Politics » Politics Feature

Grace Notes and New Notes

Contentiousness hovered nearby as spring began on the political calendar.

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Although Memphis has famously had its image problems and its internal divisions, its groups of picketers for or against this cause or that, and its militant religious figures and organizations, it has not so far harbored anything like the Rev. Fred Phelps, or the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, or its itinerant band of provocateurs.

It should be noted that the term "Baptist" in the case of Westboro does not signify membership in either the populous Southern Baptist Convention, which dominates so much of the Southland, nor the smaller and theologically more moderate American Baptist Convention, which thrives in Topeka and much of the Midwest.

Westboro is sui generis, both in its creed, which can be best characterized as apocalyptic, and in its, er, outreach, which is worldwide and is best symbolized by the signs that ritually sprout at the funerals of people known to have been gay ("God Hates Fags," say the signs) or, increasingly, at the last rites of American military service personnel ("God Hates America" is the watchword). A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Phelps and church members to perform such picketing.

Again, Memphis has its internal detractors, but none so far like the Phelps clan of Topeka, who picket their home base on a daily basis (see photo above).

The church's targets are rapidly proliferating, including by now the American flag (which it routinely desecrates), all other known religious organizations and faiths, and virtually any and every organ of government, business enterprise, and civic institution. Its reputation for accuracy in its judgments can perhaps best be indicated by such whopper lines in its many tracts and online declarations as this one: "Homosexuals and Jews dominated Nazi Germany."

I note all this because I have just returned from Topeka, where I went for the weekend funeral of my brother-in-law, Ed Bailey, a much-admired lawyer and military veteran whose services were thankfully not disrupted or picketed — at least partly, I imagine, because as the impresario of the annual Topeka Bar Show (a satirical annual revue something like the Gridiron Show put on in Memphis and various other places), Ed actually once oversaw the efforts of a couple of Phelps daughters who volunteered to perform in the show's chorus.

As a result, says my nephew Matthew, on those rare occasions when the itinerary of his father would, quite inadvertently, intersect that of the Rev. Phelps, so famous for spewing hateful epithets at so many targets so indiscriminately, he would be greeted with a courteous salutation and called "Brother Bailey."

I find that marvelous, both as a tribute to the aura of tolerance that always seemed to surround Ed Bailey, a political moderate of bipartisan voting habits, like his wife, my sister Sarah, and as an indication that grace notes are still possible in a contentious world. R.I.P., bro.

• Contention certainly abounds in another state capital, Nashville, where this week will see the latest in a series of showdowns over the hot-button issue of teachers' unions, which the militant branch of the General Assembly's now-dominant Republicans, led by Senate speaker and state lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey, wish to see deprived altogether of their collective bargaining rights.

A bill to that effect had been approved by the Senate education committee, but, to most people's surprise, a compromise version of the bill was proposed and approved in a House education subcommittee last week that allowed the Tennessee Education Association (ETA) and its local affiliates, like the Memphis Education Association, to retain bargaining rights, though these were to be curtailed in several important particulars.

The House bill was brokered by Governor Bill Haslam and House speaker Beth Harwell, both Republican moderates in the current configuration of things (though both GOP worthies would probably prefer walking on hot coals to admitting it).

Under the provisions of the amended House version, the established teachers' unions not only would have to compete with rival organizations of whatever sort to represent teachers, their threshold for acquiring representation rights would be considerably raised. Henceforth, a petition for an election to represent teachers in a given locality would require the signature of "a majority of the professional employees" instead of the 30 percent required at present. Moreover, a full majority of those eligible to vote — not just those casting ballots — would have to approve the union's bid.

On the whole, the amended bill would seem to leave some of the traditional public-school scaffolding in place while making room for some modish management-minded changes. As Harwell pointed out to reporters, the amended bill excludes from collective bargaining certain issues — merit pay for exceptional teachers, for instance — and certain personnel, notably school principals, who could no longer be represented by the unions.

A unique aspect of the negotiations that led to the House version was that neither Democrats nor representatives of the TEA, traditionally a major player on Capitol Hill, took part in them. As a result, neither the General Assembly's Democratic leadership nor Jerry Winters, the TEA's executive director, could bring themselves to call the House version a "compromise," though Winters sucked it up to the point of acknowledging "progress, though not a victory."

And, when asked where he would locate the amended House version on a political Richter scale on which the original Senate version was a zero and the status quo was a 10, Winters assigned the number 5. Compromise, it would seem, is alive and well in the Tennessee General Assembly. It's just that it so far has been reached among Republicans talking to themselves.

Members of the assembly's now-dominant GOP contingent quickly point out that, not too long ago and for well more than a century, things were exactly opposite, with Democrats deciding all matters, extending only perfunctory nods toward Republicans.

An interesting sidelight of the current political environment is the apparent rift between Haslam and Ramsey. The two had notably differed the week before on the question of what should happen, post-referendum, on the matter of the merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools — Haslam ready to go forward; Ramsey suggesting that the state might thwart the referendum results by a takeover of MCS as "failing" institutions.

After the House subcommittee's approval of the Haslam-brokered collective-bargaining compromise, Ramsey issued an "open letter" challenging the legislature to ignore it and restore the original Senate version with its total ban on collective bargaining by teachers' groups.

The current guessing game on Capitol Hill concerns whether all of this represents a bona fide power struggle between Haslam and Ramsey or merely a variant of the old good cop/bad cop gambit.

In any case, the compromise version gets a look-see by the full House education committee this week, and, within another couple of weeks, both Senate and House will probably have agreed on a final version, at which time Tennessee's teachers will learn their ultimate fate.

• Meeting in convention on Sunday, Shelby County Republicans named lawyer Justin Joy as their new county chairman. Joy succeeds attorney Lang Wiseman, who stepped down voluntarily after a successful two-year term which saw local Republicans sweep the 2010 county general elections.

On Friday night, local Republicans attending the annual Lincoln Day Dinner got their first look at another new party leader, keynote speaker Reince Priebus, the newly elected chairman of the National Republican Committee.

• Amid a flurry of lawsuits challenging its right to do so, the Shelby County Commission this week began interviewing more than 100 candidates for 25 positions on an interim all-county school board. The commission intends to make appointments on Monday, March 28th.

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