- Senators Alexander (l), Corker
NASHVILLE -- Though he disclaims that his now dormant proposal for the state legislature to nominate U.S. Senate candidates is aimed at Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, state Senator Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) is doubtful that either incumbent, both of whom he considers moderates, would pass muster with Republicans in the state legislature if they had to seek renomination from the GOP caucus.
“They both have 62 percent records voting with Obama, they voted for bail-outs, they voted for tax increases. I’m not sure they would, “ he said.
Joking about the non-existence of a book with the title “Great Moderates in American History, “ Nicely said, “If there was such a book, Lamar and Corker would be in it.”
(Asked about Nicely’s proposal during a visit to Memphis on Wednesday, Corker said he thought he knew the people of Tennessee as well as anybody, and, noting that, by his reckoning, some 650,000 people had voted in the state’s last U.S. Senate primary, said, “I don’t think Tennesseans would take very well to their right to vote being taken away.” And, Corker said, there would at present be all of 29 Democrats in the legislature to make their party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. “Just think about it.”)
In protesting that his aim was to restore power to the state and not to take the vote away from its people, Nicely contrasted the import of his proposal with the actions of three recent Tennessee governors, whom he took issue with: “We’re not doing like McWherter, who took away electing directors of schools, Sundquist took away our right to elect public service commissioners, Haslam appears to be taking away our right to elect Supreme Court judges and appellate judges. They’re actually taking away your right to vote.”
Nicely has been widely quoted as decrying a number of wicked things that he thinks happened in 1913 — the 17th Amendment, subjecting U.S. Senates to direct popular vote, of course. "Then we got the central bank that Jefferson had warned against [the Fed], more dangerous to liberty than a standing army, and Jakcson actually abolished the second U.S. bank in 1830….The bankers tried to kill him. But, anyway,we got the central bank back in 1913 and the dollar’s lost 90 percent of its purchasing power. A case of the bankers debasing our currency."
He qualifies his Constitutional quibbles somewhat, though. "A lot of amendments I agree with -- women’s suffreage, for example. The one I really agree with is the repeal of prohibition." He laughs. "That’s one of my favorites."
Besides the controversy over his proposal to tweak the 17th Amendment, Nicely generated some recent controversy in claiming that Abraham Lincoln was a defender of cockfighting. And he took part in a bizarre debate in the Senate Thursday over the issue of which pledge of allegiance should come first.
State Senator Stacey Canpfield (R-Knoxville) challenged the current order has the federal pledge first and the state pledge after, contending that “the American flag takes precedence over all other flags” and that the Senate should “highlight:” the pledge to the American flag by saving it for last.
Senator Doug Henry (D-Nashville) considered Campfield “technically” right but objected that it “pained” him to see the Tennessee flag “dipped” to the American flag, something Henry thought should never be.
Speaker Ramsey asked Nicely his opinion, and Nicely cited Robert E. Lee as having considered himself a Virginian first and an American second., concluding, “If Robert E. Lee was a Virginian first and an American second, I’m a Tennessean first and an American second.”
- Frank Nicely in Nashville
A NOTE ON FRANK NICELY, who has figured more than once this week by more than one observer and for more than one reason as emblematic of the Looney Tunes aspect of the current Tennessee legislature.
Frank Nicely is one of those people who is seen one way by the outside world and another way by the people who know him up close. Yes, he’s got some outré opinions and some of them are close to the stuff that comes out of the ALEC handbook. But he is not reciting anything by rote. He’s a genuine populist, though of the right-wing —variety.
But he is personally a very tolerant man. I first encountered him back in 2002 when he was going around as the everyday helper of gubernatorial candidate Jim Henry, a bona fide moderate Republican. Henry (now serving as Bill Haslam’s new-broom director of Children’s Services, charged with redeeming that scandal-plagued agency) was urged into the Republican primary race that year as an antidote to hard-right candidate Van Hilleary by Don Sundquist, the outgoing Republican governor.
Sundquist had virtually been excommunicated by his party for the dual sins of upholding TennCare and vigorously pushing for some sort of progressive tax reform, up to and including a state income tax. Henry had similar views. Beyond much doubt, Frank Nicely didn’t, and he let Henry know it. “I’d work on him all day long, and I’d think I had him going right, and he’d waffle on me every time,” Nicely told me in a post-adjournment conversation this week, chuckling and shaking his head. It seemed clear that what he had been trying so hard to get into the governor’s office was Henry’s character, not his platform.
Hilleary won the primary, of course, to be shaded out in the general election by Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who turned out to be more conservative in some ways than Jim Henry might have been. (Bredesen wasted no time cutting TennCare down to size, for one thing, and, having spent most of the previous couple of years second-guessing Sundquist on taxes, promptly took the income tax off the table and imposed Draconian across-the-board cuts in every state agency.)
Two years later, Nicely, who had served In the state House of Representatives from 1988 to 1992, ran again for the House and served there from 2005 to January of this year, when, having won a state Senate race last year, he took the oath and tripped over to the other chamber.
In 2006, Nicely went to work for Bob Corker, a U.S. Senate candidate seen by the GOP’s right wing as another moderate [see main story, above]. Hilleary and Ed Bryant, both of whom pitched to the Right, were the Republican alternatives that year. Nicely told me this week he had a certain affinity for Corker’s Democratic opponent, Harold Ford Jr., whom he regarded as being more or less acceptable had Ford been elected.
In the legislature, meanwhile, Nicely has followed his natural bent and materialized as a state’s right Constitutionalist. That’s how he would put it, anyhow. In practice, he votes a lot with the arch-conservatives. Returning to the House the same year that Brian Kelsey began to serve there, he and the Germantown legislator generally saw eye to eye on issues, but It is no secret that Nicely disapproved of what he saw as Kelsey’s showboating.
I don’t know a single Capitol Hill reporter or legislator, of whatever stripe, who doesn’t like Nicely or respect him for his sincerity. He’s not afraid to buck the tide. Back last year, during the first run-through of guns-in-parking-lots legislation favored by the N RA, Nicely was an opponent, contending, ““If a property owner tells someone you can’t bring a yo-yo on his property, much less a gun, you can’t bring it on that property.”
All that said, he is good fodder for the wags and fair game. After Newtown, he was one of those proposing armed guards in classrooms. He was apparently a birther in good standing. There is this 17th Amendment thing, and the cockfighting, and….Well, there’s a bunch of stuff. Again, he’s fair game. But he’s also fair-minded, and he won’t take it personally.