Sunday column: On TN bipartisan party dysfunction

When Tennessee Democratic Chair Mary Mancini recently ordered the settlement of a Shelby County Democratic Party squabble over financial mismanagement, her Republican counterpart, Ryan Haynes, promptly issued a press release denouncing “Democrat dysfunction.”

“Instead of taking responsibility and cleaning up the mess, the TNDP wants to ignore the problem in the hope that it goes away. It’s part of a disturbing pattern for them: Democrat public officials do something wrong and their Party pretends nothing ever happened. It’s right out of the Hillary Clinton playbook and it spells disaster for them this fall in Tennessee.”

That followed, by a couple of weeks, a TNGOP news release — with the headline “Tennessee Democrats: Corrupt to the Core” — that recited a list of Democratic officeholders who have run afoul of the law, starting with former Gov. Ray Blanton in the 1970s and continuing to Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, who is facing trial on federal tax evasion charges.

The TNDP chair didn’t have much to say about the Shelby situation, which involves a former county chairman and missing party money that would be settled under the Mancini mandate by him paying back $6,000. His intra-party critics say it should be more and call for criminal prosecution.

But when Republican Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold was indicted in May on corruption charges, Mancini had this to say via press release:

“From Washington, D.C., to Murfreesboro, Tennessee Republicans’ corruption goes from the top all the way to their roots. From Sen. Corker’s insider trading scandal to Governor Haslam awarding no-bid contracts to his friends to Sheriff Arnold using his position to line his own pockets, it’s clear Tennessee Republicans see our government as their personal piggy bank. Tennesseans are tired of being taken advantage of by Republicans at every level of government.”

The TNGOP chair didn’t have much to say about the latest Tennessee sheriff shenanigans — though, once upon a time, Arnold was cited as an example of success in the Republican “Red to the Roots” campaign to elect more Republican officeholders at the local level. Actually, that’s not the latest example: In June, Republican Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, a former state legislator, became the subject of a state and federal investigation.

As a group, it might be noted, Tennessee sheriffs have long shown a propensity toward criminal or corrupt activity. One other former sheriff, Chuck Arnold of Gibson County (apparently no relation to Robert, since he’s a Democrat), is currently awaiting trial on corruption charges.

Haynes has also been noticeably silent on various recent occurrences that just might be considered examples of Tennessee Republican Party dysfunction — say, perhaps, last week’s resignation of state GOP Executive Committee member Mark Winslow while declaring in a letter, “Our soul rotted away some time ago.”

Echoing Mancini, Winslow added: “As it’s currently constituted, TNGOP is really nothing more than a small corrupt core group who view our party as their private club and personal piggy bank.”

It seems fair to say, then, that dysfunction is afoot in both party operations. Both Democrats and Republican generally choose to emphasize the problems on the other side while ignoring those within the ranks.

Not always. Mancini did step in to try resolving an intra-party dispute, taking sides and being told to “go to hell” in a quote happily repeated by TNGOP. Haynes did call for the resignation of state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who is facing investigation for alleged sexual harassment and other stuff — a probe deemed a dysfunctional “witch hunt” by some fellow Republicans. Durham has ignored the calls for his resignation.

Sleaziness among political officeholders is bipartisan. Probably, since more Republicans hold office these days in Tennessee, there are today more sleazy Republicans — just as, in days of Democratic rule, there were more Democrats in that category. Surely, these folks are a very small minority in both cases — they just get the attention.

Maybe it would be wise for both sides to follow an old piece of political operative wisdom: When your opponent is self-destructing, don’t interfere with the process. In other words: Shut up and watch.