Bucking the Tide

Kurita calls bankruptcy bill a "Christmas gift" to credit card companies.



State senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, as of now the only declared Democratic candidate for U.S. senator in 2006, released a statement on Friday that was highly critical of both the bankruptcy bill passed Thursday by the House of Representatives in Washington and, by implication, those members of Congress who voted for it.

One of those, of course, is her likely rival for the Democratic nomination, 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford of Memphis. Ford, who had signed a letter asking for the bill's consideration, joined other members of the Tennessee delegation, both Democratic and Republican, in casting a vote for the measure, which passed by a margin of 302-126. It had previously passed the Senate by a 74-25 vote on March 10th, with both Tennessee senators, Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander, voting for it. President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law in short order.

The bill had been stoutly opposed by the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives. "This bill seeks to squeeze even more money for credit-card companies from the most hard-pressed Americans'' and turn bankrupt consumers into "modern-day indentured servants," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California on Thursday.

In a statement condemning the bill as having been based on a false sense of "crisis," Kurita termed it "an early Christmas gift to big credit card companies and a lump of coal to a number of Americans who are working hard and struggle to get by." She added pointedly, "[W]e need a few more members of the U.S. Senate experienced at caring for patients and not caring about the special interests."

The bill essentially closes certain long-established loopholes on individual bankruptcies and keeps filers who make more than a poverty-level income from escaping their indebtedness by requiring them to employ Chapter 13 remedies and to arrange for installment payments with creditors.

Critics of the bill have said that it would seriously jeopardize middle-income households, especially those subjected to economic stress as a result of unforeseen medical costs and unemployment. A study conducted at Harvard University of 1,771 personal bankruptcy filers in five federal courts pinpointed heavy medical costs as the factor that forced about half of the filings.

That study was introduced into congressional testimony by opponents of the bill, as was a letter from 104 bankruptcy law professors who said that hardship would be greatest in heartland states where bankruptcy filing rates are highest. The academics listed Tennessee prominently among the states cited.

Kurita's complete statement is as follows: "More leaders in Congress should have worked to improve this bankruptcy bill or stop this bill. It is an early Christmas gift to big credit card companies and a lump of coal to a number of Americans who are working hard and struggle to get by.

"While I have always been an advocate of personal responsibility and condemn anyone who manipulates the system, it is clear we do not have a crisis of people wrongly filing for bankruptcy.

"We do have thousands of families wiped out due to the skyrocketing cost of health care and we have a culture where credit card companies nearly entrap people into signing up for more cards and incurring more debt so they can profit from high interest payments. A number of reports have shown that a huge percentage of people who file for bankruptcy do so because of health care expenses that insurance companies have refused to pay.

"We have seen no proposals to reform health care, but we have seen this proposal to hurt families wiped out by the high cost of health care.

"This is why as a registered nurse I believe we need a few more members of the U.S. Senate experienced at caring for patients and not caring about the special interests."

Kurita will bring her Senate campaign to Memphis next week, appearing at a luncheon meeting of the Memphis Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis at The Peabody on Thursday.

It is uncertain whether she will also be involved in a local Democratic Party fund-raiser, to be held Thursday evening, from 5 to 8 p.m. at party headquarters at 2400 Poplar Avenue.

Invitations for the affair, e-mailed and otherwise, were sent out under the auspices of the party and the city's local Air America outlet, WWTQ, AM-680, a financial sponsor. The invitations mention prominently Representative Ford and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who are expected to be on hand.

Other Democratic elected officials are invited to share in the "hors d'oeuvres, beverages, and great conversation" at costs ranging from $25 ("members") to $50 ("patrons").

State senator Steve Cohen, who is never shy about taking on potentially contentious issues nor concerned, evidently, about whom he might offend in the process (including Governor Phil Bredesen, a frequent nemesis), has two new causes on the front burner -- both involving local political figures.

One of them concerns the membership of the five-member Shelby County Election Commission -- currently up for reappointment. At issue, at least for Cohen, is whether Maura Black Sullivan, one of the commission's three Democratic members, is eligible to serve.

Sullivan is director of planning for the Shelby County school system, and there, says Cohen, is the rub. The senator says that state law clearly prohibits elected officials or governmental employees from serving on the election commission and maintains that state Election Commission director Brook Thompson has backed him up in that contention.

The issue came up last week during a meeting of the Shelby County legislative delegation's Democrats to vote on members of the county election commission. The delegation's Republicans had already renominated members Nancye Hines and Richard Holden. When the Democrats convened, several names were put in nomination, including those of Sandra Richards and Taurus Bailey, both of whom are employed by Shelby County.

It was at that point that state representative Ulysses Jones, a friend of Richards, made a disclosure to his fellow legislators about the requirements of the up-until-then obscure provisions of the statute and concluded regretfully that Richard was ineligible to serve. Further debate among the delegation suggested that Bailey was also governed by the prohibition.

After perusing a copy of the statute, Cohen then insisted that Sullivan should have been ruled ineligible for her first term, to which she was elected in 2003, and was in any case precluded from serving a second two-year term. Sullivan and various defenders emphatically disagreed, citing ambiguously worded exceptions regarding teachers and other school-system officials. The outcome of the voting put her and the commission's other Democratic holdovers, Chairman O.C. Pleasant and Greg Duckett, ahead of the other contenders.

Cohen is pressing the case and has asked for a formal opinion from the state attorney general's office -- one that presumably will come before next month's meeting of the state Election Commission, which normally ratifies the selections of the two party caucuses.

On another front, Cohen is pushing a proposal to redefine state law so as to extend pensions and other member benefits only to those legislators who have been elected to office. Cohen says his measure to that effect has won the approval of the Senate's State and Local Government committee, which he chairs, but has been bottled up in the House State and Local Government committee, chaired by Jones.

Interim state senator Sidney Chism, who earlier this year was chosen by the Shelby County Commission to succeed former Senator Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to Wharton, says the measure is aimed at him. "I don't know why he's singled me out. I haven't actively sought a pension or any benefits from being a legislator. I'm just here to serve," says Chism.

Cohen, who, along with several other legislators, had opposed Chism's appointment, insists that his bill merely concerns issues of equity, as does his position regarding the reappointment of Sullivan, whose husband Jeff Sullivan unsuccessfully opposed state representative Beverly Marrero in a special House election for District 89 last year.

In that race, Cohen maintained that Jeff Sullivan did not live in the district and sought at one point to have felony charges brought against the candidate. •

Homage in Bartlett

The overflow turnout at last Sunday's funeral services at Memphis Funeral Home for Velda "Louise" Bodiford Byrd, widow of Madison Arthur Byrd, was testament not only to the graces of the late Mrs. Byrd, who died last week at the age of 89, but a tribute as well to the extended Byrd family -- one with profound influence in Shelby County through the family-owned Bank of Bartlett and through the political and community activities of various family members.

Two of the several successful children of Louise and Madison Byrd, Harold Byrd and Dan Byrd, served as members of the state House of Representatives, representing Bartlett as Democrats -- no small accomplishment, given what in recent years has been the overwhelming domination of that sprawling community by the Republican Party. Harold Byrd also launched campaigns for Congress and for Shelby County mayor. Brother Bob Byrd served as a member of the state Board of Education, and various other family members have pulled their oar in a variety of causes, notably in advancement of the University of Memphis.

Today's Bartlett, a bustling suburb, would be unimaginable without the efforts of the Byrds and the family bank. And it remains to be seen whether the political community has seen the last run by a family member. -- J.B.

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