The entire political world may be in a state of flux, but the state of Tennessee seems to be the calm at the center of the storm.
For a presidential election year, the state is quieter than in years past. Other than appearances before the Belmont debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have written off the state as a pointless place to campaign.
Sen. Lamar Alexander is coasting toward a second term while Democratic challenger Bob Tuke keeps earnestly looking for traction. Congressman Jim Cooper doesn’t look to be packing up his office anytime soon either.
Every news channel you turn to on television is focused on the impending elections, but the talk is a distant voice to Volunteer voters. So what’s a Music City political junkie supposed to do? Simple, watch the State Senate campaigns.
Almost two years ago, the Tennessee State Senate was turned on its ear when for the first time in 36 years, we had a new lieutenant governor. Republican State Sen. Ron Ramsey knocked off the once-invincible John Wilder with the help of a Democrat from Clarksville, State Sen. Rosalind Kurita.
Since then, crucial changes have come in both caucuses that have both Democratic and Republican party leaders fighting for every vote they can in order to get an outright majority when the Senate reconvenes in January.
A Moving Target
The roller coaster began with Kurita. Her vote for Ramsey as lieutenant governor effectively ended what little influence she had in the Senate Democratic Caucus.
What is commonly overlooked is that then-Republican State Sen. Mike Williams of Maynardville, Speaker Pro-Tem of the Senate and longtime ally of Wilder’s, also voted for Ramsey. A widely held belief is that Williams only voted for Ramsey because Wilder couldn’t keep his caucus together. The fact is we will never know for sure simply because of alphabetical order, Williams was one of the last to vote.
Williams and Ramsey always had a tenuous relationship, and it didn’t get any better after Ramsey was elevated to the office of lieutenant governor. Within weeks, Williams bolted the Republican party and became an independent, caucusing with the Democrats.
The next changes came with the resignations of two longtime Democratic members of the Legislature. State Sens. Ward Crutchfield and Jerry Cooper resigned mid-term after long political careers.
Crutchfield resigned after pleading guilty to one count of bribery stemming from the Tennessee Waltz federal corruption scandal. He was replaced in a special election by fellow Democrat Andy Berke.
Cooper resigned after being fined a record $120,000 by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, after having been acquitted in federal court on three felony counts: bank fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud. He was replaced by an appointment made by the Warren County Commission, McMinnville attorney Steve Roller.
Then, news of retirements came. Democratic State Sen. Tommy Kilby said he was giving up his seat and then on the last day before filing deadlines, Wilder announced that he too was calling it a career.
By the end of the 2008 legislative session, Tennessee’s Senate had changed almost beyond recognition.
What changes hadn’t been a result of decisions made by individual state senators were made by the voters in August, well almost.
What were clearly in the hands of the voters were the dismissals of two members of the Senate. Republican State Sen. Raymond Finney of Maryville lost his primary to State Rep. Doug Overby and the appointment of Roller was checked by Democrats in the 14th district in favor of Franklin County Commissioner Eric Stewart.
The remaining race in question was in Clarksville and so was the fate of the future of Kurita’s career. Kurita had won the Democratic primary by a total of 19 votes, but a challenge was mounted by Tim Barnes and Democrats still smiting from Kurita’s vote for Ramsey as lieutenant governor.
As has been widely reported, Kurita’s election was thrown out by the Executive Committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party and at a joint convention of Cheatham, Houston, and Montgomery County Democratic executive committees, Barnes was installed as the Democratic nominee.
Kurita has since announced that she is running as a write-in candidate and is getting financial support from Republican members of the State Senate. There is no Republican candidate in that race.
It’s the economy, stupid.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders are optimistic about their chances in November. Speaking to The City Paper, Ramsey says that Republicans are on track for victory.
Similarly, Democratic State Sen. Joe Haynes of Nashville says that his caucus his headed in the right direction.
Arguably the pre-eminent topic this election season — the economy — was viewed very differently by the two party chiefs in terms of being a factor in state races.
“I don’t know a lot has changed, our candidates are up on TV, we are on target for all our races,” Ramsey said. “These seats are in places that McCain will do well in. We can’t depend on coattails, but you take every advantage you can get.
“Local issues, local candidates, not the economy, are what voters care about in our races. I am not sure that right now that either side has taken the blame for it. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next 40 or so days.”
Haynes took a different approach.
“I think the economy will play into the minds of voters, you can’t ignore it,” Haynes said. “People don’t have money for gas, food, prescription drugs, and our state budget is seriously affected by the national economy, it is affecting everyone.”
Kurita is still very much on Ramsey’s mind. A cadre of GOP Senate committee chairs is on tap to aid Kurita at an upcoming fund-raiser.
“We all feel like Rosalind Kurita has been wronged,” said Ramsey on behalf of his Republican colleagues. “Sure she voted for me last time, but I took the same position in David Davis’s race, she has been wronged.”
Davis is a Republican member of the U.S. Congress who lost his August primary race to Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe. Davis claims that Democratic cross-over votes cost him his seat and has expressed support of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s ouster of Kurita.
Ramsey said GOP Caucus money would not be used to help Kurita but that he would be willing to help her to raise funds for her difficult write-in campaign.
“I won’t go that far with caucus money but if asked I would tell people to send her money. I have written a personal check and haven’t decided on whether to send money from my PAC. All of us on our side of the aisle want to help, we think she has been wronged.”
Haynes was skeptical of Kurita’s chances.
“I am sure that they see this as an opportunity to help elect someone who will be an ally in electing a Speaker. I don’t believe she will be successful.”
Perhaps the most interesting races of the season are occurring in opposite ends of the state. Independent candidate Williams, who is being supported by Democrats, is facing Republican attorney Mike Faulk in the mountains of East Tennessee.
In the cotton fields of West Tennessee, the race for former Lt. Gov. Wilder’s seat is being contested by Republican State Rep. Dolores Gresham and Democratic attorney Randy Camp.
What has made these races so interesting are very public charges of marital infidelity.
In East Tennessee Faulk, who is single, has been hit hard by a letter written by the county chair of the Hawkins County Young Republicans. In the letter Kelli Walker, who is married, states that she had had an ongoing affair with Faulk.
In West Tennessee Tommy Roland, the former brother-in-law of Camp, has written letters denouncing the Camp candidacy and his fitness to serve. Roland cites Camp’s infidelity to his sister over the course of their 20-year marriage. Camp admitted to committing adultery during his marriage in his divorce proceedings.
Asked about the situation, both Ramsey and Haynes defended their candidates.
“On Faulk,” Ramsey said, “I wish it was something we didn’t have to deal with, but in the end I don’t think it will have an effect on that race, we can see that in the polling.”
Haynes said, “Randy Camp admitted he made a mistake in his past life. He acknowledged to God and his constituents what he did. When you make a mistake, admit it.”