Politics » Politics Feature

Cold Comfort

The weather didn’t keep bills from passing in Nashville, but what those bills actually mean is another story.

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By all reports, it was as frosty and weather-worn in Nashville on Monday as it was here in Memphis, but there was enough of a quorum in both the Senate and the House to finish up some pending legislation.

What got the most attention statewide was the final Senate passage of a compromise wine-in-grocery-stores bill, SB 837, which — local referenda permitting — allows wine sales by grocery retailers and whichever convenience stores meet the 1,200-square-foot area requirement, in most cases as early as July 1, 2016. Liquor stores, meanwhile, will be allowed to sell beer and other sundries as early as July 1st of this year.

As Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, a prime mover of the bill, noted, it "allows for the expansion of consumer choice while protecting small businesses that took risks and invested capital under the old system." In other words, a lot of trade-offs entered into the bill, which now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for signing.

Over in the House on Monday, there was a curious dialogue between state Representative G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) and state Representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin) over the meaning of an innocuous bill (HB 394 by Hardaway) that allows community gardens in Memphis to flourish independently of sales-tax levies and control by the state Department of Agriculture.

Casada, a well-known advocate and author of bills imposing state authority over local matters, as in his notorious legislation two years ago striking down local anti-discrimination ordinances, went disingenuous on Hardaway.

"Are we in any way telling local government what they can and cannot do? ... Are we in any way dictating actions to local government at our state level?" Casada asked, all innocence.

Realizing he was about to be fenced with semantically, Hardaway responded just as disingenuously: "You and I share that concern, that we not dictate to local government, and I'm proud that you're joining me on this bill, where we are making it clear that local government has the options to proceed on these community gardening efforts, sir."

A few back-and-forths later, Casada said, "I just want to be clear. So we are, in a few instances, telling these local governments how they will handle these parcels for their gardening projects. Am I correct?"

Hardaway would have none of it. "Quite the opposite. We are telling state government that we want local government to conduct the business of local gardening instead of the state Department of Agriculture."

Casada insisted on drawing the moral of the story another way, defining Hardaway's bill not as the sponsor himself saw it — as a measure freeing local vegetable gardens from state control — but as yet another case in which the state can tell localities "how they will or will not" do things. "From time to time we do dictate to local government ... and this is a good bill," he concluded.

That prompted Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville to confer mock praise on Casada for his consistency in wanting to "bring big government to press down on local government."

In any case, the bill passed with near unanimity, something of a unique instance in which, depending on who's describing it, a bill is said to be both a defense of local autonomy and the very opposite of that concept, a reinforcement of overriding state control.

That's Nashville for you.   

   

• When Shelby County Commission Chairman James Harvey dropped out of the race for county mayor at last week's withdrawal deadline, saving his marbles (and his long-shot candidacy) for a run at city mayor in 2015, he left behind what is going to be a seriously contested three-way Democratic primary for the leadership of county government:

County Commissioner/U of M Law Professor Steve Mulroy, aided by experienced and connected campaign adviser David Upton, will be everywhere at once with a carefully articulated message for rank-and-file Democrats. The Rev. Kenneth Whalum may not be as ubiquitous, but he has a potentially potent fan base developed during years of a highly visible ministry and an outspoken school board presence.

Both will have to make their case against a seasoned candidate who has earned a large and loyal cadre of supporters from her years in public life and from campaigns in years past. This is Deidre Malone, a well-known public relations consultant and former two-term county commissioner who ran hard in the Democratic primary for county mayor four years ago, losing out to Joe Ford, a former commission colleague who had the advantage of running from a position as interim mayor.

Appearing on Wednesday of last week before a packed meeting of the Germantown Democratic Club at Coletta's on Stage Road, Malone cited a detailed list of mainstream Democratic positions on issues and looked past her Democratic rivals to voice a resounding challenge to incumbent Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell, challenging his bona fides as a crossover politician and as a leader.

Making an effort to debunk the incumbent mayor's mainstream status, Malone disparaged Luttrell's claims to have been a regular participant in meetings of the post-school-merger Transition Planning Commission ("Leadership is not sitting in a meeting") and to have supported pre-K efforts ("When he had an opportunity for the first county pre-K initiative ... he came out against it.").

Leadership, said Malone, means, among other things, having an opinion: "Sometimes it's comfortable, sometimes it's not, but leadership is making that opinion known, so people will know where you stand. So I'm going to ask you today, Democrats here in Germantown and across Shelby County, for your vote. ... I'm excited about the primary, but more excited about the opportunity to represent the Democratic Party in general, because he [Luttrell] knows that I'm coming, and he knows that I'm going to be nothing nice."

Before she spoke, her campaign manager, Randa Spears, took a straw vote of the attendees, an exercise Spears repeated after Malone's speech. The results in both cases showed Malone hovering around the number 20, with her opponents in single digits — the chief difference between the two votes being that significant numbers of votes for Mulroy (whom Malone seemingly regards as her chief opponent) had — according to the tabulation, at least — shifted over to "undecided."

Granted, Malone's cadres were out for the event, and those of Mulroy and Whalum, for the most part, were not, and the ad hoc poll could by no means be regarded as scientific. The fact remains that Malone, a well-known African-American public figure going into her second run for county mayor, was able to demonstrate some core support among a group of predominantly white Democrats meeting out east, and that fact should tell some kind of tale to her opponents.

• Another change in the May 6th primary picture for countywide offices was the Shelby County Election Commission's decision last week to overrule the previous disqualification of Martavius Jones, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the new District 10 county commission seat, because of a disallowed signature on his filing petition.

That creates a legitimate two-way race between Reginald Milton and Jones, with political newcomer Jake Brown likely to function as a spoiler (though Brown may have a rosier outlook, seeing a split between Milton and Jones as giving him a real chance).

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