Tennessee’s Illustrious Eighth — a Congressional District with a Colorful History

When we moved to hilly, middle Tennessee from the flatlands of Indiana, we moved to a congressional district with as many historical ups and downs as it has of the physical sort.

According to the Wikipedia page on the subject, both the recent and not-so-recent history of this area have been…. colorful.

Tennessee’s Eighth, carved out of the old Seventh, used to lump our rural home in Dickson County in with Memphis. As a result of the 1980 census, the legislature in 1983 left Memphis and most of Shelby County to fend for themselves as the new Ninth, and Dickson County in the Eighth, to face the future with most of Northwest Tennessee.

Tennessee's Eighth Congressional District

The Wikipedia list of US Representatives from the Eighth and its antecedents goes back to 1823, and lists party affiliations that include a Jacksonian Democratic-Republican, three Jacksonians, one Anti-Jacksonian, seven Whigs, a Know-Nothing, an Opposition Party (Whig spin-off) member, an Unconditional Unionist (not surprisingly, an artifact of the War of Secession, AKA up north as the “Civil War”), and more recently, fifteen Democrats and six Republicans. Talk about colorful…

The last time this seat was in Republican hands was 1973-75, when Dan Kuykendall was re-districted into it from the Ninth. Before that, the last Republican this area sent to Washington was in 1921-23 — so it’s safe to say that doesn’t happen every day. Given the generally Democrat history of the Mid-South, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

That’s the history. In 2010, however, things could be different. At the end of 2009, John Tanner, the latest Democrat to hold the seat, and having held it for eleven terms, announced his resignation. Tanner, in the tradition of the culturally- and fiscally-conservative Democrats who tend to prevail in the district’s demography, takes credit as a co-founder of the “Blue Dog” Democrat faction of Congress.

Indeed, his voting record may be more conservative than Madame Speaker probably finds to her liking, if the account on his page on Wikipedia is to be believed:

“Tanner is strongly in favor of balancing the budget and paying down the national debt. He has been a strong opponent of the fiscal policies of President George W. Bush, voting against many of the tax cuts passed during his terms; yet, he was one of 43 Democrats to vote to repeal the estate tax in 2006. Tanner was one of the few Democrats in the House to vote in favor of CAFTA and has long distanced himself from the majority of his party on issues such as bankruptcy law and lawsuit reform. He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, the ban on “partial-birth” abortions, limiting death penalty appeals, and has voted against most gun control measures. On other issues he is more liberal: he often votes with his party on separation of church and states issues, and has consistently voted against the Flag Desecration Amendment. Tanner voted with the majority of his party to expand stem cell research and against renewing the controversial portions of the Patriot Act. He also supports affirmative action and public education. Tanner was firmly opposed to Bush’s attempt to reform Social Security.”

That sounds kind of moderate, for a long-term Democrat. Somehow, though, Tanner voted liberally enough to earn an 80% rating from the experts on liberalism at Americans for Democratic Action, based on his votes during 2008, the most recent year for which there are scores on their Website.

Wikipedia characterizes this voting pattern as “moderate,” but it might also be described as, “confused,” or, “expedient,” if one could see into Tanner’s motivations.

Only one member of the Tennessee delegation, Steve Cohen, who succeeded Harold Ford to the Ninth District seat that now includes Memphis, finished higher according to ADA standards than Tanner. Cohen scored 100% for 2008. Harold Ford has been in the news lately as a potential Democrat candidate for the US Senate in New York, so Cohen’s district is no stranger to liberal representation.

For comparison, even Senator Lamar Alexander, who is somewhat squishy on illegal immigration, and voted for the nomination of hard-core leftist nominee Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, got a chilly 25% rating from the ADA.

Reporting from the other side of the political spectrum, the American Conservative Union gave Tanner a 13% grade for his 2008 voting record, an “F” in most grading systems that don’t pass everybody, and Alexander garnered  72% for the period, which was a low, low  “D” when I was in school.

Which makes one wonder: if John Tanner (80% from ADA; 13% from ACU), a founding Blue Dog, was a friend to the conservatives in Tennessee’s Eighth… did they need enemies?

More recently, the Eighth has had some color of another sort. The highest-profile potential opponent to Tanner from the (nominally) Republican side in the last few elections has been James Hart. To say that Hart has unconventional political views is to make a spectacular understatement. (See for yourself at his Website.)

Hart’s political orientation is a weird cross between an anti-government, neo-isolationist fringe that makes Ron Paul seem calm and conventional, and a white supremacy/eugenics theme that would be at home among hard-core, 20th-century Progressives like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

The Tennessee Republican establishment has backed away from him at every opportunity, as he recounts at his site. The lack of more credible GOP opposition in recent years is perhaps due to a perceived invincibility on the part of the incumbent, as fortified by McCain-Feingold, the Incumbent Protection Act. Certainly, Hart’s frequent use of the politically-radioactive phrase, “favored races,” has done nothing to encourage the Elephant Party Elders to embrace him. He embraces their rejection. It’s that kind of relationship.

This phrase has earned Hart Favored Villain Status among progressive observers of Tennessee politics, despite the historical roots of Eugenics being firmly bedded in Progressivism.

Anyway, that brings us more or less to the present. Tanner is headed for a cushy Congressional retirement, perhaps doubling as a lobbyist, or maybe just as a gentleman farmer, or a coddled academic, and the vacuum must be filled.  Two Republicans have stepped up: Stephen Fincher and Donn Janes.

I haven’t made up my mind, yet, but so far, I like both, and I suspect that either would be an improvement of several orders of magnitude over recent representation of the Eighth in Congress.

In email correspondence with Donn Janes, he impressed me as a firmly-rooted Constitutionalist. His lack of association with the Republican establishment doesn’t put me off at all, considering how incompetent and/or deceptive that establishment has been in recent years, as I have described in detail in “Compassionate Conservatism,” and other Reasons Why the Republicans Lost, and elsewhere.

In this case, it is not Eugenics looniness that seems to repel the Elephants, but the suicidal stampede of the pachyderm patriarchy to embrace Liberal Lite over grassroots conservatism. If this is their reason for giving Janes a dismissive sniff of the trunk, I consider that a major positive. Janes’s Website lays out his beliefs in some detail, and I can find nothing there to disagree with. I see no effort at obfuscation or deception in any of it, and I am strongly inclined to believe that he believes as he says he does.

On the inevitable other hand, Stephen Fincher also strikes me as the real deal. Fincher spent fifteen or twenty minutes on the phone with me, in which I gave him a gentle grilling about several issues I see as definitive. His Website, as I have noted elsewhere, was a little vague in some details I was looking for, but he filled in a lot of that in the time I had with him.

I asked him if he would refuse to vote for legislation for which no justification could be found explicitly in the Constitution. He said yes. He went into some detail, leading me to believe that he is a strict constructionist, and not a blank-check-ist, as far as interpreting the limits on government power delineated in the Constitution. In other words, I don’t see him signing off on something under the cover of the horribly abused “general welfare” provision.

I asked him a question I’d like to see answered by all 535 members of Congress. I call it the “regulation without representation” question. In the event that a federal regulatory agency passed a regulation that violates the Constitutional constraints on government power, would you vote to defund the agency involved, starving it of the resources to enforce such regulation?

I proposed the hypothetical (but all too likely) example of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) re-establishing a “Fairness Doctrine” that would impose restrictions on First Amendment freedoms of speech and press. Fincher said that yes, he would do anything he could to defund the FCC in that case, or in any case in which regulators attempt to bypass the legislative process on their way to violating the Constitution. I think he meant it.

I would love to see our regulatory royalty deprived of their salaries, expenses and benefits while they re-think their ambitions for violating the Constitution.

What does Stephen Fincher think of term limits? He says no member of the Senate should serve more than two (six-year) terms, and no member of the House should be there longer than six (two-year) terms.

(I think membership in either house should be seen as just as much a matter of disagreeable obligation as jury duty, rather than a lifetime occupation from which one retires early and lives like a king at taxpayers’ expense. Take away the perks of power, make the retirement benefits much less luxuriant, and see if we still have self-important hacks and crooks of any party hanging around like a persistent fungal infection.)

The FAIR TAX – Is Stephen Fincher for it? Yes, if he can assure himself that we wouldn’t wind up with a grasping IRS collecting income tax AND a sales tax, he would support the Fair Tax, or a reasonable variant.

Does he agree with my standard for bill size – “any bill too big for a regular human to read before it comes up for a vote is too big to vote for”? Yes. He says the huge size of recent bills is nothing but a haystack for hiding needles from taxpayers, such as pork barrel, bribes for special interests, and unconstitutional power grabs.

I strongly suspect that Donn Janes would answer all of these questions pretty much to my satisfaction, as well.

Stephen Fincher does, undeniably, have more connections with the Republican establishment than Donn Janes, but they are of a conservative pedigree. Fincher told me he is in touch with Mike Pence, Republican Representative from the Second District of Indiana, who is chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Mike Pence is a solid conservative, and has become something of a kingmaker among the conservative Republicans in Congress and elsewhere. While Mike is more conservative and less Libertarian in orientation than I am, I know and respect him from a long-time acquaintance going back before his time in Congress, and I believe he, too,  is “the real deal” — honest, intelligent and respectful of his obligation to uphold the Constitution.

If he says Fincher is a solid individual who would faithfully represent the interests of Tennessee and obey his oath of office, I’m inclined to believe it.

I am also inclined to believe that of Donn Janes, although I have less, independent corroboration.

Where does that leave us? I think we have two, good candidates to go up against the one the Democrats pick in their primary. Which one will I vote for? I don’t know, yet, but I’m glad to have “an embarrassment of riches.”

That is  much more agreeable than a choice between a tightly-wound Eugenics fan and an invulnerable incumbent with a C+/B- grade from the premier liberal organization, and yet the ability to pass himself off as a Blue Dog moderate.

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3 Responses to “Tennessee’s Illustrious Eighth — a Congressional District with a Colorful History”

  1. Tennessee’s Eighth, and Conservative Ideals versus the Republican Establishment « Center of Mass Says:

    […] Center of Mass Right-wing Rants, Technobabble and Other Stuff « Tennessee’s Illustrious Eighth — a Congressional District with a Colorful History […]

  2. Claudine Drueke Says:

    I am working the 9-12 and tea party in Dickson and would like to meet you
    there is more of us. We are having a meeting 3-1-10 please contact me
    at my email ore call me 615-476-xxxx

  3. Tom Cox Says:

    I will email. Edited out your phone # from the comment to preserve privacy.

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