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Tennessee State House Shenanigans

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 16, 2009

This past week, the Tennessee General Assembly was rocked by the surprise election of Kent Williams (R - Elizabethton) as Speaker. Combining all 49 Democratic votes plus his vote, he won the Speaker election over the presumed Speaker-in-waiting Jason Mumpower (R-Bristol). Thus, even though Republicans won control over the TN General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction, they will not exercise control over it.

The immediate aftermath was not surprising. People asked, "who is Kent Williams?" Why did he defect from the Republican nominee? What does this mean? I'll try to answer the best I can.

First, who is Kent Williams? I really don't know and neither do many others. Up to this point from what I have gleaned, he has been considered a run-of-the-mill legislator who no one really thought of as Speaker material. He was part of the "Naifeh 7" who were Republicans who voted for Democrat Jimmy Naifeh (Covington) for Speaker in the past. Naifeh needed this support because he was not always popular in his caucus. In fact, he had to beat back an attempt to remove him 2 assemblies ago. This led the usually partisan Naifeh to become less so (but still partisan).

Second, why did he defect? Two possible options. First, we can take him at his word that he wants to end the partisan infighting of the legislature and work for the common good of Tennesseans. To his credit, he is part of the Naifeh 7 that has crossed party lines to keep Naifeh in the Speaker's Chair. But that was a coalition based not on policy or bipartisanship but personal connections. And while ending partisanship is a great idea in practice, the method he pursued does not accomplish his goal. Williams secretly met with Democratic Leader Gary Odom (D-Nashville) after Thanksgiving to discuss the possibility of voting for Naifeh or becoming Speaker himself. In the meantime, he signed a pledge to vote for a Republican for Speaker (he did by voting for himself) and Speaker Pro-Tem (he did not by voting for Lois DeBerry). Democrats realized this past Monday that Naifeh could not become Speaker and so went for Plan B. They talked to Williams about becoming Speaker and he agreed and then told no one else.

Second, it is possible that Williams is upset because more conservative House Republicans supported a challenge to his seat in the primary in 2008? Williams is considered a moderate Republican, like the other Naifeh 7, and this and his support of Naifeh led to a primary. Therefore, he may be trying to seek revenge on those who tried to defeat him.  

But what is most interesting to me are the Democrat's motivations. There is a simple answer there -- power. They never offered Republicans committee positions when they controlled the House and now after losing power in the elections, they wanted to prevent it. Their thinking was better half the positions than none at all. So their desire to end partisanship and in-fighting, the goal of their Speaker nomination, is a little late or nonexistent.

Yet, I belive there greatest fear is not losing power this year but for a long time. While Democrats may be gaining across the country, the Republicans have been and are ascending in Tennessee. Democrats know that and also know that redistricting will occur in 2011. If Republicans control that, they will probably do what Democrats did when they controlled redistricting. Redistrict Republicans out of seats and force partisan in-fighting by forcing incumbent Republicans to run against each other. If they can get a bi-partisan redistricting that protects their seats, they may be able to hold onto power for another ten years. A neutral or partisan redistricting by Republicans would recognize the inherent Republican advantage in Tennessee and make Democrats the minority party in the state. This would affect their ability to recruit strong candidates at the state, local and congressional level as this would send a clear message to ambitious young politicians that the way forward is as a Republican.

Third, what does this all mean? We can see that on several levels. First, Williams' speakership will contribute to partisanship and in-fighting which is contrary to his stated goals. By pursuing the Speakership behind closed doors, he avoids transparency and potential honesty which are important to the legislative process. Trust is important in the legislative process because not all members are experts in policy areas. They have to trust that what other members tell them is true to make informed decisions. Moreover, members count votes and if you say that you are with them on a vote, you have to stay with it or seek permission to change your vote. This trust makes the legislature run and he violated that. Williams had plenty of opportunity to tell others of his plan but did not and for obvious reasons. People would try to spike the plan. This is not a good way to start.

Moreover, his actions creates more ill-will in the legislature and not less. Republicans are predictably angry that they will not control the state House when they won it in the election. While there is some personal pique, most legislators are there to promote their conception of good public policy and Republicans see this move as a means to prevent them from pursuing their legislative priorities.

Futhermore, political parties are by nature partisan. The fact that everyone does not agree is a good thing. Consensus leads to groupthink and bad decision making. Bringing in people with differing perspectives increases the amount of information that members have to make good decisions. And because people differ in experiences, knowledge, and background, they will come to differing conclusions. This is what representation is all about.

Plus, Naifeh was partisan as Speaker. Under his leadership, Democrats stole good Republican ideas and claimed them as their own so they passed the policy and got the credit and not Republicans. Democrats redistricted Republicans out of seats and made them run against each other. Naifeh blocked legislation supported by a majority of the House because he or many members of his caucus opposed it. How does using the votes and strategy of partisan people make one bipartisan?  Since he received 95% of his votes for Speaker from Democrats, will he pursue what they want? If not, how will they react to his speakership?

Second, what does this mean for Williams himself? First, it guarantees a primary challenge in 2010. Republicans will spend any amount of money to defeat Williams. And Williams will be ineffective at delivering for his district. He may get a few bones from the Bredeson Administration but will accomplish nothing legislatively because the state Senate will kill everything that he wants. Just like Naifeh and Democrats killed everything former Senator Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville) wanted after voting for Ron Ramsey for Speaker in 2007, Ramsey and Senate Republicans will do likewise.

Second, his skills will affect whether he can remain Speaker. He easily beat back a primary challenge this past year which bodes well but perhaps not in the new environment. If he does survive, can he remain as Speaker? History suggests no. Democrats supporting a moderate Republican as Speaker to remain in power has been pursued in other states, most recently VA and TX. These two states were trending Republican and this allowed Democrats to remain in power for a few more years but eventually the natural trend led to a Republican Assembly. The defeat of John Wilder (D-Somerville) as Lieutenant Governor two years ago is also evidence, except in this case moderate Republicans kept a very conservative Democrat as Senate Speaker.

Of course, he could act like Willie Brown of CA who used Republican votes to become Speaker and then turned on them to build a base in the Democratic Party to perpetuate his Speakership becoming one of the most partisan and reviled state House Speaker in modern history. Williams can possibly accomplish this but it is unlikely. Brown was always ideologically in tune with his party and was respected as a legislator. Neither is true for Williams.

Third, what do Republicans do from here? My suggestion is to sit back, look over the options, and move from there. Strategically, they should maximize their position with Williams and plan for 2010. Williams knows that he has fences to mend so use your bargaining leverage to get the people you want on committees, in committee chairs, and most importantly, a majority on the committees. Having a majority on the committees increases the chances that you get what you want.

Also, don't throw him out of the House Republican Caucus. Some suggest that but they should resist it. Doing so could lead him to vote for Odom as Majority Leader. Republicans should want Mumpower as Majority Leader because of floor recognition rights and thus the ability to control the floor. And because, by tradition, the majority leader makes the deals to pass the major bills. Once again, this increases the chance policy reflects your view. Let the TN Republican Party throw him out if they want, but you should not.

Third, Republicans should govern responsibily. Democrats attack them as partisan and extremist. Disprove them by working with Bredeson. Plus, this general assembly will have to make difficult decisions due to the economy. Spread the blame so Democrats cannot blame you for it. Use the cooperative nature to build up public support, raise money, recruit good candidates, and then win more than 51 seats in 2010 so Williams vote does not matter.

Crying over spilt milk is useless. Do your job and everything will work out.