NASHVILLE -- Despite spending two years juggling the sometimes-angry demands of House Republicans and Democrats while also battling the Tennessee Republican Party and Senate Republicans, House Speaker Kent Williams says heading the 99-member chamber was a "fantastic experience."
"I enjoyed it, and I hope to do it again," said the Elizabethton independent, who was cast out of the state Republican Party after he joined with Democrats to elect himself speaker in January 2009.
Republicans, who had won a 50-49 majority for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction, were furious when Rep. Williams became speaker. Then-state GOP Chairman Robin Smith stripped Rep. Williams, who is now finishing up only his second two-year term, of his ability to run for re-election as a Republican.
As speaker, Rep. Williams divided most committees evenly and won praise from Tennessee Right to Life's Brian Harris for allowing anti-abortion legislation to move in the House.
Many Republicans continued to criticize him, but Rep. Williams hardly has been shy about squaring off with detractors.
For example, Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and the speaker got into a heated argument recently over Rep. Williams' attempt to use $16 million in federal funds, if they materialized, to build a fish hatchery in his district, a move that he said would create jobs and generate tourism.
Calling the hatchery "ridiculous" at a time of budget cuts, Rep. Matlock continued to take issue, prompting the speaker to tell him, "I'm going to express my opinion. You've expressed yours, but I can do mine in a rational manner. But don't come and get in my face because I'll get you out of my face."
Both men subsequently took more measured tones.
Under pressure from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker who is running for governor, and other Republicans, the speaker later abandoned using federal dollars to build the hatchery. But he also criticized Lt. Gov. Ramsey, charging some of his budget stances delayed the legislature from completing its business and were designed to help Mr. Ramsey's gubernatorial bid.
Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who led the House for 18 years, was among the 49 Democrats who helped elect Rep. Williams, preferring him over Republican Majority Leader Jason Mumpower, of Bristol.
"For a first-time speaker in his second term as a member, Kent did a good job," Rep. Naifeh said, noting he doesn't always agree with his successor's decisions.
Rep. Williams said he "never realized what a tough job it is being speaker. My hat's off to Jimmy Naifeh, who did it for 18 years."
He said he believes the House acted in a largely bipartisan fashion on major issues.
He noted the challenges of "dealing with 98 different personalities and dealing with staff and dealing with the Senate, which is probably the toughest part. But it was a great experience."
He said he is proud of the budgets the state passed last year and earlier this month.
Rep. Williams tried to get reinstated as a Republican, but despite encouraging signals sent by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and GOP gubernatorial candidates Zach Wamp and Bill Haslam, current GOP Chairman Chris Devaney did not allow the speaker to qualify for re-election as a Republican.
So he is running as an independent and faces Republican Jerome Cochran, whom he has twice defeated in GOP primaries, this fall.
Rep. Williams said his ability to get re-elected speaker "will depend a lot on the makeup of the body."
There are Republicans who back him, and efforts to change House Republicans' rules to require members to back the caucus' nominee failed to go through when leaders could not get a quorum.
But House Republican leaders, meanwhile, hope to elect a speaker more to their liking by boosting their membership.
"I think we will pick up some seats and take firm control of the House of Representatives -- if we work hard and work smart," said House Assistant Republican Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, former Speaker Naifeh hopes to become speaker in 2011.
"I feel Democrats can take back the majority," he said. "I intend to be a candidate for speaker. We (Democrats) are very united. I guess being in the minority for the past two years has made people understand how it is when we're in the minority."
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, ...