Politics » Politics Feature

Building Bridges

Speaker Kent Williams explores the terra incognita of Memphis and Shelby County.



Kent Williams may be a man without a party, but the obscure East Tennessean who became speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives last month by adding his own vote to that of 49 Democrats (and who was kicked out of the Republican Party for his pains) made a host of potentially compensating new connections during a weekend get-acquainted tour of Memphis and Shelby County.

Beginning Thursday night and continuing through Saturday, Williams, who had never before been west of Jackson, pursued an itinerary that took him to, among other places, Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, City Hall, Juvenile Court, LeMoyne-Owen College, Graceland, Uncle Lou's restaurant, a Grizzlies game, the National Civil Rights Museum, a seminar on Fairgrounds development, and the Center for Independent Living.

In the process, the "Carter County Republican" (that's how he lists himself in the legislative roster, as against the 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats who make up the rest of the House membership) displayed a greater-than-expected familiarity with the subjects he dealt with — particularly in the area of health care.

Meeting with caregivers, advocates, and affiliates at the Center for Independent Living on Madison, for example, Williams talked of his own experience with a disabled son and reviewed potential legislation in the current session that might meet the needs of those present for better coordinated and more easily accessible state services.

In keeping with the reality of his political predicament, the speaker spent virtually all of his time locally in the company of Democrats.

Williams, in tandem with House Democratic leader Gary Odom and Democratic caucus leader Mike Turner, both of Nashville, was welcomed on his arrival Thursday night with a reception arranged by local Democratic activist David Upton and lawyer Jay Bailey, a candidate for the local Democratic chairmanship in elections scheduled for next month.

In conversations with the Flyer, Williams made it clear that he had been the prime mover in his surprise pursuit of the speakership, and his own account, as well as Odom's, made it equally obvious that former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh had not been involved in the surprise maneuver.

Indeed, Naifeh, who was desperately looking for 50 votes right up to the end, seemed to have been taken by surprise quite as much as was Jason Mumpower, the Republican leader who had confidently expected to gain the speakership.

In point of fact, Odom — who had intended to challenge Naifeh for the speakership had the Democrats maintained their majority — chose, when asked point-blank, not to dispute the interpretation that his involvement in the Williams affair had been aimed at both Naifeh and Mumpower.

Naifeh's long tenure had finally not served the Democratic Party well, Odom had concluded. "He was the one always pushing the income tax," the current Democratic House leader said Thursday, "and that was the single greatest reason for the Democrats' decline in Tennessee over the last few years. It was why Al Gore lost the state in 2000, and it was why we kept losing seats after that, until finally we were in the minority."

Odom, a potential candidate for governor, makes the case that only by starting anew, with totally fresh leadership in the House, could the Democrats begin a serious comeback. He had meant to provide that leadership as speaker himself, but the election results had forced him to look elsewhere — in the direction of Williams, the maverick Republican who, as Williams related to a group of Democrats at a Playhouse on the Square reception, had been a high school basketball opponent of Odom, now a Nashvillian, when the two of them were growing up in Carter County.

Williams and Odom are teammates now, and back in January they collaborated on a buzzer-beater that dashed the individual hopes of Naifeh and Mumpower but inaugurated an era of power-sharing and kept flagging Democratic hopes alive.

• Wednesday of last week, a night before the arrival of Williams, Odom, et al., former state House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville came to Memphis in support of her campaign for governor.

Democrat McMillan, now teaching political science at Austin Peay University while campaigning full-tilt, was surprisingly crisp late Wednesday when, after a day that began at 4:30 a.m., she met with a group of young Democrats for the regular weekly session of "Drinking Liberally" at RP Billiards on Highland.

In the course of a two-hour conversation, McMillan ran the gamut of subjects from tax strategy ("We have to live within our means; people in Tennessee are not ready to change our system of taxation"), to the importance of having got an early start (she was the first gubernatorial candidate to announce, in mid-2008), to the necessity of creating a network of small donors (à la the presidential campaign of Barack Obama).

She talked about her experience as a two-term majority leader in the House and the challenges of dealing with a small group of people who, as elected officials themselves, have egos and developed agendas ("It's not easy to convince people like that that you're the one who ought to be in charge"). And McMillan noted the two recent instances in which she successfully walked a tightrope between embittered Democratic factions — when former state senator Rosalind Kurita, also of Clarksville, was opposed by fellow Democrat Tim Barnes in last year's election; and, more recently, when rank-and-file candidate Chip Forrester took on the establishment-backed Charles Robert Bone to get elected as state Democratic chairman. It was clear indeed that one of McMillan's gifts is that of conciliation, and, while the Democrats who heard her out last week were maintaining a wait-and-see attitude toward a not yet complete gubernatorial field, she at the very least held her place in line.

• The Gibbons Strategy: District Attorney Bill Gibbons' plan for winning the 2010 governor's race was spelled out to the candidate's supporters in some detail Saturday at the East Memphis home of Jesse and Annabel Woodall.

Gibbons presented his policy points — focusing on crime control, education, and fiscal solvency — and repeated his up-from-nothing story of overcoming paternal abandonment and childhood poverty in Arkansas, which has become a campaign staple. The Horatio Alger tale functions as an obvious contrast to the well-born circumstances of Republican primary opponent Bill Haslam, the Knoxville oil scion.

Then came campaign manager David Kustoff with a brass-tacks presentation of polling data and regional strategy. Among the figures he cited from a recent poll by longtime political consultant John Bakke for Ethridge and Associates: In Shelby county, Memphian Gibbons can boast support from 60 percent of the Republicans polled, versus 3 percent for Chattanooga-area congressman Zach Wamp, and a virtual zero for Haslam. The poll also recorded a 91 percent favorable rating for Gibbons by the 72 percent of those polled who expressed an opinion.

According to the poll, 13 percent of the overall GOP vote in the three-way Republican Senate primary in 2006 was cast in Shelby County, with the next largest contributing county being Knox, with 7 percent of the total votes. Adding on the neighboring suburban counties of Tipton and Fayette, where Gibbons is also well known, the larger Memphis area contributed 15 percent of the overall state Republican primary votes. 

Those figures, combined with a split between Wamp and Haslam in East Tennessee and a name-recognition factor for Gibbons of nearly 100 percent in West Tennessee, dictate the strategy to come. Kustoff said, "We know we have our base, but we don't take that for granted."

Meanwhile, Gibbons' campaign will focus considerable effort on Middle Tennessee, which has thus far not furnished a Republican native-son candidate. And East Tennessee, where Gibbons will be campaigning this week and next, will also come in for its share of attention.

• Ninth District congressman Steve Cohen returned last week from several days in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the congressman saw a paradoxical pattern developing.

In Iraq, he said, the "surge" component of the American military effort seems to have succeeded to some degree — well enough to permit the staged withdrawals proposed both by President Obama and a strengthened Iraqi government. But Cohen said his sense that "it's not our war" and that the American presence was increasingly less welcomed was enhanced by his latest visit.

The situation in Afghanistan was opposite in most respects, with the current American military effort faring badly in a far-flung countryside under the control of warlords and radical extremists and with the American-backed government failing. Yet Cohen said he sensed a local desire for American involvement that was lacking in Iraq.

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