Gentle Ben

A Challenge from Conservatives Tugs Senator Ben Atchley Farther Right

The caller is livid. He's so mad he says he's going to come all the way from California to find Ben Atchley an opponent for the Sixth Senatorial District's Tennessee State Senate seat. A liberal opponent. Maybe a black liberal.

He's pitching a running fit.

When he's done, Atchley's administrative assistant, Tootie Haskins, thanks him politely, hangs up the telephone, logs the call. They are running about eight to one in favor of the Senator's Ten Commandments resolution, but the callers who are opposed are real, real, real pissed (not the word she would use).

"They all use the word appalled," the unflappable Haskins says, her smile sweet, her hair a gleaming golden helmet. "They have really blistered my ears. One woman who said that said she was agnostic. I wanted to say 'I'm appalled' right back at her."

The phone rings again. "Senator Atchley's office." After a few seconds she smiles again.

"Is this in regard to the Ten Commandments?"

This one goes into the other column. "May I ask where you're calling from? Sumner County, well, thank you. Thank you so much, Mr. Martin."

The next caller is a Nashville radio talk show host who wants to know about the Ten Commandments law. Haskins corrects the radio guy instantly.

"It is not a law, Mr. Hennessey. It is merely a resolution to encourage. No law, no mandate. Nobody is forced to do anything."

While she is wrestling the telephone, her senator is giving an interview to a reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger. The reporter wants to talk about Lamar Alexander, who relied (read: leaned) on Atchley to support tilting the 1996 state Republican primary to give the plaid guy a home field advantage. (Atchley complied, and drew considerable fire and maybe even a primary opponent for his trouble.)

Atchley emerges from his office briefly to usher an admiring Vanderbilt divinity student back to the inner sanctum, and Haskins seizes the opportunity to tell him that Hennessey wants him to go on a live WLAC talk show the following Thursday.

Atchley says he'll not be able to do it because he's due on the Senate floor then. Haskins reminds him of his luncheon speaking engagement, and that he has been asked to present a framed copy of the Ten Commandments to Dan Quayle the following week at the governor's prayer breakfast.

He grins and steps back into his office. The door closes behind him.

If there is a storm swirling around Ben Atchley today, the 66-year-old South Knoxvillian is tacking serenely through its eye. He is pro-business, pro-growth and a champion of ethics legislation. Deeply conservative, he opposes abortion and supports education, including home schooling. He is a limelight-shunning consensus-builder, a workhorse in an barn full of show ponies.

No silver spoon kind of guy, Atchley started working at nine and dropped out of school to work when he was in the ninth grade. After a while he returned to Young High to take a double load, graduated and, in 1951, married his high school sweetheart, Sue King, with whom he performed in an "oldies" band. (He and Sue sang; she played the piano).

He went to work at the telephone company, moving up through the ranks, and was elected to the General Assembly in 1972. In 1990 there was a draft-Atchley movement that ultimately failed to persuade him to run for governor against incumbent Ned McWherter, although "Gentle Ben" campaign buttons marked Republican lapels all over East Tennessee that fall.

Year in and year out, he has two standing weekly "dates," one on Friday night with Sue, another at 5 a.m. Saturday with his 89-year-old father, Curtis, whom he joins for breakfast at Hardy's on Chapman Highway. Once upon a time, a columnist compared him to It's a Wonderful Life hero George Bailey, the nicest guy in Bedford Falls.

A prominent lobbyist who asks not to be identified says he's flummoxed by Atchley's sponsorship of the Ten Commandments resolution. It's just not like him, the lobbyist says, and he suspects it has something to do with Atchley's as yet unannounced opponent, who is said to enjoy the support of the religious right.

"He's overreacting," the lobbyist says. "I guarantee, in the past Ben Atchley would never have done something like this."

He believes the 1994 defeat of Chattanooga Sen. Ray Albright by a Christian Coalition-supported candidate may have prompted Atchley to do something uncharacteristically flashy.

The last time Atchley did anything that attracted much controversy was 10 years ago, when he formed an alliance with Senate Speaker John Wilder (D-Somerville) and quietly engineered a bloodless coup which allowed Republicans to all but take over the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"The Democrats had a split in their caucus over the right-to-work law," Atchley remembers. "And prior to that, Wilder had gotten into trouble for appointing two Republicans to committee chairmanships because he believed the leadership should reflect the makeup of the Senate. There were 10 Republicans at that time."

Hard-line Democrats tried to force Wilder to renounce his bipartisan ways, and the caucus split when only eight Democrats stuck with him. Atchley saw an opening and made the approach.

"There were always rumors that we'd had secret meetings and cut deals. That's not true," he says. "I simply told him, 'Don't forget. You've got 10 people supportive of you on the other side of the aisle.

"I was never asked for anything, and I never offered anything. But I could count. It was simple arithmetic."

Wilder took him up on it, and the eight dissident Democrats teamed up with the 10 mostly East Tennessee Republicans, forming a uniquely bipartisan majority that has allowed Republicans four of nine committee chairmanships and co-leadership of the 33-member Senate ever since.

"I am an equal leader of the Senate. He (Wilder) doesn't make a decision if he doesn't check with me. The Senate is not a partisan body, and we make decisions on the merits of an issue," Atchley says.

As the Senate Republican leader since 1986, Atchley enjoyed uncommon power as head of the minority party, thanks to the alliance with conservative Democrats. Atchley's clout enlarged last September when two Democrats changed parties to give the GOP a thin majority, its first since Reconstruction. Since he became majority leader, his continued loyalty to Wilder has cost him support among GOP hard-liners, but many others believe Atchley is smart to stick with the "Wilder Bunch," since his majority may not hold past the November elections.

Atchley dismisses the criticism of those who wanted him to promise to give Wilder the boot when the Senate reorganizes in 1997, saying he'd be an ingrate to turn on his longtime ally just because the numbers have changed.

"I try to live by principles," he says. "Ten years ago, John Wilder invited us to the table, and now just because we have one more Republican than he has Democrats, they want me to kick him away. That is something I will not do."

There are 17 Republican state senators in the 33-member body now. Atchley raised campaign funds for many of them.

"We grew from 10 Republicans to 17, and we didn't do that by kicking people's shins," Atchley says.

And as for Wilder?

"If I'm back and he's back, he's my candidate."

Five days after Atchley brought the Ten Commandments up to the Hill, he'd talked to CNN, the BBC, ABC and CBS. He had stirred enough controversy to land him on the Today Show, where he appeared via satellite from the Channel 10 studio. The audio didn't work and he had to use a dorky cordless phone for his joint interview with smooth-talking civil libertarian Steve Cohen, who was in Memphis. Cohen, known as one of the Senate's most skillful debaters, had audio that worked.

The interview was brief. Host Bryant Gumbel began by questioning Atchley in his usual aggressive fashion, but turned suddenly friendly when Atchley explained that it was a resolution encouraging observance of the Ten Commandments, not a law that can compel anyone to do anything.

"Oh," said Gumbel. "Not a law? So what's the big deal?"

That's Atchley's view as well. He attempted to pass the resolution on the consent calendar, where inconsequential measures like naming bridges for somebody's mother's housekeeper are generally passed en masse and without conversation. Cohen spotted it there and bumped it onto the regular calendar.

Although taken aback by the furor, Atchley is not bothered by criticism of the resolution "to encourage the observance of the Ten Commandments." The "whereas" portion speaks of "moral decline" which "constitutes a threat to the welfare of any state" and cites the reverence in which the founders of the nation held the Ten Commandments. The resolution calls for a return to those "basic standards," and "encourages" Tennesseans to observe the commandments and to post them "in their homes, businesses, schools and places of worship, and that 10 days, starting the fifth day of May ... be set aside particularly to honor these Commandments."

He says he agreed to sponsor the resolution when Rep. James Peach (R-Camden), who last year authored a similar measure in the House, asked for his help in passing it in the Senate this year.

Atchley says he could see the need for the resolution because of the things he sees as he sits on the Committee on Corrections and Oversight and the Education Committee, where, he says, "all we're doing is treating symptoms."

"We make rules and we punish. I believe we need to go back to the foundation, the basic code our laws come from."

While the commandments may be the most visible thing Atchley has done this year, he wouldn't likely have tagged it as the most important item on his agenda if you'd asked him at the beginning of the session.

He is prime sponsor of Gov. Don Sundquist's "Families First" welfare reform plan; property tax relief for the elderly; all Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System pension and insurance bills; a controversial bill requiring hospitals to list community service on annual reports, including education and unsubsidized health care; and a bill authorizing the Public Building Authority to appoint an executive committee and hire an administrator.

There's a Victor Ashe-requested bill increasing the number of commissioners on the Tourist Commission and a bill to require title pledge lenders (storefront loan institutions that lend small amounts of money on the borrower's car title) to disclose charges and interest rates on the front end. The idea for this bill came from a woman whose son had repaid $3,109 on a $1,000 loan.

There are appropriations, too. This year, Knoxville is getting more than $23 million for such projects as improvements to the Bijou Theater, Ijams Park and the Knoxville Zoo, and renovations to the Claxton Education Building at UT. Atchley says having three members of the Knox County delegation on the Conference Committee, where bills go to be resolved between the House and the Senate, helps to look out for the local folks.

Ray Albright, a Chattanooga Republican, served 26 years in the General Assembly--two in the House, 24 in the Senate, where he was chairman of the Education Committee. It was Albright who shepherded the Basic Education Program of the early '90s, and he was the acknowledged leader of the reforms that got the state out of the "small schools" federal court lawsuit over inequity in school funding.

He was defeated in the 1994 Republican primary by David Fowler, a lawyer from Signal Mountain who made his fundamentalist religious views a prominent plank in his platform. One prominent Fowler backer was John Davies, president of the Tennessee Conservative Union. Davies also supports Atchley's prospective opponent, John Emison.

"Ben Atchley is a good, solid, honest legislator. Yet you've got groups trying to intimidate him, groups who want to impose their views ... They're kind of frightening," Albright says.

He feels "an atmosphere of intimidation here (in the General Assembly). I'm seeing people do things I know they don't believe in out of a fear that these people will single them out."

"These people" are members of the religious right, which uses churches to campaign, he says.

"It goes through the churches like wildfire ... I thought I was pretty conservative. But I will not go along with everything just because it's in the name of religion, and I'd rather be an ex-senator than be in the atmosphere we have here now."

(This year the Religious Right is pushing a slate of legislation including a ban on same-sex marriages, repeal of no-fault divorce laws and prohibition of the teaching of evolution. Fowler was pictured in the New York Times last Sunday defending an amendment designed to allow creationism to be taught in science classes. Later this year, an attempt to exercise control over textbooks is expected.)

Albright, a longtime Chattanooga banker, says the opposition ran a whisper campaign accusing him of most every sin in the book. "They came at me like a freight train. They campaigned in Sunday school classes. He (Fowler) said to me, 'I never heard you testify that Jesus Christ is your savior in public.' Honest to God, he said that to me.

"I still run into the hostility."

Atchley, long a pillar of Greystone Presbyterian Church, has served the interests of social conservatives for years and can count on important support from some in those quarters.

Lynn Ray, who represents the Tennessee Association of Church Related Schools and the Pro-Life Action Network and is a consultant with the Family Institute, calls Atchley "one of my favorite people in the world."

Ray says he isn't entirely comfortable with the Ten Commandments resolution's urging Tennesseans to post the commandments in "places of worship," because he believes it is not proper for the state to recommend doctrine to churches.

However, he calls the commandments "truth in its most pristine form" and says once before the Legislature, the resolution must be passed, lest "disastrous signals" be sent.

He says Atchley's opponent can expect "no support from the groups I represent ... Everybody I know supports Ben Atchley."

Arch-conservative Blount County Sen. Carl Koella, who used to be known as the most right-wing member of the General Assembly before the new bunch got elected, has been a financial angel to the Tennessee Conservative Union. He is likewise sending negative signals to Emison.

"I've told the group I'm close to cutting off (support from Emison). This fellow running against Ben's got about as much chance as a snowball in hell. But it's a nuisance. Ben could be out recruiting candidates instead of having to fool with this."

Meanwhile, Emison is revving up for an April announcement and says he will be running (if he does) because "we don't have the kind of Republican leadership we need to carry on the sort of revolution at the state level that we have had at the federal level. My concern is that the current leadership doesn't know what to do with the Republican majority that we have inadvertently but happily created in the Senate."

Emison, 45, works for an environmental cleanup firm in Oak Ridge. He says it is Atchley's "minority mentality" that led him to make an "incredibly premature" pledge of support to John Wilder.

He says his campaign will be based on three issues: term limits (he's for them), taxes (he's against them), and Atchley's acceptance of political contributions from the liquor lobby (which he says he will not do).

Emison says he is not a member of the Christian Coalition, but is "very sympathetic to their fiscal as well as their social issues." He says he has had conversations about his candidacy with Tennessee Christian Coalition chairman emeritus John Hanna and will "save him a seat at my announcement.

"John, if you're listening, you're invited!"

Lt. Gov. John Wilder, commonly addressed as "Governor," speaks in distinctive, haiku-like cadences delivered in a thick-as-molasses West Tennessee accent. He knows Atchley has paid a price for his alliance with the Democrats.

"Ben thinks the decision-making process is better in the state Senate than it is in Washington, where it is totally partisan and they will bring the government to its knees rather than act in a nonpartisan way," says Wilder, who has little patience for anyone who would accuse Atchley of not being Republican enough.

"Ben is a loyal Republican. Ben is a strong Republican. Nobody holds the Republican philosophy higher than Ben. Ben believes in production. Ben believes in something for something, not something for nothing. Ben is solid as a rock and if all those who serve were like he is, the nation would be like the state of Tennessee, which is the best, not the worst."

And what does he think of the Ten Commandments resolution?

"Ben has become a media star because of the Ten Commandments. It's not the first time I've seen the Ten Commandments. Victor Ashe had an ethics bill that said 'If anybody gives you anything, tell it quick.' There was an amendment on it, said the Ten Commandments would be our ethics. It's good ethics. The best. It had a good author and I believe it'll last another day or two.

"I don't know what the people of Tennessee would do without Ben. Wait. Don't say that, because life goes on without all of us, eventually. Just say it would be a big shock to the people of Tennessee to do without him."

Sen. Milton Hamilton is from Union City, up by Reelfoot Lake, hard by the Missouri border. He has served in the state Senate for 25 years, and will retire this year (He is expected to be appointed commissioner of conservation upon his retirement). He switched parties last fall, giving the GOP its first majority since Reconstruction. He says Atchley is "one of the major reasons I changed parties ... He's probably the best I've ever seen at bringing people together."

Almost 10 years ago, John Mahon, a professor at Boston University's School of Management, directed an in-depth study of Atchley's leadership style for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (Atchley is now national chairman of the group). He studied the beginnings of the Wilder coalition and came to the conclusion that Atchley "legitimizes his power out of respect, not out of fear ... I have never met a man in my life whose word is his bond so much as Ben Atchley."

And what does he think now that Atchley has stepped into the spotlight with his Ten Commandments resolution? Has he changed his mind? Is he surprised that Atchley would do such a thing?

"Not at all," says Mahon in a telephone interview from his Boston office. "Ben's an individual who really gives a damn. Not about whether you're Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or whatever. What he cares about is that we need a moral compass. And I don't think he has done this to respond to an opponent. The hallmark of his career is being willing to take a principled stand."

Mahon hastens to say that he and Atchley are not close personal friends, that the two haven't spoken for years, and that the first he knew about the Ten Commandments resolution was when he read about it in the newspaper.

"I read through the article to see who had sponsored it and saw Ben's name and I smiled. I tip my hat to him."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.