Figuring the Angles

Norris vies with Senate colleague Blackburn for ultraright honors in 7th race.



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 for 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 reactivate 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. "It's 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 Jimmy 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 Norris avoid what he saw as a trap and maintain his preferred antitax 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 archconservative from the posh Nashville suburb of Brentwood.

Blackburn is famous as the legislator who fired off emergency e-mails 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 thwarted 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 rival's in almost every particular.

In point of fact, if there is any legislator who can be said to be to the right of Blackburn on tax-and-spending measures, it is Norris and 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 Assembly's 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 Bush's successful campaign in Tennessee in 2000, and Nashville lawyer 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 Taylor's council voting record and quotes from him to establish a rigidly antitax posture, the mailout juxtaposes apparent facts and quotes that suggest the opposite about Norris.

It is a tactic much like that which Flinn used against Scroggs so successfully in the GOP mayoral primary of two months ago; what makes Taylor's 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' "pairing" with tax proponent Rochelle in last year's eleventh-hour legislative negotiations but does not explore the very real possibility that Norris was there to block the Lebanon Democrat's designs.

Those familiar with Norris' methods recognize in these and the other examples cited in Taylor's mailout an artful dissembler and tactician, not the unwitting dupe or guileful hypocrite he is portrayed as. n

But Taylor's mailout is shrewd in the same way that Flinn's was, and Norris knows how that story came out. If any of Taylor's case against Norris should end up sticking, it will underline the essential irony of the Collierville senator's 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.

Doubting A C

Herenton takes an unenthusiastic view of candidate Wharton's campaign strategy.

The new A C Wharton commercials are up, and so far, the Shelby County Public Defender seems to be making the pitch for his mayoral campaign mainly to suburban voters -- or at least to white ones.

One ad shows the candidate making nice to the county's outlying municipalities, uttering dithyrambs on the order of "getting it together/to get the best out of all of us ." Another has Bill Morris, a former county mayor who always played well in the outlying areas, offering his personal testimonial to Wharton.

This approach leaves current Memphis mayor Willie Herenton cold, it is quite reliably reported, and His Honor also is said to be convinced that white suburban voters won't be moved this way or that by it, that the number of potential white voters for the African-American Democratic nominee is the same as the number of actual white voters, regardless of the advertising approach taken by Wharton.

On the other hand -- or so the mayor's thinking is summarized -- African-American voters themselves are being taken for granted by the Democratic candidate, and this at a time when the August 1st ballot provides no race beyond the one for mayor itself that might drive a large county vote among blacks or Democrats. Herenton, a Wharton supporter, is said to regard the inner-city electorate's mood as "flat" and likely to stay that way so long as Wharton declines to attempt to arouse what should be his natural base and maintains an all-things-to-all-people posture.

Herenton has made no secret either of his disdain for this approach or of his disappointment that his standing offers to become an active presence in the Wharton campaign have so far been ignored. "A C's keeping his distance from me and from the Democrats" is a statement the mayor has made several times of late to intimates.

Contrasting Wharton's election strategy with his own of 1991, when inner-city voters were disproportionately cultivated, the Memphis mayor has predicted a neck-and-neck outcome in the current race between Wharton and Republican nominee George Flinn.

And he further prophesies that connections will be made between himself and Wharton, his former two-time campaign manager, whether the Democratic nominee likes it or not, and that they will be made by the Republican opposition, which Herenton thinks will do what it can in the last week or two to link the would-be black mayor of the whole county with the existing one of the city.

* GOP mayoral nominee Flinn meanwhile has his own problems. Rumors persist that various ranking Republicans intend to line up with Wharton, and at least one -- former state representative and county road supervisor Ed Haley -- has already done so, hosting a fish fry in Millington for the Democratic nominee over the weekend.

Moreover, Wharton and his supporters are doing their best, both publicly and privately, to maximize concerns about Flinn's seeming reluctance to engage Wharton in prolonged debates without fixed ground rules. But Flinn spokesperson Cary Rodgers maintains that her candidate's highly publicized absence from a forthcoming League of Voters debate is due solely to a long-scheduled Flinn fund-raising affair, and the campaign made a point on Monday of putting out a press release beating the drums for a televised debate, on Fox Channel 13, which Flinn will participate in on July 25th.

* 7th District congressman Ed Bryant is making the most out of a bump in his poll ratings against former governor Lamar Alexander in their GOP primary contest for the U.S. Senate. Bryant, who admittedly started the race some 40 points behind Alexander, who was much better known statewide, cites a considerably closed gap in several current press releases and in recent remarks on the stump.

"The numbers are changing now," the congressman told supporters at a luncheon in his honor Monday at the Holiday Inn on Central Avenue. Bryant then related figures from a new poll his campaign had commissioned from Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria,Virginia, showing Alexander at 49 percent and himself at 37 percent.

The point was reinforced by U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), a former Bryant roommate in the mid-1990s when they were both freshman congressmen in Washington. Brownback warmed up the crowd with stories of how he had come from 28 points behind in his 1996 Senate primary race against a favored and better-known candidate.

* Expect a major announcement this week or next from state Representative Tre Hargett, who has been considering both a contest for the position of House Republican Leader in the next session of the General Assembly or a race for mayor of Bartlett. Friends suggest the latter is most probable.

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