The New New South
By ROBERT HICKS
LET me begin by confessing that I’m a yellow dog Democrat. I come from a long line of yellow dog Democrats and I even own a yellow dog named Jake. That understood, I believe I can objectively observe the political climate as my fellow Tennesseans and I prepare to replace Senator Bill Frist.
You need to be objective to be a Democrat in Williamson County these days. When I moved here 32 years ago, we were just another poor Southern agricultural community: we had countless small dairy farms, the cash crop was tobacco and just about everybody was a Democrat. Now we’re one of the richest counties in America: we have maybe one dairy farm left, the cash crop is McMansions and just about everyone is a Republican.
These are neither the “Lincolnite Republicans” my grandparents feared nor are they Old Southern Democrats refitted in Republican clothing. Their roots are not here. Williamson County is a physically beautiful and safe place to live and raise a family, so it’s no surprise they come and stay.
Yet, without roots in either party, they seem, first and foremost, driven by an obsession with taxes. This isn’t to say that none of them have genuine concern for the poor; and while most seem more pro-birth than “pro life” (the term they favor), there are exceptions there, too. Yet, over all, their credo might be (to paraphrase Robert Goodloe Harper): “Billions for defense, but not one cent for social concerns.”
This attitude creates a real problem for the Democratic contender, Representative Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis. “Jr.,” as he is calling himself, represents the latest generation of a political dynasty built around a South Memphis funeral home. Unfortunately, the family record is a bit less than shining of late — his uncle John Ford, a former state senator, will go on trial this winter on charges of extortion, bribery and threatening a government witness — and much of Tennessee considers the Fords a band of thieves.
Jr., however, seems to be a good man. He is a moderate Democrat with a strong environmental record. Yet only time will tell if he can overcome Tennessee’s ever-growing love affair with the Republican Party.
He will face Bob Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga, who defeated two former congressmen, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, in Thursday’s Republican primary. Mr. Corker was considered the most socially liberal of the trio, which caused him some trouble in the run-up.
You see, while all three candidates were openly anti-abortion, among many Tennessee Republicans, it seems, it’s not just being “pro life” that matters, but how long you’ve been pro-life. Apparently Mr. Corker told reporters a decade ago that he didn’t consider abortion a “government issue.” He has long since changed his mind, which one might think would have ended the issue. But not as far as Mr. Bryant was concerned, and his advertising blitz questioning the sincerity of Mr. Corker’s anti-abortion stance nearly offset Mayor Corker’s huge fund-raising advantage.
The other candidates were also upset that Mr. Corker refused to participate in more than one debate, and Bryant supporters took to appearing at Corker rallies in chicken suits. At an event in Chattanooga, a Corker supporter chased one of these chickens to the chicken’s car and, when the chicken tried to leave, depending on who’s telling the story, either the Corker supporter decided to “play chicken” and jumped in front of the car or, if I am to believe the other side, the chicken intentionally drove into him, tossing him up onto the windshield and shattering glass. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the pundits had a field day.
We may be done with chickens, but given the national stake in our Senate race, the energy of our nouveau Republicans and the checkered history of the Ford family, I think it’s going to prove to be a long, hot summer in Tennessee — politics as usual.