The Political Gospel of State Senator Reginald Tate

“I’m not dancing to the music,” says Memphis Democrat, at odds with party leadership and openly chummy with the GOP powers-that-be.

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State Senator Reginald Tate
  • JB
  • State Senator Reginald Tate
Given the fact of Republican super-majorities in both the state Senate and state House as the 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly begins, much of the talk around Legislative Plaza has concerned whether there might be a schism in Republican ranks on this or that issue — guns, school vouchers, health care, or what-have-you.

What has received less attention is dissension within Democratic ranks, for the simple reasons that in terms of legislative arithmetic, Democrats are now too small a minority in both chambers to have much day-to-day impact, though they could still affect borderline votes.

A symbolic figure of the current Democratic situation might be state Senator Reginald Tate of the majority-black District 33 in south Shelby County. More than most Democrats, Tate has been open to Republican influence and less inclined to partisan loyalty per se.

And Tate has made a point of confronting the existing Democratic hierarchy —what remains of it, anyhow. There are only 7 Democrats in the 33-member state Senate — a rump group, all things considered—and late last year Tate challenged state Senator Jim Kyle, also of Memphis, for Senate Democratic leader, a position Kyle had held for several sessions.

Kyle won, 4-3 — an outcome Tate blames on another Memphian, fellow African-American senator Ophelia Ford, an apparent Kyle voter. “There are not but three blacks that vote in the Senate. Why wouldn’t I expect her vote?” said Tate, who was interviewed after a Wednesday night meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club at Coletta’s in Bartlett.

Tate got some measure of requital earlier this month, when he was elected chairman of the Shelby County legislative delegation 10-9 (“Always one vote,” he laughs.). As it happens,Tate was nominated for delegation chairman by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, while Parkinson was nominated by Democratic leader Kyle.

Acknowledging that it was likely he got the votes of all the Republicans in the delegation, while the Democrats voted for his rival, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson. Tate shrugs: “I may have gotten one or two Democrats.”

Tate is aware that some of his fellow Democrats consider him too tight with Republicans, especially with Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Speaker of the state Senate, who recently awarded him with prestigious committee assignments. But he denies that any strings were attached and says, “I never asked to be vice-chair of the Education committee. I never asked to be on Fiscal Review.”

Granted, while serving on the Senate Education committee during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, Tate had voted with suburban Republicans from Shelby County rather than with Democrats on issues relating to the enabling of suburban school districts in the county, but he explains that by referring to the fact of Memphis being so largely a black city and perhaps needing at some point to practice its own form of exclusivity.

“In the long run why woudn’t I vote fot that bill because it gives them the option to do what they want?” he says, seeming to make an argument for turnabout being fair play.

And he is frank to aver that Realpolitik influences his relations with the Republican majority, who, after all, have the power. “It just so happens that I’m not dancing to the music. If I can’t get you to help me, then I’m going to get somebody else to help me.”

Yes, he is friendly with Ramsey, but that’s because “he wants to reach out to the Democratic side.” Anyhow, “If I’m not dancing to Kyle’s music, what makes anybody think I’d dance to Ramsey’s music?”

In a series of comments, Tate seems to suggest that his differences with Democratic leader Kyle have progressed to the point of irreconilabiity “If Kyle cals a press conferfence and I don’t know what it’s about, then that’s rude….We don’t have a caucus….If I ask for something in my own caucus, it’s tampered with….Kyle has displayed everything that is personal and nothing about us...Every move has been personal.”

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