Political Notes 

Within limits

Within limits

Many Metro Council members are watching and waiting in hopes that, on Nov. 5, Davidson County voters will vote to allow Council members to seek three consecutive four-year terms. At present they are limited to a maximum of two terms, a restriction approved by voters during the term-limits frenzy of 1994.

Some Council members have argued that no term limits whatsoever are needed, since the voters almost always defeat a healthy percentage of incumbents. Others, realizing the political popularity of the term-limits idea, have endorsed the three-term limit and are hoping that the measure passes. Not only do some Council members want to run again; they also want to make sure that the Council will be allowed to keep some of its more experienced and knowledgeable members.

That’s why it’s perhaps surprising that at least one of the Council’s star legislators says he probably won’t seek a third term, even if voters approve the ballot question to amend the Metro Charter.

“I think this ballot question needs to pass, but odds are I would not seek a third term anyway,” says at-large Council member Ronnie Steine, who makes sure to add the protective, all-purpose political tag, “Never say never.”

“I’m not being definitive, but it would take an unusual scenario for me to seek a third term,” says Steine, who over a period of several years has emerged as a leader in the Metro Council, as well as Bredesen’s ace-in-the-hole in the Council chambers. A young progressive who has firmly established himself in the social service community—most recently as executive director of the Oasis Center—Steine is perceived to be politically ambitious. Therefore, it’s expected that he will run for office again.

If Steine doesn’t run for a third term to his at-large seat on Metro Council, his options include launching a 1999 race for the mayor’s office or for the vice mayor’s seat. He says he doesn’t plan to make any decisions until much closer to election time.

Last among equals

Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe is paying close attention to the Houston Gordon-Fred Thompson U.S. Senate race.

Along with most other political watchers, Ashe sees the Republican Thompson as the likely winner on election day. But as Ashe looks at the race, he sees other things too. He sees that it’s possible Gordon may lose by a huge margin. So huge, in fact, that it may redeem Ashe himself and save his place in modern Tennessee politics.

In 1984, in a hopeless contest against then-incumbent U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Jr., Ashe was only able to eke out 35 percent of the vote. It was one of the most lopsided victories in the history of Tennessee politics.

“I know how Gordon must feel,” Ashe says, sounding somewhat compassionate toward the Democrat and his struggles. But Ashe goes on to explain himself:

“It is my hope that Gordon removes the asterisk from my name as having been the worst casualty of a U.S. Senate race in recent Tennessee politics.”

If Gordon gets 34 percent or less, listen hard enough and you’ll hear the sound of champagne bottles popping in Knoxville’s city hall. He and Ashe may be caught in a neck-to-neck race for the bottom.

Fond farewell

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist is losing his chief policy advisor and staff leader, Mark Tipps, who’s coming back to Nashville in December to resume his law practice at Bass, Berry & Sims.

Tipps, Frist’s chief of staff since the heart surgeon was elected in the Republican landslide of 1994, says the simple fact is that the two-year commitment he gave Frist in the beginning is finished.

“I’ve got three small children. From a family and financial standpoint it’s just not feasible to stay longer,” says Tipps, who had never been actively involved in politics before joining Frist in Washington. “I was not somebody who spent all my days in politics, by any means, when I got started in this.”

With the help of Tipps and other staff members, Frist, 44, has quietly gained a reputation on Capitol Hill as a hard worker. For that reason, he now looks like a rising star on the Republican horizon. Even Democrats say Frist’s staff is one of the more responsive—if not the most responsive—in the Tennessee delegation. Frist puts in the kind of long hours that were habitual when he had to get up in the middle of the night to harvest organs and perform surgeries. And it hasn’t hurt him that, about every nine months or so, he bumps into somebody in cardiac arrest or choking on food so that he can save a life in a Capitol hallway.

Before the Republican convention in San Diego, the Washington, D.C., publication The Hill named Frist as one of a handful of people who might hold the future of the Republican party. He was part of a group that included Tennessee’s other U.S. senator, Fred Thompson, and popular New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

“It’s fair to say there are a lot of people, both in Tennessee and nationally, who have pegged him as someone with an extremely bright future,” says Tipps, who originally met Frist through one of his Bass, Berry & Sims partners. “Personally, I think his future is unlimited.”

All of the praises that have been lavished on Frist, who is considered to be a bit stale and boring on a personal level, have raised questions about what he’ll do next when it comes to politics.

“What he’s always said is he would run for re-election to the U.S. Senate one time,” Tipps says. “He has said he may not seek more than one term. I feel he probably will seek a second term and become sort of the go-to person on anything involving health care.”

As for the talk that Frist may run someday—most likely, 2004—as a Republican presidential candidate, “people have said that about him,” Tipps says. “Talking heads in Washington have said he might do that, but right now he’s not doing anything other than focusing on being a really bright senator for Tennessee.”

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