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Phil, We Need to Talk

A public breakup with Tennessee’s governor


What’s it been—17 years now? Back then, Gail Kerr was recovering from the “seven-hour” (Bill) Boner coverage, Brad Schmitt covered your mayoral campaign and Betty Nixon was on the losing end of your first political victory.

Those were the days. You were always accessible, willing to answer tough questions and even open to joking privately about cornpone elected officials who mangled their words. During one of my first interviews with you as mayor, you talked about this thing called electronic mail—that you would download it, take your laptop poolside at your home and answer it. I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about, but I thought you were so smart, cute even. Whether it was your rockin’ bod or the $100 million in your pocket, I can’t be sure.

Hey, do you remember that State of Metro address when you took us on an imaginary flight over the city? You might recall that your speechwriter had you in a helicopter. I miss those times. I wrote 12 inches about it for The Tennessean, and my editors cut it to a brief, but I still have that speech in a dusty file somewhere along with your hand-painted Christmas cards.

Anyway, though you took a project approach to your mayoral tenure—as opposed to managing the city the way your successor did—I thought you were an able steward who advanced Nashville’s reputation, bringing transparency and honesty to the job. At this newspaper, my editors and I quibbled with you over all manner of stylistic and substantive issues ranging from your dismissive, bottom-line attitude toward recycling to your blind submission to Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams to your relative disinterest in the nuances of Metro operations. But, overall, it was a mutually respectful relationship, one that I’m now questioning.

We endorsed you for governor in 2002, though once you were elected we repeatedly took you to the woodshed for essentially dismantling TennCare, the state insurance program you’d pledged to fix.

We thought you were just going through a phase, but now we realize that this is who you really are. It is what it is, but you’re just not the same Phil Bredesen we used to know, the one who valued ideas over political expediency, and truth telling over unprincipled mealy-mouthery. Lately you’ve acted like a typical Republican masquerading as a Democrat, and your humanity at times has been tough to spot.

You have refused to speak out against a retrograde piece of legislation now making its way through our General Assembly’s committee process that would ban same-sex adoption in Tennessee, where there are more children awaiting loving, permanent homes than families willing to adopt them. This, even though there is no evidence that gay and lesbian couples are any less able than heterosexual ones to raise normal, successful children.

What happened to the nonconformist geek-hot pol who wasn’t afraid to risk political capital? You used to be brave, Phil.

You have been silent on a series of disconcerting stories in the Scene over the past few months documenting abuse, rapes and troubling practices at state-licensed youth treatment facilities such as Chad Youth Enhancement Center and Hermitage Hall. Despite reports of these incidents being filed at state offices, neither you nor your commissioners have found the distressing complaints worth the time to discuss or investigate.

To avoid political fallout, you allowed Paul House, a man who is probably innocent, according both to the U.S. Supreme Court and DNA evidence, to languish on death row with a chronic illness. He is finally set to be freed, only because a federal judge has had enough of the state’s filibustering and irrational adherence to a prosecution gone wrong.

Last week, in a stunning display of soullessness, you said it was more important to “professionally maximize” the return on state pension money than to take a moral stand against genocide in Darfur. “I think you get into very tricky waters if you start trying to tell pension fund managers to do anything but to professionally maximize their return,” you said.

I always knew you had this in you, but I thought you would overcome it.

Finally, though this doesn’t carry the same sobering weight as the aforementioned issues, you refused to help pass the now-dead bill to put wine in our grocery stores. Although you said you were for it, you went on to elaborate that it’s just not important enough to spend your time on. In fact, you’ve held for a long time that you can’t be bothered with more than one or two priorities at a time, which seems absurd.

After all this, I’m not sure what I ever saw in you.

Meanwhile, while you’re shirking your unique responsibility to these pressing issues at home, you seem to have plenty of time on your hands for things that you have virtually no chance to affect, as you’ve spent much of the past two weeks being interviewed by national blow-dried TV pukes discussing your idea for a Democratic superdelegate convention. You’re a smart and overwhelmingly popular governor with nothing to lose, and yet you’re playing it safe. Or you just don’t care.

Either way, Phil, I think we need a break. I’m an Obama girl now.

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