The Honeymoon's Over

Governor Bredesen faces a Democratic rebellion over workmen's compensation.



NASHVILLE -- Phil Bredesen has had more comfortable times.

Last Saturday afternoon, Tennessee's first-term governor was standing on the lawn of the Hermitage near Nashville and talking about the commencement address he had given that morning to the graduates of the University of Memphis at The Pyramid.

"That's an uncomfortable venue," the former Nashville mayor said. "There's a bad echo, and when you're talking, you have to pause every three words or so just to hear what you're saying."

An interloper told the governor that, where discomfort was concerned, he should try sitting up in the steep and cramped cheap seats of the now obsolescent facility, soon to be replaced by the new FedExForum.

"Oh, I know. I know," Bredesen answered.

Discomfort is not geographically bound, however, as both Bredesen and selected members of his audience gathered under a big tent on the grounds of the Hermitage, site of Tennessee Democrats' 2004 Jackson Day Dinner, would soon discover.

Primary speaker at the event was former U.S. senator Max Cleland of Georgia, the gallant Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs fighting for his country in that Asian war and who devoted much of his time to excoriating President George Bush for getting the nation into another tight spot in Iraq.

Cleland's address was completed just before the onset of torrential rains that complicated departure plans for the record 1,650 Democrats in attendance -- many of whom wrapped themselves in tablecloths as they scurried to get to their cars. But there had already been an uneasy moment or two.

One had come when the governor, who spoke before Cleland, got to that part of his remarks that concerned current legislation before the Tennessee General Assembly, scheduled to adjourn sometime this month.

"He better watch what he says about workmen's comp," mused Nashville state representative Mike Turner, sitting at one of the back tables with his wife Dinah. "I might have to boo or walk out on him."

For the fact is that the political honeymoon is finally coming to an end for Democrat Bredesen, who up until lately had been able to avoid the kind of storms that characterized the second term of his predecessor, Republican Don Sundquist.

Sundquist had come to grief in a futile quest to enact what that governor and his allies had called tax reform and which their opponents, who included a good many aroused ad-hoc activists around the state, called the income tax. Or sometimes "IT," for short.

Bredesen had gone the other direction in his own efforts to resolve the state's fiscal crisis -- insisting on drastic, across-the-board cuts in state spending, a strategy that Democrats seemed comfortable with and that Republicans had to go along with, since, in essence, it accorded with their own platform.

Indeed, there had been serious speculation that Bredesen, who barely nosed out Republican opponent Van Hilleary in 2002, might get to run unopposed in 2006. But, as is demonstrated by the grumbling from Turner, a state AFL-CIO executive, and other prominent Democrats, Bredesen now has problems within his own party ranks.

What he wants to do, in response to prompting from such legislators as Republican state senator Mark Norris, a Shelby County Republican, who has one of several bills to that effect, is reduce the levels of state workmen's compensation coverage so as to keep Tennessee's industrial recruitment competitive with that of its neighbor states.

As Bredesen got to that point of his speech, Turner was denying the need for such reductions to his tablemates. "We're already doing better than they [adjoining states] are," he said, citing statistics to make his point. He frowned. "Sundquist wouldn't try to pull this!"

Finally, Bredesen got to the subject of his workmen's comp proposals. "I know some of you are unhappy," he said. "But this is about jobs."

It may, for better or for worse, turn out to be about Bredesen's job, because Turner had heard enough. Shaking his head in disgust, he turned to his wife and said, "Let's go, babe." And the two of them rose and pointedly strode out of the tent -- just ahead of the storm clouds.

· Present at the Democrats' weekend fest were all the state's Democratic congressmen save one -- Memphis' 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., who had an emissary or two on hand at the Hermitage but opted to attend the Beale Street Music Festival.

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