On the last day of the 2002 regular session of the Tennessee General Assembly, first-term state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville made a decision that confounded some observers but made perfect sense to the senator himself.
Having struggled in vain for several weeks to get floor consideration in either the Senate or the House for his bill calling a constitutional convention on taxation, he was surprised at what he was hearing late on the morning of the 4th of July from his House co-sponsor, Rep. Dewayne Bunch, a Cleveland Republican.
Bunch explained that their convention bill had been approved overwhelmingly in the House that morning and that the opportunity existed to pass the measure if Norris, who had given up and already taken the bill off notice, could find some last-minute parliamentary means to reactivite it in the Senate. It was not impossible.
Almost as soon as his initial surprise wore off, however, Norris thought he saw what was up and told Bunch he had no intention of arranging a Senate vote on the measure. Its an income tax bill now, he told his co-sponsor, and he would explain that to anyone else who asked about the seemingly revived convention call.
The two representatives who had pushed the bill on the House floor that morning, neither of whom was running for reelection to the House, were Germantown Republican Larry Scroggs and Democrat Bobby Sands of Columbia. Scroggs, who had been defeated by Dr. George Flinn in the GOP primary for Shelby County mayor, had no discernible ulterior motives; frustrated by the long legislative impasse over tax questions, he simply argued it was time for the state to rethink the matter. Sands, however, had been an income-tax supporter -- courageously so in that his current state Senate bid would probably suffer as a result -- and his advocacy of the convention call was interpreted by others besides Norris as an effort to revive the prospects of an income tax by another means.
Speaker Naifeh would acknowledge later on in his post-session press conference that a constitutional-convention call was probably the best remaining hope for supporters of an income tax, since for a variety of reasons, mainly those of foreseeable turnover, the next General Assembly would be disinclined to confront the volatile issue again.
The sudden turnabout was not without irony, since it was clear that Norris and other original supporters of the convention-call bill had intended it as a way of staving off income-tax legislation, not of enabling it.
In any case, though a convention call was approved in the House by a 75-11 vote, it became the proverbial sleeping dog in the Senate, where its tender, Norris, resolved firmly to let it lie as a permanently tabled measure, not to be recalled.
Thus did Mark Norris avoid what he saw as a trap and maintain his preferred anti-tax posture as one of the prime contenders in the Republican primary for the 7th District congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Senate candidate Ed Bryant.
In particular, Norris would be able to stay even on the legislative scoreboard with the candidate whom many now see as his most formidable opponent, fellow state Senator Marsha Blackburn, an arch-conservative from the posh Nashville suburb of Brentwood.
Blackburn is famous as the legislator who fired off emergency emails from the Senate floor a year ago to Nashville radio talk-show hosts Steve Gill and Phil Valentine, which worthies promptly incited crowds of protesters to come to the state Capitol grounds, where they became unruly and thrwarted consideration of an income-tax bill.
To Capitol insiders, Blackburn is also well known as a dependable No vote on any measure having to do with taxes or expenditures. What is not so well known is that Norris, who publicly deplored what he called the mob of a year ago and accused Blackburn of yelling fire in a crowded theater, has a voting record which matches his rivals in almost every particular.
In point of fact, if there is any legislator who can be said to be to the right of Marsha Blackburn on tax-and-spending measures, it is Mark Norris and Mark Norris alone. Though he voted against the final bare-bones appropriations bill of a year ago (along with such eminent income-tax advocates as Lebanon Democrat Bob Rochelle), Norris proclaimed that he did so because too much money (especially in one-time-only tobacco-settlement funds) had been appropriated, not too little! It was a singular position; Blackburn, like most of the Assemblys income-tax opponents, had voted to approve the no-new-taxes budget.
The essential difference between Norris and Blackburn as politicians, however, is to be found not so much in policy differences, which are minimal, but in their radically different styles. Blackburn is proud of her reputation as an uncomplicated obstructionist and dedicated foe of liberalism; in the state Senate, as on the Shelby County Commission before that, Norris prefers to be seen as a studious sort who is both accommodating and reasonable -- even, or perhaps especially, with colleagues of the other party or the opposite persuasion. He rarely, however, deviates from his highly conservative base positions.
Of course, Norris and Blackburn are by no means alone among the 7th District Republican candidates in their advocacy of a tightly restricted, minimally funded and empowered government. The rest of the field -- which includes Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, who directed George Bushs successful campaign in Tennessee in 2000 and Nashville laywer Forrest Shoaf -- is more or less like-minded.
None is more so than another candidate, Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor, who seems to have determined that Norris is a major obstacle to his own election hopes and accordingly has unloosed a series of blasts at the Collierville senator in recent weeks.
Most recent was a Taylor mailout last week which virtually depicted Norris as a Mad Taxer. Alongside a column which uses Taylors council voting record and quotes from him to establish a rigidly anti-tax posture, the mailout juxtaposes apparent facts and quotes which suggest the opposite about Norris.
It is a tactic much like that which Flinn used against Scroggs so successfully in the GOP mayor primary of two months ago; what makes Taylors mailout especially interesting is that the evidence he amasses against Norris can just as easily be seen as making a case for Norris cleverness in concealing his real, quite conservative motives.
As two examples, Taylor cites a Norris vote for a property tax increase while on the commission; Norris maintains that his vote was for the lesser of two proposed increases and that he jumped off the bus in any case before the third reading of the ordinance; Taylor notes Norris pairingwith tax proponent Rochelle in last years eleventh-hour legislative negotiations but does not explore the very real possibility that Norris was there to block the Lebanon Democrats designs.
Those familiar with Norris M.O. recognize in these and the other examples cited in Taylors mailout an artful dissembler and tactician, not the unwitting dupe or guileful hypocrite he is portrayed as.
But Taylors mailout is shrewd in the same way that Flinns was, and Norris knows how that story came out. If any of Taylors case against Norris should end up sticking, it will underline the essential irony of the Collierville senators predicament.
Considering how skillful this artful diplomat is in seeming to his actual ideological opponents be one thing while actually being another, it would be a weird kind of poetic justice if an ideological first cousin like Taylor could manage to seal him up in his own disguise.