The dust may have settled on this month’s election, but others are just getting started.
The catch is these elections don’t call for the public’s input.
Beginning next week, the state’s 132 lawmakers on the largely Republican Capitol Hill will start electing — from their ranks — the people who will be some of the most powerful figures in the state.
“Ultimately what the caucus is concerned about is we want to be a unified voice,” said Rep. Ryan Haynes, one of 70 voting in the Republican caucus elections. “A lot of times I think the media wants to stir up that there’s a big divide between the Republican caucus, and I don’t see that yet.”
Leading up to the opening gavel, lawmakers in each chamber will elect members to lead the Republican and Democratic caucuses within each body. The issue is normally “inside baseball” for the public at large, but in a General Assembly driven by Republicans who regularly say, “It matters who governs,” what also matters is the cadre of people at the helm.
The most interesting of those races will happen Monday, Nov. 26, at the AT&T Building downtown, where members of the massive House Republican caucus are expected to cast their votes for the people they want to lead them through the next two years.
Only one of those races is contested, as of publication. It’s between a sitting leader who fell on the opposite side of party leadership on a handful of conservative, controversial bills and a quiet state rep who has largely worked behind the scenes.
The job is for speaker pro tempore, the official No. 2 ranking legislator in the chamber. Job responsibilities chiefly include manning the podium when the speaker is out of pocket. But more than that, the speaker pro tempore can vote in any standing committee, giving the electee power to cast the tie-breaking vote on just about any piece of legislation.
The post is now occupied by Rep. Judd Matheny, an auctioneer from Tullahoma who has a decade of experience on the Hill. He has been the speaker pro tempore for the past two years.
In his tenure, he performed few of those official duties. Matheny rarely manned the podium for Speaker Beth Harwell — who seldom let go of the gavel — and cast few tie-breaking votes in key committees.
It’s a job that leadership, both past and present, could have utilized better to free up Harwell, the chamber’s top Republican, said Rep. Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican expected to run unopposed for a different caucus position.
“She and the rest of us are kind of learning our way around. I would say the last two years, it’s because we’re still learning where all the gears and levers are, if you will,” said Casada, a conservative who ran an unsuccessful bid for speaker two years ago against the more moderate Harwell, the first GOP-backed speaker since Reconstruction.
Casada is running for House Republican Caucus chairman, a job that would put him in charge of managing the 70-member caucus, helping in re-elections and acting as the party’s spokesman.
Casada, who generally runs right of the rest of the pack, wouldn’t say whether he’d back Matheny for the speaker pro tempore seat, or the challenger, Rep. Curtis Johnson.
The Clarksville businessman said he first thought to run for the spot after Matheny hinted in August he’d consider challenging Harwell for the gavel.
Matheny, who often sat on the side of controversial legislation, said at the time he felt sidelined by the caucus’ GOP leadership. He said upper-level Republicans worked to water down some of his key initiatives, leaving him to “feel like I’ve purposefully been put in a box,” he said at the time.
Top-ranking GOP officers insisted that wasn’t their attitude toward him, and Matheny backed off plans to run for speaker weeks later.
The Tullahoma representative wasn’t always in lockstep with the desires of leadership. He pushed legislation that sought to combat the specter of homegrown terrorism incited via the spread of Islamic law. The proposed legislation drew hundreds of concerned Tennessee Muslims into committee rooms and legislative hallways in one of the largest protests in the plaza that year.
He also was a steadfast supporter of controversial gun rights legislation that other Republican leaders refused to touch, in part because it trapped the party in a messy fight between gun rights and business owners’ private property rights in an election year. The so-called “guns in lots” bill would have allowed gun owners to keep a firearm locked in their car parked on work property.
Johnson, who rarely makes waves on Capitol Hill, said he decided to run because he had already laid down some groundwork while Matheny flirted with the speaker’s office.
“I think it’s very important that we keep our caucus together, pulling in the same direction,” said Johnson, who largely stays out of the limelight and refused to comment on Matheny’s complaints about top leadership.
“I’ve been able to work with all those groups. The groups that are considered moderate, the groups that are considered conservative, the rural, the urban. I think I have a proven track record of being able to work with all those groups,” he said.
Repeated attempts to talk with Matheny for this report were unsuccessful as of press time.
The speaker pro tempore job is the only one other than speaker that is officially elected by the entire chamber, although Republicans have enough members to choose the position on their own. While Democrats could try to influence who is ultimately elected to the post, they say they won’t interfere.
“When they were always in the minority, they always challenged the Democrats,” House minority leader Mike Turner said of Republicans. “We didn’t do that last time; I don’t think we’ll do it this time. ... We need to try to work with them when we can.”
Lawmakers across the board refused to say who they plan to vote for in the election, and with 17 newly elected Republicans — who are still busy just figuring out where their offices are, let alone getting to know the candidates — the decision could go either way.
But what are the new legislators looking for in a leader? Right now, the same as other rank-and-file members: someone who can help project a united front for a large caucus that promises to show division on a handful of issues.
“Folks that are kind of able to walk between the raindrops, for lack of a better term,” said William Lamberth, a newly elected Republican from Sumner County. “They are able to guide people and still avoid some of the personality conflicts and some of the egos that are out there to get to a goal. I guess that’s what I’m looking for.”
Senate Republicans have their own caucus election on Dec. 12. No one is challenging anyone in the chamber’s already established leadership ranks, although the election needs to be kept secret, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
“We’re not setting any state policy, we’re not talking about bills, we’re not talking about issues. It is kind of a within-the-family kind of discussion,” he said.
The Democratic caucuses in the two chambers are still working out dates for their elections, which will likely happen between mid-December and early January.
Two years ago, caucuses let the public in on their internal elections. Senate Democrats say they’ll keep with that tradition this year, although House Democrats said they’re still not sure.