Conspiracy Theory 

Did Sundquist set up Democrats on the income-tax issue?

Did Sundquist set up Democrats on the income-tax issue?

In the smoky back rooms of the state Senate, where conspiracy theories abound, some Democrats see the shadowy form of Don Sundquist crouched on a grassy knoll. When the Republican governor backed a state income tax, was it all a very clever political trick? Was Sundquist actually trying to fool Democratic senators into publicly declaring their support for the income tax so that in this year’s election—gotcha!—the GOP could pick them off?

Sound farfetched? Well, of course, but we’re dealing here with politicians who have good reason for their paranoia: Somebody is out to get them.

In the 2000 elections, the Republican Party is ready to wage a pitched battle to wrest control of the Senate. Democrats, who now hold a narrow 18-15 advantage in the upper chamber, are bracing for an onslaught of negative mail, phone calls, and ads.

”It will be the dirtiest campaign in the history of Tennessee,“ says Sen. Bob Rochelle, a Democrat from Lebanon.

The GOP is desperate because this is the last election before reapportionment. That’s when the Legislature remakes the political map, drawing new lines for the districts of Tennessee’s nine congressmen, 99 state representatives, and 33 state senators.

In the past, Democrats have run the show by virtue of their dominance of both chambers of the Legislature, and they naturally have tried to gerrymander Republicans out of existence. During the last redistricting 10 years ago, for example, Democrats gleefully lumped six Republican incumbents into three state House districts, ensuring the defeat of three of them. The massacre was masterminded by none other than Bill Purcell, who then served as the state House majority leader and now serves as Nashville’s mayor. But that’s another story.

The GOP can’t take the House, where Democrats reign supreme by a lopsided 59-40 margin. So Republicans have given a whopping 23 House Democrats free passes to reelection, and they’re instead concentrating their fire on the Senate. If they can take the Senate, they can join forces with Sundquist to save themselves from the House during redistricting.

In Washington, the Republican National Committee is collecting cash to help. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson is vowing to dump ”millions of dollars“ into party war chests in Tennessee and 17 other states fighting to take over at least one legislative chamber. ”Our goal for the 2001 redistricting is simple—undo past Democrat gerrymanders and provide a level playing field for Republicans at the national and state level,“ Nicholson told a Washington news conference.

Opportunity knocks. Only four Senate Republicans face the voters this year, and Democrats are letting them all skate to reelection. Ten Senate Democrats are up, on the other hand, and five of them face serious GOP opponents. Republicans are also fighting hard to win the seat left open by the retirement of Sen. Andy Womack, a Democrat from Murfreesboro. And last week’s death of Democratic Sen. Pete Springer of Centerville gives the GOP another seat to go after.

Which brings us back to the income tax. Sundquist reversed his lifelong opposition at the urging of Democrats. They saw it as a Nixon-to-China thing—a Republican governor could do what no Democrat had done before.

Now Democrats aren’t thinking of Nixon anymore when they think of the income tax. They’re thinking about Leonard Dunavant. Now deceased, Dunavant was the senator from suburban Memphis who sponsored Gov. Ned McWherter’s income-tax bill in 1991. He gave eloquent, high-minded speeches. He was hailed on the Hill as politically courageous. He was stalked by tax protesters. He was soundly thrashed in his next election.

Senate Democrats are worried whether the same fate awaits them. Two in particular are vulnerable on the tax issue. Rochelle, the most outspoken proponent of the income tax, isn’t up for reelection until 2002. But Sens. Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga and Jim Kyle of Memphis fell for Sundquist’s trick, if it was one, and voted for the income tax on the Senate Finance Committee during last fall’s special session. They’ve drawn credible Republican challengers, although because of Democratic gerrymandering, Kyle and Crutchfield enjoy districts with very few Republicans; both will be hard to unseat.

Two Democrats more likely to lose are first-term Sens. Jo Ann Graves of Gallatin and Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. Neither ever advocated the income tax. (With an eye toward her reelection campaign, Graves stood on the Senate floor to denounce the tax during the special session.) But both are targets just the same because their districts are only marginally Democratic, and the GOP will tar them as liberals who can’t be trusted not to vote for the income tax sometime in the future.

Into the fray will jump a mob of right-wing groups still frothing over the very idea that lawmakers were considering the income tax. They’re threatening to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into so-called issue advocacy ads aimed at kneecapping Democrats. To counter this tide of sludge with their own attack ads, lawmakers are trying to repeal limits on the amount of campaign money they can accept from special interests.

All the mudslinging will become very annoying, but it’s hard to imagine that this election will have much other effect on the public. In Tennessee, where most Democrats and Republicans are just about as conservative as each other on nearly every issue, reapportionment matters mainly only to the true partisans in politics. Elections are for bragging rights. If this one has any impact at all, it’s that the escalating cost of campaigning will make politicians in both parties even more beholden to special interests than before.

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