While the focus of the nation is on the battle for the presidency between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, a much smaller group of political watchers is keenly observing a potential race much closer to home.
Forget about Congress, the U.S. Senate or public referendums, the most dynamic political contest in Tennessee isn’t one where voters can directly participate. It is the battle to serve as Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
On one side of the intra-party contest is the current Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh of Tipton County. First elected to the state house in 1974, Naifeh has served as speaker since 1991 — the longest serving Speaker of the House in the history of Tennessee.
His potential opponent is the Democratic Majority Leader, State Representative Gary Odom of Nashville. Odom, who bills himself as “Davidson County’s voice on Capitol Hill,” has served in the legislature since 1987 and on the Metro Council prior to that.
The two Democrats are the most powerful members of the State House, and it is a poorly kept secret that they aren’t each other’s favorite people.
Some call it “contrasting styles” but they could well be on their way to a showdown in January when their colleagues decide who will serve as Speaker for the 106th General Assembly. For many political watchers, the only way that the face-off will be averted is if Republican’s gain a majority in November.
If the battle was over whom Tennessee Republican political operatives in the state hate more, Naifeh or Odom, Naifeh would win in a walk.
The West Tennessean is maligned on the right for his grip on the legislative agenda and what they call “good ole’ boy” politics.
Those “qualities” however have given Naifeh the staying power to stay on top of the powder keg of legislative politics.
But in the world of politics, being high profile and a master of political maneuvering isn’t what keeps you in the ring. It is constituent services.
While it is well known that the quickest way for a politician to lose a general election is to be perceived to be “out of touch” with the electorate (consider Al Gore’s losing Tennessee’s electoral votes in 2000) the same goes for leadership positions in a legislative body.
An example of this took place in 1971 when a little known U.S. Senator from West Virginia knocked off Ted Kennedy to serve as the Senate Democratic Whip in the U.S. Congress.
Senator Robert Byrd beat Kennedy in that leadership race because he took care of the members of his own Democratic Caucus. He raised money for them and looked after their flank so to speak. All politics is local, even within the halls of power be they in Washington or Nashville.
Odom has been on a tear as of late, raising money for his Democratic colleagues and raising his public profile by calling for an independent investigation of the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Raising money for colleagues is to be expected of a person in his position, but the vigor of which he is going about the job has raised some eyebrows that it is being done in advance of asking for support as Speaker.
Some might applaud his call for an independent investigation of the THP, but doing so in advance of two people above him on the depth chart, Naifeh and Governor Phil Bredesen, shows the difference in styles that have politicos guessing.
When asked about his future plans by The City Paper, Odom declined to discuss anything past November.
“I am focused on the November elections, I have an opponent and I am also doing all I can to help Democrats throughout the state,” Odom said.
Perhaps the biggest hit Odom has taken in the halls of the legislature was earlier this year when he suggested to some colleagues to recess for a few weeks before finalizing the state budget.
The suggested recess was supposedly to give members time to research buyouts of state employees, but it also coincided with Odom’s wedding and honeymoon. The timing did not go unnoticed by his colleagues.
When asked about what occurred in the waning days of session and how that affected his relationship with the members of the House, Odom said that there was no issue.
“I didn’t recommend recess, I just said that one option was to appropriate $50 million towards a buyout so the administration could proceed with looking into the matter and then come back in three weeks when they had the details,” Odom said. “The budget did not have to approved until the end of June. Many members of the caucus wanted to know the details. There was so much concern about the buyouts or layoffs that a budget amendment with more than 60 sponsors was circulated to fund the positions in question for another year out of the rainy day fund. This had nothing to do with my schedule, just a logical response to the situation the state was in. I was truly concerned about learning the details, the budget was the only check we had on the administration with the buyout issue.”
Naifeh has been active raising money and campaigning for colleagues as well. When asked about a challenge to his leadership by Odom, Naifeh was pointed.
“In my opinion we should be focused on elected and keeping a majority of Democrats in the Tennessee House and not focused on individual leadership position,” Naifeh said.
“I do have an opponent here,” Naifeh added. “I never take any opponent lightly, and I am also raising money for and visiting with Democratic members. I am also raising money for House Democratic Caucus, the House/Senate Democratic Caucus, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Speakers Fund.
“We cannot forget that we are elected to carry on the business of the state, I am involved in that every day, we are already working on the budget for next year, we have to do something for state employees and teachers, we have to work on education, we have to work on roads, roads means jobs.”