State Rep. Frank Buck

The last of the mavericks shares war stories of how Tennessee's capitol hill really does business

Nashville, Tenn.

March 11, 2008

A winter wind is scouring the barren expanse of the Legislative Plaza, but it's getting hot in the labyrinth of government hearing rooms down below, especially in the House Agriculture Committee, which is considering one of Representative Frank Buck's bills. A woman from the Department of Agriculture is methodically killing it off.

Buck, a country lawyer who has announced his intention to retire from office after representing the 40th House District for 36 years, does a slow burn as she tells the committee that anyone who applies herbicide to somebody else's lawn has to have a license. He gives her the stink eye when she says his bill, which would exempt people who only use small amounts of herbicide from the license requirement, is unnecessary. When she says the state doesn't bother to enforce the law against the neighborhood handyman or the kid who manicures the neighbor's yard to make extra money, Buck has heard all he can stand. He explodes out of his front row seat.

"Horsefeathers! What she's saying is that under the current state of the law, if I pay my grandson to spray Roundup on my wife's rock garden, that's illegal. This is nothing but catering to a special interest—a bunch of lawn-care people out of Memphis wanting to protect their business—and the Department of Agriculture is complicit. Not one word did she ever say to me about the need to define the difference between a commercial applicator and an amateur. She came into my office and misrepresented their position to me, told me they were neutral. That was a lie."

Unmoved by Buck's contention that the legislature should not condone selective enforcement of state law, the committee toys with the bill a little more before somebody moves to send it to a summer study committee. A quick vote ends it, and he stalks out of the room with the woman from the Department of Agriculture on his heels trying to talk him out of being mad. Her wheedling avails her nothing but more abuse, and the burly, 64-year-old lawyer/farmer in the signature leather vest strides resolutely down the hall, barking insults over his shoulder. He tells her she blindsided him and says this is one more demonstration of the power of special interests, which is exactly what the hell's wrong with this place. She gives up the chase as he rounds the corner, which is probably a good thing. "There are two things that set me off worse than anything," he grumbles. "Hypocrisy and gutlessness. We've got too many damn worms down here," he says, still fuming at the notion that people like his grandson could be required to buy a license to squirt Roundup on a fencerow.

The irascible Democrat from Dowelltown (pop. 358) represents the 40th District, which consists of Macon, Smith, and DeKalb counties. His departure will be a watershed event in the General Assembly, where his refusal to knuckle under to his party's leadership and his long-running war with the special interest-dominated culture have gotten him stripped of a committee chairmanship and shunned by party leadership, but have endeared him to reformers, common citizens and Republicans who appreciate his bipartisan instincts. Buck has fought for tougher ethics laws, against weakening the state's Open Meetings laws and for strengthening environmental regulations.

Few are neutral about this outspoken, tireless and sometimes profane outsider, who makes the 110-mile round trip to Dowelltown every day during session. Buck readily admits that his mouth gets him in trouble. His brutal candor and jaw-dropping practical jokes make it difficult to imagine life on Capitol Hill without him. And as he prepares to take his leave from Nashville, Buck's candid tales of legislative misadventures reveal how the work of lawmaking really gets done in the halls of state government.

COUNT KNOX COUNTY FARMER JAMES MCMILLAN as a member of the Frank Buck Fan Club. He met Buck a couple of years ago when he visited Nashville lobbying on behalf of the Clean Water Network.

"I fell in love with him because he was genuine. Half of these others, it's like talking to Plexiglas. They're just sitting there smiling that fake smile.

"He's a big guy, kinda knobby looking, hair messed up, leather vest. He hadn't spent too much money decorating—you could tell he had a work office, not a showplace, and you could tell he wasn't there to impress anybody, but I was more impressed with him than anybody I met down there. I told him my story about my farm being destroyed (by runoff and pollution from poorly-regulated development), and he just sat there and he talked to me—not at me. He encouraged me to stand up, said ‘Son, you're the only citizen I've talked to here today. All the rest of them are paid to be here, but you're down here because of the right reason. We need more people like you.'

"But that was after the practical joke."

The joke came at the hands of Buck's friend, Sen. Doug Jackson from Dickson County, who has been involved in some of Buck's most notorious pranks over the years—often as victim, but sometimes as instigator. Buck had sent McMillan and his colleagues to talk to Jackson, who listened to their spiel, then unloaded on them.

"He said, ‘Your bill's dead. You made a big mistake getting that fat, slimy, lop-eared, mule-faced SOB Frank Buck on your side. You're toast.' We were scared to death, and we went back to Frank and told him we were sunk.

"He just laughed and told us that Jackson was going to be for us."

McMillan said they got part of the bill passed, after it "got cut all to pieces."

"Frank Buck is a legislator who's there for the right reasons. Him leaving will be a huge loss for the common people of Tennessee."

Henry Fincher, a first-term Democrat from Cookeville, one county east of Buck's district, will miss Frank Buck, too.

Fincher was sitting next to Buck during the committee meeting, and afterward, he came by to commiserate and to discuss the matter of 13th District Attorney General Bill Gibson, whose office serves both Fincher's and Buck's districts. Gibson's law license was suspended 20 months ago by the Board of Professional Responsibility, which found that he had corresponded with a murder suspect and had an inappropriate relationship with a woman who was convicted of drug offenses and child abuse. Gibson was banned from his office, but has drawn his full salary for almost two years. Buck, Fincher and another legislator have reluctantly started the extraordinary measure of removing him from office by a legislative resolution. They are taking heat for it from Gibson's supporters, but they are standing firm.

The two make an odd team, the old country lawyer and the rookie with the Harvard law degree, and although Buck needles Fincher about his Ivy League education, there's a considerable degree of respect between the two—not that Fincher notices it much.

"I don't know if he's trying to show me the ropes, or just kicking me around," Fincher says. "Constantly, he gives me a hard time. But I really like Frank—he's going to be missed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his phenomenal institutional memory. He has seen so much…. He says what he thinks, and he says it in the starkest of terms. He almost seems to want to use the most inflammatory method of making his point, and in a profession known for dissembling and hiding the ball, Frank doesn't do that at all—just lays it out there. Frank is frank, in every sense of the word."

Somebody who won't miss Frank Buck can be found a few doors down the hall from the committee room in the legislative cafeteria where Tom "the Golden Goose" Hensley presides over a table full of lobbyists strategically placed near the eatery's front door.

The Goose, as he's known in the cynical shorthand of state government, is 67 and has been around longer than Buck. He represents the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, which this year is fighting a winning battle against the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association's move to allow grocery stores to sell wine. The Goose's familiar "what about the children" arguments evidently still appeal to teetotalers and church ladies and liquor store owners. He has always won with a little help from his friends, and nobody expects him to lose this time, although most believe that he won't be able to stop the expansion of alcohol sales for much longer.

New rules like the "cup of coffee" law that Buck pushed in the '90s limit what lobbyists can spend wooing legislators, and have cramped Hensley's high-rolling style somewhat. Five minutes after he declined to talk about Buck, he launched into a monologue in a voice loud enough to be heard two tables away:

"Frank Buck? I'm not going to say a damn word about that sanctimonious son of a bitch."

This opinion is shared by some colleagues who complain that Buck's accusations have made the whole Legislature look like a den of thieves.

Then there's the sprinkling of anonymous Internet commentators whose feelings about his retirement can be summed up in two words—"good riddance"—and the party loyalists who consider him a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). But only a sprinkling.

FRANK BUCK'S FAVORITE BOOK IS BORN FIGHTING, by U.S. Sen. James Webb. It's a history of the Scots-Irish, a stubborn breed whose ranks include the Bucks of the Upper Cumberland. His favorite family story is the one about his grandmother standing off a tank with a garden hoe. The army conducted military maneuvers in Middle Tennessee in the early days of World War II because the terrain is similar to the German countryside. The Bucks, who had been hit hard by the Depression, were hard-working farmers who raised their own food.

"My grandmother was out there working her garden when those soldiers decided they wanted to come through. She was a little bitty dried-up woman, but she shook that hoe at that tank and said, ‘You get your ass back through that gate, you son of a bitch!' And she backed them down," Buck says.

His parents, Georgia and John Buck, did the best they could, but John was crippled with polio, and barely scratched out a living.

"That old man had worked all his life, with no health insurance. Money was hard, but he gave us as much as he could. Mostly, he stripped tobacco out of a wheelchair. Two things my daddy wanted were to be out of debt and to see his sons graduate from college, and he wanted life better for his children. He got to see that—my brother is a retired schoolteacher—but he never got out of debt. We paid off $3,500 he owed on the old farm out of his life insurance," Buck says.

Buck, who lost his left index finger in a wood joiner when he was a teenager, holds an undergraduate degree in business and economics from Tennessee Tech and a law degree from the University of Tennessee, where he worked his way through school doing everything from fixing cars and painting water tanks to working as an engineer at WUOT, UT's FM radio station. He met his wife, Lena, who is also an attorney, when they were both active in the 4-H Club in high school. They have four daughters, six grandchildren, a law firm called Buck & Buck, and a farm in Dowelltown. He believes in the Constitution, the Church of Christ, and the Tennessee Volunteers. He credits his parents with instilling in him a good work ethic and a sense of right and wrong.

"We were poor as church mice, but the greatest gift a parent can give you is the raising. And if you think I'm an ornery cuss, you ought have known my daddy, who spent the last 25 years of his life in a wheelchair.

"The first time I ran for office, he and my mother campaigned door to door for me in Smith County. You can't beat the poor kid who works his ass off and makes good—and we carried the living hell out of Smith County. My parents had known about a third of that county for years and years."

Buck's predecessor, the legendary Dean of the Legislature, James H. "Mr. Jim" Cummings, had served since 1929, except for a stretch between 1949-1953 when he was secretary of state. Cummings decided to retire, and Buck ran with his blessing, exposing a local liquor-for-votes scam in the process. Still, he admits to being somewhat astonished by what awaited him in Nashville in January 1973. Winfield Dunn was governor and Jim McKinney was House speaker—but not for much longer. Ned Ray McWherter, the House majority leader, was ready to make his move, and was jawboning as many freshmen legislators as he could into supporting him. He won by one vote—without any help from Buck, who had given Cummings his word that he would vote for McKinney. This vote likely marked the brash young freshman as an outsider from the very beginning.

"When I first got there in '73, everything was just kind of wide open. A bunch of us young pups would say ‘Let's get us a goose tonight and go out to dinner.' But I guess I fell out with Hensley after my second session, and as the years went by, I stayed here (in Nashville) less and less," Buck says. "I doubt I would've been able to stay as long if I lived too far away to go home at night. Those are the ones who get in trouble—the ones who decide they live there in Nashville and try to make a living out of this place. After income tax time, I get itchy and want to go home.

"I came to find out that for the three or four meals lobbyists were buying me during a session, I'd have to spend $2,500 at election time explaining it to my constituents. It just wasn't worth it."

BUCK WITNESSED A LOT OF HISTORY AS THE YEARS WENT BY. His first scandal was the extreme drama of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who came in after Dunn and ended up in prison on corruption charges. Republican Lamar Alexander was sworn in early in order to get the Blanton administration out of Nashville. Buck says it was Speaker McWherter with whom he tangled during those years, particularly in the waning days of Alexander's second term when McWherter was starting his own run for governor.

"I never had a minute's worth of trouble out of Lamar. One time he called me up there over the gas tax, right before McWherter ran for governor. I was chairman of the budget subcommittee on transportation and Lamar called me up and said ‘I don't have the votes. I need another week. Would you vote to delay it?'"

Buck agreed, but soon got a call from McWherter, who wasn't interested in cooperating with Alexander's agenda and wanted him to renege on his promise.

"I said, ‘Hell, no. I'll not go back on my word to the governor.' It really did piss me off. McWherter really was a ruthless fellow, you know. But an old country lawyer doesn't act that way. When you give your word, you keep it."

Despite his obstreperous reputation, Buck was appointed chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 1986 by Speaker Ed Murray (who got the job when McWherter was elected governor). In 1989, he witnessed the second round of scandals during his tenure, complete with indictments and plea bargains and the suicide of Secretary of State Gentry Crowell. This one revolved around corruption in the regulation of bingo operations and was code named Rocky Top.

He got himself in hot water the following year when he ran for majority leader, challenging Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's candidate, Bill Purcell. Buck lost by one vote and came out of the experience completely disaffected.

"That's when I really fell out with McWherter. He and I were never close, but we weren't enemies. I'd helped him every way in the world when he ran for governor, and when I ran for majority leader, the thing I never forgave him for was that he promised he'd stay out of it. He lied like a dog. I was never one of their boys, but I earned whatever respect I got by helping to work out problems and writing amendments. It finally got to the point, over the years, where people needed me worse than I needed them."

During the early '90s, Buck started sponsoring bills aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists, notably the "cup of coffee" law, which would have prohibited lobbyists from buying legislators so much as a cup of coffee. A watered-down version of the bill, not sponsored by Buck, passed in 1995, but it was amended with loopholes designed to assist those who wanted to party on. Buck remembers a straight-arrow lobbyist telling him, "The ink won't be dry on that bill before those crooks find a way to get around it."

He lost his chairmanship in 2003, a year after he fought the state income tax, which had the support of both Naifeh and McWherter's successor, Don Sundquist.

"The reason they had wanted to do the income tax was to keep TennCare alive, and the governor's lobbyist came down and told me I was going to have to vote for an income tax the next year. You don't tell Scots Irish you have to do this or that.

"You just don't approach people that way. Naifeh never has forgiven me for supporting the alternative to the income tax."

Democrat Phil Bredesen, the next governor, inherited the problems associated with TennCare, the grand experiment in universal health care that began during the McWherter administration. Buck (and everybody else) started hearing the rumors that were circulating about Sen. John Ford, who was openly bragging that he was getting rich off consulting fees he was collecting from TennCare-related businesses.

"The truth is there was a whole bunch of waste in state government, but they were hoping to pass the income tax to save TennCare. Then you had the Ford thing going on with the consultant fees, and I don't think Ford was the only one getting that. I even saw Ford on TV saying, ‘Look gentlemen, I'm not the only one getting this.' And not a one on that ethics committee said, ‘Well, who, Senator?' "

Frustrated, Buck met with the FBI about his concerns and told Bredesen what he was doing. Nothing much happened, however, until Ford got into a child support dispute and was ordered to make his income taxes public, exposing huge payments from TennCare providers and planting the seeds of the third big legislative scandal of Buck's career—code named the Tennessee Waltz. He watched yet again as colleagues were caught taking bribes in a sting operation and hauled off in handcuffs.

"It happens every 15 years or so, and mark it down—it'll happen again," Buck predicts.

It's not that he regrets spending half his life in the Tennessee General Assembly. And it's not that he hasn't built lifelong friendships and enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow legislators. Buck has been both instigator and victim in scores of elaborate pranks, many of them involving Jackson, the son of a well-heeled family of lawyers and doctors who were major contributors to McWherter's campaigns.

Buck laughs himself almost to tears when he recounts his favorite caper, which started with acquiring a sheet of the governor's official stationery and writing Jackson an ugly letter for having publicly criticized McWherter. The letter ended by calling Jackson a "pompous, blue-blooded Aphrodite." Shocked, Jackson responded to the insult by scrawling a couple of lines on the bottom of the letter and sending it back to McWherter before he went home for the weekend. The following Monday, McWherter staffers were in Jackson's office assuring him that the governor knew nothing about the screed.

Jackson (who made an appearance on The Colbert Report last month to talk about a bill he sponsored allowing citizens to carry firearms into bars) got his revenge a couple of years later by enlisting the help of a Nashville Tennessean editor to fax Buck a demand for an explanation of why Mr. Ethics and his wife were vacationing in the Caribbean while the Legislature was in session. It was one of those years when the session ran several weeks overtime, and the trip was long-planned, pre-booked and non-refundable. Tough guy Buck admits that the call from the Tennessean got him pretty puckered, but he figures that he got Jackson back by slapping a "Honk if you support gay rights" bumper sticker on Jackson's car.

And he does have some regrets, mostly having to do with saying intemperate things like calling Hispanics "wetbacks" in a House Transportation Committee meeting in 2004. Buck, who has represented Hispanics in his law practice, says he didn't realize was offensive. He drew a stern rebuke for this remark from Nashville Bar Association President Gregg Ramos, who called Buck's characterization "racism, plain and simple in our legislative halls."

STILL SMARTING FROM THE DEFEAT OF HIS ROUNDUP BILL, it comes time to go up to the Capitol building to speak to a group of constituents from Leadership DeKalb. He continues to complain about it as he mounts the escalator and walks through the echoing marble halls.

"That bill didn't mean 15 cents to me, but damn it, it's a matter of right and wrong. It's just so terribly wrong," he says as he gets off the elevator and opens the door to the ornate Senate library, where the woman from the Department of Agriculture is talking... to his constituents.

Buck grins, walks in, and prepares to tell them how things work in Nashville. m