Unblocking the Way

Local politicians wait for Senator Thompson to decide on his re-election bid.



Careful observers of the whereabouts these days of 7th District U.S. representative Ed Bryant and Memphis lawyer David Kustoff will note that both men are hitting the after-dinner circuit with an unusual regularity -- unusual, that is, for political hopefuls whose paths to political promotion are presumably blocked.

That block was supposed to have occurred a few months back when U.S. senator Fred Thompson decided to resist the pleadings of his Republican brethren in Tennessee to run for governor next year -- in a race that most observers think would have been a shoo-in against whatever Democrat.

The senator's decision, like a sudden stop in traffic, caused others to slam on their brakes: Bryant, who was looking to run in the 2002 GOP primary to fill what would have been a vacant Senate seat; Kustoff, who had been prepping hard for a run at Bryant's seat, which in turn would have been up for grabs; and several others -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor, former Shelby County Republican chairman Phil Langsdon, and state rep. Larry Scroggs among them -- interested in the congressional seat.

So why are Bryant and Kustoff showing up, either as featured speakers or as prominent guests, at Republican dinner after Republican dinner all over Tennessee (most recently at Clarksville last weekend)?

"There's a good chance that Thompson won't run for the Senate even though he's given up on the governorship," said Kustoff matter-of-factly Friday as he stopped by the tent of Governor Don Sundquist on the riverside midway of the Memphis in May barbecue festival.

Which would mean that the Senate seat would come vacant, after all. And Kustoff, who has been raising money and making contacts relentlessly since last year's presidential campaign, when he ran the Bush effort in Tennessee, doesn't plan to be hanging around copping a snooze.

Neither does Councilman Taylor, who has raised a stout war-chest through innumerable fund-raisers and has made a point of cultivating Republican clubs (even to the point of making his own "grants" to them) all over West Tennessee.

Langsdon has also kept his hand in. The only casualty in the original field -- if you can call him that -- is Scroggs, who has not so much dropped as refocused his attention on the governor's race, where the Germantown legislator is a long-shot alternative to 4th District congressman Van Hilleary.

"Lots of Different Things "

And what is the evidence that Thompson might exit from his Senate re-election bid as he did from the governor's race? He was quoted last week in the authoritative national Web site The Hotline (www.nationaljournal.com/pubs/hotline) as saying, "I still haven't decided ... I'm still weighing lots of different things, lots of different things."

His Republican sidekick from Tennessee, Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Bill Frist, swears Thompson will run. But that could be wishful thinking. Thompson, noted The Hotline, has let his fund-raising fall off in recent months (although his last financial-disclosure report still showed more than half a million dollars on hand).

The Memphis Democrat who is as sought-after among state Democrats as Thompson is among Republicans, 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., has said he doesn't expect Thompson to run again and promises to "consider" a race for an open Senate seat.

Ford's near-neighbor, 8th District Democratic U.S. rep. John Tanner of Union City, a leader of the conservative congressional "blue dogs" who earlier this year opted out of a governor's race, is another possibility. Either would be considered a godsend by Tennessee Democrats, winless in a statewide political race since Al Gore won a second Senate term more than a decade ago.

There is a feeling among partisans of both major parties that 2002 could be a Democratic year, although Bryant's low-key style could serve him well against either of the two star Democrats.

· Rep. Ford continues to be regarded as a major player by the Beltway media and by other prominent national politicians. A sign of that is the planned joint town meeting of Ford and U.S. senator John McCain, set for mid-June at a Memphis venue not yet chosen at press time.

The joint appearance, which might also include U.S. rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), is designed to promote support for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, which has passed the Senate but is being held up on its way to House of Representatives consideration by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Nothing if not a realist, Rep. Ford -- who two years ago thought long and hard about a challenge to Sen. Frist in 2000 -- has set aside for the moment his sometime feud with Frist over patients' rights legislation.

The senator -- whose approach to such legislation has always been viewed by the congressman as insufficiently solicitous toward patients and too protective of HMOs -- is the chief sponsor of a new patients' rights bill that has the imprimatur of President Bush.

· At least one of Ford's kinsmen is of the opinion that the congressman might consider a change of party if he wants to move ahead in politics.

Lewie Ford, a retired Los Angeles businessman and the Memphis congressman's uncle, was in town for last week's barbecue festival and discoursed on Rep. Ford's future while relaxing in the congressman's tent down on the river.

"I'm a Republican myself, and I can tell you, there'd be nothing stopping him if he decided to change over," said the California uncle, who went on to acknowledge that the prospect for that happening was fairly remote.

"I don't ever talk politics with him or with any of my brothers," shrugged Lewie Ford, who is older brother to both state senator John Ford and former congressman Harold Ford Sr. "We don't agree, and I doubt there'd ever be any changing of minds. So why bother?"

· Gov. Sundquist indicated he may try to be a factor in next year's politics, despite his lame-duck status (after two terms, he cannot succeed himself, and he has indicated he will retire from active politics after 2002) and his current unpopularity with some of his partymates over the issue of tax reform.

He made it clear that he was less than enthusiastic about the gubernatorial candidacy of U.S. rep. Van Hilleary (R-4th District), who has taken stands directly counter to the governor on such issues as TennCare (Hilleary would limit it) and tax reform (the Middle Tennessee congressman is energetic in his opposition to a state income tax of the sort Sundquist has twice proposed).

"I'm not really crazy about it," Sundquist conceded on the subject of some of the rhetoric issuing from Hilleary, and he seemed eager to heal whatever rupture might have occurred between himself and state rep. Larry Scroggs (R-Germantown), a one-time protege who had distanced himself somewhat from the governor on the tax issue.

"I could support him," said Sundquist of Scroggs, who advocates some of the same austerity measures proposed by Sundquist's chief critics but does so in a non-abrasive, thoughtful style and keeps his lines of communication open, even to key legislative Democrats.

"There are some wild ones, some really irresponsible ones, in there," said Sundquist of the legislature's archconservatives, some of whom opposed his reading plan and other education initiatives in debate last week on the grounds that they represented an intrusion into family values.

The governor's education plan passed the House, though, and will be signed into law, although, as Sundquist pointed out, "We can't effect it until we have funding for it."

Having seen various tax-reform proposals, his own and others', rejected by now, Sundquist won't hazard a guess as to whether anything substantially will get passed by the current General Assembly, but he does say, "It's got a better chance of happening now and next year, when there's a general election."

· Both Memphis in May festival weekends so far have been good occasions for next year's candidates to get in some free advertising. Sheriff's candidate Bobby Simmons had the process down to an art for the barbecue festival, gathering a large crowd of supporters down on the riverfront each morning, all of them wearing T-shirts boosting his candidacy, and sending pairs of them around the grounds at carefully timed intervals.

Arena Developments

The "NBA Now" organization, which is trying to organize support for building a new NBA-worthy arena to house the Grizzlies, currently of Vancouver, organized a pilgrimage to Nashville last Wednesday, getting some 150 people into three buses to make the trip.

Success of a sort crowned their effort, in the sense that all members of the Shelby County legislative delegation signed on to get floor consideration for enabling legislation, including a bill allowing Shelby County to levy and collect an ad hoc rental-car tax to help defray the costs of arena construction.

"Not everybody said they would support the arena," conceded NBA Now spokesperson Tim Willis, "but they all want it to come to a vote, and that's a real plus."

Supporters and opponents of the proposed new publicly funded arena say that the climate of opinion in Nashville is more favorable to the arena concept now that members of the proposed ownership group have publicly accepted the idea of adding private money to the kitty for arena construction.

· Meanwhile, the Shelby County Libertarian Party, in a press release stating that "this arena charade is a conduit for taking citizens' unfair taxes and passing them to the politically connected," will host a forum on the subject at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Pancho's Restaurant in the Cloverleaf Shopping Center at Summer and White Station.

The billed speakers are Duncan Ragsdale, a leader of the anti-arena movement, Heidi Shafer, who is circulating petitions to hold a referendum on the matter of arena funding, and Shelby County Commissioner Tommy Hart, who is officially undecided on the arena issue but has professed skepticism about aspects of the arena proposal.

· One member of the commission who made an unexpected endorsement of the arena project was Marilyn Loeffel, whose letter of support to the Shelby County legislative delegation was read aloud by state senator Steve Cohen on his Library Channel program, "Legislative Report," this week.

Cohen, successful earlier in the session in getting his lottery-referendum proposal passed, is currently active on behalf of animal rights and electoral-reform bills. The senator, who turns 52 this Thursday, told his television audience, "I'm growing old with you." ·

Bredesen, Agriculture Secretary Drop In

At press time, two mid-week visitors were slated for Memphis, each raising political consciousness but in a different direction. Ex-Nashville mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen was to be a last-minute add-on at a Democratic Party fund-raiser Tuesday at the East Memphis home of John and Amy Farris, and U.S. agriculture secretary Ann M. Veneman was scheduled to hold a “town meeting” at Agricenter International at 6 p.m. Wednesday, with a free barbecue dinner to be served up to attendees. • -- JB

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