NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Democrats have begun to fight as they prepare for life in a likely Republican-run chamber next year, but this set-to has nothing to do with the GOP.
House Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, an ally of Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, is trying to unseat Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, as Democratic leader.
Democrats in the Nov. 4 election lost four House seats, and Republicans will have a 50-49 majority in January and believe they will oust Mr. Naifeh as speaker.
Mr. Odom, now the majority leader, is running for minority leader as a result of the chamber’s changes. The leadership election between him and Rep. Fitzhugh is expected to be settled Sunday at a House Democratic Caucus meeting.
But the power struggle is taking on new overtones with comments from Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s spokeswoman, Lydia Lenker. Ms. Lenker maintained that although the governor is not getting involved in the contest, he does have “trust issues” with Rep. Odom.
“No need to get into the details of the trust issues with Mr. Odom, but suffice it to say that those came to a head last year, especially around the corporate FONCE loophole,” Ms. Lenker said in an e-mail Thursday. “That factors into decisions about who will carry the administration’s legislative package.”
The FONCE reference is to a provision in an administration tax bill this spring. It sought to apply state franchise and excise taxes to “family-owned, noncorporate entities.” Rep. Odom dropped the bill, which was opposed by business interests, saying the administration was unable to answer his questions.
Rep. Odom on Thursday questioned whether the governor is seeking a puppet as Democratic leader.
“The governor’s right,” Rep. Odom said. “If he wants someone to behave in a mindless, robotic fashion just to do his bidding, I’m not the person to do that. He may have had a majority leader before that did that, but I’m not that person.”
Speaker Naifeh maintained he is staying out of the Odom-Fitzhugh contest although he acknowledged having told Mr. Fitzhugh “I thought he would make a good leader.” Speaker Naifeh has had his own issues with Mr. Odom, who weighed challenging him for speaker.
Rep. Fitzhugh told the Associated Press he is running for leadership because “we’ve got some opportunities over the next few years with a sitting Democratic governor that we need to take advantage of.”
Gov. Bredesen cannot run again in 2010 because of term limits.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...