The day after their surprising takeover of the state legislature, House Republicans held a little media event outside the Capitol to try to appear like grown-ups who can be trusted with power.
To Democrats, it must have seemed like the Star Wars bar scene come to terrifying life—only instead of Wookiees and weird aliens with lightsabers and blasters, there was GOP leader Jason Mumpower, his loyal sidekick Glen Casada and the rest of that gang of frothers, fearmongers and zealots that Democrats have been deriding for years as beneath contempt. Suddenly, these guys are in charge. Can we hit the rewind button now?
"We're ready to lead!" Mumpower exclaimed to reporters, just in case anyone was wondering.
Mumpower, who has always seemed a little dim to Democrats, talked about how the "power of ideas" won the day for Republicans. The House GOP's new mantra, he declared grandly, would be "Education First!" Now that's original.
Democrats aren't trying hard to hide their smirks. There's been a lot of talk about dogs catching cars since the election.
"If you give these guys the option of winding their wristwatches or taking a shit," one wag scoffs, "they'd shit on their wristwatches."
True, the new GOP majority is getting off to what might charitably be described as a stumbling start. In their big moment in history, they've been forced to dispute accusations that they rode to victory not on the power of their ideas, but on a wave of racism that the party helped whip up. Talk about a buzz killer.
Exhibit A has become the charming 11th-hour attack mail the party sent against Nathan Vaughn, a conservative black Democratic representative from Kingsport. The piece pastes the heads of Vaughn, Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi on the bodies of blackbirds.
"Nathan Vaughn—part of the liberal, big government flock," the headline reads.
Vaughn, who lost by 326 votes, decried the mailer as "part of a pattern of despicable behavior." That pattern includes Mumpower's own appeal to prejudice. In the Knoxville News Sentinel, he called Vaughn "better suited to be representing inner-city Memphis than the rural hills of East Tennessee."
"They just showed overt racist attitudes," says Vaughn, who was ahead in polls leading up to election day.
Earlier in the campaign, the state GOP earned rebuke from many of the party's leaders for a press release that pictured Obama wearing an African turban. It was part of an obvious attempt to raise fears in rural white counties. McCain clobbered Obama by 40-plus points in parts of Tennessee, and it helped Republicans eke out enough narrow wins to take a 50-49 majority in the House and a 19-14 lead in the Senate.
The state GOP conveniently claimed not to know about the blackbird mailing, even though the piece plainly stated "Paid for by the Tennessee Republican Party."
"Don't know anything about it. Haven't seen it," the usually loquacious party flack Bill Hobbs told the Scene. But even if he did know about it, Hobbs said, it isn't racist. Funny, but the party didn't place the heads of any white Democratic candidates on blackbirds in other campaign mailings.
The controversy forced state GOP chair Robin Smith to issue a statement: "It appears that the Democrats, having lost their majority because they are out of step with most Tennesseans on issues ranging from taxes and spending to Second Amendment rights and the protection of innocent life, have nothing to offer other than baseless charges of racism."
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, were busily trying to keep their caucus' sizable cadre of ideological crackpots from talking to reporters about their fabulous plans for Tennessee. The hope, according to one member, was to forestall any negative coverage to ensure that the House elects Mumpower as speaker rather than Jimmy Naifeh, the Democrat who has held the job since 1991 and is trying to keep it.
Rep. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville admitted on his blog that he'd been told to keep his mouth shut. And for good reason—Campfield annually sponsors bills to restrict the rights of women, gays and brown-skinned people, just to name three demographics, and he loves to say the craziest things. He blogged after the election that racism wasn't working against Obama, but there was that "Muslim factor," plus "many people's perception that he was the Antichrist."
Under the Democrats, Campfield's bills were routinely killed in subcommittees. Now, many will likely make it to the House floor, and some might actually become law. It's a little scary. In the World According to Stacey, a woman who wants an abortion would be forced to look at an ultrasound of the fetus first, then obtain a death certificate afterward. And there are more really nifty ideas where that came from.
"There are so many good ideas that the Democrats have held back," Campfield tells the Scene. "We're finally going to get a fair hearing. We're thrilled. On election night, I was literally laughing and crying at the same time. I still get tingly thinking about all the opportunities."
We can't wait. For liberals, it's a bittersweet time: Barack Obama is moving into the White House, while barbarians have crashed through the gates of the state Capitol.
As outgoing Democratic Party chair Gray Sasser puts it: "Both things bring tears to my eyes, but for different reasons."
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