Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Kathryn Bowers Silence

One thing I have noticed in the Tennessee Waltz scandal reporting is the apparent unwillingness of the media to mention that State Senator Kathryn Bowers, indicted with six counts of extortion, is also the head of the Shelby County Democratic Party. Most reporting emphasises her being a Senator. Heck, the Commercial Appeal didn't even mention it in their front page Bowers resume; you had to follow the jump to page six to read it buried in another article.

Think about it: the head of the Democratic Party in the state's largest Democratic stronghold, the largest Democratic delegation in the state, and the engine driving nearly all Democratic success in Tennessee has been indicted for accepting bribes! She's already made clear she's not stepping down, and no one within the party has publicly called for her to do so. It's a curious silence.

If it was Bill Giannini, the Shelby County Republican Party Chairman, would there be any reticence? Wouldn't every Republican in the county be buttonholed by media and reporters, asked to defend their Chairman or their support of him?

So why the apparent hesitation? I can see the quiet all across Democratic Tennessee. Despite the occasional show of bravado, there's a collective holding of breath it seems, a waiting for something or someone to do something. Nobody wants to step up and defend these folks because of the likelihood that they're all guilty, and it seems no one wants to start the process of change because of two things.

Number one, a lot of very powerful people will have to be moved. Bowers is, despite her appearance, one nuclear-powered battle-axe. She's going to fight, so anyone who suggests she step aside has to face her fury and intransigence. Shelby County Democratic politics (Republican, too) is an incestuous group. Allegiances and debts bind this group closer than any hillbilly family you can imagine. Whatever force for change that steps up will not be removing individuals, but whole branches.

Number two, admitting wrong is to open the door to Republican advantage. Of course, black Memphis isn't going to suddenly vote Republican, but many will be disillusioned and might reconsider their own allegiance. Remember, the gay marriage amendment is coming up in 2006, and that will do odd things to the black Democratic base. Most blacks are social conservatives, deeply so. Give them a reason to be repelled by Democratic options in other races and they might just stay home. In Tennessee, that translates to big losses for the Democrats, especially Harold Ford, Jr., if he's still in the Senate race at that time. (I think there's reason he may still drop out.)

Think too about Harold Ford's US House seat. The conventional wisdom says he was going to have a placeholder run for the seat while he runs for Senate. If he loses, then the placeholder steps down to let Harold reclaim it. But with the Ford mess, who can they safely run that doesn't have the Tennessee Waltz taint? If the local Democratic Party implodes, who would voters trust?

There's a lot at stake here, which is why I think there's such silence. Internecine warfare will have untold and devastating consequences. Even small conflicts could escalate. What if the Herenton faction decides to make a move? Gale Jones Carson and Kathryn Bowers have jostled for control of ShelbyCo Democrats for years.

But for now, it seems everyone is being supercareful not to toss the spark that ignites the conflagration. That may become moot if the rumored further indictments are handed down later this week. We'll see.

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