POLITICS: Outside the Box

Underdog Kurita, playing catch-up, proposes a heterodox solution or two.


Iraq, declares Rosalind Kurita, is three different countries – not one. Its current borders, she goes on to say, are entirely arbitrary. The Clarksville state senator and U.S. Senate candidate does not spell out in detail the circumstances of the country’s creation by the victorious Allies after the First World War, following the breakup of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. But it is clear by what she does say – “We and other countries just said, ‘There! This is Iraq’” -- that she knows this history.

Nor does Kurita mention by name the three discrete and quarrelsome factions – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds -- that now inhabit Iraq and are trying to settle the occupied post-Saddam country’s future and its constitutional future this side of civil war. The candidate’s audience, a group of potential supporters gathered at a condominium in Midtown over the weekend, are the kind of activists who read the papers and watch the news and would know this.

But she is at pains to go beyond the obvious and the known. “Why are we obsessed with having these groups of people who don’t like each other live in the same country?” she asks. “What’s wrong with telling these three groups: Okay, control your own destiny? They don’t have to be one country!”

She pauses, then sums up the import of what she’s said “Now there’s a creative thought!” And comes close to winking.

But Kurita isn’t playing. This weekend foray into Memphis, home town of her much better-known (and better-financed) Democratic primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. -- whose positions so far on Iraq, and much else, are more conventional -- is dead serious.

What is the essential difference between herself and Ford?, Kurita is asked. She repeats the answer she says she gave the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal during a meeting earlier that day: “I’ve worked for a living!” says the former nurse.

And further: “I don’t make it a practice to go back and forth. I don’t balance my votes one way and then the other way.” She goes on, incidentally ticking off some key congressional votes that she feels her opponent was in the wrong on: “I am who I say I am. I can accomplish what needs to be done. By not voting for an energy policy that the oil companies wrote. By not supporting a bankruptcy bill that the credit card companies wrote.”

Ford is not her only point of self-comparison, however. She mentions having attended a recent forum in Williamson County, part of Nashville’s suburban hinterland, along with Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary. The two former congressmen, along with ex-Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, are Republican candidates for the same U.S. Senate seat, the one current Majority Leader Bill Frist will be vacating, that she and Ford are seeking.

Now her talk is not of different countries but of “two different planets.”  Former Gulf War veteran Hilleary, she maintains, kept insisting that the only solution in Iraq was to “kill people,” while both he and Bryant harped on their opposition to “abortion and gay rights” as the main issues of the Senate campaign, she says.

This assertion, from an audience that has its share of advocates for women’s and gay rights, draws derisive moans, which Kurita converts into cheers when she segues on, “Haven’t they heard of education? Jobs? The environment?”

The diminutive state senator continues to play her audience adroitly, talking of how she, wife of an Asian American herself, worked against “oppressive” legislation that would have mandated an English-only driver’s license exam. “I’ve got military families that are Korean-born,” says this legislator from a district adjoining the Ft. Campbell army base. “How are they supposed to get around when the husband’s over there in Iraq?”

Here and there in her remarks and during the subsequent Q-and –A, Kurita mentions other themes and pushes other buttons: the Living Wage, child care, health-care delivery systems, Roe-v-Wade (“That’s critical”), the need for alternative fuels. A propos this last point, she declares, “The single most important change we have to make is: We need to get off those fossil fuel!”

She talks up the “renewable energy” alternatives:  “solar power, wind, biomass, geothermal, bio-diesel,” and brings all that back to Iraq: “It’s all about oil,” she states flatly.

It has been a good show, and Kurita has covered many of the bases that are important to this group of Democrats, most of whom are rather publicly disenchanted with what they see as Ford’s over-cautious, even “Republican-lite” proclivities.

But she doesn’t get a free pass. Kurita proves relatively evasive when asked about such subjects as her position on the currently raging “Intelligent Design” controversy and about yet another recent Ford vote that is unpopular with this audience -- one to exempt gun manufacturers from liability for crimes committed with the weapons they produce.

"I really need to sit down and see exactly what’s in that bill,” she says.

Which is to say, there are questions that Rosalind Kurita treads light around. A champion skeet-shooter in her own right and a politician well aware of Al Gore’s 2000 difficulties with the gun-rights advocates and the National Rifle Association in Tennessee, she observes mildly, “The NRA pushes.”

With or without a grade of 100 on the catechism of progressive Democrats, Rosalind Kurita pushes on herself. She trails opponent Ford in most of the usual indices – fundraising, poll results (though a survey of her own shows her ahead, she says), and name recognition.

"I’m not a household name around here," she jests to the Memphians. “Number one: I’ve not been indicted. And number two: this is not my media market, as they say in the biz.”

The plain fact is, Kurita is in catch-up mode, here as at most other places in Tennessee. But she still insists she can win. Why? “Because I’m a real Democrat,” she says. On that, occasional equivocations aside, she rests her case.

Another potential candidate for statewide office, state Senator Steve Cohen, a Democrat, continues to take issue with his titular party head, Governor Phil Bredesen. In separate conversations with reporters last week, Cohen, the recognized father of the Tennessee lottery, cited the continued success of the lottery (one heightened by widespread attention to a Powerball jackpot that had risen to $340 million) and said the governor was taking a “Marie Antoinette-like” attitude to applicants for lottery scholarships.

"There are $200 million in lottery monies that have not been spent,” Cohen said, more than enough to raise lottery scholarships from $3,000 to $4,000, a step Bredesen has resisted, as well as to provide the governor with the pre-Kindergarten reserve fund he has insisted on.

Cohen said he would continue to press for the scholarship increase in next year’s legislative session. Looking somewhat further down the road, he said that both the governor’s race and that for the U.S. Senate needed “stronger” Democrats than were currently running (Bredesen for the former; Ford and Kurita for the latter). He said he’d thought about doing one or the other himself. “But I doubt I will.”

One other race Cohen said he’d been sounded out about was that for District Attorney General, one in which he’d be matched against the Republican incumbent, Bill Gibbons, who was the beneficiary last week of the latest in a series of well-attended big-ticket fundraisers, at the home of Dr. John Shea and Linda Shea.

But this race, too, was unlikely, Cohen said, adding a “but” clause. “Now, if I win the Powerball….”

Making his way back into political activity after a period of relative withdrawal is Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who declared early for Shelby County mayor in the 2001/2002 election cycle but left that race after current incumbent A C Wharton’s entry.

Byrd was one of the hosts for a fundraiser scheduled this week at the Bank of Bartlett on behalf of his longtime political ally, Sidney Chism, the former interim state senator who now seeks a county commission seat.

Dutch Treat Luncheon host Bill Wood said last week he intends to be a candidate for appointment to the commission seat of Michael Hooks should Hooks, indicted in the Tennessee Waltz affair, resign his seat.

Last week’s MPACT-sponsored forum on “government ethics and accountability” drew a good audience at the Neighborhood Christian Center on Jackson to hear a panel including city school board member Tomeka Hart, former state Supreme Court Justice Lyle Reid; state Representative Brian Kelsey; former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis; Dr. JoeAnn Ballard, director of tee Center; and Larry Jensen, president of Memphis Tomorrow.



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