Democrats’ scheme hits GOP in House

On January 18, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal January 18, 2009 NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republicans were giddy as last week dawned. In November, the GOP won its first majority in the state House of Representatives since 1869, fulfilling an elusive dream of state party leaders for four decades. It seized control of the Senate two years ago […]

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 18, 2009

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republicans were giddy as last week dawned.

In November, the GOP won its first majority in the state House of Representatives since 1869, fulfilling an elusive dream of state party leaders for four decades. It seized control of the Senate two years ago and expanded its margin there to 19-14 in the last election.

On Tuesday as the new legislature opened, House galleries were packed with party faithful from across the state. On the floor below, GOP luminaries past and present– former governor Winfield Dunn, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, former congressman Van Hilleary, party leaders and others — sat among legislators and their families gathered for the historic day.

A Republican was to be elected House speaker and Democrat Jimmy Naifeh’s 18-year tenure as speaker was ending, a happy two-fer for the faithful.

The last GOP House speaker was present: Bill Jenkins, elected in 1969-70 when an independent and a Democrat voted with Republicans to elect him in a House evenly split by the parties.

The House Republican leader from Jenkins’ upper East Tennessee area, Rep. Jason Mumpower of Bristol, was the caucus’ nominee for speaker. Mumpower, 35, was so confident of election that he ordered 65 state flags to be run up and down the flagpole atop the Capitol to give to friends to mark the event.

The grand theater that unfolded next is already Tennessee political folklore.

A Republican was elected speaker — after he was nominated by the Democratic leader and backed by all 49 Democrats.

The only GOP vote for Rep. Kent Williams — a restaurant owner from Elizabethton in only his second term, and so little known that Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville first met him on Wednesday — was Williams’ vote for himself. That vote, the last on the alphabetical roll call, gave him the 50 votes for election to a two-year term as one of the three most powerful officials in state government.

Mumpower got the votes of the other 49 Republicans.

Loud booing and shouts of “traitor” and “Judas” showered from the galleries as the stunning result of the Democrats’ secretly engineered move to hold on to some power sank in. The visiting luminaries left. Williams, 59, said three colleagues muttered obscenities to him. Uniformed state troopers entered and stood alongside the podium as the tumult escalated.

Dazed Republican members sat grim-faced and silent while Williams was sworn in for a two-year term, pledged to run the House in a new bipartisan fashion, called Naifeh a “great speaker” (to the cheers of Democrats and jeers from the galleries), and then voted again with Democrats to re-elect Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, as speaker pro tempore over Republican nominee Beth Harwell of Nashville. He asked Naifeh, 69, to the podium to help him preside.

The first Republican to rise and publicly question the new speaker was Rep. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, about Naifeh’s presence on the dais.

“You got a problem with me being speaker?” Williams asked him.

“I’ve got a big problem with you being speaker,” Kelsey fired back.

“Good!” said Williams.

Wednesday morning when the House reconvened, Kelsey, 31, apologized for “letting my temper get the best of me” — then promptly called Tuesday’s events “a fraud perpetrated on the people of Tennessee” and asked Williams to resign his House seat and stand for election in his home district as a Democrat or independent.

Williams called that “silly.”

Kelsey’s attacks were perversely fitting, because he may have inadvertently played a small role in Williams’ election as speaker. If so, it was a huge unintended consequence of a bold move Kelsey made last summer.

In the run-up to last August’s legislative primaries, a few of the House’s most conservative Republicans actively opposed Williams’ re-election. Kelsey, however, was the only member who traveled into Williams’ district, 500 miles northeast of Germantown, to work for Williams’ opponent in the Republican primary.

Kelsey’s presence made an impression on Williams, a House freshman.

“He held up my opponent’s signs, standing right beside me (at the early-voting precinct in Elizabethton), which I thought was very disrespectful,” Williams said.

Williams downplayed reporters’ questions about whether the attacks by members of his own party played into his decision to make the pact with Democrats. He didn’t refer to it until asked.

Instead, he said he chose to run for speaker with Democratic backing because he didn’t like the strident partisanship in the legislature. He said he wants to end the practice of appointing only majority-party members as committee officers, and pledged to appoint chairmen from both parties.

And Williams said he first started thinking about accepting the Democrats’ support upon hearing that GOP leaders planned wholesale firings of legislative employees when they took over. Republicans last week denied that had been in the works, but Williams was sensitive to the possibility. In the mid-1970s as a young father of three, he was fired from a low-wage state highway job solely because a new governor was coming in.

“I said, ‘I’m here every day and do my job; why are you firing me?’ They said, ‘It’s just politics.’ I have a strong belief that was going to happen here,” Williams said.

House Democratic Leader Gary Odom of Nashville met with Williams Thanksgiving weekend when Odom was in Elizabethton visiting his mother. He stopped by Williams’ restaurant, Dino’s, and raised the possibility of Williams running for speaker with Democratic backing if Naifeh could not muster the single GOP vote he needed to remain speaker.

“I laughed at him,” Williams said, dismissing the idea.

Williams said he approached Democrats last weekend about Odom’s idea after it became apparent Naifeh wouldn’t beat Mumpower, and when the possibility of mass firings loomed.

Naifeh freed Democrats to back Williams.

A bipartisan House and political firings may have been, as he suggested, Williams’ motives for the deal. Right-wing bloggers attribute it to the power, the $57,027 salary and other perks.

But Kelsey’s in-your-face campaign visit to Carter County and the opposition of other GOP colleagues made it easier for Williams to run against his caucus. “That’s in the past. I’ve put that behind me,” he said.

Kelsey is defiantly proud of his work against Williams — prompted, he said, because “he’s been dishonest with the people of his district about governing as a Republican,” including Williams’ votes on pro-life issues.

Williams says he will make passage of a long-blocked anti-abortion amendment to the state Constitution a top priority in the House this year.

Said Kelsey: “I was the only member of our Republican Caucus who actively campaigned against Williams in his own district and I feel 100 percent justified in doing so now. … The only regret I have in campaigning against him was that we didn’t beat him.”