Give this to Steve Cohen: He knows when to hold up and knows when to fold up. Reluctantly but resignedly, the state senator from Midtown, locked in a struggle with Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen over the configuration of a state lottery, figured he had to do both late last week.
Having put up the stiffest fight of anybody in this late legislative session -- otherwise a virtual lovefest in honor of Governor Bredesen -- Cohen came down to the final week of the session still holding forth against gubernatorial dominance of a board of directors for the newly created Tennessee lottery.
Cohen, who pursued the cause of a state lottery for two decades and saw his efforts crowned by last year's voter referendum, had given in on various points during this year's debate on how to enact the lottery but drew a line in the sand on the issue of a board of directors -- insisting that, as "a creature of the legislature," the lottery should be overseen by the General Assembly. Early on this year, he and his co-sponsors in his legislature put forth a plan for a five-member board -- two members appointed by the speakers of either legislative chamber and one (count 'em, one) named by the governor.
Bredesen, who had just launched a budget-cutting regimen that proved popular on both sides of the aisle, said of that proposal, in essence, that Cohen and the others could fold it five times and put it somewhere dark and shady. Cohen went back to the drawing board and emerged with another plan -- for a nine-member board, divided three/three/three. Bredesen said no to that one too.
Thereafter the arguments went back and forth, and other controversies -- notably over the appropriate academic standards required of scholarship beneficiaries of lottery revenues -- affected the dialogue. Various plans were proposed, and Bredesen -- who, for reasons of his office, possessed more bargaining wherewithal than Cohen -- gained ground in the struggle, finally winning over enough of Cohen's support among key legislators to dictate a board membership favorable to himself.
Some commentators have argued that Cohen, whose verbal wit can morph into vitriol in time of adversity, became part of the problem himself.
Whatever the case, the senator entered what proved to be the session's last week in a state of virtual isolation. "I did my best to hold on to prerogatives for the House leadership, and they undermined me," said Cohen of such Democratic leaders in the other chamber as Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Majority Leader Kim McMillan. Crucial allies like state Rep. Larry Miller -- who had earlier held the fort -- now sided with Bredesen. He still reckoned Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the Senate speaker, as a supporter but was disappointed when Wilder passed over such pro-Cohen senators as Jerry Cooper, "my best buddy in the Senate," in his appointments to a joint House-Senate conference committee.
The bottom line: Cohen was outflanked, former and potential allies having made their peace with gubernatorial dominance of the lottery board-to-be. In return for various trade-offs, including a specified number of appointments for the leadership of either house, they were prepared to accede to Bredesen's insistence on appointing a majority of board appointees.
However isolated, Cohen still retained enough clout to keep the fight going, if need be, past the consensus end-of-May deadline for adjournment. For his part, Naifeh indicated he was prepared to seek adjournment without a fully established lottery. Consulting with such longtime Memphis confidantes as developer Henry Turley and lawyer Irvin Salky, both of whom advised him to give in "for the sake of the lottery" if he could find a way to do so on his own terms, the senator arrived upon a way to do just that.
For months, Cohen, whose close relationship with former Governor Don Sundquist, a Republican, had permitted frequent one-on-ones, had sought in vain to hold a private conversation with fellow Democrat Bredesen. Making a last effort, he got one for the early hours of Thursday morning.
The outcome surprised everybody. Cohen now proposed that the chief executive be empowered to make not just a majority but all of the appointees, subject to ratification by the Senate and House. He and Bredesen would agree on the number of seven -- enough, Cohen said afterward, "to ensure that each of the state's grand divisions could be represented, with an African American from each grand division."
With that stroke, Cohen had played his trump card. Due to lose the power struggle anyhow, he had managed to concede fully and graciously -- and in the process to shortcut the remaining prerogatives of the legislative leaders who had failed to back him up. In the end, Cohen's isolation had served him well. The very fact of the early-morning summit between himself and Bredesen had secured the senator's legacy as father of the lottery.
Cohen shrugged off some of the invective he had hurled at the governor -- including skepticism concerning Bredesen's integrity. "That was just an effort to get him to the bargaining table," said Cohen, who declared that he and the governor had arrived at "a new relationship."
Some of Cohen's critics, in and out of the legislature, suspected the senator of having angled for perks, including a possible guarantee of future lottery-related employment for himself. Both Bredesen and Cohen made haste to spike such rumors. "I'm not getting anything out of this except the satisfaction of achieving something for the students of Tennessee," said Cohen.
That, plus the fact that in the final act of the drama he had adroitly changed places with his critics. In the end, it would be him, not them, on the inside of the event looking out. All in all, his 20-year gamble had paid off.
Although the field of candidates is sure to proliferate beyond the two of them, both incumbent Shelby County assessor Rita Clark and former assessor Michael Hooks will be on the ballot next year when the office is up for election again.
"I'm running," Clark made a point of volunteering last week. And Hooks conceded as much for his part. "I'll be running," he said, "not against Rita Clark but for the office of assessor."
Presumably, both Hooks and Clark will be candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary. Three years ago, Hooks was one of two independents opposing Democrat Clark and Tom Leatherwood, then the Republican nominee for assessor and later the winner in a special election for the office of Shelby County register.
Back then, there were rumors -- of the sort that proliferate in any multicandidate race -- that Hooks' purpose in the race was to divert Democratic votes away from Clark in Leatherwood's interest. It was, of course, at least as arguable that Hooks, who had held the office before losing it in 1992 to Republican Harold Sterling, harbored legitimate hopes of winning himself should the vote-spread fall just right.
By and large, Hooks' fellow Democrats opted for the former theory and shunned his candidacy -- one reason being another set of rumors concerning his unstable emotional condition and reported cocaine use. He had been the principal in a widely reported traffic altercation, which some said was really about a drug deal gone wrong.
Hooks would later be arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. He made what amounted to a public confession of his cocaine habit, took a tearful leave from his role as Shelby County commissioner, and underwent what was both a highly public and, seemingly, highly successful rehabilitation.
Hooks has long since returned to full and active service on the commission, and no one has seriously questioned his bona fides or recovery. "This time my head is on straight. I just want to prove I can do the best job for the people of Shelby County," Hooks said last week.
Another well-known member of the Hooks family, Ben Hooks, indicated last week he might enter the political process but not as a candidate. The eminent former jurist, currently president of the National Civil Rights Museum board, said he intended to support the candidacy of Jim Strickland, one of several candidates for the District 5 Memphis City Council slot being vacated by two-term incumbent John Vergos.
That would be the second big-name endorsement picked up by Strickland, who was endorsed by Vergos on the occasion of his formal announcement for the post last Thursday. Other candidates for the seat include state Representative Carol Chumney, veteran pol Joe Cooper, and physician/businessman George Flinn, last year's unsuccessful Republican nominee for Shelby County mayor and this year's GOP endorsee for the council post.
The local Republican steering committee is conducting pre-endorsement interviews this week with potential candidates in two other council races -- for District 1 and Super-District 9, Position 1. Retiring Shelby County school board member Wyatt Bunker is expected to get the party nod against incumbent E.C. Jones in District 1; businessman Scott McCormick is the likely GOP choice against incumbent Pat Vander Schaaf in the super-district race.
Meanwhile, Shelby County Democrats continued to play at the game of Hatfield vs. McCoy.
The faction which won the recent chairmanship race -- by a party executive-committee vote of 21-20 for state Representative Kathryn Bowers vs. Gale Jones Carson, the defeated incumbent -- staged a unity meeting at the Racquet Club Saturday, ostensibly in honor of both Bowers and Carson, as well as the former and newly elected party executive committees.
That meeting, formally hosted by 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, was called by e-mailed invitations toward the end of last week, and the Bowers supporters who organized it acknowledged that it was put together virtually overnight. In a heated exchange of e-mails with the organizers, Carson contended that she had not been informed beforehand of an event which clashed with a Saturday "workshop" she was already committed to.
Charges and countercharges flew back and forth (see details at MemphisFlyer.com). Carson's simultaneous meeting on Saturday seems to have involved all or most of the 20 executive committee members who had voted for her and who continue to keep their distance from Bowers and her 21 supporters.
One of the attendees at the event hosted by Ford and Wharton was Democratic state chairman Randy Button, whose office had just issued an opinion formally validating the results of the local party election, which was under challenge from the losing side.
If bad feelings persist between the two factions, they could affect the District 5 council race. Though neither Strickland nor Chumney has evinced any personal interest in taking sides and both attended the Racquet Club event, Strickland has long enjoyed close relations with the faction close to Carson, and Chumney's candidacy has the active support of some of Bowers' core group of supporters.
The party executive-committee meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall on Madison on Thursday night of this week could end up shedding light on relative degrees of party harmony and disharmony.