Politics » Politics Feature

Exit Bowers

The state senator's resignation for "health" reasons may foretell problems for other Tennessee Waltz indictees.

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Although many in the media made merry in the last week or so with a scenario in which former state senator John Ford might use as a defense in his forthcoming extortion trial a private film made by undercover informant Tim Willis, the prospects for any such miraculous rescue took another hit this week.

As of press time, state senator Kathryn Bowers, one of Ford's fellow indictees in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting that netted several state legislators last year, has not yet changed her plea from not guilty to guilty, which would follow the lead of several other indictees, including former Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks Sr., who did so only last week.

But Bowers seemed to be preparing the way for such a plea change when she announced on Monday her decision to vacate her District 33 state Senate seat, effective September 1st.

Bowers' decision, communicated first by letter to Lt. Governor John Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer, and later to the media, followed a statement about health concerns she had made last week. On the day Hooks changed his plea before U.S. district judge John D. Breen, Bowers asked for additional time to consider her own plea.

The other shoe dropped with Bowers' Monday statement that she was formally resigning her office on "medical advice." Her resignation comes in time for the local Democratic Party to appoint a successor on the November ballot for her District 33 Senate post.

The party will have until September 28th to meet and do so, said Jim Kyle, the Democrats' Senate leader. Kyle also noted that illness and a finding of legal ineligibility were the only two allowable reasons for a certified nominee to exit the ballot. The medical out also leaves intact Bowers' pension arrangements.

The diminutive but influential legislator is scheduled to make a formal plea in her extortion case on September 5th, four days after her official resignation date.

In her letter to Wilder, Bowers repeated her declarations of last week that she had experienced "considerable stress ... that has taken its toll on my health."

The precipitating incident, she said, was a near-accident last week in which, in the course of returning from a Knoxville conference on minority health matters, she lost control of her Chevrolet Blazer when the tread separated from one of the vehicle's tires.

Bowers said on Monday that she mulled things over after returning to Memphis and made her decision to resign over the weekend. She called party caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville, who tried to talk her out of resigning, she said. (Haynes issued a statement Monday expressing "regret" at Bowers' decision.)

A factor that hastened her decision was her determination to "spare the people of Shelby County the expense of a special election," Bowers said. She gave no indication of what her plea would be at her court date, saying that her legal status had not entered into her thinking.

The likelihood of a plea change to guilty was being taken as a given elsewhere, though -- especially since her attorney, William Massey, had said after last week's hearing, "We're always reevaluating our position, in light of everyone else, in light of the discovery we've had," and gone on to tell reporters that it was possible a trial would not be necessary.

In the meantime, a brief flurry of excitement had been created by WMC-TV reporter Darrell Phillips' disclosure that FBI informant and sting go-between Willis, who aspires to be a filmmaker, had actually made a movie in the same office space used for sting purposes by the phony FBI computer company E-Cycle.

The movie, which employed the services of Circuit Court Judge and sometime actor D'Army Bailey, featured a sting plot remarkably similar to the one employed, with Willis' help, by the FBI. Unofficial word came from sources close to John Ford indicating that the former state senator might attempt to represent FBI videotapes of himself accepting cash in that light.

One problem: The money doled out by the FBI -- some $50,000 in Ford's case -- was not play money but bona fide U.S. currency that went into the bank accounts of the defendants or presumably was spent. In any case, the recent actions taken by Hooks and Bowers would not seem to provide any aid or comfort to Ford or assistance to his defense strategy.

In the wake of Bowers' departure, speculation immediately went to the question of who might be nominated by the Shelby County Democratic executive committee to succeed her. The committee's next scheduled meeting is September 7th, but it would have three weeks after that date to formalize a decision.

One likely candidate would be realtor Steve Webster, who ran second to Bowers in the August statewide primary election. In his race, Webster, a former Bowers supporter, eschewed direct references to the incumbent's pending legal problems. Which is to say, he has burned no bridges with Bowers' support group.

The exit of Bowers from the District 33 seat underlined several ironies related to the Tennessee Waltz saga. Bowers' unsuccessful opponent in the special 2005 Democratic primary to fill the seat was Michael Hooks Sr. And the seat had been made vacant in the first place by the resignation of longtime incumbent Roscoe Dixon, who earlier this summer was convicted in federal court on several counts relating to the Tennessee Waltz sting.

Dixon had vacated his Senate seat in order to accept a job as an aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton (who demanded and got Dixon's resignation upon his indictment in May 2005). The former senator then lobbied for the Shelby County Commission to accept as his interim successor one Barry Myers, a longtime Dixon aide who himself was indicted on Tennessee Waltz charges, pleaded guilty, and became a witness for the government. (Sidney Chism, currently a Shelby County commissioner-elect, got the commission's nod instead of Myers.)

Given that kind of history surrounding the seat, local Democrats will no doubt employ special care in selecting a Senate nominee to replace Bowers on the November ballot.

The name of Hooks, who had resigned his own commission seat just previous to his guilty plea, was omitted from the roster of commissioners that appeared on the agenda forms at Monday's regular commission meeting. Nor was the former commissioner included among the exiting members -- seven in all -- who were cited for their service and given commemorative plaques.

But two of those departing members -- Bruce Thompson and Chairman Tom Moss -- made a point of acknowledging Hooks' service prior to the start of regular business.

Joe Ford Jr., third-place finisher in last month's Democratic primary for the District 9 congressional seat, made a point last week of reaffirming his endorsement of that primary's winner, state senator Steve Cohen.

Ford also posted lengthy comments on the "Space Ninja" blog rebutting claims by the Tri-State Defender that his candidacy had not been serious and may even have been designed to detract from the primary efforts of another candidate, outgoing county commissioner Julian Bolton.

After debunking the newspaper's claims and making the case that he and several other candidates had waged more viable campaigns than Bolton (whom the Tri-State Defender had endorsed), Ford concluded:

"The purpose of American representative government is to ensure that all people have a voice in the government. And when all people stated their choice, like it or not, more people wanted Senator Cohen than any other candidate. Cohen could not have won this election without receiving a good number of African-American votes."

Although problems associated with the vote-reporting process (see Feature, page 19) made it difficult to say for sure, preliminary estimates suggest that Cohen may have received as much as 20 percent of the district's African-American vote.

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