Politics » Politics Feature

Odom's Predicament

Some plain talk by the House Democratic leader generates more controversy.



For much of last week, Gary Odom of Nashville, the leader of the Democratic Party in the state House of Representatives, was experiencing a dramatic reversal of fortune. Suddenly endangered were not only the laurels he seemed to have won by engineering the election of Democrat-friendly East Tennessee Republican Kent Williams as House speaker but, indeed, Odom's own position of party leadership.

A rebellion swelled up in House Democratic ranks, ostensibly over remarks made by Odom during a visit to Memphis the weekend before last. Led mainly by close allies of former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh but including also Democrats close to Odom himself, like fellow Nashvillian Mike Turner, the party's caucus chairman in the House, the challenge was based on two matters: What Odom said about the origins and timeline of Williams' ascent to the speakership and what he said about Naifeh's legacy as speaker.

The two issues conflate in the sense that both concern Naifeh's role. On the question of how Williams came to be speaker, not only Odom but several specific others — including, importantly, Williams himself — concurred from the beginning that Naifeh knew nothing of the Williams ploy until 5 p.m. the evening before the vote. Until then Naifeh was by all accounts, including his own, still preoccupied with trying to round up votes for himself.

At the height of last week's furor, Turner and state representative John Litz of Morristown, a Democrat and Williams confidant, held a press conference in which they outlined a counter-theory, one in which Naifeh had been an active collaborator in the maneuver which would see Williams cast his own vote, along with those of 49 Democrats, to overcome Republican House leader Jason Mumpower, who had expected to gain the speakership in a chamber which had a 50-49 Republican edge after last fall's election.

On the surface, it would seem that the two extant chronologies are inconsistent with each other, though there are some who argue — à la left hands not knowing what right hands are doing — that the rival versions are compatible. The meta-issue would seem to be whether Naifeh comes off better as somebody who helped mastermind the Williams coup or as somebody who stayed free and clear of a plot which still riles partisan anger.

The other point of contention regarding Odom concerned the wisdom of his having offered opinions in Memphis regarding what he saw as the negative effect of Naifeh's erstwhile support of income tax proposals on party fortunes and the need for Democrats to chart a different course regarding that still tender subject.

Perhaps Odom was indiscreet in having so spoken (to a handful of political adepts at an after-hours gathering following a formal reception for Williams and himself with local Democrats), and perhaps he regarded his remarks — though not accompanied by "off the record" or "between you and me" or any of the usual disclaimers — as meant privately rather than publicly.

In any case, there was nothing inherently treasonous or disrespectful about what he said, and, as somebody who strongly opposed income tax legislation during the legislative wars of the late '90s and early 2000s, and as somebody who now has a position of influence within his party, Odom may have both a right and duty to espouse a different view on the issue than that which once prevailed in Democratic ranks.

Reality and protocol both dictate that Odom now make amends and pay some kind of public homage to the distinguished Naifeh, whom — it is well known — he considered challenging for the speakership had the Democrats maintained their House majority. But that is not the same thing as needing to backtrack on his political philosophy or his views concerning his party's proper political tactics.

Odom's fellow Democrats elected him to a leadership role two legislative sessions ago, in search of an aggressive, alternative mode. It would be ironic indeed if he should now be penalized for supplying it.

• The Republican field of gubernatorial candidates has grown by one — Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who made a formal announcement of sorts in Greeneville at the weekend Lincoln Day Dinner sponsored by the Greene County Republican Women.

When Ramsey took the platform to announce the keynote speaker, state GOP chairman Robin Smith, he took note of the three declared gubernatorial candidates who had preceded him — District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis, 3rd District congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, and Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam — and was reported as saying, "I am here in Greene County to announce that I am going to be a candidate for governor."

Thus ended speculation that had been rife for several days about the imminence of a Ramsey announcement. Prior to that, there had been serious speculation as well about the likelihood of Ramsey's ascending to the governor's office through the departure of Governor Phil Bredesen, who had until recently been rumored to be a possible nominee for secretary of health and human services by President Obama.

The entry of Ramsey, from the Tri-City area of the state's northeast corner, means that each of the state's major population centers has been accounted for in the Republican primary field except for Nashville. • Heading into next month's March 7th precinct caucuses and March 28th county convention, the Shelby County Democratic Party may have a close contest on its hands for the position of party chairman.

Current party parliamentarian Van Turner won a straw poll held Wednesday night at the Hi-Tone Café by the Mid-South Community Organizers (formerly Memphis for Obama). And Turner has a fair amount of support from the reform coalition that made inroads in party organization at the pivotal party convention of 2005.

But lawyer Javier Bailey has the support of at least two major brokers in the local party, David Upton and Sidney Chism. And he has launched an aggressive and innovative campaign for the chairmanship, accumulating endorsements from public officials and prominent Democratic activists and advertising his candidacy with full-color mailers and messages on local cable TV channels.

Attorney Lee Harris, whose support derives from many of the same sources as Turner's, is a possible dark-horse candidate. Meanwhile, current party vice chair Cherry Davis has bowed out of contention, while Shelby County commissioner J.W. Gibson's continued participation in the chairmanship race is in doubt. Current chairman Keith Norman, meanwhile, appears to have dropped the idea of running for reelection.

Both the precinct caucuses and the convention will be held, according to recent custom, at Airways Middle School. A new party executive committee also will be elected at the convention.

Shelby County Republicans, meanwhile, will be forced to reschedule their own caucuses, which were slated for the past weekend but canceled due to snow. The apparent consensus candidate for chairman is attorney Lang Wiseman.

• City councilman Jim Strickland, who was in the vanguard of efforts to deny or reduce the council's traditional funding of Memphis City Schools and to amend residency requirements for new police hires, is taking the lead on yet another controversial issue.

As he proposed in remarks made to members of the Downtown Kiwanis Club last week, Strickland favors dealing with city government's version of the current financial crisis by imposing immediate austerity measures — including a hiring freeze until the end of the current fiscal year.

Strickland, who would exempt first responders from the freeze, also told the Kiwanians that significant employee layoffs and pay cuts may be necessary. At the time last year that a council majority voted in favor of withholding significant portions of the council's traditional allotment to the schools, Strickland abstained on the grounds that cutting back on new city hires should be pursued along with such a remedy.

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