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Top Dems Don’t Necessarily See Eye to Eye on Curry Todd

Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd’s first court date on charges of driving drunk, possessing a weapon while under the influence and violating Tennessee’s “implied consent law” is set for Nov. 1 in Nashville.

The chairman for the state Democratic Party, Chip Forrester, on Monday reiterated his call for the Collierville Republican to quit the Legislature.

“Stepping down would be the right thing,” said Forrester.

Forrester has also criticized Gov. Bill Haslam’s public handling of Todd’s Oct. 11 arrest following a traffic stop in Nashville. Forrester said the Republican Tennessee governor “did not take a leadership role” when confronted with news that a powerful statehouse lawmaker allegedly broke the law.

“Instead,” Forrester told TNReport, Haslam “punted what we believe to be a serious issue back to (House Speaker Beth) Harwell.”

Police said Todd failed sobriety tests and refused to submit to a breath-alcohol test. A loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Special was found in the front seat of the GMC Envoy Todd was driving. The police affidavit said Todd “demonstrated numerous indicators of his impairment,” was “extremely unsteady on his feet” and “almost falling down at times.” The report said Todd was “obviously very impaired and not in any condition to be carrying a loaded handgun.” Todd posted bail of $3,000 and was released from jail the morning of Oct. 12.

Asked on Oct. 17 to comment on Todd’s arrest, Haslam said, “Obviously, like everybody else,” he was “really sorry to see that happen, and it was a big mistake from Rep. Todd that could have had dangerous consequences.”

Haslam, who said he’d run into Todd earlier in the day during a charity golf event sponsored by Harwell, R-Nashville, and Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, reported that the Shelby County Republican had expressed remorse for what had happened and that he’d “made a bad mistake.”

Haslam declined to offer an opinion when asked by reporters whether he thought Todd should resign his State and Local Government Committee chairmanship.

“I don’t think that’s my proper role to decide that. That’s why we have that branch of government,” the governor said. “I’ll let (Harwell) and others in House leadership make that call.”

Later that day, Todd indicated his willingness to indeed “step aside” from his committee leadership post “until this matter is resolved.” Speaker Harwell took Todd up on the offer, stating that she “(appreciated) his willingness to step aside so that we may focus on legislative business.”

Forrester contrasted Haslam’s reaction to Todd’s run-in with the law with that of former Gov. Phil Bredesen in September 2007 after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Briley, D-Nashville, was booked on a raft of traffic violations and criminal charges, including vandalism, DUI, leaving the scene of an accident and leading police on a 100-mph chase.

Forrester said that in the wake of Briley’s arrest, Bredesen “demonstrated the kind of leadership that we’ve seen from Democrats.”

According to news accounts from 2007, five days after Briley’s arrest Bredesen said, “Stepping back from (Briley’s) leadership positions I think is an appropriate thing to do, and I hope he would consider doing that while he sorts these things out.”

Bredesen said Briley was “a good man who’s obviously got himself in a lot of trouble.” Bredesen’s spokeswoman, Lydia Lenker, later said, “It’s the governor’s personal opinion that Rep. Briley should focus on getting better and ought to consider shedding some of these responsibilities to focus on that.”

By comparison, Forrester said he found it “slightly disconcerting” that Haslam and Tennessee lawmakers, including Todd, “were all palling around on the golf course together” six days after Todd’s arrest.

Briley was charged with a Class D felony for evading arrest while driving a vehicle at a high rate of speed. Todd is charged only with misdemeanors. Briley’s felony charge was later dropped. Like Todd, Briley refused to submit to a blood-alcohol test, according to media accounts of the arrest — a violation of Tennessee’s “implied consent” law.

Briley gave up his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee within a week of his Saturday afternoon arrest, even though House rules would have allowed him to continue holding the post unless he was indicted for a felony, which he never was. Briley ultimately pleaded guilty to DUI, and the other charges were dropped. He did not seek re-election to the House of Representatives.

Forrester said it is already quite clear that Todd is at least guilty of an “incredibly insensitive and embarrassing act.”

“Let’s be clear about the facts. He was drunk with a gun. There’s no excusing or forgiving a drunk with a gun,” said Forrester. “This was egregious behavior, to be drunk with a gun. He’s lost the confidence of Tennessee voters and therefore needs to step down from his legislative position.”

There’s been some partisan sniping back and forth in the wake of Todd’s arrest, as well as arguments that Republicans were harder on Briley, when they called for his resignation following the 2007 incident, than they have been on Todd.

Unlike Forrester, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner is unwilling to criticize Todd too strenuously. Turner said he’s “not going to beat a guy when he’s down.”

“We’re up here, we’re humans, we make mistakes,” Turner said of lawmakers in general. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not justifying what Curry Todd did, he made a bad mistake. But it is not my place to to jump up and down and try to make points on a bad situation.”

“I will criticize people for what they do up here politically, but their personal lives are their personal lives, and I’m going to try to respect that if I can,” Turner added.

Asked about Forrester’s comments, Turner said the Democratic Party chairman has “a job to do, just like everybody else does.”

“I think there was more of an outcry when Rob messed up than when Curry messed up,” added Turner.

Republicans did call loudly for Briley’s resignation, but House Democrats, in the majority at the time, paid little heed to those demands.

Knoxville News Sentinel Nashville bureau chief Tom Humphrey wrote five days after Briley’s arrest:

Briley, a Democrat, allegedly engaged last weekend in a round of remarkably stupid and dangerous behavior, especially for a man House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh accurately described as capable of displaying brilliance in the legislative arena.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which decides what should be the laws of our land, stands accused of drunken driving, evading arrest, vandalism of a police car and multiple lesser infractions.

Before he had checked into a substance abuse rehabilitation clinic, Republicans were issuing statements declaring Briley should resign from the Legislature immediately. GOP Chairman Robin Smith challenged her Democratic counterparts to do the same, saying it was a matter of keeping the public trust in a public institution.

State Democratic Chairman Gray Sasser declined the challenge. Briley has not been convicted of anything, he noted, and “at this point in time, what’s most important is that Rep. Briley gets healthy and deals with these deeply troublesome and personal issues.”

Naifeh was more blunt. The naysayers declaring Briley should leave the Legislature are pretty low-life people playing for partisan advantage against a man suffering from alcoholism and trying to heal, he said.

The speaker said the court system will resolve the matter of guilt or innocence in due course, and until that happens — and until he has talked with Briley after his treatment program — no discipline decisions should be made.

The Republican call for Briley’s resignation is consistent with similar calls when members of their own party were accused. Party leaders, for example, actively prodded former state Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, to quit his House seat after indictment on bribery charges in the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz sting.

At the national level recently, GOP stalwarts actively pushed Idaho Sen. Larry Craig to resign after learning he had pleaded guilty to men’s room misconduct.

Here in Tennessee, the Democrats have also been consistent. Democratic legislators accused in the Waltz sting were not urged to resign by their party when accused. Those subsequently convicted or pleading guilty did eventually resign.

“We let the judicial system work, and it worked very well,” said Sasser. “Maybe Democrats have more faith in the judicial system.”

Forrester said Democrats are already thinking along fish-in-a-barrel lines for the 2012 campaign in Todd’s district, should the former Memphis police officer spurn the TNDP’s resignation request, escape being targeted in the GOP primary and ultimately stand for re-election in the general.

“We’ll have a strong candidate who does not get drunk and pack a gun,” said Forrester.

Todd had an easy time of retaining his District 95 House seat in the 2010 general election, handily outgunning his Democratic opponent, Christian R. Johnson, 22,611 votes to 4,419.

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