For political appointees in government, there’s often a choice – doing what’s right or doing what you’re told.

There’s an axiom repeated frequently by these appointees – loyalty flows up, not down. As a result, those who risk doing what’s right in the face of orders to the contrary often receive a professional death penalty.

That’s exactly what happened recently in the Bredesen Administration when aides to Governor Phil Bredesen took a sledge hammer to the career of his former film commissioner David Bennett.

Crime And Punishment

The crime? Bennett made the mistake of taking his responsibilities as film commissioner seriously. He thought his job was to serve the film industry in Tennessee, and in that vein, he helped local film officials lobby for a special incentive fund to encourage state film production.

And worse yet, at least for Mr. Bennett, local film industry advocates were successful in getting the Tennessee Legislature to approve the $10 million incentive fund. The governor’s advisors did all that they could to put roadblocks in the way, and they dressed down Mr. Bennett for helping local officials in the first place.

As a result, he did in fact put some distance between himself and the lobbying effort in Nashville, but local film commissioners already had the momentum. Despite efforts by the University of Tennessee and others to grab the $10 million, the film commissioners were able to gain passage of the program.

Film As Economic Development

To Bennett, it must have looked like a simple call. Film commissioners from across the state have been complaining for years about the lack of incentives that could make their communities more competitive for film shoots. No one has articulated the problem better or more persistently than Memphis and Shelby County Film and Tape Commissioner Linn Sitler, who has begged for help from state government so Memphis could compete with places like Louisiana that offer attractive financial packages to lure productions.

Here, without any meaningful incentives and laboring in the economic development shadows, Ms. Sitler has put Memphis into the top 10 cities for film production. Imagine what she could do with more weapons in her arsenal, so, according to Mr. Bennett’s reasoning, it became critical that state government support film as a key economic development strategy, and that it do it with the kinds of incentives that have proven so popular in recruiting other industries.

As we’ve said before, there’s no one in this region who can point to a better return on investment than our local Film Commission. Operating on a shoestring, it has returned millions of dollars to the local economy.

Let Them Eat Cake

In other words, the logic of focusing on film production as a major economic development focus was sound and long overdue. Every year, with the start of the Tennessee General Assembly, film commissioners could count on flowing rhetoric from Bredesen Administration officials about their pride and support for Tennessee as a leading film location, but in the end, there was never any results to back up the rhetoric.

It was up to Mr. Bennett to field the complaints from across Tennessee about the lack of state support. He also saw his role as serving as a voice for the film industry in Nashville, but in time, he did it so well that he ruffled feathers with his dependable representation of his constituents.

Unfortunately, the attitude of political advisors is frequently more about making sure you win than making sure you’re right. From where they sit, the political operatives in the Bredesen Administration considered that they gave Mr. Bennett orders to abandon the legislation for the film incentives and his film constituents in the process, and he didn’t distance himself enough. As a result, it was time to play the role of the enforcer and send a clear message about their authority.

Power And Control

In other words, much of this issue is anchored in the control and credit that is revered by the advisors that surround political powers like the governor. Unfortunately, as in this case, they seem so determined to exact political payback that they don’t realize that forcing Mr. Bennett to resign actually created a political problem for Bredesen within the film industry in Tennessee.

That’s because Mr. Bennett was the first state film commissioner in years that seemed to understand what his job really was all about. In the past, the job has been routinely filled by dilettantes and the kind of people who apply for film commissioner jobs because they’d want to meet celebrities. As Memphis and Shelby County Film and Tape Commission Chair Herb O’Mell said, Mr. Bennett was the “best state film commissioner we’ve ever had.”

Thanks to his staff’s determination to get its pound of flesh, Governor Bredesen has now sent the message to local film commissioners that politics is much more important than economic development. It’s the kind of lesson that leaves citizens disenchanted and shaking their heads.

Cold Political Payback

To the governor’s aides, Mr. Bennett’s public humiliation – complete with the tired old strategy of whispering to the press about his expense account – is the object lesson that they were seeking. There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect on the actions of state employees, who now know that they need to weigh the duties of their office against the political agenda of the state administration.

But the political advisors of the governor’s inner circle aren’t through yet. They intend to kill off the incentive program, too. They can do it, because when the $10 million in rebates for film production were approved by the legislature, it left it up to the Bredesen Administration to draw up the criteria for the program.

Already, the Administration has dragged their feet for months, and it’s likely that they will continue their stall until the next fiscal year begins July 1. Then, the entire $10 million will be returned to the general fund, and the incentive program will be reduced to an apocryphal story told to new appointees.

It’s a cautionary tale for sure, but it also is one that slaps the face of every one who worked hard to win passage of these incentives in the last legislature. It’s all about sending a message, but in the end, it’s one that just makes the Bredesen Administration look petty.