NASHVILLE — Make no mistake, the contest to become the Tennessee Senate's next majority leader is getting downright fierce.
After Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, gave voters — i.e. members of the 28-member GOP caucus — nice pens engraved with their names, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, knew he couldn't let that go unanswered.
So when the GOP caucus met Wednesday, Bell, an avid game hunter, struck back. Resting on the conference table for colleagues' snacking pleasure were bowls brimming with spicy bear and deer sausage balls.
Both Bell, whose district includes a fair portion of Bradley County, and Johnson say it's a friendly rivalry in their attempts to succeed current Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who has been nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a U.S. District Court judgeship in West Tennessee.
"I think it's close, it's completely up in the air," Bell said of the contest, adding, "there's absolutely no animosity between Jack and I."
He added: "We're great friends."
Johnson agreed, saying, "I consider Mike to be one of my best friends in the Senate."
The two lawmakers also agree on something else: at this juncture, it remains to be seen whether the closely divided U.S. Senate will move to confirm Norris.
That's because, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Tennessee General Assembly, where conservative GOP super-majorities rule the roost, doesn't always stay in Tennessee. Let alone play well with U.S. Senate Democrats.
Norris was originally nominated last year. A number of groups, including the NAACP, have opposed his confirmation based on the senator's stances on a number of LGBT issues, including same-sex marriage, as well as his co-sponsoring a resolution in the General Assembly to hire outside legal counsel in an effort to block refugee resettlement in Tennessee.
The majority leader observed to colleagues Wednesday that another issue with Democrats was Tennessee's passage of a law that allows therapists in the state to reject clients whose goals are at odds with the professionals' personal views. The issue involved LGBT clients.
Johnson was a sponsor of the controversial bill, which generated national attention and convention boycotts by some groups, as well as California lawmakers' passing a law preventing state-funded travel to states with discriminatory policies.
And that, in turn, prompted Bell to retaliate with a resolution that warned actions taken by California could prompt retaliation by Tennessee and like-minded states.
Senate Judiciary Committee members last year approved Norris' nomination for the vacant judgeship but it later languished on the Senate floor, where Republicans had a 52-48 majority over Democrats but two members with health problems.
Now, with Democrat Doug Jones' victory over Republican Roy Moore in the December U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, Republicans' U.S. Senate edge is just 51-49. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is battling cancer while U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., continues to have his own health issues.
"I don't know what's going to become of it, but I'm not going to resign the seat for which my constituents elected me or this leadership post for which you elected me," Norris said at Wednesday's state Senate Republican Caucus meeting.
Alluding to the fire he's drawn for stances as a state senator, Norris wryly observed that "it's very constructive to be crucified for the 'sins' of others, to see what other people who demonize us say about us and how they see us."
"I need 50 or 51 votes, and I'm down to 51, so y'all may be stuck with me for a while," Norris quipped.
Both Bell and Johnson say they're content to let Norris, whose term as majority leader extends through 2018, to remain there because their candidacies are based on his departure.
If he remains, Bell said, "so be it."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.