Editor’s Note: The Bitter Southerner has always made clear we stand behind Southerners who reject the old narratives about our region. And we have tried, as best we can, to support and tell the stories of Southerners who reject the racism, sexism, and inequality those old narratives tried to explain away. However, we also try to stand above the daily fray of politics and policy. Today, we change that — a little bit. It is important, in these days when so many citizens are newly engaged in their local and state governments, that we provide some perspective. We will not wade into the daily mudslinging. Instead, we want to provide real knowledge about how Southern state legislatures work, and to put their actions into historical context. Our theory is simple: If you want government to change, you must learn how it works. So I turned to the only person I knew and trusted enough to do this — an old friend who was long ago a journalist but who has now spent decades as an attorney, working on legislative issues in Tennessee. We hope you’ll enjoy Tom Lee’s thoughts on Southern Politics every four weeks — Chuck Reece
By Tom Lee
Frederick Wiseman's titanic 2007 documentary, "State Legislature," opens in the Idaho state capitol. Surrounded by sandstone tributes to log-cabin pioneers, high-school students in flannel shirts and acid-washed jeans sit on the capitol rotunda's granite floor. They are as mouth-agape bored as they are visibly uncomfortable while their host, Bruce Newcomb, the speaker of the Idaho House, relates to them.
"I used to think if you were in the legislature you were really something," Newcomb tells them, with no touch of irony. "Then I got to be in the legislature. And I realized you were one of 105 people."
Newcomb, a rancher from Declo, Idaho, population 343, then likens the roster of the people's House to a random sort at a cattle sale.
"You know what a gate-cut is? You know, when you open up the gate in the corral, the first 105 out is what you get. And so, you might think that's bad, but what it is, you get a really good cross-section of the people in Idaho.
"Anybody can do what we're doing."
Not for nothing was Wiseman the winner this year of a lifetime-achievement Academy Award. He may be the world's most meticulous documentarian. So, when he sets out, over three hours of un-narrated committee meetings, hallway conversations, lobbyist buttonholes, and backroom deals, to prove his thesis — that a legislature gate-cut from us all is a good thing — one is obliged to take him seriously.
Admittedly, it's a lot to ask. Three hours with a movie is a long time. Three hours in a legislature can be Geneva Convention material.
From my window seat overlooking politics and policy in a Southern legislature, however, I'd like to suggest it's worthwhile.
I'm a lawyer and lobbyist representing clients in the Tennessee General Assembly. A bumper sticker from the 1980s on display in the Tennessee Capitol Hill press corps office reads, "Don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I'm a piano player in a whorehouse" (sorry, Mom).
Legislatures have gotten a bad rap since Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist 27, Hamilton wrote that states were unacceptably susceptible to "temporary prejudices and propensities, which in smaller societies frequently contaminate the public deliberations, beget injustice and oppression of a part of the community, and engender schemes, which though they gratify a momentary inclination or desire, terminate in general distress, dissatisfaction, and disgust."
Hamilton is not alone. America's founding is the common stuff of Broadway and Hollywood. Obscure documentaries aside, no one makes movies about legislatures, unless the legislators are the villains. Southern legislatures, after all, gave America slavery and Jim Crow. Much of American 19th- and 20th-century history, political as well as cultural, is tied up in the response to these legislative acts.
And yet. Tennessee's legislature ratified the 14th Amendment 93 years before California. Our state constitution ensures an equal and adequate public education for all and, until the 1990s, guaranteed "safe and comfortable" prisons. Tennessee was the state whose legislature's ratification of the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote. The suffragettes rallied a century ago in the same hotel where I take my post-session whiskeys.
In these times, Southern politics have been generous and giving, barn raisers rallying to our neighbors' aid. Even George Wallace convinced the Alabama legislatures of the 1960s to provide free textbooks to schoolchildren.
Southern politics also have been known to fail. The blood spilled and treasure lost across the South bears witness to this truth.
The Southern legislature can be at once radical and necessary, ennobling and controversial — not unlike us.
This column's goal is to help you see how this duality plays out in the very public fields of Southern politics and policy: how the sausage biscuits are made, as it were.
By way of coming attractions: I think Speaker Newcomb and Frederick Wiseman are right. I think that's what makes the legislature worth my time.
Tom Lee, a seventh-generation Middle Tennessean, is the managing principal of CivicPoint LLC, a government relations firm with offices in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio.