Politics » Politics Feature

Agitated State

Several Tennessee pols are going through some serious changes.



Somebody better check the Seventh House again and see just what is aligning with what and what kind of weird moon is shining — or not shining — on Tennessee. Thursday of last week saw three of the Volunteer State's public careers gone strangely awash.

1) Chip Saltsman, the former state GOP chairman who managed Mike Huckabee's impressive presidential campaign in 2008, withdrew his bid to be Republican National Committee chairman in the wake of his misfired decision to send out copies of a political-parody CD as Christmas gifts. An unintended corollary may have the unprecedented election a day later of an African American, Michael Steele, as RNC chair.

2) Lincoln Davis, a mid-state congressman who had been regarded as a sure-thing Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, announced his own withdrawal from possible candidacy amid recriminations directed at the election of a new state Democratic chairman weekend before last. As the presumed front-runner among Democrats, Davis leaves by his departure either a void or a more open field, depending on one's perspective.

3) Brian Kelsey, a brash Republican state representative from Germantown, saw himself being accused of extortion after publication of an embarrassing e-mail appearing to offer a quid pro quo to his supposed nemesis, state House speaker Kent Williams.

Where this leaves Kelsey is hard to say — other than to note that his detractors, who exist in both parties and the media, are now emboldened and that his hopes of leap-frogging into a leadership position (though not necessarily one in the legislature) may have landed him in a mud puddle instead.

Saltsman's withdrawal, a day before last Friday's scheduled meeting of the RNC to choose between himself and five other chairmanship candidates, came in the wake of a report in Congressional Quarterly that he had been unable to round up the required six supporters on the RNC to be nominated. And the Tennessean's exit followed a mere two days after his statement that he expected to win and was "going to surprise a lot of people."

It seemed likely that Saltsman had been a casualty of a backlash arising from his decision to send RNC delegates copies of his friend Paul Shanklin's parody album, We Hate the USA. The album, like all of Memphian Shanklin's previous ones, mocked prominent Democrats and liberals and contained two cuts in particular that had raised hackles.

One, entitled "Barack The Magic Negro," featured Shanklin imitating the voice of the Rev. Al Sharpton in a take-off on, of all things, a Los Angeles Times column concerning then candidate Barack Obama's role as a "magic Negro" archetype. Another cut, which had drawn fire more recently, was entitled "The Star-Spanglish Banner."

Shanklin expressed regret at Saltsman's fate, which he regarded as a case of scapegoating. "That's what happens when you quote three liberals in a song," he said, presumably referring to mentions in the lyrics of Sharpton and Joe Biden, the latter then a presidential candidate himself, and the fact that his song parody was based on a column in the Los Angeles Times by one David Ehrenstein.

Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and a perceived moderate who won the chairmanship over several more conservative candidates, may well have been a beneficiary of the same backlash that doomed Shanklin's hopes. From the time it first was heard on The Rush Limbaugh Show in 2007, "Barack The Magic Negro" drew critical reaction — and not just among African Americans and Democrats. A number of Republicans, concerned about damage to their party's outreach prospects in the Obama era, were bothered by what they saw as the song's racial implications, and that feeling was only intensified by the new controversy over Saltsman's CD mail-out.

Davis' withdrawal came in the immediate aftermath of two events, one positive from his point of view, the other negative. In his statement, he cited the former — his recent appointment to the important House Appropriations Committee — as a reason for eschewing a gubernatorial race: "As a new member of the House Appropriations Committee, I will have a significant opportunity to practice fiscal responsibility of our nation's finances and assure the priorities of my rural constituents are heard loud and clear. This recent appointment is an opportunity for the district I represent that I could not easily turn away from."

Another reason why the conservative Blue Dog congressman, once considered the favored Democrat, may have backed away from a governor's race was what Nashville blogger/aggregator Adam Kleinheider referred to as "the handover of his own party to a radical band of Obama activists in stark rebuke of his wishes."

Kleinheider's reference, presumably cast from Davis' point of view, was to the previous weekend's selection by the state Democratic executive committee of longtime member Chip Forrester as party chairman over a candidate, Charles Robert Bone, not only favored by Davis but the beneficiary of strong lobbying from Davis' office (and from Governor Phil Bredesen, outgoing chairman Gray Sasser, and all of Tennessee's sitting congressmen except for the 9th District's Steve Cohen).

Former congressman Harold Ford Jr., who had also endorsed Bone, promptly became the object of public pleading to run for governor, especially from establishment-minded Democrats, and that courtship is bound to be prolonged. However, given the unlikeliness of its ultimately succeeding with the nationally minded Ford, the Democratic race for governor now seems wide open.

Kelsey's pickle resulted from the circulation by Democratic legislative leaders of a previously unknown e-mail by the Germantown Republican to a Williams aide, in which Kelsey, a public antagonist of the new House speaker, said, "Tell Kent I'm willing to talk about reconciliation if he's willing to talk about chairman of the full committee." That was a day before Kelsey asked for a House Ethics Committee investigation of Williams for an alleged act of sexual harassment of fellow Republican House member Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet and two days before Kelsey was named chairman of a House judiciary subcommittee.

Before any of these events had taken place, Kelsey had emerged as perhaps the most vocal House opponent of Williams after the maverick Republican from Elizabethton had added his vote to that of 49 Democrats so as to foil an expected speakership win by Republican House leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol.

The apparent trade-off sought by Kelsey in his e-mail became the subject of ridicule when the e-mail was publicized by House Democratic leader Gary Odom and another Nashville Democrat, state representative Mike Turner. More than one media source, as well as Odom and Turner, used the somewhat over-the-top term "extortion" in coverage of the affair. Kelsey himself admitted sending the e-mail but denied he had any quid pro quo in mind.

At some point — Kelsey says it was after he sent his e-mail and in genuine outrage that Williams denied having harassed Lynn — the Germantown legislator demanded the Ethics Committee investigation of the new speaker.

Whatever. In any case, the Ethics Committee, composed of six Democrats and six Republicans, acted unanimously on a motion by GOP member Beth Harwell to dismiss Kelsey's complaint.

• Tennessee Democrats might as well make up their minds that they'll have to share legislative power with the Republicans "for at least the next decade," said Memphis state representative Mike Kernell to a meeting of the Germantown Democrats at Fox Ridge Pizza last week.

In particular, said Kernell, the new arrangement in the state House of Representatives, whereby committee chairmanships and plum assignments are being shared equally by the two parties, will need to be observed for the foreseeable future. Somewhat ruefully, Kernell noted that he had had to relinquish his own chairmanship of the House Government Operations Committee to Republican Susan Lynn of Lebanon. (Yep. The same Susan Lynn. See above.)

• The many Republicans who, as Sheriff Mark Luttrell acknowledges, have been urging him to run for Shelby County mayor in 2010 may have to start looking hard in another direction.

There had been numerous reports of late that Luttrell, who for several years has been regarded as the GOP's best chance of recapturing the county mayoral job, had recovered his appetite for seeking it after a period of reluctance, but in a brief chat with the Flyer over the weekend, the sheriff seemed clearly to be backing away from running.

"I've thought about it, and right now I think I'm more interested in running [again] for sheriff," Luttrell said. "It's a weak-mayor position, and I think I might be able to do more for the county where I am."

Luttrell left some wiggle room, though: "I've said many times before, and I'll say again, I won't make a final statement on the issue until probably sometime between March and June."

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