Politics » Politics Feature

Breaking the Grip

Representative DeBerry's bill could weaken party control over election results.



State representative John DeBerry (D-District 90) is well known as one of those legislators who answers more to his own sense of duty than to party discipline, and just now he has fellow Democrats concerned, both in Memphis and in Nashville.

DeBerry is the state House sponsor of HB3019, a state Senate version of which (SB290) is sponsored by Tim Burchett, a Knoxville Republican. What both bills do is strike down the authority of the two major political parties to adjudicate disputed primary-election results and to delegate that authority instead to an administrative law judge to be appointed by the Tennessee secretary of state.

Compounding the change is the fact that the secretary of state just now is a Republican, former Bartlett legislator Tre Hargett.

It is hard to imagine legislation more calculated to inspire fear and loathing in the General Assembly's Democrats, reduced to minority status in both legislative chambers since the elections of 2008, which saw the Republicans expand their majority in the state Senate and gain control of the state House for the first time since Reconstruction.

One of the few successes enjoyed by Tennessee Democrats two years ago, in fact, was accomplished by an action of the state Democratic Party's executive committee, which nullified the primary victory of then state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville in Senate District 22 and gave the victory instead to her opponent, fellow townsman Tim Barnes.

Kurita had won the primary by the scant margin of nine votes, and Barnes challenged her victory, charging, among other things, that Republicans had organized to vote in the Democratic primary to skew the results. The committee adjudged the original outcome to have been "incurably uncertain" and relegated the dispute to the Montgomery County Democratic committee. That group of partisans promptly decided in favor of Barnes, who serves in the Senate today.

Few observers regarded the proceedings to have been a triumph of impartial justice. The fact was that Kurita had alienated virtually the entire Democratic establishment of Tennessee and was now getting her comeuppance.

What she had done was cross party lines in January 2007 to cast the deciding vote that ousted the venerable John Wilder of Somerville as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor and made Republican Ron Ramsey of Blountville his successor.

Whatever the justice of the state committee's action, it was indisputably within the letter of the law, but the legislation brought by DeBerry and Burchett is designed to change that law.

During the 2010 legislative session, SB290 has been on hold, awaiting the verdict in the House on HB3019, which has been scheduled for action in the House state and local government committee five or six times and has been deferred just as often.

The bill is back on the committee's calendar this week, and local Democrats and state Democrats are both getting antsy. The Shelby County Democratic committee, at its regular monthly meeting last week, voted by acclamation to deputize county party chairman Van Turner to intercede with DeBerry in an effort to derail a vote this week or, hopefully, any action at all in the current session.

Simultaneously, state chairman Chip Forrester, who has just concluded a morale-building tour of local Democratic Party groups, was importuning DeBerry on behalf of the state executive committee — the same committee whose authority in overseeing primary disputes would be stripped away by DeBerry's bill.

• In a talk with reporters prior to his largely inspirational address at Saturday night's local Lincoln Day banquet, Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele expressed solidarity with Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and condemned a widely discussed RNC fund-raising presentation some have dubbed "Fear Gate."

Reminded that, on his accession to his party's chairmanship in early 2009, he had been treated as persona non grata by an ultraconservative fringe of the GOP, Steele was asked how he viewed the intensely negative reaction some New York Democrats had bestowed on former Memphis congressman Ford during Ford's recent trial run as a U.S. Senate candidate from New York.

Steele and Ford, who recently abandoned his projected Senate bid, have long been acquainted and recently appeared together at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as part of a Black History Month observance.

The RNC chairman responded as follows:

"I'm a huge fan and friend of Harold Ford. I've known Harold for over 10 years, from his days back in Washington. I have a great deal of respect for him. He and I would call each other from time to time during the campaigns in 2006, with us both running for the Senate, and, after we both lost, I remember telling him, 'Look, we had this all wrong. You should have run for the Senate from Maryland, and I should have run from Tennessee. We'd both be in the United States Senate right now.'

"And I think his efforts to consider running for the Senate from New York really exposed a lot and caused some consternation among the, you know, the establishment of the Democratic Party. But Harold is his own man, and he's going to find the time and the way, when he's really prepared to jump into this thing, if he wants to be in office again, to do it. And when he does, I think the people of New York will pay a great deal more attention to him than his party did."

Steele was also asked to respond to the controversy that rose up this past week over a PowerPoint presentation delivered in February by RNC finance director Rob Bickhart to top donors and fund-raisers at a party retreat in Boca Grande, Florida.

The presentation, also elaborated as a 72-page document, was leaked to Politico.com, which published its essentials, including a cartoon likeness of President Obama as the Joker and similar unflattering caricatures of other leading Democrats and a stated emphasis on inspiring "fear" of Democrats among likely voters and donors.

Acknowledging that the presentation had met with a largely negative public reaction — "rightly so" — Steele dissociated himself from it as something "given to 10 people in a private meeting" and renounced it as "not the kind of presentation that I want to see made at the RNC."

Steele said, "I don't need to scare, we don't need to scare anybody into contributing to the RNC. I've sent the word out, 'Don't even think you're going to get away with that kind of behavior.'"

Promising that the matter would be dealt with "internally" at the RNC, Steele said, "It's just not what people want to see."

• One of the attendees at the Lincoln Day Dinner was Arlington mayor Russell Wiseman, who achieved a good deal of unwelcome attention last year when he complained on his Facebook page about President Obama's pre-empting a Charlie Brown Christmas special in order to make a national televised address on Afghanistan.

Wiseman raged — jokingly, he insisted — that Obama had so acted for the sole purpose of disrupting what had become an annual Christmas tradition. He thereby set in motion a national furor, and Wiseman ended up being called virtually everything it was possible to be called except a man of genius.

Thereafter, he kept a low profile — for every imaginable reason, including the fact that his brother Lang Wiseman is chair of the Shelby County Republican Party.

On Saturday night, Wiseman shook his head and voiced an understandable sentiment: "I just hope Tiger Woods has finally got me off the hook."

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