In praise of the late Gov. Ned McWherter’s record on education, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh reignited battles of this year’s legislative session Saturday night at the Tennessee Democratic Party Jackson Day Dinner.
“Ned wouldn’t have backed down when my colleagues across the aisle began to attack teachers in this state, and neither did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus,” Fitzhugh said to applause. “Ned would have stood for teachers when politicians decided to stop being partners with our teachers and wanted to be dictators to our teachers, and so did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus.
“We know what Ned would do. He would fight for teachers, not against them. He would work with teachers, not attack them.”
Those lines rekindled controversial fights this year when Republican Gov. Bill Haslam led the way on changing the teacher tenure system, and the GOP-dominated Legislature repealed a state law passed in 1978 that mandated collective bargaining between local school boards and teachers unions, replacing it with a “collective conferencing” system that many unionized teachers believe undermines their negotiating leverage.
Noting that signs saying “I Miss Ned” were on the tables inside the big tent that hosted the affair on the grounds of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall, Fitzhugh, from Ripley, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, education in our state misses Ned.
“He was a man who deeply cared about the children of our state, and he dedicated his life in public service to improving education.”
McWherter, who died April 4, was the focus of most of the speakers, including his son, Mike, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee last year. Mike McWherter, who lost to Haslam, announced the first Ned McWherter Legacy Award to veteran Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry from Memphis, who had a conflict in schedule and did not attend the dinner.
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave the keynote speech and stirred the crowd especially when going after Wall Street and the Republican presidential field for 2012.
“None of us get through this life on our own. We’re all interdependent and dependent upon each other, and I wish the folks on Wall Street understood that,” Strickland said. “These Republican presidential candidates, I wish they would just acknowledge that they attended schools that someone else provided. They benefited from roads and bridges that someone else built.
“I’m just getting a little sick and tired of the attitude that I associate with an economic and social Darwinism that says, ‘I got mine, and too bad if you don’t have yours.’ We are one country, one people, and we are dependent upon each other.”
Strickland said he was glad he is a Democrat because the Democratic Party created Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But most of the evening belonged to Ned.
Each of the tables had a box of vanilla wafers holding two American flags, a reminder of McWherter’s famous line just to give him a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and he was ready to go to work. The program featured several videos with clips from McWherter’s career, including interviews, campaign ads and televised debates.
The speakers in the tribute included Fitzhugh, former lawmaker and commissioner of economic development Matt Kisber of Jackson, and state Sens. Roy Herron of Dresden and Andy Berke of Chattanooga. The crowd gave a standing ovation to the tribute’s keynote speaker, John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and worker in the civil rights movement in the Department of Justice during the Kennedy administration.
Seigenthaler spoke as McWherter’s friend. He noted the videos showing McWherter speaking of Republicans like former Govs. Lamar Alexander and Winfield Dunn with humor and respect.
“It reminds us that there was a time when civility, a time when decency in public discourse, when friendliness in political rhetoric, brought people together for a common good,” Seigenthaler said. “How times have changed.
“How refreshing it is to hear Ned speak of Gov. Alexander and Gov. Dunn with respect, with high regard, with the acknowledgement of their achievements and accomplishments even as he stood across the aisle, a member of a party who stood more often than not for causes different from theirs. To Ned McWherter, civility was a way of political life. And how we miss that today.”
Seigenthaler said when he thinks of President Andrew Jackson and McWherter he thinks of “two great public servants, each of whom rejected flatly the idea that prevailed so widely in so many parts of the country, and even in this state today, the idea that government is the enemy of the people.
“Government is the friend and servant of the people. Jackson felt that. And Ned McWherter felt it in the depth of his soul and the core of his bones. Jackson and McWherter felt for the common man. Both stood for the working men and women of this state and of this country.”
The crowd went silent early in the program when state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester recalled the span of only a few days when Forrester’s 19-year-old son Wilson and McWherter died this year.
There were lighter moments. Kisber delighted the audience when he described the celebration in Spring Hill with the opening of the Saturn automobile plant and McWherter drove the first car off the assembly line.
“A person the size and stature of Governor McWherter was not Saturn’s target customer,” Kisber said.