Politics » Politics Feature

POLITICS: Highly Un-Partisan

Party lines waver with Flinn’s win and a surprise challenge to Wilder.



Helped by a solid bloc of Republican votes, Shea Flinn, a Democrat, was named by the Shelby County Commission as the new interim state senator from District 30. Flinn, who received a majority over three other nominees at a special commission meeting Monday morning, will serve until the winner of next year’s special election to fill the seat vacated by Congressman-elect Steve Cohen

Later Monday, Tennessee Democrats were jolted by news that Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, already challenged for reelection as the state Senate’s presiding officer by Republican Ron Ramsey, had a new opponent — Democratic caucus chairman Joe Haynes.

The two circumstances highlighted a general loosening of party ties in state and local politics and an increased readiness in both spheres to cross over the usual partisan lines.

In the commission matter, three other persons received nominations besides Flinn. They were: businessman/activist Joseph Kyles; activist/civic leader Cordell Orrin; and lawyer Robert Spence, a former city attorney. All except Spence, a Democrat who is on the ballot in next year’s special election for District 30, sought only an interim appointment.

The vote, which yielded Flinn eight votes (and two more from Democrats who formally changed over in his favor afterward), crossed party lines and came after a flurry of discussion about matters of partisanship and whether only a “caretaker” candidate (as Flinn described himself) should be considered. 

The new senator, a lawyer, works for the broadcasting and other enterprises of his father, Commissioner George Flinn, a Republican.

On hand for the vote were Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle and District 33 Senator-elect Reginald Tate, who was selected by the county’s Democratic Party as a ballot replacement for Senator Kathryn Bowers, a Tennessee Waltz indictee who resigned her seat last year for what she described as health reasons. 

Spence, incidentally, has a good chance of recouping his setback Monday in next month’s party primary. His two opponents, state representative Beverly Marrero and former Cohen campaign manager Kevin Gallagher, were both still in after Monday’s withdrawal deadline and therefore will have to share their somewhat overlapping constituencies. 

On Monday, the commission also named an interim state representative to the District 92 seat vacated by current county commissioner Henri Brooks. Appointed without opposition was contractor Eddie Neal, who is not on next year’s special election ballot. Democrat G.A. Hardaway and Republican Richard Morton will vie for the seat in March. 

Dissension among Democrats: Though all of the nominees for the state Senate vacancy were Democrats pledged to support party goals in the legislature, three commission Democats saw potential partisan mischief in the nomination of Flinn by Republican Joyce Avery and in Flinn’s support by the full complement of six GOP commissioners. 

Democrat Deidre Malone expressed discontent with the fact (a “precedent-changing” move, she called it), as did Henri Brooks and Sidney Chism.

In particular, Chism — whom many considered the chief power-broker in the new commission — confessed to being blindsided by the vote for Flinn by Democrat James Harvey, who, along with Democrat Steve Mulroy, Flinn’s former law professor, provided the basis for a bipartisan coalition.

Before this week, it had been widely believed by Chism and others that Harvey, who was endorsed by Chism in this year’s Demcoratic primary, could be counted as a reliable member of a “Chism bloc.” Harvey, though, made a point of belying that premise. “I’m my own man, nobody else’s, no matter what Sidney thinks,” he said bluntly after Monday’s vote.

Though both a Democrat and an African American himself, Harvey also said he deplored the idea of bloc-voting on the commission.

A working alliance: Some observers had reckoned Commissioner J.W. Gibson to be within Chism’s orbit, but Gibson, too, seemed inclined to keep his own counsel — in his case, voting for the interim Senate candidacy of Joseph Kyles.

If unable quite yet to lay claim to being some kind of commission “boss,” Chism did seem to be a key member, along with Malone and Brooks, of a Democratic trio determined to work together for certain concrete results.

Over the weekend, the three African-American Democrats issued a statement calling for a federal investigation of Shelby County’s Juvenile Court procedures. This was after a series of hearings had indicated disparities between the treatment of juvenile offenders in the suburbs, who were offered “diversion” into local programs and those in the inner city (see Editorial, p. 16). 

The three are also leaders of a Democratic effort (supported by Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter) to create a second Juvenile Court judgeship. The issue, approved once, was shelved for technical and legal reasons, but some version of it is sure to be attempted again, with good chances of success — especially since Carpenter, who has been subjected to intense pressure from GOP sources to recant, indicates he is still committed to vote for another judgeship 

Haynes vs. Wilder: Unbeknownst to most of the commissioners on Monday was a trip Shea Flinn had made to Nashville on Sunday in the company of local Democratic activist David Upton and city councilman Jack Sammons. In essence, it was a pilgrimage to that venerable state shrine known as John Wilder.

Upton, a sometime antagonist of Chism and no great admirer of Spence, had become a serious organizer on Flinn’s behalf. Sammons has for years been a leading fund-raiser for Wilder (and served a stint as local Republican Party treasurer). The two of them were sealing a deal: Wilder’s blessing in return for assurances of Flinn’s support of the Somerville senator’s reelection as Senate presiding officer and lieutenant governor.

That mission was accomplished, but it began to seem almost beside the point with the unexpected news of the bid from Goodlettsville senator Haynes. Though Haynes’ challenge will be in the Democratic caucus and not in the Senate as a whole, it still threw the speakership question into confusion. Wilder’s assumed lock was based on a commitment in his favor from nominal Republican senator Micheal Williams of Maynardville. That defection, reprising Williams’ vote for Wilder two years ago, would allow the Somerville Democrat to overcome the current 17-16 edge Republicans have over Democrats in the Senate. There had even been unconfirmed reports that Williams intended to make a formal party switch when the legislature convened in January.

All of that was based on Williams’ close alliance with Wilder — which no one imagines him to have with Haynes. So what happens if one Democratic leader topples another?

Asked about that, the ever-imaginative Upton came up with several scenarios whereby Wilder would still remain speaker, either by default (nobody else achieving a majority) or by some other complicated trade-off.

The bottom line: Nobody knows what will happen when the Senate reconvenes, and nobody will know until that event occurs in the first week of January.

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