KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's senior elected Republican, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, said Friday night that when it comes to state House Speaker Kent Williams, who was booted out of the party earlier this year, GOP leaders should remember Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, a wayward figure who ultimately was forgiven.
"That worked out pretty well," Sen. Alexander said. "I suspect this one will, too."
U.S. Sen. Alexander's comments came in remarks to legislative Republicans and GOP activists attending a Knoxville fundraiser for Rep. Williams' political action committee.
The speaker vowed the money would go toward helping GOP candidates in 2010 elections.
Rep. Williams, of Elizabethton, was cast out of the Tennessee Republican Party earlier this year by then-Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith of Hixson. That came after the Republican lawmaker joined with all 49 House Democrats to elect himself speaker over House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol in a 50-49 vote. Republicans were incensed and some remain so.
Rep. Williams said he still considers himself a Republican and is seeking to mend fences with Mrs. Smith's successor, Chris Devaney, and state executive committee members.
"I know there's some in the state GOP who don't consider me a Republican," Speaker Williams told the crowd, which went on to applaud as he added, "I have never wavered from being a Republican."
He said 2010 elections are critical because the majority party in the 107th General Assembly will hold the pen in redistricting lawmakers' districts.
"We (Republicans) can redistrict in a fair way and we can probably keep the majority for the next 142 years," Speaker Williams said, alluding to Democrats who had a majority in the state House and Senate for 142 years until last year's election.
Following U.S. Sen. Alexander's remarks, the speaker thanked him for "those kind and encouraging words."
Among those attending Friday's event was Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate who earlier noted Speaker Williams had attended several of his campaign events.
"I'd like to see that worked out," Mr. Haslam said of Rep. Williams' efforts to be formally recognized again as a Republican. "I'll leave it up to the state executive committee and Chris to work all that out."
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has had his issues with Rep. Williams, who secretly agreed to let Democrats back him over Rep. Mumpower.
He said he attended Friday's fundraiser for the Williams PAC, dubbed KPAC, because Republicans have been assured the money would be used solely for GOP House candidates next year "and I wanted to be supportive of that."
The day the speaker was elected in January, Rep. McCormick accused him of betraying Republicans.
"We're stuck with each other whether we like it or not, and we're going to do what's best, I think, for my constituents and the people of Tennessee," Rep. McCormick said.
Rep. McCormick said he believes Rep. Williams will ultimately be accepted back into the GOP, but he added he thinks the speaker will have to run as an independent in 2010.
"But I think he's fairly popular up there (in home district)," he said. "I don't think we (Republican lawmakers) are making a concerted effort that I'm aware of to defeat him and he'll be welcomed back into the (GOP) caucus with open arms if he supports our nominee as speaker. I don't think he'll be the nominee for speaker, but if he is, we'll support him."
Some Republicans, however, are openly backing Mr. Williams' inclusion now by the state GOP. And they think the speaker has a majority of GOP House Caucus support. Among his supporters is Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma.
"He's given me an awful lot of opportunities," said Rep. Matheny, whom the speaker appointed chairman of the House Employee and Consumer Affairs Committee.
He described U.S. Sen. Alexander as a "very wise man."
U.S. Sen. Alexander said later he attended the event as a way to "express my appreciation" to Rep. Williams "for raising money to help strengthen our Republican majority."