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Odd Man In

State representative Hardaway, once an outlier, increasingly takes a leadership role.

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By virtue of some Darwinian survival process, state representative G.A. Hardaway has become a political lion of sorts, at least on the local scene. That fact might surprise members of the Nashville press corps, who see Hardaway as an overexposed and under-effective back-bench orator but acknowledge the inner-city Democrat to be a hard worker with the odd habit of actually reading the legislation that comes before the House of Representatives.

Hardaway figured prominently as an advocate of city/county school merger in late 2010 after that year's legislative elections gave Republicans their first big majority in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly. At several ad hoc forums, he took the lead in urging concerned Memphis City School board members to surrender the MCS charter, thereby forcing merger and preempting the county's suburban Republican legislators, who were expected to press for legislation enabling Shelby County Schools to become a special school district.

Subsequently, Hardaway became something of a spokesperson for Memphis Democrats, who had growing doubts about the bona fides of the local election process, and he became something of a permanent and vocal fixture at political or civic meetings of whatever kind where citizen complaints and grievances were aired.

His maximum visibility paid dividends for Hardaway when, following Republican-controlled redistricting after the Census of 2010, he saw his original District 92 seat in effect abolished by being reassigned to a Middle Tennessee location. Like several other Democrats in Shelby County and throughout the state, Hardaway ended up paired against another incumbent — in his case, fellow Democrat Mike Kernell, who had overcome a variety of challengers for his District 93 seat over the course of four decades.

Hardaway won that 2012 primary race with surprising ease and afterward took a prominent role in local Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts.

Along with an increasing degree of prominence on the local scene, Hardaway has also begun to transform his legislative image. A divorced father himself, he entered the House in 2007 as a determined advocate of paternal rights and introduced what seemed to many colleagues and media observers as eccentric legislation — including a bill to require DNA testing in all completed pregnancies to determine the fatherhood of newborns.

But in Nashville as in Memphis, Hardaway has increasingly applied himself to more general concerns — most recently on behalf of Democratic legal challenges to the post-2010 reapportionment. He also served a term as chairman of the Shelby County legislative delegation.

And this week, Hardaway inserted himself once again as a player in the ongoing upheaval over local school issues, joining House colleague Barbara Cooper at a press conference on Monday to challenge the process whereby six schools had been targeted, presumably by the administration of lame-duck MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, for possible closing.

Those schools, whose fate will be the subject of Unified School Board meetings this week, are Coro Lake Elementary, White's Chapel Elementary, Orleans Elementary, Norris Elementary, Humes Middle School, and Caldwell Elementary — all institutions located in areas of southwest and northwest Memphis, where population has been declining. The 21-member Transition Planning Commission established by state law to assist in the city/county merger process had recommended the closing of 21 schools for reasons of economy and efficiency.

Hardaway condemned what he said was the "secrecy" of the selection process and lamented the fact that, as he saw it, Memphis mayor A C Wharton and city housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb, the two individuals "charged with the redevelopment and sustaining the quality of life in the neighborhoods and the community," had not been involved in the process.

Wharton responded to Hardaway's comments later on Monday in a prepared statement. "I want to thank Representative G.A. Hardaway and other elected officials for underscoring the need for total community involvement and input in any decision regarding the closing of schools," the mayor said. "I share Representative Hardaway's concerns and, accordingly, will honor his request that the TPC, and others responsible for making decisions with respect to the closing of schools, allow full community input."

The mayor's statement noted: "While the primary function of school buildings is to house the educational process, schools also serve as 'social' anchors for the communities in which they are located. As a matter of fact, many sections of our city are known only by the high school serving the area, such as Melrose, Manassas, Hamilton, and Booker T. Washington."

Wharton proposed that the facilities targeted for closing be considered for "adaptive reuses, which will allow those buildings that can no longer be used as schools to continue to serve as anchors in their communities." Lipscomb would follow that up with similar suggestions.

One upshot of the Hardaway-Cooper press conference, in tandem with the responses by Wharton and Lipscomb, is that the 23-member unified board's efforts to deal with the TPC's recommendations, already proceeding at a snail's pace, will be further slowed, and the process, already weighted with political considerations, will become — for better or for worse — even more so.

And one continuing influence on that process is sure to be one Godfrey A. Hardaway.

 

• Whatever long-range trends favor the Democratic Party in the nation at large, the outlook is different for the states of the old Confederacy, including Tennessee, where Republicans have begun to dominate everything.

As state senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, leader of the Senate Democrats, observed in early 2010, when he gave up what had been a serious gubernatorial campaign, "Where there used to be yellow-dog Democrats out there, there are now yellow-dog Republicans."

That year, Republican Bill Haslam won the governorship, and the 2012 legislative elections, post-redistricting, gave the GOP super-majority status in both chambers of the General Assembly — with a 70-28 majority the House and 26-7 advantage in the Senate.

But just as was the case with Tennessee Democrats in the lengthy period of their domination, which lasted well more than a century and expired only in the first decade of the new millennium, intraparty factionalism will surface as an alternative to power struggles of the two-party kind.

Sure enough, when House Republicans caucused in Nashville on Monday to elect new officers, one of the casualties was state representative Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, who was defeated in his bid for reelection as House speaker pro tem by Representative Curtis Johnson of Clarksville. Coincidentally or not, Matheny, a Tea Party favorite who in the last session sponsored anti-Islamic legislation and a controversial bill pushed by the National Rifle Association that would allow guns to be stored in cars on parking lots, had earlier floated the idea of challenging House speaker, Beth Harwell of Nashville.

Though Johnson, too, is clearly a conservative (as Harwell is, for that matter), he had the support of Republican moderates, and the outcome might well be regarded as a precursor to a forthcoming renewal of the battle over the parking-lot bill, which was shelved in the 2012 session after a standoff between Republican factions. The GOP establishment more or less responded to state business interests, who opposed the bill, while other Republicans, many of the Tea Party variety, took their cue from the NRA.

State representative Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, then the GOP's caucus chair, helped bottle the bill up and, for her pains, was defeated for reelection in a primary contest in which the NRA took an active financial and organizational role for her opponent.     

What happens this time around, when the battle resumes, is anybody's guess. Perhaps a compromise is in order, but the fact remains that on this question, as on others that may develop, Republicans, who on their way to power were scrupulous observers of unity, are allowing some serious internal differences to come to the fore.

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