Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the 82-year-old dean of the Tennessee General Assembly and the longtime Speaker of the state Senate, was dishing through a plate of salmon and stir-fried vegetables at the Cumberland Club last Thursday, sitting at a window seat overlooking the state Capitol building and reflecting on some things, both hither and thither, that concern him these days.
They included (in no particular order) his forthcoming race for reelection against Republican opponent Ron Stallings, his relations with other state leaders (notably House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Governor Phil Bredesen), the fate of some significant last-minute legislation, the fuss he has kicked up of late concerning his views on such subjects as abortion and affirmative action ("My constituents aren't going to be bothered," he said cagily), and the nature of the universe.
On the latter subject, he proclaimed that "the cosmos is eternal," and dilated on such aspects of it as the oxidation/carbonation process that, paradoxically, underlies both life (as in the act of breathing) and death (as in the corrosion of surfaces). He inveighed against the excesses of environmentalists, pronouncing, "The solution to pollution is dilution," and ridiculed attempts at creating synthetic fuels when, as he said, "all the fuel we need is already there, and it's in the ground."
Wilder is, somewhat famously, a nominal Democrat who prides himself on his bipartisanship (his perennial elections to head the Senate depend on reliable backing from senators in both parties, and he appoints both Democrats and Republicans to head committees). He is distressed therefore to find himself once again, as in 2002, the target of a Republican opponent.
Of course, Wilder will probably be supported, this year as four years ago, by most members of the senate, Republicans as well as Democrats. His problem so far has been the current number one Democrat, Governor Bredesen. As Wilder observed, the governor has acquired an admirable level of public support by enacting Republican policy objectives (serious budget cuts coupled with reforms in such areas as workers' comp, TennCare, and driver's licenses) while performing fund-raising favors for Democrats.
"He's got his favorites," said Wilder about recipients of Bredesen's fund-raising favors. "So far," he added pontedly, "they haven't included Senator [Steve] Cohen and they haven't included me." He has hopes that the latter fact, at least, will change.
One Senate Democrat who can almost certainly call on the governor for help is Memphis' Roscoe Dixon, now a candidate for General Sessions Court clerk. Dixon received a thank-you call from the governor last Thursday, shortly after changing his mind (after abundant lobbying) and casting the decisive votes that allowed the governor's workers' comp legislation (opposed by organized labor, trial lawyers, and some key Democrats) to pass its final committee hurdle in the Senate.
Doubt that Bredesen is the political man of the hour? Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, last week cited the governor as a character reference of sorts for the RDC's agenda, which is due for a crucial hearing this week at city council.
According to Lendermon, the governor, while on a visit to Memphis last year, fell to wondering where might be a good place to eat lunch with a good view of the river. Told that the number of restaurant venues was limited, the governor reportedly said, "What! You have an asset like this [the river], and you leave it undeveloped! Unbelievable!"(Or words to that effect.)
The RDC would, in any case, probably have difficulty getting Bredesen to publicly endorse the riverfront project. With politics of his own to deal with, the governor has so far proved loath to get involved in local controversies of any sort.
Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who proved no political slouch in winning his own 2002 race with ease, is frequently asked to apply his skills to other people's efforts. Wharton, a native of Lebanon in middle Tennessee, was tapped this week to serve as keynote speaker at a West Tennessee Kerry for President rally in Jackson.
Two prominent Memphians who are meditating on a city mayor's race for 2007 are entrepreneur/activist Carol Coletta and city council member Carol Chumney. Both, either directly or through surrogates, have begun to take soundings of possible support.
Through each has other potential sources of support, each is clearly also counting on the gender factor which has propelled so many women, especially judicial candidates, to success in recent years.
Chumney, who has experienced a good deal of difficulty with her council colleagues since taking office, last week revisited the state capitol in Nashville, scene of her 13 years' service in the state legislature. Members of the city's African-American clergy report approaches from her about a potential mayor's race. n