Not too long ago, the Tennessee state legislature was the unchallenged domain of the Democrats, and beleaguered Republicans were only barely tolerated. Badly outnumbered on every committee, they were consigned to faraway cubbyholes of the Capitol complex to conduct whatever business they might find to do. Their bills were rarely debated, much less enacted into law. When Republicans came up with a popular idea, Democrats introduced an identical measure, let the Republican one die quietly and passed theirs with great fanfare.
Committee chairmen — the old bulls of the party — sometimes openly laughed at Republicans as they came before them to present their legislation. Even reporters joined in the fun. During one particularly demeaning session for the minority party, press corps wags stood outside the office of the mighty House speaker and went baaaa like sheep as certain Republicans shuffled meekly inside to beg for small favors.
Every 10 years, Democratic gerrymandering quickly wiped out whatever gains Republicans had made in the elections leading up to redistricting. In 1992, Democrats devilishly redrew the lines to crowd 12 Republican incumbents into six districts.
“It was pathetic,” said one lobbyist who witnessed that scene. “The Republicans were just whining and crying. They kept saying, ‘How could you do this to us?’ ”
In more recent years in the House, Rep. Stacey Campfield — an outspoken social conservative from Knoxville — was the object of much abuse. Before killing his bills one after another in committee, Democrats often took glee in publicly taunting and humiliating Campfield as if he were the House jester complete with floppy cap and bells.
“Ah, the bad old days,” Campfield said. “The shoe’s on the other foot now.”
When the 107th General Assembly convenes at noon on Jan. 11, Republicans will reign supreme. Not even the most optimistic party diehards ever predicted this dramatic realignment of power.
The past two election cycles have been disasters for the state’s Democrats. The coup de grace came in November, when Republicans took an astonishing 14 state House seats. The party not only controls the governor’s office, but it’s only two votes short of a super-majority in the House and owns a commanding 20-13 advantage in the Senate.
Among the new GOP senators is Campfield, who was promoted from the House in November. He is feeling wistful these days. Payback is fun, but who’s left to punish?
“I have mixed feelings,” he said sardonically. “So many Democrats were beaten. I wish some more of them were here to serve in the minority so they could be treated as fairly as we were treated.”
As tempting as it might be to exact revenge, many in the party say Job No. 1 is proving the new Republican majority can set aside petty partisanship and govern capably and responsibly. To that end, from Gov.-elect Bill Haslam on down, GOP leaders have taken great pains since the elections to play down volatile, publicity-hogging social issues like guns, immigration and abortion that might scare independent voters. Instead, they emphasize job creation and the economy as their almost-exclusive concern.
“Gov.-elect Haslam’s agenda, his job creation program, will be at the top,” said House Speaker-to-be Beth Harwell when asked to name her priorities. “I have a caucus that understands the most important thing we can do is to have an environment that’s conducive to creating jobs, and that means fewer government jobs and lower taxes.”
As their jobs agenda, Republicans are expected to ram through a gaggle of measures long sought by business interests in this state. The state’s business leaders say they are advising Haslam and legislative leaders on how to proceed.
On the to-do list:
• Changing state law to restrict eligibility for unemployment benefits and make it less difficult and time-consuming for businesses to deny payments to workers.
• Enacting caps on damages awarded in lawsuits against businesses, including product liability and medical malpractice cases.
• Streamlining or even eliminating some business regulations, particularly regarding environmental protection.
“They want to look at Tennessee’s regulatory structure, from soup to nuts,” said Bradley Jackson, vice president for governmental relations at the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There’s a real movement out there for that. It could get down to the county licensing process.”
Republicans say they will help create jobs by lowering the costs of doing business and improving the economic climate in the state.
“What small businesses want out of government is to just leave them alone,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said. “One thing we can work toward is reducing some regulation and increasing the ability of small business to work with state government. Our permitting process in the Department of Environment and Conservation is completely out of control. I know of examples of businesses trying to get a simple permit that used to take a couple of weeks and now they’re taking months.”
But can Republicans keep their focus? This session, they won’t fight much with Democrats, who are too few to matter. Instead, the main subtext likely will be the tension between the GOP’s rowdy right wing and its more orthodox conservatives.
Given carte blanche by voters to do pretty much whatever they please, some lawmakers will find their divisive social issues irresistible. If Republicans are seen as pandering to imprudent hardliners in their base, it could give Democrats an opening to stake their claim as the party of reasonable adults.
Republicans already are planning to push a strict Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration, despite opposition from the state’s business leaders who fear a loss of tourism and a national embarrassment. To answer their critics, these lawmakers contend anti-immigration measures are jobs bills, too.
“With the high unemployment we already have, how can we justify having illegal immigrants working rather than natural citizens?” Campfield said.
Also in the hopper for this session:
• Stripping abortion rights out of the state constitution. That was adopted in the last legislature, and it’s almost certain to pass again — this time by the two-thirds majority required to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2014 election ballot. Even if voters approve it, abortions will remain legal because of Roe v. Wade. Other measures to restrict abortion rights could be more controversial. Some states, for instance, have passed laws forcing women to look at ultrasounds of their fetuses before having abortions.
• Banning gay adoption, a high priority for Christian conservatives. In the past, Democrats have managed to defeat this bill in committee. They point to studies showing that denying children adoptive homes with gay couples would cost Tennessee nearly $3 million — the price of keeping those children languishing in state custody.
• Allowing the state’s 300,000 handgun permit holders to carry firearms in city and county parks, no questions asked. Under the present law, which was enacted only two years ago, cities and counties can vote to ban firearms in their parks, and most of the state’s cities — including Nashville — did that.
During the gubernatorial campaign, Haslam often said he wouldn’t push for such legislation. With his support, Harwell could bottle up bills in the committee system, as Democrats often did when they ran the legislature, if she feels they are bogging down the session or grabbing too many headlines. Campfield insists social conservative causes shouldn’t have to yield to economic issues.
“I can pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t have to be one dimensional.”