Politics » Politics Feature

Party Poopers

Lingering partisan unrest over the Kuhn matter impacts state government.

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Events of the past week, both in Nashville and locally, have made it clear that differences between the two major political parties — even outright turf wars — are affecting public policy.

That much was made obvious in action Monday by the Shelby County Commission concerning pending legislation in the General Assembly that would strike down "living wage" provisions previously passed by both the city and county governments.

After only pro forma debate and on a party-line vote of 8-4-1 (the "one" being a recusal from Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter, whose employer, the Associated Builders and Contractors group, has taken a public position against such provisions), the commission Democrats won approval of Commissioner Steve Mulroy's resolution opposing a bill by state senator Paul Stanley, a Germantown Republican.

Stanley's bill, which passed the GOP-dominated state Senate last week, would outlaw local legislation setting minimum-wage requirements higher than those mandated by the federal government. The bill now faces a more problematic fate in the state House of Representatives, and Mulroy's resolution, coordinated with one prepared by the Memphis City Council, is aimed at influencing the House vote, especially among members of the Shelby County delegation.

Aye, but, as Shakespeare's Hamlet once observed, there's the rub, because recent commission action strengthening its Democratic majority may have generated reluctance among Republicans in the General Assembly to consider any recommendation from the County Commission — much less one supported exclusively by Democrats.

It has now been two weeks since the majority Democrats on the commission voted Democrat Matt Kuhn into the suburban seat that had been vacated by Republican David Lillard, who left to become state treasurer. The partisan wounds resulting from that action may have bled over into the legislature, where GOP members of the Shelby delegation have been accused of sitting on legislation requested by the commission.

That situation came to light Monday, when Carpenter dispatched a letter to several of the Republican legislators, including Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville, the primary addressee.

While professing to share the "anger" of the aggrieved Republican legislators on the matter of the commission appointment, which saw Kuhn win out by a party-line vote over ex-commissioner Tommy Hart, a Republican, Carpenter beseeched Norris to let the commission's legislative package get a fair hearing.

"It is my understanding that because of the Democrats [sic] partisan power grab, you and other members are at least for now choosing not to move bills that are a part of the Shelby County legislative package. While I am grateful for the strong gesture of support, I would respectfully request that you allow Shelby County's legislation to begin moving through the legislative process," Carpenter's letter said in part, adding in the concluding paragraph: "I would appreciate it if you would allow the county's legislation to begin moving, and I pledge to work with you to find another way to remedy the action taken by commission Democrats."

Democratic commissioner Mulroy said that most of the stalled legislation was nonpartisan and had received unanimous or nearly unanimous approval across party lines. Among the recommended legislation in the county's package were bills strengthening law enforcement that were sought by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, Sheriff Mark Luttrell, and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

Mike Carpenter - BY JACKSON BAKER

Another part of the county package would enable a statewide "senior alert" network for missing senior citizens, similar to the "Amber alerts" for children whose whereabouts are unknown because of suspected foul play.

Carpenter's letter, seeming to confirm Mulroy's description of the stalled county legislative agenda, notes: "There are many important initiatives that are a part of the package. Each one received substantial bi-partisan support. In crafting the agenda, the Commission and Administration have been sensitive to the budget issues faced by the State and have requested no alternative revenue sources from the Legislature. Many of these bills, if adopted, could make substantial improvements in the quality of life of all Shelby County residents. While I believe my Democrat colleagues failed to act in a statesmen-like manner, I believe I am obligated to rise above it for the benefit of the citizens."

Reached by telephone Monday night and asked for a reaction, Gibbons responded to the situation with this statement: "I think it is the duty of any elected official to do what he or she feels is in the public interest." While the district attorney, now a GOP candidate for governor, said that he, too, like Carpenter, shared the "frustration" felt by Republicans over the Kuhn appointment, he thought it incumbent on legislators to consider "each piece of legislation on its own merits."

Besides Norris, other addressees receiving the Carpenter letter were state senator Stanley and state representatives Brian Kelsey, Curry Todd, Steve McManus, Jim Coley, and Ron Lollar.

Norris said he welcomed communication from the commission, but said, "They often operate in a vacuum," and, he suggested, from "partisan" motives.

• Ironically enough, tension on the County Commission over the Kuhn appointment had seemed to be easing.

Two weeks ago, when Kuhn, on the strength of votes from his fellow Democrats, was appointed to Lillard's former seat in District 4, someone suggested that the appointment be made unanimous. That drew an objection from Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who also represents District 4, a sprawling area that takes in the suburban-rural rim of Shelby County and is heavily Republican in sentiment.

Bunker had been among a holdout minority of Republicans who had supported Hart through the contentious eight ballots that it took before Kuhn was able to amass a majority. And Bunker declined to permit a vote of acclamation, because, as he made clear, he thought appointing a Democrat was grossly unfair to the voters of District 4, amounting to a disenfranchisement.

And even after Kuhn had taken the oath and been seated, Bunker, who represents Position 2 in District 4, let it be known that he would run in 2010 for Position 3, Kuhn's new seat, if the Democrat chose to seek election in his own right.

So, how have the Democratic newbie and the Republican diehard gotten along since Kuhn took his seat? Quite swimmingly, as the two demonstrated last Wednesday during committee meetings in which they provided verbal backup to each other and voted along similar lines.

Both commissioners made it clear that they expected to work together in harmony on most matters for the benefit of their constituents in the district. "Our differences are based purely on political views. I do consider him a friend, and I think the more I get to work with him, the more I'm going to like him. I'd hate to have to run agaist him," volunteered Bunker.

"I look to Wyatt as a person who's representing the interests of District 4 very well. For the good of District 4, we'll do many things together. You might be surprised by the number of things we agree on," responded Kuhn.

Oh, there remain differences. Both commissioners were asked about the desirability of reverting to nonpartisan elections, which were the case before the advent of partisan countywide primaries in the early '90s, at the GOP's initiative. Kuhn said he'd prefer that. Bunker said he'd resist going back to the old way, even though the Democrats, for demographic reasons, are likely to command a majority on the commission from now on. "I think party politics is how we hold things accountable," he said.

And, upon reflection, Kuhn said, "I agree with that."

The sense of general comity between the two got so strong that, when they were asked to see if they could actually wear each other's hounds-tooth coats, they complied and made the effort — Bunker making over his J.C. Penney three-button jacket to Kuhn and trying on Kuhn's two-button Oscar de la Renta.

The exchange seemed to go okay, until ... "It's too tight in the chest and shoulders," Bunker complained.

You see? There's only so much you can do to minimize partisan differences.

Update: Kuhn, Bunker, Mulroy, and Carpenter all appeared, along with fellow commissioner James Harvey, in last weekend's Gridiron Show, doing a satirical skit that targeted not each other, nor either major party, but — are you ready? — the media.


Matt Khun and Wyatt Bunker - BY JACKSON BAKER

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