Politics » Politics Feature

Blasts From the Past

Several figures in the 2005 Tennessee Waltz sting are making a reentry into public life.



Yes, that smaller image is who you think it is.

In her candidacy for the state House of Representatives seat made vacant by the death this summer of longtime incumbent Lois DeBerry, Kemba Ford called on a once-familiar political presence for backup.

In her basic campaign handout, Ford used a background image of her father, former state senator John Ford, and she proudly cited his name in campaign speeches. During a recent forum, candidate Ford told the audience, "I have a direct line to someone who walks the walk and talks the talk."

She went on to invoke not only the name of her father but that of his brother, former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., to reinforce her connection to the well-known Ford political clan.

Opinions differ as to whether John Ford, a major presence in the Tennessee General Assembly before his conviction in the Justice Department's Tennessee Waltz bribery sting, is prohibited from restoring his rights to run for office again or was grandfathered in before the passage of post-scandal legislation that would bar such activity.

In any case, the former state senator, who is now employed at his brother Edmund Ford's funeral home, professed in a recent conversation to have no such ambitions. He was, however, pleased to do what he could to help the electoral efforts of his daughter. That meant, among other things, telephoning friends and allies and asking them to assist, financially and otherwise.

As it happens, John Ford is not the only former senator to play a role in the just-concluded special election campaign. Former state senator Roscoe Dixon — who, like ex-Senator Ford, was caught up in the Tennessee Waltz scandal and, like him, recently was released from prison — was an active campaigner for candidate Joshua Forbes.

Dixon, who is active in the NAACP and often appears before local legislative bodies in support of that organization's goals, made an effort to be a substitute panelist for the absent Forbes at an earlier candidate forum sponsored by Democratic members of the state legislature but was forced to withdraw when candidate Terica Lamb complained.

Nor is Dixon's volunteer activity his only involvement with the public realm. He is a principal in CAATS, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center which recently received $1 million in funding from the Memphis City Council for capital improvements in its treatment facility.

Yet another former state senator convicted in the Tennessee Waltz affair, Kathryn Bowers, has taken an active part in several political campaigns and has volunteered on a few civic projects since her own release.

One more Tennessee Waltz figure, former Memphis City Schools board member Michael Hooks Jr., has made a full reentry into the mainstream. Hooks operates a construction management and consulting company that provides assistance on capital improvement projects locally, including several funded by city government.

Hooks has also been involved in several local political campaigns, figuring prominently in the 2011 reelection campaign of Mayor A C Wharton. And he is an active member of the Memphis Rotary Club.

All of these Tennessee Waltz figures — having, as the saying goes, paid their debt to society — have recovered some degree of their former influence and seem determined to resume some gainful place in the social and civic mainstream.

Time will tell to what degree they succeed, but they all have their well-wishers.

(See "Political Beat Blog" for a rundown on the aforementioned special House District 91 Democratic primary, which concluded on Tuesday.)

• State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has evidently, like Ernest Hemingway before him, some sense of what the snows of Kilimanjaro are like. In a recent email to supporters, he conveyed news of "a 5-day hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which at 19,341 feet, is the tallest mountain in Africa."

Kelsey went on to posit a moral to this story: "The lesson it taught me in persistence is one that will prove helpful in continuing the fight for opportunity scholarships for low-income children in Tennessee."

What are called "opportunity scholarships" in Kelsey's lexicon are referred to as "school vouchers" by others, particularly the opponents of the senator's several bills over the years to extend public education funds to private institutions. In his newsletters, Kelsey refers to such opponents in Tennessee as "those who view the local school district as an employment agency rather than an education agency."

Governor Bill Haslam, the head of state government and the titular head in Tennessee of Kelsey's party, would not ordinarily be classified that way, and Kelsey presumably didn't mean to be referring to Haslam in the aforementioned description of his legislative adversaries.

Yet it was Haslam who pointedly obstructed Kelsey's last effort to pass a voucher bill. Early in the 2013 session of the General Assembly, the governor had approved a modest pilot effort toward establishing a voucher system, one that would provide modest-sized vouchers for 5,000 low-income students currently enrolled in schools certified by the state as failing.

That was not enough for Kelsey, who counterposed a bill that would have greatly expanded the amount of vouchers and made them available to children in families making as much as $75,000 a year.

Finding Kelsey unwilling to compromise, and with time running out on the session, Haslam made it clear that he did not want alternate voucher legislation of the scope proposed by Kelsey put forward.

The co-sponsor of the Kelsey bill, state senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), got the message and professed a willingness to back off, as did Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who had preferred a stronger voucher bill. Kelsey, however, remained intent on going forward.

The result was that the governor put his foot down and called for his own measure to be withdrawn, while announcing it was too late to work out any other version, and the session ended with no voucher bill at all.

In the newsletter, Kelsey finds inspiration in his struggle up Kilimanjaro: "Persistence pays off! Over and over during my hike up Kilimanjaro, my guide repeated, 'po-le, po-le,' which means 'slowly, slowly' in Swahili. He knew that climbing the mountain too fast would lead to altitude sickness and would leave me short of my goal. ...

"Persistence pays off! Once I finally reached the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the views from above the clouds made all the hard work worthwhile. I hope that I will have a similar experience with opportunity scholarships in 2014."

The senator concludes his account with these lines from Hemingway's classic "The Snows of Kilimanjaro":

"There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going."

There's a problem with the analogy, though: Mt. Kilimanjaro figures in the Hemingway story as the unachieved goal of the character Harry Street, who lies dying at the foot of the mountain and, at the end of the story, perishes without having attained his goal. Indeed, Kilimanjaro is treated as the very symbol of the unattainable.

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