If it looked like Phil Bredesen was the last person to know what was going on in his own administration last week—well, that’s because he was. And even he said as much. (See our “Words of the Week.”
) The governor seemed genuinely shocked to learn that highway patrol officers had criminal records and received promotions based on campaign contributions and friends in the right places. And when it became clear that Col. Lynn Pitts, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), spent his days online illegally jonboat-shopping instead of cleaning up his corrupt law enforcement agency, Bredesen decided to flush the whole department rather than face more ugly revelations in the daily paper. Shouldn’t someone have handled this situation before it got so messy?
Yes. And that person is Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley, the governor’s political right hand, the man who’s supposed to put out fires before the media notice the smoke. But Cooley wasn’t allowed near the Safety Department, according to a source, thanks to his own high-profile situation in which he got a speeding ticket that magically disappeared after he gave the trooper his business card “as a matter of professional courtesy.”
After that incident came to light in August 2004, Bredesen told Cooley he would no longer be allowed to have his fingerprints anywhere on the Department of Safety. The governor transferred that responsibility first to Mack Cooper, who later resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal, and then to Cooper’s successor Robert Gowan, who couldn’t build Rome in a day. Cleansing the agency of its decades-long tradition of political patronage would require skilled management. Last week, the governor booted Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips in favor of Bredesen’s longtime administrative fix-it guy, Gerald Nicely.
Inside the Safety Department, politics were ugly. On one side were Phillips and Deputy Commissioner Tom Moore; on the other was Pitts. Though all three have since resigned, sources say Moore didn’t get along with Pitts and wanted him gone. To that end, Moore is suspected of leaking information about Pitts’ purchase of government-seized property last week and, before that, other details that made THP leadership look bad. Phillips, meanwhile, was said to be subcompetent—not a “change agent,” in one person’s words—but not malicious.
If Moore indeed launched a campaign to rid the politically besieged agency of Pitts, it ended up costing him his own job in the process—and that of the commissioner, who simply couldn’t keep track of the department under his charge. As for Cooley, who’s got more family in state government than hairs on his upper lip, he’s clean on this one—excepting the fact that he may have knowingly benefited from the THP’s nepotistic ways last year and couldn’t be trusted to supervise the agency after he was publicly disgraced in a ticket-fixing scandal.
Besides, Bredesen regards Cooley as his political brain, arms and legs and would be loathe to dismiss him without abundant cause. That’s why Cooley’s been allowed to call his own shots, even when it meant hastening the departure of Anna Windrow, the governor’s top lobbyist, who returned to the private sector late last year. She left in part because of clashes with Cooley, the only other senior-advisor type with an office near Bredesen’s on the first floor of the Capitol. Shared high-level access doesn’t mean shared love.
And for the first time in years, it’s not from Target security guards or allegations of petty larceny. Former Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine—the guy who resigned from office amid the strangest small-scale shoplifting scandal of modern times—says his name will be on a ballot very soon.
“I’ve now said it until I’m blue in the face, but I really am bound and determined that I’m going to live a productive life, and I’m not going to let screwing up define everything I do,” he tells the Scene
. “And the only way to do that is to get myself back out there and take some lumps again.”
The smart money says Steine will run for an at-large Metro Council seat, although he’s not ruling out a mayoral run. (“I’d consider anything at the moment,” he says, noting that a mayoral candidacy is on the “unlikely end” of the spectrum of possibilities.)
Steine says Nashville is lacking a sense of civic direction, as exemplified by the recent failed sales tax referendum. “I think even though it was designed not to succeed, the referendum pointed out the lack of a community vision,” he says. “Nobody knew quite what they were voting on. It was all just so amorphous. Even those who were in favor weren’t quite sure what they were voting on.”
Steine, a privileged city son, is certainly smart and capable—but his weird and not-too-distant past may
itself leave some Nashvillians unsure of what they’re voting on when
they see his name on the ballot. His chance to redefine himself starts
So does his chance at redemption. And he could start by reimbursing Metro the few hundred thousand dollars it cost in 2002 to hold a runoff election to replace him.
Hunting Jeff Miller
“When many people hate you, it’s hard to sneak around town without reporters finding out.” So begins Bradley News Weekly
Editor Barry Graham’s recent dispatch, entitled, “Miller Comes to Town with Girlfriend, Doesn’t Get Divorced” beneath which Graham narrates blow by excruciating blow his unsuccessful efforts to talk with Jeff Miller, the state senator who sponsored a “defense of marriage” bill while allegedly cheating on his wife, who filed for divorce.