Elected office sneaks up on greater Chattanooga area newcomers

Elected office sneaks up on greater Chattanooga area newcomers

December 30th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

Todd Gardenhire

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

WHEN DO THEY TAKE OFFICE?

States vary on when their newly elected lawmakers take office and begin their terms.

* Alabama -- Terms begin the day after the general election at which representatives and senators are elected.

* Georgia -- Terms begin on the first day of the annual/regular session.

* Florida -- Members of the Legislature shall take office upon election.

* Kentucky -- Terms begin the first day of January of the year succeeding the election.

* Mississippi -- Terms begin on the first day of the annual/regular session.

* North Carolina -- Terms begin the first day of January after their election.

* South Carolina -- Terms begin the Monday after the general election.

* Tennessee -- Terms begin the day of the general election.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Not even Todd Gardenhire knew when he became Sen. Todd Gardenhire.

On election night, the East Brainerd Republican made a surprise discovery: There are no lame ducks in the Tennessee Legislature. Unlike local city councils, county commissions, governors, Congress and the president of the United States, Volunteer State representatives and senators begin their terms "from the day of the general election," according to the Tennessee Constitution.

So Gardenhire and Ooltewah Republican Rep. Mike Carter from the Chattanooga area and other victorious newcomers across the state don't become lawmakers when the legislative session begins in January; the metamorphoses already have occurred.

Gardenhire's happened as he celebrated at the Hamilton County Republican Party headquarters on Nov. 6, as election night returns showed he defeated Democrat Andraé McGary.

"People kept saying, 'You're the senator!'" Gardenhire said. "I'd say, 'No, not until January.' And they'd say, 'No, no, you're the senator!'"

The well-wishers were correct, but it has caused confusion among District 10 residents in Hamilton and Bradley counties who think Andy Berke is Sen. Berke until a fresh gavel drops in January.

On Nov. 7, the day after Election Day, Berke said officials disconnected his state email account, leading constituents to question why their messages bounced back. Officials soon removed Berke's picture and information page from the state's list of legislators. But seven weeks after Election Day, Berke still gets inquiries about state grants, unemployment payments and other constituent issues.

"I have to tell them they need to call Sen. Gardenhire," said Berke, a Democrat who passed on a re-election bid to run for Chattanooga mayor.

Not everyone's up to speed. The Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus website still lists Berke as a senator with his phone number. When it's dialed, it goes directly to Gardenhire's automated office recording.

It's a little more current on the Legislature's website, which identifies Gardenhire as District 10's senator. But a blue box inscribed "Photo Not Available" greets visitors to Gardenhire's page, and blank spaces constitute the "personal information" and "community involvement" sections. There's only a scant bit of contact information.

"I think very few people know how this works," Berke said.

•••

In Tennessee, the oath of office doesn't make someone a state representative or senator.

"The term of office begins on Election Day, even though the oath of office is not taken until a later date," according to a 1984 attorney general opinion obtained by Gardenhire.

But newly elected House and Senate lawmakers still must be sworn in "before they proceed to business" in a new session, the Tennessee Constitution states.

"Business of the Senate is anything that comes before the Senate when we are on the floor of the Senate," said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

Most American state legislatures, including Florida's, are like Tennessee's, according to Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. But terms in North Carolina and other states officially begin Jan. 1, and Georgia's senators- and representatives-elect don't take office until the first day of session.

"I always tell people that the easiest way to summarize legislative process takes two words," Erickson said. "It varies."

•••

Fittingly, there's variety within Nashville; while there's no transition for legislators, that isn't the case for governors.

Tennessee's constitution says the governor's four-year term shall begin no earlier than Jan. 15 after each gubernatorial election. But the constitution also calls for the House and Senate to convene on the second Tuesday in January -- which always comes before the 15th.

Here's one reason why: The governor must be "chosen by the electors of the members of the General Assembly" before his inauguration. In other words, Tennessee can't have its governor without its House and Senate.

The process works like this: Election results for governor are "sealed up and transmitted" to the lieutenant governor, "who shall open and publish them" to the General Assembly. "The person having the highest number of votes shall be governor," the constitution says.

After that certification step, the governor-elect can shed the suffix, take his oath and become governor, according to a 1979 attorney general opinion.

The changes occurred when legislators amended the Tennessee Constitution in 1870, officials said.

"As to why, we defer to the wisdom of the constitutional convention," said Eddie Weeks, librarian for the General Assembly. "They thought this was the best way to do it.

"Of course, they may have copied it from some other state's constitution," he added.