State Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat, has moved up the state House’s ranks, and that progression may not stop until he’s sitting in the speaker’s chair.
Two years ago, Democrats easily elected Odom as House Majority Leader, choosing an outsider over one of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s close supporters and fellow West Tennessean.
Two years later, Odom has transitioned from a committee chairman to a majority leader that is a loyal supporter of his fellow Democrats but a more “partisan” voice against Republicans than past Democratic leaders.
Odom’s ambition that spurred him to be elected majority leader may not end there.
Rep. Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory), one of Odom’s top supporters, said Odom has “ambitions” and that those ambitions include considering running for House Speaker.
Turner said he doesn’t know when Odom could cast a bid for speaker but doesn’t believe he would challenge Naifeh, who has held the speaker’s gavel since the early 1990s.
“I think he’ll probably wait until the speaker leaves,” Turner said of Odom. “I know he has desires along those lines.”
For his part, Odom is being coy.
The 56-year old, former Metro Councilman turned veteran state legislator wouldn’t say whether he planned to challenge Naifeh.
“That’s not something I’ve thought about right now,” Odom said when asked whether he planned to run against the longtime House speaker. “I’m trying to elect Democrats.”
The thought of a ‘House Speaker Gary Odom’ has caused some Republicans to bristle. Ironically, if it’s going to be Naifeh or Odom, these GOP members would prefer to keep someone they love to hate — Naifeh — in the speaker’s chair rather than transition to Odom, who they see as hard to work with and less business friendly.
Intentions under wraps
Besides not declaring his intentions regarding running for speaker, Odom wouldn’t definitively say whether he plans to run for Democratic leader again, repeatedly saying that decisions on whether to seek leadership posts are made once the November elections are complete.
Prior to the 2006 November elections, Odom stepped up his campaigning for fellow Democratic incumbents and candidates while considering a run for majority leader. By that point, it was well known that then House Majority Leader Kim McMillan (D-Clarksville), a close ally of Naifeh’s, wasn’t seeking re-election.
After that year’s elections, with Democrats still controlling the House, Odom cast his bid for majority leader against Rep. Mark Maddox (D-Dresden), another legislator close to the current speaker and a West Tennessee Democrat that has long-ruled the House Democratic Caucus.
Odom, running on an anti-status quo message, easily defeated Maddox on a 33-18 vote.
Rep. Randy Rinks (D-Savannah), a close Naifeh ally and one of Maddox’s votes, said Odom won because he “worked hard” and campaigned for Democratic candidates, helping them raise money.
“I think Mark probably had an anti-Kim McMillan vote too working against him,” Rinks said. “So I think that was part of it too. But Gary got out and worked pretty hard and he’s working hard now. He’s doing the same thing again.”
Odom attributed his 2006 election because he represented urban interests through his time in Nashville combined with understanding rural concerns through his upbringing in upper-East Tennessee’s Carter County.
“I understand the relationship between local government and state government, but more importantly, I understand the issues that affect rural areas in a special way and the issues that affect urban areas,” Odom said. “And I think that helped me win by such a significant margin.”
The majority leader role
As House Democrats’ majority leader, Odom sponsors nearly all of the Bredesen administration’s legislation, plays a pivotal role in House floor actions and often speaks to the press concerning Democrats’ positions on issues.
Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) said Odom has been an “effective spokesperson” for the Democrats in a “difficult position” where he has to balance the priorities of a Democratic governor and a majority Democratic caucus.
“You have the majority and you have the governor’s office,” Harwell said. “It’s a difficult position to hold and I think he’s done a good job.”
Rinks, a longtime caucus chairman retiring this year from the House, said he’s seen many different majority leaders and each one has their own style. He said Odom’s style is a “little more partisan” than other leaders.
“He takes the lead,” Rinks said. “He’s not trying to be contentious or nothing like that but he kind of gets out front and leads. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a majority leader is supposed to do.”
Odom contends, however, that he’s “one of the least partisan folks” on Capitol Hill and that he believes all legislators should have their bills considered and he tries to be “fair in everything I do.”
The exception, Odom says, is when Republican lawmakers are being “blatantly partisan” and not taking an issue seriously.
“We are elected to serve in the Legislature I think to conduct serious business and there are a few over there that I think aren’t always serious in what they’re doing,” Odom said.
House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower (R-Bristol) said Odom is not “nearly as partisan as he is liberal.”
“I think he’s extraordinarily liberal, one of the more liberal members of the Democratic Caucus,” Mumpower said of Odom, who he calls a friend. “His adherence to liberal principles help define him as Democratic leader.”
During his time as majority leader, Odom said one of his proudest accomplishments was the education overhaul in 2007 that reformed the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP), which is the state’s funding formula for K-12 education.
That education overhaul eventually became accompanied with a more than tripling of the state’s cigarette tax, a bill that Odom sponsored.
Seeking a promotion?
This year, Odom is repeating what worked for him in 2006 — he’s campaigning for and helping Democrats.
For example, he’s been to Memphis recently to help incumbent Rep. G.A. Hardaway, to Columbia for challenger Ty Cobb’s campaign kickoff and says he’ll do the same today for Rep. Curt Cobb (D-Shelbyville).
In addition, on July 18, Odom founded a leadership political action committee.
“I do all that I can for my Democrats,” Odom said.
Just as they did in 2006, Democrats have a 53-46 majority in the House. Republicans need to pick up a net of four seats to take the advantage.
After the 2006 elections, Odom says he’ll make his decision on whether he’ll seek a leadership position. If Democrats have a majority, Odom said he couldn’t foresee a reason he wouldn’t at least seek the majority leader’s post.
As far as the speaker’s post, Rinks said when Odom has the votes is when he would probably run for speaker.
“I don’t know if he’ll challenge Jimmy this time,” Rinks said of Odom. “He might two years from now or something or three years from now. I don’t know if he’ll do it this time.”