Jimmy Naifeh and Gary Odom may prove to be too smart by half.
Certainly, the two Democratic leaders of the state House pulled a measure of victory from defeat this week by propping up largely unknown Republican House member Kent Williams as the body’s new speaker.
Why would they do that, you might ask? Well, it was a strange week at the Tennessee General Assembly — a place that seems to draw some of the state’s most outlandish characters this side of the Metro Jail.
Democrats were left reeling after November elections that saw the GOP’s majority margin hold in the state Senate and saw Democrats lose their House majority for the first time in over a century.
This came amid a bitter battle for the speakership between Odom and Naifeh that lasted all summer and into the fall, as they wooed the prospective votes of an ultimately unsuccessful field of Democratic House hopefuls.
The result was that GOP Minority Leader Jason Mumpower was poised to take Naifeh’s speaker seat away, ending an almost two-decade reign. The answer for Odom and Naifeh, it seems, was Williams, who is one of the infamous “Naifeh 7” — a group of mostly East Tennessee House Republicans that have voted for Naifeh as speaker in the past.
Williams, a heretofore quiet and unspectacular member of the House, is now arguably one of the three or four most powerful people in state government. To get there, Williams essentially turned his back on the entire Republican Party and threw Mumpower — the architect of the GOP victories in November — under the proverbial bus.
The back-story is that there was no love loss between House Republicans and Williams as GOP leaders unsuccessfully ran a primary opponent against him for voting for Naifeh.
So, what will state House Democrats get in return for Benedict Kent’s deal with the devil?
On the front end, Democrats will get at least half if not all of the committee chairmanship appointments — the real source of power in the General Assembly. They also get another momentary victory against Republicans by turning one of their own against the GOP.
On the other hand, Democrats, in what may prove to be a remarkably shortsighted move, also get saddled with whatever legacy Kent Williams leaves in his two years as speaker. Remember, the only Republican who voted for Williams was Williams. He was put into power with all 49 Democrat votes in the House.
Whether the GOP allows him to stay in the party or not, Williams is essentially a Democratic speaker. Tennessee Democrats will get the credit — or the blame — for whatever Williams’ leadership brings.
How should that make rank-and-file Tennessee Democrats feel? Well, Odom and Naifeh basically took arguably the opposing team’s weakest player and put him in charge.
Does that serve the Democratic agenda?
Yes and no. At first blush, Democrats get to keep some all-important committee seats and share the power despite being in the minority.
Democrats will have to explain to some of their constituents why they voted for Williams in Tuesday’s last-minute scramble, which might not be an easy task. For example, Williams has already said he will see a constitutional abortion ban come to the floor — something Democrats have bottled up in committee for years.
Now the possible passage of the ban will have Democrat fingerprints all over it. How will that play in the urban cores of Memphis and Nashville?
So, in exchange for one heck of a parting shot, the semi-deposed Democratic House leadership put in charge a man few on the Hill know much about. That is quite a big risk for Democrats who suffered a historic defeat at the polls last year amid a national resurgence for their party.
Unless Williams has a hidden reserve of intelligence, character and statesmanship somewhere, House Democrats may find themselves struck with a huge case of buyer’s remorse in 2010.
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