At least once during every two-year legislative session, a print reporter from one of Tennessee’s newspapers will write the obligatory John Wilder profile, complete with his bizarre, rambling orations, his pre-dawn bicycle rides, his conversations with ghosts and spirits, and his legendary ability to remain in office. Generally speaking, these profiles draw the picture of a harmless eccentric, a dottering relic who, as he discharges his constitutional responsibilities, generally does no harm. Over the yearsand there have been many yearsthe public has grown to look upon Lt. Gov. John Wilder as something of a freak of nature, albeit a cute and harmless one.
What a crock.
The Nashville Scene has itself published such a Wilder profile, so we join the ranks of those who have been guilty in generally misleading the public about the man who “leads” the state Senate. The truth is something more sinister, and it is wrapped up in the claw marks that Wilder has left trying to stay in his office. The better description of Wilder is that he is a self-centered spectacle who has sacrificed the state’s better interest for his own self-interest. His largely irrelevant political drama has, unfortunately, held the state of Tennessee hostage for many years now. Without exaggerating the situation, it is fair to conclude that the collapse of budget negotiations on Capitol Hill last week can, when seen in historical context, be laid at Wilder’s feet. He is, after all, in charge of the Senate. And that body’s 33 members have devolved into a state of dark and awful chaos.
Wilder began his legislative career in 1959, took a few years off, and was elected again in 1966 to represent a state Senate district populated mostly by white farmers and black field hands. Wilder then pledged to help the poor blacks in his district. It was an auspicious enough beginning. But it didn’t take long for him to slide. After being elected by his fellow senators 30 years ago as speaker of the Senatewhich also holds the title of lieutenant governorWilder proceeded down a pro-business tack like the rest of the Legislature.
But as with the bizarre circuitry in Wilder’s brain, the situation grew more complex. When his fellow Democrats saw him doing little to advance their agenda, they ran another candidate for his job. Wilder then took the few Democrats who agreed to stick by him, combined them with all the Republicans in the Senate, and suddenly had a majority of votes to keep him in office. To reward the Republicans, he gave them committee chairmanships. The only people hurt in the process were the hard-core Democrats.
About the only thing that can be positively ascribed to Wilder these days is that he is: a) alive; and b) in office. He is so politically timid that last year he signed a pledge backed by conservative radio talk show hosts not to vote for a state income tax. He is so inept that he has failed to marshal any coalition to pull the state out of its budget morass. When, last week, the Chattanooga Times wrote a blistering editorial about his overwhelming shortcomings and calling for his resignation, the tide in the Legislature at last seemed to turn against the man.
If good things somehow come out of bad situations, then we hope that a casualty of the very bad budget mess will be John Wilder. That would be a shining positive. On his own, he will neither lead, follow, nor get out of the way. On their own, his fellow senators should dump him.
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