingly sincere speeches that surely did them no harm. So did Talut El-Amin, who has been less often pinpointed as belonging to this or that group.

None of that prevented bitterness from welling up in the Q & A -- in which a number of audience members raised questions about the party’s use of local financial contributions during the 2004 election cycle and wondered aloud why the party was behind on the rent for the local Democratic headquarters.

Notable in the animated debate that followed was Cocke’s assertion that, as vice chairman last year, he did not “call the shots,” as well as Davis’ acknowledgement that “there was always this force pulling people one way or the other” during the last two years on a party executive committee that was evenly divided by what could only be called factions.

At press time, more ruckus seemed to be in store for the candidates at a candidate forum scheduled for this Tuesday night. Members of a group of newly participating Democrats now calling themselves “the Convention Coalition” posed most of the tough questions on Saturday.

 Steve Haley, a first-time political candidate running in next month’s Democratic primary election for the District 29 state Senate seat vacated by John Ford, was better able after Thursday night to put his money where his mouth is.

This was following a well-attended fund-raiser for Haley at Kudzu’s restaurant, bringing the kind of voter outreach the fledgling politician needs within his financial reach.

But Haley, a professor of political science at Southwest Tennessee Community College, may have a problem on his hands beyond the fact of being an underdog in a race dominated by three sitting state representatives -- Henri Brooks, Barbara Cooper, and John DeBerry -- and Ophelia Ford, the former senator’s sister and a member of the well-known local political clan.

Among the attendees at Saturday’s meeting of Germantown Democrats was one Kevin McLellan, a former SWTN teacher himself and, like Haley, a white Democrat in a field dominated by African Americans.

It remains to be seen how strong a campaign McLellan can make, but he made an effective presentation on Saturday and might conceivably compete for votes in Haley’s base. (And, yes, folks, demographic blocs are as much an elephant in the room of local Democratic politics as is political factionalism.)

Word from avowed members of the local Ford organization, by the way, is that family members may put aside some past difficulties with Ophelia Ford (who some years back unsuccessfully opposed brother Joe Ford when the Shelby County Commission voted to fill the commission seat of their deceased brother, Dr. James Ford).

The fact of Ford solidarity alone, if true, should entitle Ophelia Ford to be considered the favorite in the Democratic race. 

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