My wife and I stopped at Shoney’s for breakfast on our way out of Memphis Saturday morning, and I picked up a Commercial Appeal to read while eating, which is how I learned that John S. Wilder, who had been lieutenant governor back when I covered Tennessee politics in the 70s and 80s, had died.
I was immediately struck by the fact that the headline said he was a “controversial” figure. Huh? Not the way I remembered him… I remembered him as a guy who worked constructively with all sorts of people to get things done. Indeed, high up in the story I saw that former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander remembered the Democratic lt. gov. as “a Tennessee institution, the very definition of a gentleman legislator.” Indeed. In fact, I had recalled Democrats and Republicans working together so smoothly for the benefit of their constituents under the likes of Wilder and Alexander and then-Speaker Ned Ray McWherter that it was sort of a shock when I first came home to South Carolina and found a Republican governor (Carroll Campbell) who was so focused on party-building that he would hold press conferences to rub it in Democrats’ faces whenever he succeeded in getting yet another Dem to switch parties. This kind of nyah-nyah-nah-nyah-nyah politics was not what I was used to, and so I formed the impression of Campbell as an unusually partisan guy. Strange to think that now I look back on the Campbell years as halcyon days of constructive engagement, compared to today.
Anyway, I was therefore surprised to learn that Lt. Gov. Wilder was “controversial.” I figured something had happened in the years that I had missed. So I read the whole story, trying to find out what it was that I had not know about him.
As I read, part of my brain that wasn’t busy reading reflected on the differences between the way we choose our Gov Lite in SC and the way they do it in Tennessee. In the Volunteer State, he is a member of the Senate, elected by his peers to preside over that body (as I recall — someone who knows the Tennessee way better than I should correct me here if my memory is wrong). I found myself thinking that maybe that produces a better result than our way, “controversial” or not.
Then I got to the “controversy” about Lt. Gov. Wilder:
He was elected speaker at the same time that Winfield Dunn, Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years, was inaugurated. Wilder’s refusal to adopt an overtly partisan style evolved into intraparty leadership struggles during the 1980s.
The Senate Democratic Caucus refused to renominate him for speaker in both 1987 and 1989. But Wilder outmaneuvered them — he and some Democratic supporters forged a coalition with Republicans for him to maintain the speakership.
There was also some other stuff about a land deal that I didn’t really follow because there weren’t enough details offered, and something where he (rather courageously, it seemed) stood up to the power structure in behalf of disadvantaged black sharecroppers (in both cases, the writing was sufficiently unclear as to make what happened hard to follow — not an uncommon problem in newspapers these days, I find, unfortunately). But the crux of his “controversial” tendencies seemed to be that the more partisan types in his party wanted to ditch him for not being partisan enough.
Huh, I say again. Sounds like the kind of “controversy” we could use a lot more of.