Growing partisanship in Tennessee politics disappoints legislators

Growing partisanship in Tennessee politics disappoints legislators

By: AP, staff reports

From AP, staff reports NASHVILLE — Former Lt. Gov. John Wilder and Rep. Frank Buck say they’re disappointed in the increased partisanship that has developed in the Legislature over the years. State Rep. Phillip Pinion of Union City, who will retire on Nov. 4 when his current term expires, expressed similar sentiments. “I said that in my closing speech when I had the last bill on the House floor on May 15,” Pinion said. “I said being a part of this House has been a very important part of me and my life, but there’s something happening that bothers me. That is, I’ve watched more battles become partisan, Democrats against Republicans. When I first came, we had a few battles, but it was urban against rural, liberal against conservatives. There would be Democrats and Republicans on both sides. “It saddens me to see some of the things happening today. The battles over issues that are important to Tennessee that are becoming partisan instead of thinking about what’s best for the state.” He said he told fellow legislators he knew they were there because they care about the people of Tennessee, “and I appreciate that.” “I said, ‘Here’s some closing advice from an old man. Let me say to you, please think about what’s best for Tennessee, not what’s best for the Democrats, not what’s best for the Republicans. Think about what’s best for your children and grandchildren.’” Wilder, 86, and Buck, 65 — who have more than 70 years of legislative experience between them — are among about a dozen lawmakers who don’t plan to seek re-election this year. The Associated Press talked to Wilder and Buck last week during the last few days of the 105th General Assembly. Buck, who’s been a lawmaker since 1973, said there’s always been some partisanship in the Legislature, but “it’s accentuated now.” “It seems to be more a battle of power,” said the Dowelltown Democrat. Democrats hold a 53-46 majority in the House. But the divisiveness is probably most notable in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are split 16-16 with one independent. Wilder became a victim of the partisanship last week when his colleagues opposed his effort to revive a proposal that would prevent Tennessee’s Judicial Selection Commission from expiring next year. The bill on the way state appellate court candidates are selected was approved 64-34 in the House but stalled in the Senate’s Government Operations Committee. Wilder, the bill’s sponsor, asked the Senate panel to put it on hold because he didn’t feel he had the votes to move it out. But he decided to call it directly to the Senate floor, and it failed 18-15. “Partisan politics is not my way, and it’s not the right thing for the state,” the Mason Democrat said after the vote. “It’s not right.” Wilder said the politics is a departure from the way he ran the Senate, where he built a coalition with Republicans and allowed them to chair some committees. Wilder held the Senate speaker and lieutenant governor titles for 36 years until he lost to Sen. Ron Ramsey — a Blountville Republican — last year. Supporters have long cited Wilder’s light touch in controlling the 33-member Senate, letting it take a path of its own choosing. Wilder’s mantra of “the Senate is the Senate” was often followed by expressions of pride for the members’ actions — no matter what they might have been. “He would see what the issues would be, put things in order and then it would all kind of happen,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “People didn’t think he was leading. The end result was where John Wilder wanted it to be, without him telling you this is how it’s going to be.” But critics have labeled Wilder a crafty politician whose only real goal was to remain speaker, even if it meant helping defeat members of his own party. Wilder built a reputation for refusing to publicly state his support — or opposition — to key pieces of legislation until it was time for a vote. In his interview with AP, Buck gently criticized Wilder’s leadership preceding the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting that led to convictions of five former state lawmakers — four of whom at one time served under Wilder. “I love Governor Wilder, but you have to fault him in the Tennessee Waltz,” Buck said. “He had to know what was going on. Most everyone in the Legislature has the right intention, but many of those tend to turn a blind eye to the people they know are breaking laws or doing the wrong thing.” He said that was the reason he became one of the main supporters of ethics reform legislation that followed the sting and he hopes lawmakers will adhere to the law. “I think it’s important to take a stand” on ethics, Buck said. “So many people get defeated. It’s a cancer. You have to stomp it on the head.” Published in The Messenger 5.28.08

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