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Planned Parenthood Takes a Hit

Commission approval of CCHS’s Title X contract completes year-long GOP campaign.

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Some hours after Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission, Democratic member Steve Mulroy, a famously steadfast advocate for his causes, faced up to an awkward but necessary task — that of explaining to his liberal constituency why he had voted along with the commission's conservatives on the key issue of the day.

When, after a longish debate, the roll had been called on the matter of approving a $397,000 contract with Christ Community Health Services to perform family planning services in tandem with the Shelby County Health Department, Mulroy had joined the commission majority in voting aye, making the final tally 9-4 in favor — an outcome that dashed the hopes of Planned Parenthood supporters, who had sought to block the contract and reopen the bidding.

Mulroy's apologia, on his Facebook page, boiled down to this: As an accomplished head-counter, he had learned that a solid bloc had formed on the commission in favor of naming former city council member Brent Taylor, a supporter of the CCHS contract, to a commission vacancy that was due to be filled as the first order of business. Even without Taylor's vote, Mulroy went on, there appeared to be enough committed votes to CCHS to put the contract over (this despite the return to skepticism about the contract on the part of Commissioner Walter Bailey, who had tilted in its favor a week earlier).

On the professional merits of the case, absent political factors, Mulroy described himself as tilting only "60-40" in favor of Planned Parenthood vis-à-vis CCHS — a ratio based on factors including the established expertise of Planned Parenthood and the multiplicity of service centers offered by CCHS.

Consequently, said Mulroy, who had posed several questions to county CAO Harvey Kennedy on the issue of holding CCHS to account: "Since the outcome was a foregone conclusion, I decided to at least get assurances re: compliance monitoring, so that at the end of the contract period, we would have hard data to decide whether opponents' concerns regarding proselytization, abortion counseling, and emergency contraception were warranted. If they are, we can revisit the contract."

The vote Monday climaxed a year-long struggle in which the Tennessee Republican Party, entrenched in statewide power after the 2010 election, had sought to expunge Planned Parenthood, a symbol of abortion to the GOP's reigning social conservatives, from any share of state or federal funding, particularly relating to women's health issues.

The last domino in that campaign was Shelby County, where Planned Parenthood, the traditional recipient of Title X funds locally, as well as elsewhere in Tennessee, at least had the opportunity to bid for a share of that federal lagniappe. That was the result of a bargain made by Shelby County Health Department director Yvonne Madlock, with input perhaps from Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, in response to a new state law mandating that county health departments throughout the state take over the burden of Title X and the funding for it.

A technical flaw in the law kept Planned Parenthood from being excluded outright, as had been the framers' original intent, and Madlock, protesting that her department lacked the means to implement the Title X program single-handedly, wangled permission to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a local partner.

Planned Parenthood bid for the action, as did the Memphis Health Center and Christ Community Health Services. Amid intense background lobbying by adherents of Planned Parenthood, on the one hand, and state officials like Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville on the other, an ad hoc panel established by the health department opted for the CCHS bid.

That was the immediate background for Monday's vote, which had been postponed two weeks ago at the insistence of such key Democrats on the commission as Mulroy and Bailey, who essentially wanted more explanation as to why Christ Community Health Services had been chosen over Planned Parenthood, which had years of experience and an established clientele for the women's health services covered by Title X.

An important proviso: The services funded by Title X explicitly do not include abortion, though Planned Parenthood's history of involvement with abortion procedures and the renunciation of such services by CCHS on religious grounds were implicit factors in the county commission's deliberations.

Those factors became ever more explicit at Monday's commission meeting, when a self-described "civil liberties attorney" and a Roman Catholic priest, among others, decried Planned Parenthood for its abortion practices and local Planned Parenthood head Barry Chase was moved to respond that his agency had provided a full range of services for a century before the Supreme Court enabled legal abortion in 1973.

Another leitmotif in Monday's discussion was the avowed religious aspect of CCHS's mission, which earned the center some scornful comments from a few Planned Parenthood patients and supporters who questioned its entitlement to federal tax receipts.

The issue of abortion and that of the center's religious orientation were combined in a line of questioning pressed by Bailey, who interrogated both Burt Waller, the CEO of CCHS, and Shantelle Leatherwood, a center administrator, as to whether the center could fulfill the letter of its obligations under the RFP. The two acknowledged that CCHS could not provide direct emergency contraception (e.g., the "morning after" pill) on its own but would refer patients in need of such services to "third-party" providers. Patients would also be advised of the abortion option.

That was when Mulroy began to ask Kennedy for assurances that the center's compliance with the terms of the county's RFP would be closely monitored.

Democrats voting for the CCHS contract, besides Mulroy, were Justin Ford, who often votes with the commission's Republicans, and James Harvey, famous for postponing his commitment on hot-button issues to the very end of debate.

• Taylor, a Republican whose victory over second-place finisher Brian Stephens was surprisingly easy, had based his case for election on the twin grounds of his prior legislative experience and his willingness — demonstrated, he said, by his history on the city council — to seek agreement on difficult issues across partisan lines. He succeeds Mike Carpenter, a moderate GOP member who recently resigned to become state director of the educational think-tank StudentsFirst in Nashville.

• An enthusiastic crowd of just under a thousand people welcomed Memphis-born Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, currently leading GOP national polls, to Bartlett's Freeman Park on Friday. Former Godfather Pizza chief Cain, who was embarking on a bus tour of Tennessee, touted his "9-9-9" flat-tax plan (9 percent national sales tax, 9 percent corporate tax, 9 percent income tax) at the event, organized under Tea Party auspices.

Cain, who told the crowd that Americans are "tired of political answers" and "want a problem-solver in the White House," has attracted fresh criticism on the political left for his involvement with enterprises run by the right-leaning Koch brothers of Wichita, Kansas.

• Collierville state representative Curry Todd resigned his chairmanship of the House State and Local Government Committee this week, following his arrest last week by Nashville police on charges of DUI while possessing a loaded handgun.

But state House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, who announced Todd's resignation of the chairmanship, described it as only "temporary," implying that Todd's committee status could be reevaluated if he is reelected in 2012.

• The runoff hopes of Coby Smith, third-place finisher in the race for an open 7th District city council seat, were apparently dashed by a decision by the city attorney's office not to act on Smith's complaint that candidate Kemba Ford, who finished in a dead heat with Lee Harris, is in violation of council residency requirements. 

In the words of an official response signed by city attorney Herman Morris and assistant city attorney Jack Payne Jr.: "The voters have already spoken." Smith has indicated he will appeal to the election commission, which had sought the ruling from the city attorney's office.

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