Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

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f651/1248875531-briankelsey2.jpgTennessee Republicans, who on Tuesday managed — via a degree of arm-twisting that can only be imagined — to divest themselves of one problem, State Senator Paul Stanley, may have another — and worse — one on the horizon.

Now that Stanley, crippled by an ever-mounting sex/blackmail scandal, has announced his resignation, the field of candidates to succeed him in a soon-to-be-conducted special election includes at least one prominent Republican member of the state House of Representatives, Brian Kelsey, and is likely to include more.

Should the special-election winner be Kelsey — or Steve McManus or Jim Coley, two other potential GOP House entries — then there would be a resultant vacancy in the state House, which as of now has a lineup of 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats. That would create a dead heat — 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats — with control of the House up for grabs going into the 2010 legislative session.

It is hard to imagine a more crucial turning-point issue. And who gets to name the replacement for Kelsey, who has already announced for Stanley’s seat, or some other House member? The Democratic-controlled Shelby County Commission, numbering as of now eight Democrats and five Republicans.

And the commission’s 8-5 split — a change from the previous lineup favoring Democrats 7-6 — exists because the body’s Democratic majority exercised its numerical edge to vote in Matt Kuhn, a Democrat, to succeed David Lillard, who had resigned to become state treasurer.

The Kuhn vote was the result of significant pressure from local Democrats. But the degree of pressure would magnify enormously when the issue becomes that of controlling the state House of Representatives.

Commission chair Deidre Malone, a Democrat, acknowledged that circumstance when asked Wednesday morning about her potential vote to fill a state House vacancy. “Wow!” said Malone, who had previously indicated she would support a Republican if the commission were asked to fill Stanley’s Senate seat in a body with a comfortable GOP majority. But the House vacancy was clearly another matter. “I’d have to listen to the advice and wishes of other Democrats. I’m a good Democratic soldier,” she said frankly.

Of course, if Kelsey or another Republican House member should win the special election for Stanley’s seat late this year, Governor Phil Bredesen (a Democrat, coincidentally, who took his lumps from the majority-GOP legislature in 2009) would then be asked to call another special election for the open House seat. Crucially, he would have up to 20 days to do so. After that, the Shelby County Election Commission could not schedule a special-election primary for another 55 days. Another 55 days would have to elapse before a general election cold be scheduled in the House district.

Altogether, that's 130 days — a little over four months, or the length of the average legislative session. Looking at that prospect, Republicans might come to wish they hadn’t arm-twisted the wounded Stanley into resigning. Meanwhile, Shelby County school board president David Pickler, another likely entry in the District 31 state Senate special election, would be sure to point the succession problem out to Republican voters as a factor weighing in his favor.

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