Only a week ago, Kathryn Bowers was a newly sworn-in member of the Tennessee state Senate, and the spark-plug personality of this bantam-sized Memphis legislator was expected to be a major feature of the political landscape for years to come. In moving up to the Senate, Bowers, the winner in a special election held last month, had to vacate her seat in the state House of Representatives, of course, and, though eventually there would be a special election to fill that vacancy, in the meantime the seat was expected to be filled by an interim appointment made by the Shelby County Commission.
Word was passed from commission ranks that the likely interim appointee was Barry Myers, who had been a longtime aide for Roscoe Dixon, the former senator whose seat Bowers had won after Dixon resigned to become a high-ranking -- and highly paid -- aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. As for Dixon himself, the former senator was looking forward to making a difference in local affairs -- and in restoring the little bit of luster that was lost in Shelby County government when his predecessor, the venerable and respected Bobby Lanier, left during a mini-scandal involving pension rights for previously departed mayoral aide Tom Jones.
Jones had plea-bargained a modest federal sentence after being charged with mishandling credit-card expenditures while serving in county government.
As for Memphis state senator John Ford, the 31-year legislative veteran who had become the target of multiple investigations this year -- involving matters as wide-ranging as his campaign fund expenditures, his legal residence, and, most crucially, his potential conflict-of-interest contracts with state TennCare providers -- the future did not look so rosy as it did for Bowers, Dixon, and Myers.
Even so, the wily senator chose the middle of last week as an occasion to announce his intention of launching what he called a counterattack against his accusers -- threatening a barrage of lawsuits. His circumstances remained problematic, but it seemed premature to count out this long-term survivor, who had somehow managed to emerge unscathed for several previous legal challenges -- including one in 1991 in which he was charging with firing a pistol at truckers who hemmed him in on Interstate 40.
All of that was just days ago, but it now seems like an eternity. Ford, Bowers, Dixon, and Myers were four of the seven individuals arrested in a surprise sting mounted by the FBI, and, as the current week began, their very freedom and ability to provide for themselves were threatened -- not to mention something as insignificant under the circumstances as their political careers.
Clearly, Ford and Dixon seem done-for politically. The former resigned his seat via a dramatic and terse note to Lt. Governor John Wilder, who read it aloud to Fords state Senate colleagues on Saturday, the last day of this years legislative session. Dixon had wanted to hold on but saw the handwriting on the wall when asked by reporters after his release what came next. He answered that he would hold off for the time being on a return to his county job. Within hours, even that slim hope was gone, when Wharton asked for-- and got-- Dixons unconditional resignation.
Bowers stayed true to her plucky reputation -- returning to the legislative session on the very day of her arrest and completing work on an anti-stalking bill on which she had long counted on setting a precedent -- as someone who was both a House and Senate sponsor. Her colleagues were supportive -- though, as one fellow senator commented, It would have been better if shed had the House to return to. Thats where they know her better. She was a relative stranger to us, and we couldnt give her the same kind of aid and comfort.
Back in Memphis after the session ended, Bowers released a statement this week that said in part: The last five days have been very trying for me in all of my 40 years of working hard and serving in the community. My health is well, my feet are steadfast, and I want you to know I will not stop working and fighting on your behalf for TennCare, education, our seniors and children and families. I have asked the question why me LORD but I know and believe that this too shall pass. I believe in GOD and I believe in the judicial system. A person is innocent unless proven guilty.
A Potential Seismic Shift
But the fate of individuals, whether guilty or innocent, was but one factor in the new equation of local -- and statewide -- politics. With Ford gone, and with Bowers own Senate seat in clear legal jeopardy, the Senates Republicans -- numerically superior to the bodys Democrats by one after last years election -- were finally in a position to solidify their majority status. Democrat Fords chairmanship of the Senates Health and Welfare Committee was virtually certain to be transferred into GOP hands, and Senate Republicans had a much-enhanced prospect of turning over the speakership to Republican leader Ron Ramsey, who had lost out to Wilder in reorganization voting back in January. Two Republican defections cost him the chairmanship back then, and the odds of that happening again were seriously reduced.
But the power shift might even be greater than that. If Bowers seat has to be vacated, Shelby County Republicans will most certainly launch an intensified campaign on the part of a GOP candidate in whatever special election might result. They worked overtime just last month on behalf of the Republican nominee in the special election for Senate District 33, and their candidate, Mary Ann McNeil, finished with a relatively strong 36 percent against Bowers.
To be sure, one of the arrested legislators last week was Rep. Chris Newton of Newport, a Republican, but Dixon, who saw a political conspiracy behind the so-called Tennessee Waltz sting, was skeptical.
This is just some politics, Dixon said upon his release, and he amplified on that later on: The main thing is, it [the Tennessee Waltz sting] was aimed at blacks. And another factor was the circumstance that he, Bowers, and John Ford all had long-standing connections with the local Ford political organization. As for the involvement in the sting of East Tennesseans Newton and Chattanooga state senator Ward Crutchfield, a Democrat, Dixon said, They have to throw somebody else in to make it look good.
Harold Ford Jr./Rosalind
Kurita: No Impact
As it happened, both announced Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs next year were in Memphis on Thursday, the day of the arrests, and both -- 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr., nephew of state senator John Ford, and state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, longtime colleague of the accused legislators -- had a chance to respond to the indictments and arrests.
Neither professed to think that the events of last week would adversely affect their own campaign efforts, and both were foursquare for enforcing the letter of the law. Kurita went so far as to speculate that some of her Senate colleagues might end up being expelled. After recounting her own past efforts on behalf of ethics reform, Kurita said, There arent enough words in the world to make somebody do right. If it isnt in you, it isnt in you. But there has to be a consequence.
Said Ford, after addressing a graduation glass of Christ Methodist Day School on Thursday night: Its a sad day as a Tennessean and as a nephew of someone who has found himself accused of some pretty awful things. I think Tennesseans, and particularly those here in this community, have a right to expect that those of us in government are questioned about our ethics and our integrity. The process will go forward, and youre innocent until proven guilty.
As to the possible impact of his uncles arrest on the Senate campaign he announced only the day before, the congressman said, Ive been in Congress now for nine years, and I think throughout that time voters have had a chance to know me and my views. I think people will judge between me and other candidates in this race by who I am and what I believe in.
Might some voters confuse him with his uncle? I think people know the difference between the two of us, and people know the difference between the two of us here in Memphis. And we have 17 months in Middle and East Tennessee to get out in the community and talk about the issues. If I have the opportunity to get out in the state and touch voters and share their concerns, we can connect with voters anywhere in this state. I dont think the outcome will be determined by anything anybody else does.
Ford, who had formally launched his long-anticipated and much-ballyhooed Senate campaign only the day before, was asked if he thought politics had played a role in the timing of the arrests. Shaking his head dismissively, he said, I think thats way above my grade. When asked what he might say to John Ford, whom he had not yet spoken to in the wake of the state senators arrest, he answered, Hes my uncle. What would you say to your uncle?