Politics » Politics Feature

UT Board of Trustees Vote Stirs Waves



Last week was a hugely important one in the political environment, largely because of the multitudes, including extraordinary numbers of eminent visitors, who took part in the MLK50 observances here — events impressive and emotionally powerful enough to arrest the attention of the entire world.

As a Memphis native who vividly remembers the tragic events of 1968 and had written about them at the time, I was keen to be on the scene for the week of memorials. Unexpectedly, though, I spent most of the week, including the key anniversary date of Wednesday, April 4th, in the hospital. (Thanks to all well-wishers; I'm okay now, so far as I know.) I followed events as well as I could via television and the extensive coverage of others, including several of my Flyer colleagues.  

• Upon the conclusion of the April 5th filing deadline for federal and state candidates last week, Tennessee Democrats made a point of boasting the fact that party candidates are vying for 111 of the 117 state legislative seats on this year's ballot (including every seat up for grabs in Shelby County). That's the largest number since the days of Democratic hegemony in Tennessee, and it revived party hopes for a blue wave in this year's election cycle.

To some extent, the rising tide of party candidates offsets the recent one-two punch suffered by the Tennesee Democratic Party resulting from preliminary Federal Election Commission figures, later revised, appearing to show a negative financial balance for the party's organization, followed by the firing of party executive director Jason Freeman, who was abruptly replaced by Jeff Teague, former CEO of Planned Parenthood for Middle and East Tennessee.

More recently, the Democratic legislative contingent in the General Assembly — outnumbered by a Republican super-majority but normally maintaining a fairly tight bond — survived a potential kerfuffle in the party's ranks that had threatened to develop the week before last.

The issue was a bill, initiated at the behest of GOP Governor Bill Haslam, calling for a reduction of the members of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees from 27 to 11, all to be gubernatorial appointees, in the process eliminating seats guaranteed to Democrats as members of the state's minority party and seats reserved for Shelby County as well. The bill passed in both the Senate and the House, in the latter body by a single vote. 

Two Shelby County Democrats — Representatives John DeBerry and Raumesh Akbari — voted for the bill, a fact that riled some key party members, though the party caucus had adopted no particular position and other Democrats professed themselves unbothered. The vote by DeBerry, who is notoriously (and proudly) independent of party discipline, was relatively unsurprising; that by Akbari, a rising party star and a candidate this year for the state Senate, was a different matter.

Akbari stoutly denied that her decision was prompted by any sort of quid pro quo; there had been a bit of muttering to that effect among one or two fellow Democrats, while several other Democrats defended Akbari against any such suspicion. Said one, debunking the idea that Akbari's vote would prejudice local interests: "There's no way the governor won't appoint somebody from Shelby County."

Indeed, when Haslam named his choices to the new board on Monday, two members had prominent Shelby County pedigrees: Bill Rhodes, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of AutoZone, and Bill Evans, former director and chief executive officer of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The new trustee configuration also allows for seven advisory boards for the separate UT campuses.

Co-sponsor for the bill, incidentally, was state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who has remained on the legislative scene because of the failure so far of the U.S. Senate to confirm his appointment by President Donald Trump to the federal judiciary.

The delay in confirmation has left others dangling besides Norris, who before being named by Trump had seemed ready to run for governor. Meanwhile, several would-be contenders to succeed Norris in the Senate, including Shelby County Commission chair Heidi Shafer, are forced into a wait-and-see posture regarding a possible confirmation and special election sometime in the future.

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