Since Democratic Party bosses nullified her razor-thin primary election victory six weeks ago, state Sen. Rosalind Kurita has been playing the martyr for all it's worth. To any reporter who will listen, she casts herself as a woman wronged, a victim of terrible injustice. She's Joan of Arc in a coonskin cap.
At the supermarket or the library—"any normal-people place," she says—constituents approach her in wonderment. "Are you the one?" they ask her. "Are you her, the one they stole the election from?"
Kurita shakes her head as if it's hard for her to grasp the amazing depth of public sympathy for her.
"This has been very personally painful, as I'm sure you can imagine," she says. "The good news is a lot of folks have stood up and said, 'Nah, we don't want to do this in America.'
"I know I did the right thing, no matter how this ends."
It's the grand opening of the Ashland City headquarters for Kurita's improbable write-in campaign. Ignominiously, she had to find a new place because the Democratic Party kicked her out of her former digs.
Kurita sits on the front porch handing out campaign paraphernalia to the occasional supporter who wanders by. A mongrel dog lies at her feet, eyeing her interviewer suspiciously.
Her bumper stickers read, "In America, we don't steal elections," and Kurita is just as defiant. She objects to "crappy questions" about her betrayal of her party, the act that brought her troubles. She is petite and silver-haired, like your kindly grandmother, but she won't tolerate rudeness in a reporter.
"Don't be mean to me," she snaps, her eyes flashing. "I don't want to see 'Devil Woman' in the headline across the top of the Scene. This is about how they did me wrong."
As if on cue, a chubby woman bounds onto the porch and smothers Kurita in a big hug.
"God bless you," the woman says. "It was stolen from you."
"I just can't believe it," Kurita replies, casting a glance at me to make sure I'm taking notes. "I wake up in the morning, and I say, 'I won this race. What happened?' "
Kurita can only hope voters never learn the whole story. As election day approaches, campaigns all over the state are descending into the sewer. But for blatant hypocrisy, it's hard to sink lower than the Machiavellian melodrama starring the three-term senator from Clarksville.
To understand what's happening, the main thing you need to know is this: Though all the major players insist the public interest is paramount in their minds at all times, this is actually mostly about ruthless politics, deceit and the pursuit of power.
Kurita is the Democrat who gave control of the Senate to Republicans in 2007 for the first time since Reconstruction. She earned the undying wrath of her own party because she had the nerve to vote against John Wilder in what she calls an act of conscience.
It didn't matter that Wilder, a befuddled octogenarian, had managed to stifle progress for an astonishing 36 years as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor, or that many of Kurita's Democratic colleagues had schemed themselves over the years to stick a shiv in his ribs.
What mattered was that Wilder was a Democrat, if in name only, and Kurita voted for Republican Ron Ramsey for speaker. She was immediately ostracized. Democrats started gleefully trying to kill any legislation, no matter how laudable, that carried her name.
Kurita is unrepentant. She describes the Senate under Wilder as a sham, "a well-choreographed play" performed for the benefit of special interests. She says her vote helped clean up the Capitol's culture of sleaze that led to 2005's "Operation Tennessee Waltz" bribery scandal.
"I wasn't going to be a part of it anymore. Four senators in prison—I mean, c'mon," she says, referring to Democrats Ward Crutchfield, John Ford, Kathryn Bowers and Roscoe Dixon—all of whom were nabbed in the scandal.
"There was a tolerance for a corruptive atmosphere that we don't have now. The status quo was no longer good enough. I knew we could do better than that."
Funny, but Democrats don't ascribe such purity to Kurita's motives. She denies cutting any deals with Ramsey in return for her vote. ("How dare you say that?" she barks. "That's really an insult to me.") But he did name her speaker pro tempore, the Senate's No. 2 job, and grant her larger accommodations in Legislative Plaza.
Republicans also didn't recruit anyone to challenge Kurita in November's election, and it looked for a time like the Democratic Judas would escape retribution. Then another Democrat, Clarksville lawyer Tim Barnes, entered the race. Even though Kurita outspent Barnes better than 2-to-1 and went harshly negative at the end, she won by only 19 votes—not exactly a strong showing for an incumbent in her own party primary.
"I didn't see that one coming," Kurita admits. "My friends thought I was going to win. They thought it was a no-brainer. They didn't go to the polls. But my enemies lined up against me. That was the bottom line."
Barnes contested the results, charging essentially that Republicans commandeered the Democratic primary by organizing a crossover campaign (an accusation that Republicans deny). Tennessee has an open primary system—there is no party registration—so crossover voting is legal and commonplace. Yet the party's executive committee stripped Kurita of the nomination, and party leaders in her district then held a convention and gave it to Barnes.
Kurita filed a federal lawsuit claiming the party violated her due process rights. Judge Robert Echols ruled against her last week. As it turns out, the party has rights too, namely the right not to associate with Kurita. And state law is a little vague on the rules for tossing out election results. In a court hearing, everyone agreed party bosses could have flipped a coin to decide between Kurita and Barnes. Guess every vote doesn't always have to count.
Shamelessly, Republican Party leaders are backing Kurita's write-in campaign. They have fought forever to boot her from office, yet now they are her biggest supporters.
"We see Rosalind in a different light," Montgomery County GOP chair Pat Allen says without a trace of irony.
Another of Kurita's new best friends—longtime GOP national committeeman Wayne Oldham—is blunt about it. Asked to name one issue about which he agrees with Kurita, he says: "Her vote for Ramsey for lieutenant governor. I agreed with her on that."
No one gives Kurita much chance. A write-in campaign is nearly impossible to pull off. Even voters inclined to support her have to know how to do it. Different counties have different rules for write-in votes. The best Kurita can do is tell voters to ask poll workers for instructions.
And then there are all the voters who will show up at the polls without even knowing she's running. Many will go only to vote in the presidential race.
With help from Republican senators, Kurita says she hopes to raise at least $100,000 to get out the word, but that's probably about half what she really needs.
Tennessee's last winning write-in candidate in a general election was Charlotte Burks, the widow of state Sen. Tommy Burks. She ran 10 years ago after the Republican candidate in the race, Byron (Low Tax) Looper, murdered her husband three weeks before the election. Burks outpolled Looper 30,252 votes to 1,531. Kurita won't have it that easy. She isn't running against an assassin, only a trial lawyer.
The controversy might not end if Barnes beats Kurita. The Senate is now split 16-16 with one independent. If Republicans wind up in firm control after the election, they might decide not to seat Barnes. That could force a special election, giving Kurita new life. She's learning to roll with the punches.
"In politics, it doesn't pay to have a really long memory," she says. "I'm still Rosalind Kurita. I'm just the same person I've always been. I don't care about political parties as much as I care about my constituents. If you boil it down and take all the spin and the ugly off of it, that's what you'd see. Maybe it's because I'm not a good ol' boy. Maybe women think differently. I just want my job back."
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