Lt. Gov. Wilder's remarks rile county commissioner 

Affirmative action comments disturb, dismay county leadership class members

By Thomas Wilson

   Comments about affirmative action made by Tennessee Lt. Governor John S. Wilder to members of the Carter County Leadership Tomorrow class at a meeting in Nashville last month has angered at least one county commissioner and confused several others.
   Carter County Commissioner Robert Davis said he was taken aback by Wilder's comments made regarding black Americans, women and the role of affirmative action during a meeting of the Leadership Tomorrow Class on March 9. Davis said that, during his remarks to the class, Wilder said men like himself are losing good-paying jobs because of blacks, women, and affirmative action. Wilder reportedly made the comment while pointing at Davis.
   "We were never talking about anything like that," said Davis. "It just came out. I really didn't know how to respond."
   In a letter sent to Wilder's office on March 17, class leadership coordinator Kathy Pierce wrote that several class members requested clarification of Wilder's statements about environmental issues and the ACLU and the negative impact of "favoring women and blacks." .
   In a response from Wilder to Pierce's letter released Wednesday, the lieutenant governor said the U.S. Supreme Court was "not in tune with what is fundamentally right and wrong." Referring to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Wilder wrote that it took the Supreme Court over 100 years to rule the "separate but equal" law was not equal. The Brown decision overturned the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessey vs. Ferguson decision and effectively ended laws permitting racial segregation across the nation.
   Wilder wrote in his response to Pierce that since the Brown decision, the Supreme Court had subsequently issued rulings "that grant preferential treatment to certain groups, i.e. race or gender". He further wrote "By granting preferential treatment, the court is violating the fundamental law that all people are created equal."
   Wilder's chief of staff, Russell Humphrey, said Wednesday the remarks highlighted Wilder's belief that affirmative action is discriminatory, but that he did not intend to insult anyone with his comments on the issue. An attorney and farmer, Humphrey said Wilder's career has generated opposition to various U.S. Supreme Court rulings. He said Wilder intended to express his opposition to granting special preference under the law to any group.
   "He thinks that is what the law of the land should be," said Humphrey. "He thinks it is wrong for the court to grant preferential treatment to any group, period."
   Humphrey said Wilder's office received Pierce's letter last month. He said Pierce reportedly sent an e-mail requesting clarification from Wilder but the office had not received that correspondence. The statement was issued Wednesday afternoon while Wilder was traveling in West Tennessee.
   "What surprises me is why did they wait this late to respond?" said Davis, a retired U.S. military officer and the first black American to serve on the Carter County Commission in its 206-year history. "Did they think I was just going to forget about it?"
   Davis said no members asked Wilder for a clarification of his remarks following the meeting. He said Wilder's position as the elected official who was a heartbeat away from the governor's seat made the situation all the more distressing.
   "If he would be the next man to take charge in our state, we would be in a pitiful condition," said Davis.
   State Rep. Jerome Cochran who attended the meeting confirmed that Wilder talked about state government operations and also voiced his opinions about affirmative action and environmental regulations pertaining to farmers.
   "He made some comments I think were misconstrued," he said.
   Cochran said Sen. Rusty Crowe introduced Leadership Class members to Wilder who spent several minutes speaking about government operations. Crowe left the meeting prior to Wilder's comments.
   "I thought it was a simple speech against affirmative action programs in the state," said Cochran, R-Elizabethton. "I don't believe it was his intent to disrespect anybody there."
   Class member Brad Moffitt who was present at the meeting said he was "perplexed" by Wilder's statements regarding affirmative action. Moffitt said he perceived Wilder's comments as inferring affirmative action programs for blacks and women are "major holdbacks" to the country.
   "I was a little bit shocked at what I thought I heard," said Moffitt, Elizabethton city director of finance, "and I'm not sure the lieutenant governor was saying what he thought we were hearing.
   "It was not an interpretation you would ordinarily get from a person who is in the leadership position he is in."
   Larry Gobble, of the Elizabethton-Carter County Chamber of Commerce, attended the March 9 meeting and said Wednesday he did not pay attention to all of Wilder's comments. "It was disjointed, like he was giving parts of an overall picture," said Gobble. "It wasn't anything overpowering or upsetting. I think it has been blown out of proportion of what it really is."
   Other class members attending the March 9 meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were shocked by the context of Wilder's remarks.
   A Somerville Democrat representing eight counties in the state Senate's 26th District, Wilder has been Speaker of the Senate since 1971. He is facing a Republican challenger this fall.
   Humphrey said that Wilder had "a long, rich history of civil rights protections" involving the voting rights of black Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Humphrey said that Wilder was publicly ridiculed and nearly kicked out of his church when he permitted black Tennesseans to move onto his property after they were forced off land for attempting to exercise their voting rights.
   Humphrey said neither he nor anyone in Wilder's office has seen Davis' letter but said he expects Wilder to issue a response to it. He also said the lieutenant governor would respond to Davis once he read his letter.
   "I'm sure he will feel bad about it once he sees it," he said.