Politics » Politics Feature

Worx for Some, Not for Others

The collapse of a once-vaunted MLGW investment may impact the mayoral race.



As the MLGW board 'fessed up this week and announced the pending sale to a Colorado holding company of its Networx assets, at a financial loss to Memphis taxpayers, at least two leading mayoral candidates stood to suffer a potential political loss on top of that.

They were incumbent mayor Willie Herenton, by all accounts a prime mover in the board's decision to invest $29 million in the broadband fiber-optics enterprise back in 1999, and Herman Morris, MGLW's president at the time.

And talk about bad timing! Addressing a meeting of the conservative-oriented Dutch Treat Luncheon on March 10th, candidate Morris made a point of defending the venture, saying, "I believed and believe it to be a very good concept."

The former utility head went on to contend that Networx was intended to give the city "a competitive posture to attract industry as a part of our infrastructure" and to encourage "growth in the high-tech sector."

Predicted Morris: "I still believe it will pay dividends."

Two other candidates came off somewhat better. Addressing the same Dutch Treat Luncheon group a month earlier, on February 10th, former county commissioner John Willingham listed Networx as one of the flops of the current administration and criticized it as relying on fiber optics "in the age of, what, wireless?"

And City Council member Carol Chumney, who said she attempted to downscale some add-on funding for Networx that the council briefly considered a year or two back and who criticized the venture at her campaign opening in February, announced that the council's MLGW committee, which she heads, will hold a hearing on the Networx matter next Tuesday.

Mayoral candidate Chumney finally let the other shoe drop Tuesday when she filed her candidacy petition at the Election Commission.

Meanwhile, as if determined to prove that he has a common touch, Morris made the rounds last week — literally. One of his stops was at Thursday night's weekly session of "Drinking Liberally" at Dish in Cooper-Young.

In that casual setting, Morris dispensed some of his usual platform planks on crime, economic development, and education but also addressed some more unusual queries. Someone, mindful of an imbroglio experienced by presidential hopeful Bill Richardson on Meet the Press, asked Morris if he was a Yankee or a Red Sox fan.

After thinking on it, Morris answered "Yankees" but then added, "I'm not really a baseball fan, though." Why not? "Because of the 7th-inning stretch. That always wakes me up."

On Saturday, Morris addressed a meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Women, where, among other things, he boasted Memphis' "natural attributes" over those of Atlanta and criticized a law-enforcement strategy whereby "drive-by police are chasing drive-by criminals."

• Confirming intentions that had been known for months, Pinnacle Airlines attorney Nikki Tinker, runner-up to U.S. representative Steve Cohen in last year's 9th District Democratic primary, has filed federal papers to run against Cohen again next year. But both Tinker and Cohen could have company in the primary: Freshman state representative G.A. Hardaway is also said to be considering a race.

As for Tinker's challenge — represented by The Hill, an insiders' political newsletter in Washington, D.C., as having black vs. white connotations — Cohen had this to say to the paper: "I don't see it as being close at all. ... I'm afraid Ms. Tinker is not aware of how far we've come in race relations."

Tinker, who made a late and well-funded challenge to Cohen in 2006, paid for largely by corporate donations and support from the Emily's List PAC, filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission but reported no financial contributions for the first quarter of the current cycle.

Cohen won 31 percent of the 15-candidate primary vote in 2006 and won a majority of the district's African-American vote in a three-way general election contest with independent Jake Ford (also rumored to be thinking about another run) and Republican Mark White.

In his term so far, Cohen has taken special pains with legislation on behalf of black voters, most recently sponsoring a House resolution putting the body on record as apologizing for slavery. Earlier this year, he held a joint town meeting in the district with the legendary African-American congressman from Detroit, John Conyers, Cohen's chairman on the House Judiciary Committee.

Hardaway, whose candidacy would constitute another three-way race for Cohen, would neither confirm nor deny plans for a congressional run in 2008.

Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois who wants to be president, came to Tennessee last week in pursuit of that aim.

After meeting in Nashville with Governor Phil Bredesen, state house speaker Jimmy Naifeh, and members of the legislative black caucus, and just before heading off to a couple of private fund-raisers elsewhere in the state's capital city, Obama put it this way:

"I think Tennessee has smart Democrats who are able to fashion a kind of agenda that attracts independents and Republicans. So I want to get some good advice and maybe some good supporters while I'm here."

Both Bredesen and Naifeh were complimentary about Obama but noncommittal on the issue of supporting him against other Democratic contenders.

State Politics: The General Assembly finally got around to what looked like a climactic decision last week, in which state revenues, already in surplus, were to be newly fattened, thanks mainly to the 42-cent tobacco tax passed the week before in defiance of what had seemed to be adverse odds.

There was some interesting behind-the-scenes stuff going on.

The bill's one-vote margin in the state Senate had been due to an unusual de facto collaboration between two state senators, Jim Kyle of Memphis and Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, political arch-adversaries who both got what they wanted when push came to shove.

Kyle is the state Senate's Democratic leader — still mortally offended by fellow Democrat Kurita's pivotal vote in January to unseat venerable Senate speaker John Wilder and install the first Republican lieutenant governor in the state's history, Ron Ramsey. He and Kurita do not speak, unless it is unavoidably in the line of duty.

Yet they collaborated in the passage of the tobacco tax, the pièce de résistance in Bredesen's education package but with sums earmarked also for agricultural enhancement grants and state trauma centers. The vote was 17-16, a party-line affair in which former Republican, now independent, Micheal Williams of Maynardville voted as expected with the Democrats.

Most of the expected $230 million in annual revenues will finance Bredesen's upgrade of the state's Basic Education Plan. The trauma-center allocations will come from the two-cents' worth (literally) that Kurita, a nurse by profession, insisted on tacking on as the price of her vote for a bill that was originally the rival to her own version of a tobacco tax, which would have mostly been devoted not to education but to health-care issues.

Holding the Line: Fearing sabotage in the Senate, where two Democrats were absent last week when the House got ready to vote, Democrats in that body heeded warnings from Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington and majority leader Gary Odom of Nashville about accepting Republican amendments which would have sent it back to the other chamber for reconsiderations.

The GOP amendments contained some attractive embellishments to the bill — ranging from reallocations of state lottery funds to needy school districts to riders that would lower or temporarily eliminate the sales tax on groceries. One amendment would have added another penny's worth of tax for Iraq war veterans. Another would have added money to counter sexual predators, but Democrats like Mike Turner of Nashville, who later called the Republican members "assholes," held the line.

Ultimately, the un-amended tax prevailed with a majority of 59 or 60 votes of the 99-member House, depending on whether or not Republican Jim Coley of Bartlett, an educator, A) voted accidentally or on purpose against the bill; and B) was successful or unsuccessful in changing his "no" vote to "aye" immediately afterward.

Coley was insistent that he had pushed the wrong button and equally adamant that he had succeeded in having his vote reversed by the House clerk. Speaker Naifeh, clearly skeptical on the first count and seemingly determined, as he had promised earlier, to afford nay-saying Republicans no cover, was equally emphatic that the right vote total was 59, not 60, and that Coley's no vote remained unchanged.

Coley got some backup from Representative Mike Kernell, one of two Shelby County Democrats (the other was Larry Turner) who voted against the tobacco-tax bill on grounds of its regressivity. Kernell said he would have voted for the tax had the proceeds been rerouted back to health care, where, he said, it would have been "tripled" by match-ups with federal grants.

"Coley had told me he was going to vote yes, and he mistook a 'call-for-the-question' vote for the vote on the bill itself," Kernell said in defense of his colleague.

A Regressive Tax? Meanwhile, Kernell took time out afterward to make an extended defense of his own attitude (and, by implication, Turner's, who called the tobacco tax "yet another regressive sales tax and one whose proceeds are non-renewable").

"I wouldn't have voted for the bill even if my vote had been the one necessary for its passage," said Kernell, who seemed to be echoing Kurita's concerns that health-care issues should take precedence over Bredesen's plans for updating the state's Basic Education Plan.

From that point of view, Kernell found much that was agreeable in a speech Monday night by Representative Beth Harwell, a Davidson County Republican, in favor of her amendment to use the tobacco-tax proceeds to reduce or eliminate the sales tax on groceries. "It was a great speech," said Kernell, who acknowledged, however, that any amended bill returned to the Senate for action would probably have expired there.

• Even as state senator Kurita gets her sea legs under her, the man whom she, in effect, deposed, Senator Wilder of Somerville, seemed somewhat more out to sea than was his wont during his 36 years as lieutenant governor and Senate speaker.

Octogenarian Wilder seems physically recovered from the fall he took at his Fayette County home early in the session. And he makes a point of participating in discussions, both in committee and on the floor of the Senate itself.

But the longtime legislative lion just isn't plugged in the way he once was. A demonstration of that occurred on Monday during a session of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, one that was devoted to the question of how surplus state funds could be used to augment the state's "rainy day" or reserve fund.

Much of that conversation was between committee chairman Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and the two Senate party leaders who were intimately acquainted with the mechanics of the deal, Jim Kyle of Memphis and Republican Mark Norris of Collierville. During the back-and-forth, Wilder, seemingly taking in the fact and magnitude of the funds available this year, ventured to ask: "Do we need the tobacco tax?"

There was an awkward pause, after which the former speaker himself ventured, "I don't really need to ask that?"

There may have been a rhetorical point to Wilder's question — one that, for that matter, any number of lay citizens might find themselves wondering — but in the context of the committee's end-of-session wrap-up, it came off as a bit less than plugged in.

A little later, after a series of further such basic inquiries, Wilder turned to Chairman McNally and said, "Do I need to stop asking questions?"

"No, sir" was the deferential response from McNally, who continued addressing Wilder by the ceremonial title of "governor."

Wilder has indicated that he intends to run again for his state Senate seat in 2008 and would be favored to win if he did so. But the predominant sentiment of his colleagues is that he would be hard-pressed to get the Democratic caucus' nomination for lieutenant governor, much less that of the Senate as a whole.

• Without much fanfare, Governor Bredesen last week signed into law the "Rosa Parks Act," whose chief Senate sponsor was Kyle. The law, named in honor of the late heroine of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, allows civil rights activists to have criminal charges related to their activism expunged from their records.

"It's important because it recognizes that people did risk incarceration for social change and that they ultimately prevailed," Kyle said at the time he sponsored the bill. "They should not have the stigma of that incarceration or be put in the same class as other folks who simply just committed crimes."

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