February 10, 2006
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes - Lawmakers turn and face the strain (of honesty)
[Cross-posted from the Pulse.]
There will be major changes to the Tennessee General Assembly in 2006. Unfortunately, I’m not referring to any that might be brought about by the new ethics bill. (More on that below.) These changes will likely be in the August body’s leadership. State Senator Don McLeary (from Humboldt, in West Tennessee) is now openly Republican. He came out on Friday. Members of the Democratic community were shocked, but they were the only ones. Everyone else knew, especially by the time McLeary voted with Republicans on the measure to unseat Ophelia Ford. But the signs were there all along: the hair, the pachyderm affectations, the showtunes. Wait, scratch that last one; I must have mixed up my stories.
The number of seats by which the Republicans hold a majority in the State Senate increased 100 percent with McLeary’s move. They were 17 to 16, and now have 18 to the Democrats’ 15. (Two of those 15 are Ward Crutchfield and Kathryn Bowers, but they would likely be replaced by other Democrats if they were, I dunno, convicted of something in a federal courtroom.)
Typically speaking, the majority party elects the leadership of each house. Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for well over a century, and their Speaker is Rep. Jimmy Naifeh of Covington. Since the Republicans have a majority in the State Senate, the Speaker of the Senate (who is also the Lieutenant Governor) is… wait, he’s a Democrat. John Wilder has held this dual post – the second-highest elected office in the state – since 1971. A few Republicans have backed his re-election after their party gained the majority and thus could have placed their own leader in the position. There’s no guarantee that the McLeary switch would change the status quo.
Don McLeary is not the only one making changes, though. Senator Curtis Person, Jr. is no stranger to the legislature himself. The Memphian has been trucking to Nashville some 40 years. He and Lt. Gov. Wilder, therefore, go “way back.” Since Person has announced that he will not run for re-election, and since Rep. Paul Stanley (I love having KISS members in government) has all but announced his intent to replace Person, and since Stanley would be much less likely to support Wilder, the buzz on the blogs is that Wilder may stay one graceful step ahead of imminent demise and step down himself. There has been no shortage of the inevitable “dominoes” comparison on these same blogs.
If the Republicans end up with full control the State Senate, complete with the Lieutenant Governorship, you can expect a different dynamic in what will almost assuredly be Phil Bredesen’s second term. Maybe this is why the GOP hasn’t put up a candidate against him; perhaps they figured that the two Senates (Tennessee and United States) comprised enough of a project.
Four, and Twenty Backpedals: An ethics compromise, or compromised ethics?
Yes, about those ethics. Suddenly a brand-new bill showed up at the eleventh hour, and it got the thumbs-up from the leadership while the former working copy kept getting bogged down. The bill went to conference committee (12 each from the House and Senate to craft a unified version) and passed quickly. Four Democratic State Senators dissented, though. They contend that the new laws’ impacts that would actually affect reform are less than what they could have been. The compromise bill will have been voted on by press time, so you know the outcome by now.
State House Majority Leader Kim McMillan (D-Clarksville), quoted in the Tennessean: “Who we listen to are people who elected us: our constituents. I think this [ethics] bill represents their interests and not [those of] any individual lobbyist.” The inclusion of the word “individual” in her statement is not clever, but it works as a CYA tool. No, an individual lobbyist probably cannot say that this ethics bill specifically represents his or her interests; but a fair amount of the amendments that watered down the bill were written by lobbyists, and were agreed to in secret meetings. Knowing that should give one pause on the whole “representing the constituents” claim.
Tennessee was recently ranked 45th in a nonpartisan study of state ethics laws. The Operation Tennessee Waltz arrests, though they were for alleged infractions of existing law, prompted our lawmakers into action. The result could have been sweeping reform of the “business as usual” that would have propelled our state to a national leadership position. As it is turning out, one might hope for us to break 40.
I’ll end on a positive note, however, and acknowledge that this is a start. It’s understandably not easy to quickly alter systemic corruption that has been compared to the proverbial “temple of moneychangers.” We have to do it the fair way, and all that means is that we can’t quit now. Get to know your representatives’ records on this issue, and not just how they participated in the final vote. (I can’t see a single solitary one voting against an ethics bill.) No, learn their special-interest-coziness quotients, their historical positions when similar legislation has been proposed without a federal bribery sting behind it, and their family and other connections. Take that information with you when you vote on August 3 and November 7.
Pulsations | By joe lance | 11:55 AM