Politics » Politics Feature

Fallout From GOP Falling-Out

Though it won’t help Democrats much, the schism dividing state Republicans widens.

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Fallout continues from the bitterness that flared up within Republican ranks at the close of the 2013 legislative session on Friday, April 19th, the date pre-ordained by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), speaker of the state Senate and, up until quite recently, the virtually unchallenged spokesperson for the Republican legislative supermajority.

As was chronicled in the Flyer two weeks ago, GOP members of the state House of Representatives vented their anger at domination by the Senate (read: Ramsey) in the session's last week and made a point of soundly rejecting a judicial redistricting measure that had been personally shaped by Ramsey and was greatly prized by the Senate speaker.

Ramsey retaliated by making sure that a bill to strengthen the state board of education's control of charter-school authorizations, one tailored by House speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) to counter a local Davidson County situation, was kept from a vote in the Senate.

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey
  • Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey

The speakers made no effort to hide their exasperation with each other and with the actions of the other chamber, and the usual end-of-session press conference with Governor Bill Haslam was scrapped, replaced by a hastily thrown-together affair in which Haslam met reporters in the company of the House and Senate majority leaders.

This past week, another shoe dropped in the GOP's intramural feud. The Tennessee Republican Caucus, a fund-raising body that has traditionally raised money and shared it equally with GOP members of the House and Senate, has been dissolved, apparently at Ramsey's initiative.

Henceforth, the Republican caucuses of the two chambers will be responsible for their own fund-raising. For his part, Ramsey made it known that, with one exception, he will no longer personally assist House Republicans in their independent fund-raising efforts. (The exception is Representative Timothy Hill, who hails from Ramsey's home town of Blountville.)

Each of the two speakers has also lunched privately with Haslam since the session's close, but neither has met with the other speaker.

The legislature's Democrats — a minority of seven in the 33-member Senate and 28 in the 99-member House — are publicly enjoying (and encouraging) the spectacle of Republican falling-out but privately are aware that the schism is of little practical benefit to Democrats, whose underdog status is more or less guaranteed for at least a decade by the redistricting which occurred under Republican auspices after the census of 2010.

The chief practical effect of the GOP schism is to end the brief era — from 2007, when Ramsey ousted Democrat John Wilder from his longtime perch as Senate speaker, to the stormy end of the 2013 session — when Ramsey's word was law on Capitol Hill, almost literally.

In case after case in recent years, Ramsey — and the Senate — prevailed over the wishes of Haslam and Harwell, most notably in 2011, when Ramsey insisted on attaching the abolition of collective bargaining to the governor's education-reform package.

A sign of the change to come may have occurred this year when Haslam yanked his pilot bill creating a moderate voucher system for public schools rather than permit state senators Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) to expand the bill's reach.

• Memphians are prominent in the membership of a legislative delegation headed this month to Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the trip, reports the Tennessee Journal, is "financed by groups tied to a Muslim leader who runs a network of charter schools in the United States." The Journal cites Nashville's WVTF-Channel 5 as the identifying source.

The sponsoring groups are the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast and the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians. Both allegedly are tied to Fethullah Gulen, who became controversial two years ago when former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton cited Gulen's charter-school network as a possible tie-in with Herenton's own proposed charter-school network. The former mayor has since recast his proposed charter-school framework without reference to Gulen's network.

Memphians making the trip are state senator Kelsey, representatives Mark White, Antonio Parkinson, Joe Towns, Johnnie Turner and state safety commissioner Bill Gibbons.

• As noted last week in both this space and the Flyer editorial, Maxine Smith passed from the mortal realm into the immortality that history confers on those adjudged to have rendered significant service.

Smith was properly appreciated by a celebration of her life at the Jesse H. Turner St. Freedom House on Vance Avenue on Friday and by a memorial service and all-day visitation at Metropolitan Baptist Church on Walker Avenue on Saturday.

The service at Metropolitan was presided over jointly by the Rev. Billy Kyles, a civil rights icon in his own right, and by the Rev. Rosalyn Nichols of Freedom's Chapel Christian Church, Smith's own, where a smaller, private service was held for her on Friday night.

Smith was known to enjoy a good laugh, and the service at Metropolitan, where humorous anecdotes and reminiscences were encouraged and abounded, reflected that fact. At one point, industrialist/philanthropist Pitt Hyde concluded a heartfelt tribute with the notion that Smith's arrival at the Pearly Gates would be certified by St. Peter as proof of Martin Luther King's celebrated statement regarding the content of one's character outweighing the color of one's skin.

Hyde slipped somewhat in the pronunciation of "skin," making the phrase sound like "the color of one's sin." The audience in the packed church roared its appreciation of the inadvertent double entendre. As one attendee said later, "Maxine would have loved that." Ninth District congressman Steve Cohen, who followed at the dais, looked back at the seated Hyde with a mischievous smile, and said, "Pitt, I promise you, I won't tweet that."

Hyde, Cohen, and others who offered recollections about Smith teared up, as well, but the sorrow was leavened with laughter. Call it the joy of remembrance.

• Even as Smith was being extolled and remembered, another death of some consequence occurred late last week — that of Jerry Cobb. The unofficial leader of what amounted to a permanent dissenting minority in the Shelby County Republican Party, Cobb was well-known as a gadfly's gadfly — a term he came to embrace once he was made aware of its connection with Socrates, a previous disturber of the peace.

Cobb, a general contractor who continually sought maximum transparency in the bidding for public construction projects, was sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left of his party's mainstream. He was rarely in its center, inasmuch as he saw his main mission as being that of challenging the status quo. Survived by his wife Edna, who sustained him in life, he was well liked, even by his adversaries.

• A resolution which ostensibly would have put the Shelby County Commission on record as supporting the Second Amendment was rejected on Monday by the commission, a majority of whose voting members saw it as going much further than its stated purpose.

Speaking for the majority, Commissioners Walter Bailey and Steve Mulroy both argued that the resolution contained clauses suggesting that county government could and should "nullify" federal statutes and urging local law enforcement officials to take the lead in doing just that.

The resolution's sponsor, Commissioner Terry Roland of Millington, stunned the audience at one point by saying, "If I come to Memphis, Tennessee, I'm packing heat. So anybody out there listening, if you want to try something, it's on you, but I'm packing heat."

Speaking for the resolution, Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Wyatt Bunker said its chief purpose was to encourage support for the Second Amendment and to make citizens aware of their rights, not to challenge the federal government. Various amendments to soften the language of the resolution were considered but rejected. The resolution was defeated by a vote of five for and six against, with one abstention.

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