Otis L. Sanford: Alexander has Dem leader in a political headlock

Posted on May 4, 2008

It's not every day that a Southern Republican lawmaker can score political points with African-American constituents at the expense of a powerful liberal Western Democrat. But that's just what happened in Washington last week, and a Memphian was at the center of the tempest. The Southern Republican is Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's senior senator. The Western Democrat is Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's majority leader. The joust was over the renomination of Bishop William Graves to a seat on the Tennessee Valley Authority board. Reid, it seems, has kept Graves' nomination hung up in the Senate since last July because he's unhappy that no straight-line Democrats are among the current TVA club members. The Tennessee senator expressed his displeasure with the delay in a stinging letter that a staff member hand-delivered to Reid on Wednesday. The letter was addressed to "The Honorable Harry Reid." But those are the only complimentary words Alexander used in the two-page missive. "Your decision to block Senate confirmation of the President's nomination of Bishop William Graves of Memphis and Susan Williams of Knoxville (to the TVA board) astounds me," Alexander wrote. "Your actions insult the Mid-South's largest city, Memphis. Until Bishop Graves' appointment in 2006, a Memphian had never served on the TVA board." Then comes the zinger. "Your actions are an affront to more than one and a half million African Americans in the seven-state TVA region." Alexander then points out that until the appointment of Graves -- "the presiding bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church -- an African-American had never served on the TVA board." It's as if Alexander was also telling Reid, "God's going to get you for this." Talk about irony. Alexander is gaining a political advantage using the fact that, before Graves' appointment, African-Americans had been excluded from service on the TVA board. Of course, the reason for the exclusion is that no Southern senator and no U.S. president -- most of whom have been Republicans for the last 27 years -- saw fit to appoint a black person or a Memphian to the board. And Reid is the one getting beaten over the head for it now. Ah, politics. You've got to love it. After the TVA board was expanded from three members to nine, President Bush nominated Graves in 2006 to fill a term that was about to expire the following year. Bush then renominated Graves in July 2007 for a new five-year term. But Reid, who became Senate majority leader after the 2006 election, has been sitting on the nomination. His reason is that Bush should appoint a Democrat. The fact is -- and Reid knows this -- that presidents get to appoint whoever they darn well please. In this case, Graves identifies himself as a registered Democrat who votes as an Independent. But he has been a close Bush ally for years and served as a co-chairman of the local Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004. Yet, his appointment to the TVA board was more than just blind patronage. Graves had served for 10 years on the board of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, the TVA's largest customer. And he is well versed in crucial utility issues. He is respected and capable. In other words, Bush got this one right. Which is why Alexander showed no hesitancy in going after Reid for foot-dragging on Graves' renomination. The CME bishop, Alexander says, "has served with distinction," even though his seat is barely warm. And now a liberal Democrat is trying to keep him out of the chair altogether. Almost from the moment the Democrats got control of the Senate, Reid has been the favorite whipping boy for conservative Republicans. Among Memphis Democrats, the majority of whom are African-American, he is pretty much nondescript. But one thing we do know is that most black Memphians don't take kindly to political mistreatment, perceived or real. So Alexander was all too eager to paint Reid into a corner as the villain, and to make sure the local folks knew about it. The next move is Reid's, and he needs to quit this partisan charade. Chances are, if he keeps stalling on the Graves nomination, he'll have some tall explaining to do.