Politics » Politics Feature

Taking His Lumps

As the legislature winds down, Bredesen faces opposition on several fronts.

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Governor Phil Bredesen is undergoing rough treatment these days from the legislature and elsewhere. Not only was the governor's veto of the guns-in-bars bill overridden handily by both the state House and the state Senate, with some verbal abuse of Bredesen thrown in for good measure (see Cover Story, "Mere Anarchy"), but last week the governor's much-vaunted "energy efficiency" bill — designed, among other things, to establish uniform statewide building codes for residences — ran afoul of an ambush in the House.

The bill was deluged with what seemed an endless number of amendments offered by both Democrats and Republicans, many of them attempts to exempt this or that county — usually rural — from coverage. In the end, time ran out on legislators whose weekend schedules depend on Thursday-afternoon departures from Nashville. Sponsors resolved to try again this week.

As final deliberations on a budget loomed for this week and next, Dave Goetz, Bredesen's finance commissioner, had more bad news: Sales tax revenues in May were disappointingly low and may require the state to dip into its reserve or "rainy day" fund for an infusion of $100 million to balance the budget. The governor also faced stiff resistance from the Tennessee State Employees Association regarding his plan to eliminate 717 filled positions by the end of the next fiscal year.

Current expectations are that budget deliberations will keep the legislature in session at least through next week.

• The abrupt departure of Bill Hobbs of Nashville from his job as communications director of the Tennessee Republican Party — announced last Thursday by new state party chairman Chris Devaney — was probably inevitable once Devaney survived intraparty intrigue and won out over two rivals to win the chairmanship the previous week.

Before making his bid for the chairmanship (against opponents Oscar Brock of Chattanooga and state representative Eric Swafford of Pikesville), Devaney had served as state director for U.S. senator Bob Corker, who had publicly objected to official actions taken by Hobbs and the party chair he served, Robin Smith.

Rightly or wrongly, Hobbs was widely regarded as a mentor and alter ego for Smith, who resigned her chairmanship last month after announcing her candidacy for the 3rd District congressional seat next year. The two of them drew public rebukes from both Corker and the state's other GOP senator, Lamar Alexander, on two notable occasions.

The first provocative act was a party press release circulated during the 2008 presidential campaign, referring to then candidate Barack Obama with pointed reference to his middle name of "Hussein," suggesting that Obama had anti-Semitic support, and misidentifying a native costume worn by Obama during a visit to Kenya as "Muslim garb."

The other circumstance was a YouTube video prepared by the Hobbs-Smith team that expressed skepticism about Michelle Obama's pride in being an American.

Besides their direct criticism on these two occasions, the two senators, both famously urbane in manner, were thought to be generally uncomfortable with the red-meat rhetorical approach favored by Hobbs and Smith, though they gave pro-forma support to Smith's continued service as party chair.

More recently, there had been rumors in GOP ranks, denied by Devaney, that he had been privately impugning Smith's job performance during her tenure as chairman. One of those making the charge was Memphian Frank Colvett Jr., the state party's finance committee chairman, who said, "I can't stand by and see a good chairman's integrity questioned in the name of winning a campaign."

But Devaney did win, and the announcement of Hobbs' departure was one of his first official acts. Though the new chairman insisted that Hobbs had not been dismissed and would maintain a connection with the state GOP in some sort of consultantship, he was vague about the question of a long-term relationship with the party for Hobbs. There has been much speculation in state political circles of late about the possibility of Hobbs serving as a campaign aide in Smith's congressional race.

If indeed Hobbs' over-the-top polemical style figured in his leaving his communications post, it would not be the first time his penchant for extreme statements forced a job change. Before taking the state party job, he had worked at Nashville's Belmont University as a media relations specialist and blogging coach.

That relationship came to an end in 2006 after Hobbs posted on his personal website a cartoon caricaturing the prophet Mohammad that was considered inflammatory to Muslims. Hobbs' cartoon had been published in the aftermath of worldwide Islamic resentment of a provocative cartoon published in a Danish newspaper.

Hobbs later disavowed his own cartoon, calling it "appalling" and something composed "in a moment of weakness."

It should be noted that Hobbs had his admirers — including a grudging sort from certain political adversaries — like Memphis blogger Steve Steffens, a Democratic partisan whose "LeftWing Cracker" site regularly took issue with Hobbs.

But, wrote Steffens/Cracker in a valedictory of sorts, appended as a comment to Adam Kleinheider's Nashville Post report on Hobbs' departure: "Personally, I think this is a mistake. You can say a lot of things about Hobbsie, and I've said most of them, but I would never call him ineffective. He fired up the base and moved the message in his direction, which is what a communications director is supposed to do. They will regret this; as a Democratic partisan, I am relieved that he is gone."

• Bredesen isn't the only chief executive forced recently to bite the bullet. Formally, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton was a co-equal partner with Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and other county officials in Monday's press conference announcing the transfer of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center to the county's jurisdiction. But, aside from a few preliminary remarks, Herenton was an unwontedly mute bystander as Wharton and Health Department director Yvonne Matlock fielded media questions. One thing was clear: Unlike the recent trade in which the city offered previously withheld funding for the Health Department in return for the county's relinquishing interest in the Pyramid, there was no apparent quid pro quo for the city in the MSARC matter.

• Still running alone as a candidate for county mayor in 2010, Shelby County Commission chair Deidre Malone was the beneficiary of two fund-raising events last weekend. Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd is considered all but certain to oppose her in next year's Democratic primary but hasn't yet made a formal announcement. As Malone notes, it's now less than a year before next year's countywide primaries. Republicans have been slower than Democrats to express interest in the county mayor's race, but Malone's commission colleague George Flinn has confided to her and others an interest in running on the GOP side. Meanwhile, the other political Flinn, city councilman Shea Flinn, has apparently resisted efforts — from his father and from certain of his councilmates — to promote him as a candidate for city mayor.

• City court clerk Thomas Long last week publicly reiterated his intentions of switching venues as a candidate for county clerk in next year's elections. Long had previously considered a race for mayor but discarded the idea. Though most observers reckon Long as the favorite in the race, he may face a stiffer than expected challenge in the Democratic primary from wrestling entrepreneur and former grappler Corey Maclin, who has already formally announced and held a series of fund-raising events. The clerk's job has in the last few months become a hot potato, with multiple indictments of office employees for a variety of improprieties and illegalities, including extortion. Incumbent Debbie Stamson, a Republican, has not been implicated but has served notice that she isn't running for reelection.

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