A confrontational meeting last week between state Senator Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville) and other members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate ended with old wounds exacerbated and with the probability that Kurita's primary opponent this year, Tim Barnes, will be the recipient of some concerted party support, sources tell the Flyer.
The meeting - of the admonitory sort that politicians refer to irreverently as a "come-to-Jesus" affair -- took place at the request of Democratic caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville during the last week of the 2008 legislative session. It was a day after Kurita had voted with Senate Republicans to defeat a key Democratic-backed bill to amend eligibility requirements for lottery-funded Hope scholarships. She was taken to task by several caucus members for that vote and for other breaks with the party majority but vigorously defended her right to cast her votes as she saw fit.
She was then asked if she would at least pledge to support the caucus' candidate for Senate Speaker at the beginning of the next legislative session, in January 2009. She declined to make such a commitment.
The backdrop for the meeting and for the raising of the Speakership issue, in particular, was the bad blood that has existed between Kurita and key Senate Democrats since her fateful decision in January 2007 to break ranks and vote for Republican Ron Ramsey as Speaker and Lieutenant Governor. As a result of Kurita's action, the 36-year hold on the position by octogenarian John Wilder (D-Somerville) was ended, while she herself was rewarded by Ramsey with the position of Senate Speaker Pro Tem.
Wilder subsequently announced his retirement after the session which has just ended. But other Democrats - notably Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the party's leader in the Senate - hope to regain the Speakership for the party if this year's elections result in a Democratic majority in the 33-member body. Relations between Kyle and Kurita have ranged from merely tense to overtly hostile ever since her vote for Ramsey.
Last week's meeting increases the likelihood that Barnes, a Clarksville attorney who was the Democratic standard-bearer in a 2006 race for the state House of Representatives , would have stepped-up organizational and financial support from party members. Barnes made a point, during the session, of visiting Democratic legislators' offices to introduce himself.
Asked about relations between Kurita and other Democrats, Lowe Finney, a first-term Democratic senator from Jackson, cited a phrase once used by former Governor Ned McWherter in another context: He said, Nothing more embarrassing than being bitten by your own dog, Well, I worked hard to get to the Senate to work for Democratic causes, and I feel , like a lot of others, that Ive been bitten.
Finney said Kurita had deserted the party on several key votes during the last two years and predicted that, if state Democrats saw Barnes to be making serious headway, he could well end up with significant support within the party especially from labor and lawyers groups, who've taken it on the chin.
Kyle pointed out that Barnes had already been endorsed by the state Labor Council and by the College Democrats of Austin Peay University, located in Clarksville.
Another influential Clarksvillie Democrat , former House majority leader and current gubernatorial hopeful Kim McMillan, told the Flyer last month that either Kurita or Barnes would be an acceptable Senate nominee in District 22. McMillan, never considered close to Kurita, may now come under pressure to tilt toward Barnes, whom she actively supported in his unsuccessful House race against a Republican incumbent.
The Democratic primary will decide the outcome in District 22, since no Republican had filed for the seat.