Comeback Kid 

Will Lamar Alexander give us something to watch next year?

Will Lamar Alexander give us something to watch next year?

A teaser item in The Wall Street Journal Friday tossed out the possibility of former governor/education secretary Lamar Alexander seeking a U.S. Senate seat if incumbent Republican Fred Thompson decides to bail.

Thompson has been tantalizing the faithful by refusing to say for sure if he is in the race for reelection next year and by refraining from building a huge pile of campaign cash—as though he would need it. Thompson is clearly the state’s most popular politician, with most citizens finding his portrayal of a U.S. senator among the most impressive roles of his career. Even so, he wields less clout in Washington than his harder-working junior colleague, Bill Frist, who has time for that sort of political and policy laboring since he doesn’t seem to think he needs to bother with anything in Tennessee anymore.

But the prospect of Alexander as senator raises all kinds of issues. In at least one regard, he would be special. Unlike the other 99 members of the Senate, he probably wouldn’t be thinking of it as a stepping stone to the White House. Even he’s heard the voice of the people saying “no” to that proposition by now.

But that still leaves the question of what would be in it for him. When his gubernatorial term was winding down in the 1980s, everyone was urging him to tackle the incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser. Alexander may have thought about it, but ultimately decided against it. Among the reasons people in his inner circle gave at the time was that the job really held little appeal for him—who would want to go to Washington and be a freshman senator in his mid-40s, with all the media grubbing that entailed, when he’d already accomplished so much more?

So what’s difficult to figure at this point is what appeal the job would have for him now. If being a 47-year-old freshman looked like a crummy place in the world, what on earth would be the appeal of being a 63-year-old one?

If he absolutely has to run for something, there’s another job that he might like more coming up in 2002. He could run for governor again. Indeed, during the waning months of his administration, he claimed that the idea of returning to the governor’s office held more appeal than being in the Senate and that he might consider it down the road. And he’d be right in line with the leadership of his own party.

Like the current governor, Don Sundquist, he sort of embraced an income tax in 1985.

A novel idea

Of course, Thompson’s noncandidacy is probably all a political fiction—part of the continuing trend in Tennessee of developing new forms of politics. Just as John Jay Hooker has unveiled the campaign strategy of eschewing the stump in favor of suing people as he seeks political office, Thompson may just be playing the game of pretending not to run in order to run.

Such an approach takes a lot of arrogance, but two resounding electoral victories have given him the right to think that the people will buy him.

As for the others waiting in the wings, like Republican Congressman Ed Bryant, maybe he just ought to focus on the joys of having a safe congressional seat.

Giveaway’s a go

The Memphis arena appears to be back on track.

The plan to build a new arena to attract the NBA Grizzlies to Memphis hit a bump in the road last month when a Memphis judge ruled that the plan was an improper use of public funds to benefit a private entity. The judge said that it could go forward only if approved by 75 percent of the vote in a referendum.

However, the state Court of Appeals ruled last week that the arena plan served enough of a public purpose to go forward without the referendum. The ruling was a relief to local officials, who looked like they might have fumbled their opportunity in their haste to do a deal.

All the sports deals tend to look like rapes of the public in the light of day, largely because the teams hold most of the cards in the negotiations—if one city won’t pay, there are plenty of others that will. In the case of Memphis, the Grizzlies will be getting a new facility in a city that only just finished the Pyramid a decade ago. The team will get to manage the new arena pretty much for its own benefit.

Those terms sufficiently offended a local attorney/gadfly who sued and won the first round in court.

Nashville attorneys familiar with the legal issues involved looked on the handling of the Memphis case as pretty amateurish, given that the deal was not structured to articulate just why it was in the public interest to give so much to the team.

But now it appears the appeals court has rescued the deal and Memphis can look forward to its latest civic whiz-bang.


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