Tenn. House cast into uncertainty by speaker vote

On January 15, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

Republicans publicly complain about outcome of election By ERIK SCHELZIG • Associated Press • The Leaf Chronicle January 15, 2009 Disgruntled Republicans wasted little time making their voices heard Wednesday about Rep. Kent Williams’ surprise election as House speaker a day earlier. Williams, an Elizabethton Republican, was confronted by Rep. Brian Kelsey shortly after he […]

Republicans publicly complain about outcome of election

By ERIK SCHELZIG • Associated Press • The Leaf Chronicle
January 15, 2009

Disgruntled Republicans wasted little time making their voices heard Wednesday about Rep. Kent Williams’ surprise election as House speaker a day earlier.

Williams, an Elizabethton Republican, was confronted by Rep. Brian Kelsey shortly after he gaveled in the morning’s House floor session.

“I do feel that a falsehood was perpetrated yesterday on the members of this body,” said Kelsey, of Germantown. “I call upon you to go back and resign and come back and run as either an independent or a Democrat.”

Williams did not respond to Kelsey from the speaker’s podium, but was dismissive when asked by reporters about Kelsey’s suggestion he step down.

“He comes up with a lot of silly ideas, and that’s just another one,” he said.

Williams won the speakership by one vote after he banded together with all 49 Democrats in the 99-member chamber. Republicans, who had expected to elect House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, have now begun a review of whether to formally strip Williams of his Republican credentials.

The Legislature is gearing up to tackle a budget shortfall that is expected to grow to more than $1 billion by the end of June. Lawmakers’ sole constitutional duty is to pass a balanced budget, but they also propose thousands of laws each session that can either be advanced or killed by committees appointed by the speaker.

Williams has pledged to run the House in a bipartisan manner, and said he plans to equally assign powerful committee chairmanships to Republicans and Democrats. Committee appointments should be completed by next week, he said.

But it’s unclear how much angered Republicans will want to participate — or what role former longtime Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, will take on.

Williams said he would push for the quick passage of a voter referendum on limiting access to abortions and measures to expand where handguns can be carried.

“If Republicans stick together we’ll pass that legislation, and I know there’s a lot of conservative Democrats who want to see those issues out there, too,” he said.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, who called Williams deceitful for deviating from the party line by allowing himself to be elected speaker, said he saw no reason to try to dissuade fellow Republicans from accepting appointments to committees by Williams.

Asked by a reporter whether Republicans should refuse chairmanships, Casada said: “Absolutely not. It’s time to put this behind us and do what is right for the state.”

Mumpower said he would wait to cast judgment on whether the new leadership scheme will work.

“I can’t comment on that because I can’t see in the future,” he said. “I can’t answer for what everyone feels in their heart and mind and soul.”

Democrats were heartened by the prospect of not being entirely excluded by the narrow Republican majority in the House.

“Hopefully we’re entering a new bipartisan era,” said Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville. “But it’s up to the Republicans — who ought to be happy because they have a Republican speaker — to decide whether they’re going to be petty or not.”

One of the first steps taken by House Democratic Leader Gary Odom after the speaker’s vote was to postpone the election of the state’s constitutional officers that had been scheduled for Wednesday.

The secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer are elected by a joint session of the House and Senate, where Republicans hold a combined 69-63 advantage.

Williams, who has said he favors incumbent Comptroller John Morgan over Republican nominee Justin Wilson, denied speculation Tuesday evening that committee chairmanships could be traded for pledges to keep Morgan and Treasurer Dale Sims in office.

“I’m not making any deals,” Williams said.

He added that he scheduled a meeting Wednesday with Wilson to discuss his nomination for comptroller.

Odom said he may move to delay a vote on the constitutional officers until Democrats have a chance to carefully question the Republican candidates about their backgrounds and political contributions.

Williams, who won election to his second two-year term in November, will also have to establish relationships with the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said he doesn’t know what to make of Williams so far.

“I don’t know whether he speaks for the House or not,” he said. “I just spoke to him for the first time this morning.”