GOP will use hot-button issues, Dems should as well

Robert Houk • Dec 16, 2013 at 9:18 AM

Prepare yourself, dear voter, because 2014 is going be a busy election year. There will be contests for governor, county offices and Congress on the ballot. I, however, am looking farther down the road. And with that in mind, I have the following suggestion for Tennessee’s beleaguered and shrinking Democratic Party: Field candidates for the state General Assembly next year who will work to place a constitutional referendum on the ballot in 2018 to legalize medical marijuana.More on that in a moment, but first a brief reminder of what voters will face next year. Things will get started in May with Republican primaries for county offices, including sheriff, county commissioner and General Sessions Court judge. The county’s general election will follow in August, along with primaries for state and federal offices.The year will end with the Nov. 4 general election for state and federal offices. That ballot will feature races for governor, General Assembly and Congress. Voters will also be asked to decide a number of statewide referendums.There are, in fact, three on the ballot. These proposed changes to the state Constitution were all pushed by Republicans in the General Assembly, and should prove helpful in getting the GOP’s base to the polls in November.One would forever forbid the creation of a state income tax in Tennessee. Supporters say a tax on personal income already is prohibited under the state’s Constitution, but this measure will make that point clear enough for even the most liberal activist judge and tax-loving legislator to understand.Speaking of activist judges, another constitutional change on the ballot would amend the selection and appointment for state judges. If approved by the voters, the governor would be able to directly appoint judges to the state’s Supreme Court and state appellate courts. The governor’s appointments, however, would be subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.That means the current independent judicial nomination commission would be eliminated. This will make it easier for the governor to seat judges based not on their judicial scholarship, but on their politics.The most talked-about referendum on the ballot will no doubt be a measure that declares women have no “fundamental right” to an abortion in Tennessee. The constitutional amendment is in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that stated Tennessee’s Constitution affords women an even greater right to seek an abortion than that provided by the U.S. Constitution.If approved by voters, the measure would not only change that, but would give state lawmakers the power to require a waiting period prior to an abortion, place greater restrictions on later-term abortions and draft rules on what doctors are required to tell women prior to the procedure.Abortion is one issue that Republican candidates can always bank on when it comes to getting their supporters to the polls. Another is gun ownership rights, and that is coming down the pike. (The American Legislative Exchange Council sent lawmakers away from its conference last week with several “model laws” on the topic.)I would suggest Democrats in Tennessee take a page from the success Republicans have enjoyed at the polls as a result of tinkering with the state Constitution. Many of the Republicans who are championing these constitutional amendments today, however, were singing quite a different tune 20 years ago. Back then, they said there was never a reason to mess with the Constitution. At that time, they were specifically addressing efforts to repeal a constitutional prohibition on a state lottery.A decade or so later found GOPers pushing passage of statewide referendum to ban gay marriage. That measure, in part, helped Republicans gain control of the General Assembly.Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion. Democrats need to give voters a distraction that they can happily get behind. Medical marijuana may just be it. Getting a constitutional referendum on the ballot is thankfully a complicated and lengthy undertaking, which is why Democrats need to get started next year by fielding candidates for the General Assembly who support legalizing marijuana (medical or otherwise).This is an issue that has legs with younger voters, unrepentant former hippies and those who call themselves libertarians. I’m not saying Tennessee will join California and Colorado as states that have legalized marijuana, but a referendum on the issue will get voters to the polls who might also vote for Democratic candidates.And that is something Democrats haven’t been able to do very often in recent years. Think about it.Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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