Without a doubt, Republicans are firmly entrenched in power in Tennessee. Control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office is so firmly in the hands of the Republican Party that not even a well-coiffed Samson could pry it from their hands.
With that power will come some difficulty in the next few months. The obvious question is who will be the next Speaker of the House. But beyond that, there is the more difficult matter of redistricting. During the next legislative session, new legislative boundaries will be laid, and historically, the party in power draws them to its own advantage. And finally, will Gov.-elect Bill Haslam set the tone for the next year, or will it be the legislature, which could be a far rowdier bunch than the rather calm Haslam?
First, though, there is no question that the current House speaker, Kent Williams, is out. Although he won his race in Carter County, the independent has already withdrawn himself from consideration in 2011. A new Republican majority will have to decide on a speaker, but this time there will be no Democratic “January Surprise.”
Nashville’s Beth Harwell has often been mentioned as a contender, but with a more conservative state House — and the evisceration of rural Democratic incumbents who might have crossed party lines to support her — the path to victory could be thorny. She does have one vote already, though: On Twitter last week, Williams wrote, “I wholeheartedly support Beth Harwell for Speaker. She is a great leader and will serve well.”
Harwell told The City Paper that she would be a candidate for the job.
“I believe that as a former state Republican Party chairman for two cycles that I have worked hard to bring this victory about,” Harwell said. “I have the leadership skills to work well with all the members of the legislature and Mayor Haslam, and stay true to the Republican principles of keeping taxes low and creating jobs.”
Franklin state Rep. Glen Casada currently holds the No. 2 spot in the House, behind retiring Republican Jason Mumpower of Bristol, and Casada is tentatively in the driver’s seat for the speakership. Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, has also said he has designs on the job.
No matter who is elected speaker, he or she will be herding cats trying to keep in line a caucus that is not entrenched, has soft loyalties and is willing to buck leadership. As much as the GOP has used Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh as a whipping post, the next speaker will likely wonder in the wee hours of the night just how Naifeh kept his caucus in line for so long.
Follow the leader(s)
Paradoxically, a problem for Republicans will be redistricting.
Every 10 years, along with the census, each state takes its own population numbers and redraws legislative boundaries for state House, Senate and U.S. Congress. This process takes a couple years, but the upcoming legislative session is when the lines are drawn.
“The problem facing Republicans is that their victory was so complete that some lines they wished to redraw are now in Republican hands, and the newly elected members will be in no great rush to change the lines that put them in office,” said one Democratic House member who asked not to be identified.
The danger for Republicans, and the scrap of hope for Democrats, is that voters might swing dramatically in future elections as they did last week. There is no doubt that Tennessee is a Republican state now and most likely will be for years to come, but Democrats can take solace in the twisted idea that it will be difficult to beat them this badly again.
But who is really in charge on Capitol Hill might determine the Republican majority’s staying power. Haslam inadvertently ceded power to the legislature in the waning days of his successful gubernatorial campaign when he said that he would sign a bill to abolish gun permits if the legislature passed it.
Although Haslam backtracked from the statement, the message to incoming members of the General Assembly was clear: “We hear you what you want, but we tell you what we want you to do.”
Haslam spent well over a year convincing people on the campaign trail that he would govern in the moderate tradition of his predecessor, outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen. And then he shot himself in the foot.
The person who heard that shot most clearly is former GOP gubernatorial rival and current (and future) Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Ramsey controls the state Senate and, until someone gains firm control of the House, he’ll be setting the agenda for state government. It’s been a long time since someone who finished third in a state primary wielded so much power afterward.
For Haslam to take control, he will have to become an expert navigator. Priority number one will be naming a deputy governor. He will have to choose someone who will be steadfastly loyal but willing, behind closed doors, to stand up to Ramsey and the next House speaker, and push through an agenda that might conflict with the political desires of some legislative leaders, especially those on the farther right end of the spectrum.
Asked what kind of people Haslam would appoint to his administration, Tom Ingram, the campaign’s chief political advisor, said, “I think you can look at the governor-elect’s record as mayor. There he has surrounded himself with a diverse group of people from business, the nonprofit community, government, men and women who were supporters of his and people that weren’t so strong supporters of his, and the criteria is that they were the best people for the job.”
And of all the special interests watching closely the tone of this legislature, none will do so more than the business community.
Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told The City Paper that he and other business leaders believe balancing the budget — with an expected shortfall at least in the
multimillions of dollars — will be the top issue next session.
“Small-business owners want to know what the plan is there,” he said. “We are getting closer to detail time, and business leaders want to know how legislators balance the budget with the economy still in the doldrums.”