Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tennessee Democratic Party to Voters: Go to H***

In a shocking exercise in heavy handed political power, the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee has overturned the primary win of state senator Rosalind Kurita.

Ms. Kurita had won the primary by a narrow 19 vote margin. Her opponent in the campaign, a lawyer named Tim Barnes, claimed Republicans had "interfered" in the primary, even though Tennessee voters do not register their party affiliations and there was no real evidence of any kind of organized effort by the Republicans to help Ms. Kurita.

In fact, the vote by the executive committee was an exercise in raw political vengeance. Here's the background.

In 2006, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredeson became suddenly and severely ill, with aides attributing the sickness to a tick bite. The administration began to refuse to release information and the governor disappeared for a week or two from public view, causing speculation as to the seriousness of his illness. While the governor eventually recovered fully, his illness focused attention on the fact that had things turned out badly, it would have resulted in the elevation of Lt. Governor John Wilder, a Democrat, to the governorship of the state.

In Tennessee, the Lt. Governor is chosen by the Senate. Whatever the political skills were that initially enabled Lt. Governor Wilder to rise to that position over 30 years ago, by the time that I moved to the state in 1996, he was widely regarded as incompetent. In 2004, I attended a committee hearing at which Mr. Wilder asked a question. After a moment of confusion by the person providing testimony, Mr. Wilder then volunteered that he was sorry and admitted that he didn't know what the meeting was about. This behavior was not unusual. Readers from outside Tennessee may think The Oracle is exaggerating, but it is really not possible to parody real examples of Mr. Wilder's public incoherence.

Mr. Wilder had managed to hang on to his position as Lt. Governor by cobbling together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to support him. Years before, when Democratic senators (at the time, Democrats held a solid majority in the state senate) made noise about replacing him, Mr. Wilder cut a deal with Republicans to allow some power sharing in exchange for their votes. Democrats were forced to support Mr. Wilder or risk losing the powerful position to Republicans as a result of the party being divided. After Republicans gained a majority in the Senate in 2005 for the first time since Reconstruction, a couple of Republican senators infuriated party regulars by crossing over and allowing Mr. Wilder to remain in his position.

Then, in 2006, Gov. Bredeson's illness brought attention to the fact that a thoroughly incompetent man was one tick bite away from the governor's mansion. Politicians and pundits across the political spectrum began arguing that allowing Mr. Wilder to continue in his position was irresponsible. In response, in 2007, their was speculation that Democratic senator Joe Haynes would challenge Mr. Wilder for the position, but that effort fell apart.

That is the context in which Ms. Kurita cast a vote of conscience. Understanding that it was unconscionable and irresponsible to allow Mr. Wilder to remain Lt. Governor, she essentially broke a tie by voting for Republican Ron Ramsey in the contest for the position. Democrats who previously understood the Wilder problem suddenly expressed shock at her betrayal. And now, the Democrats have overturned a clear vote of her district in a raw exercise of power.

Regardless of party affiliation, this kind of contempt for election outcomes should not stand. One hopes that Tennessee voters will not forget.

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