Politics » Politics Feature

Doing It Different

The past week: new beginnings in Washington, in Nashville, and in Memphis.



WASHINGTON — Considering that no Tennessean was directly involved in this week's presidential inauguration, there were a generous number of attendees on hand from the Volunteer State.

Even in the add-on throngs that populated Washington this week, it was a commonplace thing to bump into somebody from down home — Harold Ford Sr. leaving the Longworth Building, for example; Lois DeBerry and Gale Jones Carson looking for a way to cut short the serpentine gauntlet that even holders of premium "orange" tickets were forced to undergo on their way to their designated viewing area; Henry and Lynne Turley trying to find two of the seats that were filling up fast.

And there were city councilman Myron Lowery and former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman joining a throng of Memphians congregating in the office of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen. Every other congressional and senatorial office could offer a similar cast of characters.

All of this is to say, it was a big week, one that inaugurated not only a new president but a new era. Appropriately enough, Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy brought his son Quinn along for a hands-on civics lesson.

• Even as Obama was preparing to assume power nationally amid a show of broad-based rejoicing that was unparalleled, there had been a counterrevolution in Nashville that kneecapped the would-be changers of the guard there.

In an astonishing piece of parliamentary sleight of hand, the minority Democrats presented a solid front to elect a second-term Republican from East Tennessee, Kent Williams, as speaker to succeed Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, whose 18 years of consecutive leadership of the chamber ended when he was unable to coax a Republican to break ranks and vote for him.

That wholly unexpected outcome was a tour de force for Democratic leader Gary Odom, the onetime party maverick who made a surprise ascension to the position of majority leader in the previous legislative session. As he learned the ropes of party leadership, Odom, a skillful infighter, developed a notion to challenge Naifeh for the speakership, but his will to power was foiled when the hapless state Democratic leadership inflicted a perfect electoral storm on themselves and allowed the Republicans to win a 50-49 majority last fall.

Deprived of his goal, Odom did the next best thing. He became kingmaker. A native of Carter County himself, the Nashvillian, visiting his ancestral grounds at Thanksgiving, made a pitch to Williams about becoming speaker. And by his own account and that of Williams, the very notion struck the back-bench Republican, who had just been elected to what was only his second term, as outlandish at first.

But only at first. Williams was a maverick in the Odom mold — the kind for whom dissent from the norm was not an end in itself but a path to leadership. He took a liking to the idea.

Brian Kelsey, a Republican House member from Germantown, offers a different version. Kelsey, an ambitious sort who has been known to break ranks and protocol himself, says Williams told him of a desire to be speaker when Kelsey called him on election night to be sure he was on board for the new GOP majority.

Williams cannot have been keen concerning this intervention, since Kelsey, one of several House Republicans to support Williams' primary opponent last year, had actively campaigned against Williams to punish the freshman incumbent for his vote, along with a handful of other Republicans, to keep Democrat Naifeh as speaker.

In any case, Odom pulled off a trifecta, orchestrating the surprise outcome when it became obvious that Naifeh would fall a vote short, rewarding his homeboy Williams and performing adroitly in the staging of his coup.

What nobody seems to have reflected on was whether Williams, a Naifeh loyalist, might have cast his vote for the longtime speaker instead of for himself had he not been baited by Odom.

In any case, the coup was accomplished, and Republican leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, whose district neighbored that of Williams, was up-ended at the very moment when he seemed assured of becoming Speaker. Even some Democrats felt a little sympathy for the thwarted Republican, who had brought a cheering section of home folks into the gallery to see his ascension and whose no doubt anguished mother was by his side when he first had to deal with press questions about the setback.

In any event, Kent Williams is the speaker, and, like the old Democratic lion John Wilder, who was deposed as speaker of the Senate two years ago in a reversal that was almost as unexpected, has declared he will divide committee power equally between the two parties.

• As Mark Norris of Collierville, the Republicans' state Senate majority leader, and Doug Jackson of Dickson, the Democrats' vice caucus chairman in the Senate, were chatting it up on the House floor after last Thursday's election of constitutional officers, the talk came around to the 2010 governor's race.

Jackson had some news for Norris, who had just been good-naturedly evading a reporter's point-blank questions about Norris' possible plans to run for governor in 2010. The upshot of that was that Norris wasn't ready to close the door on a race, despite the already announced Republican candidacy of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a fellow Shelby Countian.

It was then that Jackson made a surprising — and apparently serious — affirmation: "Tim McGraw is going to run. And he's going to be campaigning with his band."

Although the name of county-western star McGraw had surfaced a time or two last year in connection with a governor's race, and both McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, had commented on the prospect of his running for the office as a Democrat, this may have been the first time the idea of a McGraw candidacy had been put forth by a bona fide political insider. The first time in 2009, anyhow.

If a McGraw candidacy does materialize, it won't be the first time a major country western personality has campaigned for governor in the manner indicated by Jackson. Roy Acuff did it on the Republican ticket in 1948.

• It has long been understood that current Shelby County Commission chairman Deidre Malone, a Democrat, is a certain entry in the 2010 county mayoral race. Various other Democrats may also hazard a run, but the one most likely to give her a serious contest is a recently rumored entry, Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd.

Byrd is a former state representative and sometime candidate for major office; he made two races for Congress in the 7th District in 1982 and 1994 and was organized to run for Shelby County mayor in 2002 when the entry of ultimate victor A C Wharton, who drew upon much the same constituency, caused a rethinking and Byrd's reluctant withdrawal.

Before, during, and after that abortive 2002 run, Byrd consistently has been one of the major forces in civic affairs and local politics, providing financial assistance to candidates and causes and carrying prodigious amounts of water for the University of Memphis, its athletic arm in particular. He recently survived a serious illness and seems eager to resume his political career, having told friends he's once again eyeing the job of county mayor, which Wharton must vacate in 2010.

A key player in what shapes up as a potential Malone-Byrd showdown is Sidney Chism, a fellow county commissioner who usually finds himself in common purpose with his colleague Malone. But Chism is also one of the county's key political brokers, especially in Memphis' inner city, and he and Byrd have long been de facto allies. That's the bad news for Malone: Chism lately has given several friends the impression he would favor Byrd in a primary battle.

All other factors being equal, Byrd is regarded by Chism and others as far more likely than other Democrats to put together a healthy war chest to run on. • The selection last week of Shelby County commissioner David Lillard to be state treasurer at $180,000 a year means that for the umpteenth time in a fairly short span of years the commission will be needing to find a successor for one of its departed members.

Already the aspirants are lining up. Though outgoing Shelby County Republican chairman Bill Giannini has been mentioned as a candidate for an interim appointment, businessman Giannini says he may seek the seat on a permanent basis at the next regular countywide election in 2010 and prefers not to accept an interim appointment on a premise of his non-candidacy next year.

"And I believe they [the commissioners] will state an intent that the interim appointee agree to serve only until the next election," said Giannini, who said he thought a strong contender for the interim post would be former commissioner Tommy Hart of Collierville.

Other names receiving considerable mention or known to be lobbying for the interim position are automobile dealer Chris Price of Millington, FedEx administrator Richard Smith, and Millington grocer Terry Roland.

Of the known hopefuls so far, all are Republicans with the exception of Price, whose political orientation is uncertain.

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