House Speaker Beth Harwell stood outside the morning’s GOP caucus meeting, whispering with Gerald McCormick in the echoey halls of the state Capitol.
McCormick, a Chattanoogan who serves as her No. 2, listened intently as Harwell stood nervously outside the historic Old Supreme Court chambers where her caucus of 70 House Republicans was getting riled up.
It was the final day of this year’s legislative session. Tensions were high, fuses were short, and most were running on waning adrenaline with the end of the bill-making year in sight.
Harwell looked worried.
The speaker in the opposite chamber, Sen. Ron Ramsey, was quietly holding hostage her bill to target a political flare-up over charter schools in Nashville. In exchange, he wanted the House to approve a plan redrawing judicial districts. But her members were more interested in a mini-rebellion against the upper chamber.
After November’s election, Republicans picked up enough members in both chambers to run the legislative branch without a single Democrat showing up to the Capitol. At the time, top Republicans scoffed at suggestions their party faithful would fracture under the weight of their supermajorities.
But while the GOP had its way throughout much of the legislative session, several signature priorities for the party’s upper echelon died embarrassingly for lack of support from the party rank-and-file. The wine-in-supermarkets bill died at the hands of a single vote; the House smacked down the Senate’s push for new judicial districts; the governor pulled a plan for school vouchers out from under a band of pushy lawmakers in the Senate; and Harwell’s plan to set up an alternative avenue for the state to OK charter schools never got a vote on the Senate floor.
Fellow Republicans shrug off the intraparty battles and say that’s part of good governance, but political insiders say the friction between members and factions is here to stay.
The first signs that the Republican powerhouse could buckle appeared during this year’s renewed push for wine sales in grocery stores.
Poll after poll shows the public is ready to shop for wine in the same place they buy milk and bread. This year, both House Speaker Harwell and Senate Speaker Ramsey threw their support behind a plan to let voters decide in local referendums whether to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell wine.
For years, the issue would languish in a committee until members voted it down. The reasons for the bill’s failure varied, although political factions, financial campaign support from the liquor lobby and moral opposition to making alcoholic beverages more convenient to purchase were generally to blame.
Republican leaders proclaimed this year they’d back the bill and give the measure a “fighting chance,” as Ramsey put it. The bill ultimately landed on the Senate floor — its greatest progress to date.
Harwell, too, made it a priority to keep the bill alive. In her chamber, she twice sat in on committee hearings to exercise her rarely used tie-breaking vote to save the bill. The second time, though, her vote didn’t matter. Her handpicked chairman of the Local Government Committee, who voted for the bill the week before, switched his vote to a “no” at the last minute, rendering Harwell’s support useless.
Chairman Matthew Hill, a Republican and radio show host from Jonesborough, said he was frustrated that proponents of the bill tried to rush it through his committee. Political insiders, though, saw that frustration manifest itself as stabbing his House speaker in the back.
Harwell would only say she was “disappointed” with how the vote turned out. Whether and how she will politically punish her chairman is yet to be seen. Little did Harwell know she would find her vote irrelevant again on that last day of the legislative session when her caucus rose up against Ramsey’s judicial bill — leaving her other signature bill, regarding charter schools, in jeopardy.
What she wanted was a way to allow the state to approve charter schools rejected by the local school district, an outgrowth of an ugly fight between Metro Nashville Public Schools and the state education department. While the school district harped on diversity concerns over allowing Great Hearts Academies to open in an affluent neighborhood without a satisfactory plan for student transportation, Harwell made it a mission this year to find different ways for charter schools to win approval. Her measure ultimately would have allowed the State Board of Education to approve rejected charter schools in school districts with the worst schools, which included Davidson County and four others.
Her bill won approval from the House and moved on to the Senate. But for the first time since Republicans have commanded supermajorities in both chambers, Harwell and Ramsey were at odds.
When Harwell walked back into her caucus meeting that last day of session, Rep. Bill Sanderson was launching into a lecture about the flaws of Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s judicial redistricting bill. He was voicing the friction of deep-rooted factions — the House versus the Senate — and was met with applause.
“And you guys say you’re not a hard caucus to manage,” Harwell chided the group moments later, after a close vote on whether to finish up business that day or return the next week to wrap up the session.
Minutes later on the House floor, normally agreeable legislators stood up against Ramsey’s redistricting bill. The measure would have updated the judicial district maps last set in the 1980s, while also eliminating two districts and rejiggering eight others.
One by one, House members called it bad legislation and raged against the upper chamber, denouncing the Senate and the lieutenant governor for excluding them when drawing the new “poorly thought-out” maps and for bossing the lower chamber around.
“They have been dictating to us from the get-go how this session runs,” said Sanderson, a sophomore Republican from Kenton, who said the bill “was crammed down our throat.
“The bill was drawn over there,” he said, pointing to the Senate. “It was given to us, saying ‘You can like it or you can love it.’ Now friends, let’s draw a line in the sand today and say, ‘We stand united at the people’s chamber.’ We will not be told any more how long to stay; we will not be told how we redistrict our own districts. Friends, I ask you, let’s say it. Let’s say it because we’ve all thought it. Let’s say it: Vote no on the bill because it’s not our bill.”
The speech was one of the session’s most fervent Republican-on-Republican attacks. It was rare to hear strong criticism of the opposite chamber this session, aside from snide remarks in the hallways about one body hosting more meaningful deliberations than the other.
Some issues tend to break up members by factions, like urban versus rural, the geographic Grand Divisions, constitutionalists, small-government types, big-business fans.
“They’re learning to live with the factions as much as anybody,” said Ben Cunningham, a Nashville Tea Party organizer who sees more activists wanting to exert stiff political pressure at the state level. “I don’t think it’s a particularly negative development. It just goes that the pulling and tugging is going to be among Republican factions, and that’s reality now.”
But local issues like deciding lines for judicial districts are tricky on Capitol Hill, because how a member votes rests less on party affiliation or political factions and more on the voices within the district.
This was one such bill, and no one knew exactly where the House would fall. Some thought it would at least be close.
But it wasn’t. The bill failed 28-66, sending a clear message to the Senate that the body couldn’t be convinced to go along with Ramsey. And with him holding Harwell’s charter school bill as leverage, the House had just shot the hostage.
“Quite frankly, if there’s not a little tension between the Senate and the House and the administrative branch, we’re probably not doing our jobs,” McCormick, the House’s majority leader, told reporters later that day.
“We don’t always just fall in together and work off the same page. That’s just the way government works, and it ought to work that way. There ought to be some tension and some disagreement,” he said.
Largely, Republicans in the legislature were unified on a host of major policy issues that their leaders pushed this year. The body voted enthusiastically to rework the state’s workers’ compensation system, sock money away in the state’s rainy day fund, and lower the taxes on groceries by another quarter for each $100 spent. The party’s members also backed most of the governor’s eight-piece agenda this year.
But Republicans created another rift when key senators bashed heads with Gov. Bill Haslam on a plan to give some students a free pass to private school.
Vouchers are taxpayer-funded “opportunity scholarships” to cover private school tuition. The idea, which is a tool of the school choice movement sweeping the country, is controversial because it takes money out of the public school district and deposits it into private school bank accounts.
The governor was never excited about vouchers to begin with — having deferred the issue in the last session with a promise to study the idea — but Haslam decided early this year to take the issue on, largely so he could take ownership of a small-scale program that would focus on 5,000 low-income students at the state’s worst-performing schools.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, an ambitious 30-something from outside Memphis, has pressed for a large-scale program and spent much of the year toying with ways to seize the governor’s bill to expand it and make it his own.
He and a band of Republicans in the Senate pushed back against the governor’s limited school voucher plan in lieu of something more wide-ranging — like lumping in students from middle-income families, such as a family of four with income of $75,000.
Kelsey refused to let up and continued to buck the governor’s plan. Haslam’s point man carrying his bill, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, called Kelsey’s attempts to “hijack” the bill “hostile,” and characterized the argument over vouchers as a “political football.”
Then Haslam stopped playing. He had Norris pull it.
The governor appeared unfazed by the squabble. But his party brethren chomping at the bit for a voucher program were bested by the governor.
“We are going to have debates when we get to the details of issues like vouchers or judicial redistricting,” said Chris Devaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “There’s going to be debates with those issues, and there are going to be groups that have different interests in the rural parts of the state and the suburban parts of the state and the urban areas of Tennessee.”
“You can’t get everything in one fell swoop,” he said. “When you have a family, and when you have a big family ... we have arguments once in awhile.”
Democrats, who were rendered politically irrelevant for this session, say they’ve enjoyed the show.
“I’ve been waiting on it all year long, good Lord,” said Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. “The first three or four months weren’t a lot of fun. The last few days, it was kind of intriguing. We had a good time.”
In the bigger picture of state politics in the General Assembly, Tennessee is a “middle of the road state,” Turner said. Over the past few years, the Volunteer State has “lurched further to the right,” but intraparty strife from this year’s legislative session may indicate the state is starting to settle toward something in the middle, he said.
“I don’t know how this plays out,” he continued. “[Ramsey’s] a pretty powerful man. He knows what he wants to do, and I’m not sure he’s going to roll over for the governor or anybody else. I think Beth [Harwell], who kind of got the job while the governor came in, she’s an ally with the governor — she’s trying to accommodate him the best she can.
“A lot of times, it’s Ramsey versus those two. But 75 percent of the time they’re out there in total agreement, so it’s not like open warfare or anything. They’re just going to have a few times they disagree. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, I mean for anybody. I think it’s good. That’s what democracy is about. You’re supposed to question things. That’s one of the reasons we have parties,” said Turner.
When Ramsey’s judicial selection bill died in the House, Rep. John Lundberg delivered the bad news in person as Ramsey sat behind the podium in the Senate chamber.
Ramsey sported an odd grin, but minutes later sat on his phone, covering his mouth, perhaps so no one would hear him or read his lips.
The Senate did much of nothing for the next few hours as it waited for the House to finish up other business, hold some compromise committees to work out other minor pieces of other legislation, and for Ramsey to iron out a game plan.
Hours later, his Education Committee chairwoman shelved Harwell’s bill, putting an end to a months-long fight over the role of local government in approving privately run, publicly funded schools in Davidson County.
“Either one of them could have got what they wanted if they played it right, and they probably both could have got what they wanted,” Turner said. “I’m not sure they were talking to each other a whole lot at the end.”
And as of last week, they still haven’t.