Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Editorial: Knoxville News Sentinel

Wilder's time as speaker might be ending
December 4, 2006


It's been 35 years. Perhaps it's time to move on.
We're talking about John Wilder who, as speaker of the state Senate, also is lieutenant governor of Tennessee.

He's been in the position since 1971, and he may be the longest-serving head of a legislative body in U.S. history.

Re-electing the 85-year-old Wilder to the post has become an issue with its own controversy. Wilder is a Democrat, but the Republicans have a 17-16 majority in the Senate this year.

Wilder's re-election as speaker appears to hang on the votes of Sens. Mike Williams and Tim Burchett, who voted for Wilder two years ago when the same issue arose.

Wilder's position is powerful because the speaker of the Senate assigns committee chairmanships. He traditionally has made bipartisan appointments.

Wilder is proud of the Senate, and while pride is a good thing, we think it's a term that should be used when appropriate. Wilder is fond of saying, "The Senate is the Senate."

The problem is, that's not always something to be proud of, and Wilder doesn't seem to know the difference.

In May 2005, in response to the arrest of four sitting lawmakers and a former state senator in the Tennessee Waltz sting, Wilder said it was wrong for undercover agents to bait lawmakers with money.

Sitting Sens. John Ford and Kathryn Bowers and former Sen. Roscoe Dixon were among those charged. "I'm hurt because John is where he is, and Roscoe is where he is and Kathryn is where she is," Wilder said in an emotional Senate speech. "It's rough. We're family. Three members of our family are in hell. Why? Because they're legislators."

Dixon has since been convicted. Ford and Bowers have resigned from the Legislature and are awaiting trial.

During a prayer with lawmakers after his speech, Wilder said, "Money out there was offered as bait to get someone in jail. It's wrong. It's not Your way."

While we're appalled that Wilder would criticize a federal sting that resulted in the indictments of 11 people, we're even more appalled that he would try to involve God in the mess.

But that's not the only inappropriate response that can be attributed to Wilder. Wilder's name also came up in connection with the indictment of state Sen. Jerry Cooper on charges of bank fraud and conspiracy. Cooper is accused of using political influence to get a $1.77 million loan for an Alabama couple who then used the money to buy a lumber mill from him. The arrangement also involved a $485,000 loan from the state and a grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Wilder is listed as an owner of the bank that made the federally insured loan, and he's the one Cooper first contacted about the money. When the Legislature began looking into the controversy, Wilder decided to sit in on the closed ethics subcommittee hearing. He told observers he had just stopped by to say hello and had no desire to influence the proceedings.

But here's a little food for thought. Wilder, as lieutenant governor, is next in line for the top leadership post in the state should something happen to the governor.

Gov. Phil Bredesen is a healthy man, and we're glad for that. But Bredesen's apparently serious illness this year raised the question of the line of succession.

John Wilder has served the state for a long time, and much of his service has been with distinction. But do we want him to continue to embarrass the state by criticizing officials who enforce the law in Tennessee or by conducting himself as if ethics don't matter?

Would we want him to become governor?

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