frank_talk (2006-06)

Drive-by Politics

Campaign money safe; Ford election/ouster a farce; judge a sudden priority

by Frank Cagle

• After a great deal of hard work, the General Assembly has brought forth an ethics bill. It recognizes that the party is over; no more wining and dining on lobbyist credit cards. We will eventually discover what’s in the fine print, but at first blush let’s praise them for doing the right thing.

It was too much to ask that they also risk losing money for their election campaigns. A last-minute compromise leaves Republicans with a large loophole to allow individual rich conservatives to contribute serious money. The Democrats get to continue getting large donations from PACs, like labor unions and the Tennessee Education Association and the Trial Lawyers.

• The illness of Sessions Judge Brenda Waggoner has left a vacancy on the court since last April, with cases covered by the other four Sessions Judges. After Waggoner announced her retirement, political opposition kept the Knox County Commission from appointing Cathy Quist to the post, but cases were still being covered. Then Jimmy Kyle Davis was lobbying hard for the post and was thought to have 10 votes, but cases were being covered and the position couldn’t get onto the Commission agenda.

Now, suddenly, the courts are in crisis, and there needs to be a special called meeting of the County Commission to make an appointment. Is there a better prospect now for Andy Jackson, the choice of the Bar Association who has the support of District Attorney Randy Nichols? County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has joined Nichols and Public Defender Mark Stephens in calling for an appointment because of the crisis.

• Partisan squabbling continues on whether state Sen. Ophelia Ford will be seated or whether the Republicans in the state senate will be successful in ousting her for a flawed election. Questions were raised on Election Day. The Shelby County Election Commission, controlled by Democrats, refused to investigate voting irregularities. The state election commission, also controlled by Democrats, refused to investigate and then certified the election. The Democrat who serves as Attorney General refused to intervene.

Only after the Commercial Appeal started writing stories about dead people voting did the state move to send in the TBI for an investigation.

Then the Republican senators hurriedly moved to kick Ford out of the seat. Their motives and their process are being reviewed by a federal judge in Memphis.

Regardless of which political party you support, is this any way to run state government? People charged with responsibility refusing to act because of political concerns? People using high-handed methods to oust a sitting senator?

The whole matter is disgusting, and it again demonstrates why we need a top law enforcement officer in this state who is elected by the people.

• During the Ford ouster effort, state Sen. Don McLeary, a Democrat from Humboldt, voted with the Republicans and then announced he was converting to the Republican Party. Given the Republican pick-up of another vote and the prospects of Ford being replaced by a Republican candidate by the Shelby County Commission, speculation is rife that the Republicans may have the votes to oust Lt. Gov. John Wilder. The Democrat was retained as lieutenant governor when Republicans took control of the Senate in the last election, due to the defection of two Republican senators.

Don’t get your hopes up. The state Senate can’t just wander in one day and decide to change the speaker. Wilder was elected to a two-year term of office. He cannot be replaced, even if the Republicans get a 10-vote majority during this session.

After this year’s Senate elections, and in January of 2007, there will be another election for speaker/lieutenant governor for another two-year term. If the Republicans have enough votes at that point they can replace Wilder—but not until then.

• The General Assembly has always drawn its own legislative districts, and the Democrats, being in power for over 100 years, have always drawn the districts to benefit Democrats or friendly Republicans. They often put two incumbent Republicans in the same district, thus eliminating one of them. The Democrats, good government groups and newspaper editorial boards have rarely had any problem with the process.

The Republicans allegedly have control of the state Senate and may make further gains this year. The Republicans are also poised to pick up some seats in the House and may get a majority in another election cycle or two.

Look for a groundswell of support soon for the idea of an independent commission using a computer program to start drawing district lines.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .