COVINGTON -- Time was, when the annual Coon Supper hosted by Jimmy Naifeh and other members of the current House Speaker's extended family was an end-of-legislative-session affair, a time for the hundreds of pols, junkies and hangers-on present to take stock and let it hang.

For the last couple of years, the event, held on the grounds and in the clubhouse of Covington Country Club, has come more or less mid-session, since mid-April these days is a full month or two (or maybe even three) short of adjournment.

And letting it hang anymore coincides with a sort of gallows humor appropriate to a state fiscal crisis that is still nowhere near solution.

State Representative Tre Hargett, a Bartlett Republican and a native of Ripley, was discussing the work-groups Naifeh has divided the House membership into, in an effort to come up with some sort of a budget solution before hell freezes over this summer.

As Hargett noted, the core groups are arranged according to party membership, but there is a periodic coming-together of Republican groups with their Democratic counterparts to compare notes. "You could call it a merging of the tribes, except that nobody gets voted off the island -- not until next year anyhow," deadpanned Hargett, referring the hit TV show Survivor.

State Rep. Mike Williams (D-Franklin) also talked about the discussion groups, and how it was inevitable that at some point, however distant, a solution to the fiscal crisis -- however temporary -- was bound to coalesce out of them.

Might that mean a sunsetted sales-tax increase, set to expire in 2003, that would generate some ad hoc revenue and force the gubernatorial candidates of next year to talk turkey about their post-election intentions?

"It could," said Williams. "That was a problem with Governor Sundquist's reelection campaign of 1998. He gave no notice of what the state's fiscal problems were or of what his solutions might be. So when his proposals came, he hadn't prepared the way. If you want a mandate, you've got to speak to it ahead of time. Just winning big by itself won't do the trick."

Getting Down

Sundquist himself was on the grounds, of course, wearing a patterned sport coat that was atypical for the normally blue- or gray-suited gov. Even when dressed down casually in the past, the governor has managed to look preternaturally tidy, but of late both his manner and his dress seem to have loosened up, as if suggesting that he has come to that point of his life that permits a letting go or maybe just some out-and-out Que Sera Sera fatalism.

Potential successors to Sundquist were on the grounds, too. A Democratic pair -- U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville and former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen -- provided an interesting contrast, to each other as well as to Sundquist.

Both Clement and Bredesen seem (even more than the incumbent) to be restrained by a tightly wound internal leash, although the former mayor seems to have progressed more rapidly than the congressman at the art of ravelling out his personality to the end of personal contact. That's impressive, in that Clement had something of a head start at the people game.

Traveling in the company of his 1994 main man Byron Trauger (a fact which, together with his appearance at the Coon Supper at all, suggests his seriousness about hazarding another go at the Governor's Mansion), Bredesen (clad in sport coat and open collar) acknowledged that he felt able to be more laid back than once upon a time -- say, during that first governor's race seven years ago, when you could sometimes sense that his internal cables had locked up unpredictably.

"I was raised to keep a certain reserve," said Bredesen, a MidWestern-born Scandinavian like Sundquist, "but as I've served in public life, I've really gotten to enjoy dealing with people more." Okay, so that's boilerplate, but it seems to be true in his case.

An interesting thing about Bredesen is that he's preparing to run for governor, if he does ("and it's no secret that I'm thinking about it"), as a fiscal conservative.

Just as when he played Scrooge to Sundquist's first tax-reform proposals back in 1999, Bredesen is still saying that the belts, nuts, and bolts of state government need to be tightened first, and that there has been enough growth in revenue to keep the state going.

"Of course, I've always said that, as far as the type of taxes we might employ are concerned, the income tax is fairer than the sales tax. But it's still an open question as to whether we might not have enough revenues to operate on without new taxes."

Clement, who walked the grounds in a casual short-sleeve shirt, seemed -- ironically and inconveniently enough -- to be in one of his more introverted moods. In answer to a question as to whether it was still likely that he and GOP congressman Van Hilleary would be squaring off against each other next year, the still formally undeclared Clement allowed as how he guessed that might be the case, though he seemed troubled by the act of thinking about it -- more, perhaps, out of concerns about Bredesen or his own fundraising than about the relatively distant threat of Hilleary (who, for the record, seems to be running a model campaign so far, at least organizationally).

If the Nashville congressman ever feels dominated by the shade of his famously more charismatic and oratorical late father, former Governor Frank Clement, it didn't show in the way he beamed and at being reminded of his illustrious antecedent (although it could be possible that the wide smile and the professions of being "very, very proud" to be a scion of the line had more to do with a reckoning of the Clement name's residual effect on voters; for the record, some doubt that much remains).

Note to both Clement and Bredesen: A supporter of the potential gubernatorial candidacy of former Democratic chairman Doug Horne of Knoxville was on hand to point out that Horne had an event planned for Jackson on Thursday morning and confided: "Don't be surprised if he runs regardless of who else might be running." The former chairman, of course, has pledged not to be a candidate if a Democratic candidate of stature (either Clement or Bredesen would qualify) chose to formally announce by next month.

'The Bill-and-Terry Show'

Other aspirants for various position showed up at the Coon Supper -- like Terry Harris, the deserving assistant District Attorney from Shelby County who thought he was going to win a Criminal Court Judgeship in Memphis three years ago and discovered too late that the man he was matched against TV star, Judge Joe Brown, who has since resigned from the bench but continues to perform in the highly successful syndicated show that bears his name. (Ironically, Brown, who passes for a hardnosed judge on television, was a relative pussycat in Shelby County Criminal Court.)

Ever since, a resigned, hurt look -- almost like a permanent picket sign saying "UNFAIR" -- seems to have settled into the facial features of Harris, who was at the Coon Supper with his boss, current District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. Things may look up for Harris at any time; he is probably the ranking candidate for U.S. District Attorney in the Western District. "That's my situation," he said when reminded (as if he needed it) that waiting for an appointment is more nerve-wracking than conducting an election campaign. In the latter situation, one has at least some theoretical control over events.

"When he's named, we're going to start having joint press conferences, like the old 'Ev and Gerry Show,' joked Gibbons. His reference was to the weekly press briefings conducted in the '60s by the late U.S. Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen with then House Majority Leader (and later President) Gerald Ford.

Upon reflection, Gibbons reiterated that he was joking. (Actually, he probably isn't; if the appointment comes through, watch for the Bill-and-Terry Show, and remember who told you.)

Harris has also received some mention for the vacant U.S. district judgeship still unfilled after the death of the late Jerome Turner. The leading candidate was that position was also on hand at Covington. This was former Sundquist legal adviser and CAO Hardy Mays of Memphis, who also uses jests to fend off the tension of waiting. "Sometimes. . . when I think about [the job], I think, 'Judge not, lest you be judged,'" Mays quipped.

Naifeh's Retort

Ah, judgement! It was pronounced, in quite determined form by the host, Speaker Naifeh, who was still clearly nettled by the way he was characterized by the media in the Big Story were bubbled up mid-week -- his session-eve receipt of $26,000 for his "Speaker's PAC" from representatives of the cash-advance industry, the same cash-advance industry which profited from a bill (supported by Naifeh and a majority of other legislators) which got passed in March, allowing the collection of bad-check fees on top of towering interest rates.

The Speaker repeated Thursday evening, as he had during a session with the Capitol Hill press that morning, that his PAC was meant to collect funds, not for himself, but for "pro-business" Democratic candidates.

And he reiterated as well that he would personally call in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation if he thought that members were being improperly influenced by the cash-advance industry or any other.

But the Speaker felt obliged as well to chastise individual members of the media, two in particular who he thought had tried to show him up.

Of The Tennessean's Thursday morning coverage, Naifeh said, "That reporter . . . Sheila Wisner, she's somebody I don't even know, and she has to be pretty damn dumb to try to call me at my Covington office on Wednesday when the legislature is in sesssion. She ought to at least know I'm in Nashville and try to find me there instead of calling me where I'm not going to be and then saying that I 'couldn't be reached.'

And Naifeh had harsh words, too, for the News-Sentinel's Tom Humphrey, a manstay also of the Scripps-Howard News Service and a frequent contributor to Tennessee Politics. The Speaker acknowledged that Humphrey was a seasoned, respected reporter but complained of the way he had been approached, as Naifeh chracterized it, in the middle of his supervision of the budget work groups Wednesday.

"Now, Humphrey usually does okay by me, " Naifeh said, "but I don't know what the hell he thought he was doing tracking me down when I was on my way to the men's room. He knows how consuming those budget sessions are, and how heavy we get into it, and how important that work we're doing is, and I told him I didn't have time to talk about anything else just then, and I was just taking enough time off to go to the men's room, that I would talk to him later, and then he says that I 'declined' to answer him."

Following that up with what may have been a grin or may have been a glower, or may have been a combination of both, Naifeh added, "He'll get his payback."

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