Political ambition, health, fatigue lead to exodus of Tennessee Legislature incumbents

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE - When the Republican House and Senate speakers' gavels smacked down last week in Tennessee's Legislature, they not only brought to a close the second year of the 110th General Assembly but, in a larger sense, the end of an era.

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Before a single Republican or Democratic party primary vote has been cast, let alone a general election ballot counted, at least 28 members - nearly 20 percent of the current 132 representatives and senators - decided they won't be coming back to their respective GOP-dominated chambers.

Neither will the term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who in 2011 became the first Tennessee governor since the Reconstruction era to have a Republican-led General Assembly as a partner and, sometimes, to oppose him.

"I won't be here, and about one-third of the legislature will be new, as well," Haslam said to reporters last week as the General Assembly clattered to a close amid in-fighting between the House and Senate.

It's one of the larger legislative exoduses in recent years. Departing members' ambitions, health, family needs and sometimes just plain fatigue from partisan or intra-party fights are taking their toll.

photo State House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is sponsoring a bill that seeks a federal waiver that would mandate work requirements for able-bodied, working-age TennCare recipients.
photo State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

But one thing is clear: Republicans, who have dominated the 99-member House and 33-member Senate since the 2010 elections, will remain in charge and likely retain their super majorities in the 111th General Assembly. In fact, the Senate definitely will, given the lack of opposition in many Senate districts.

Among those who won't return is House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, the first female speaker in state history and only the second Republican speaker since Reconstruction.

Harwell has set her eye on occupying Haslam's chair on the first floor of the state Capitol, although she faces a crowded Aug. 2 GOP gubernatorial primary field.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, one of the departing House members, is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Area lawmakers hitting the exit door include Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga; Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge; Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland; Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, and Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City.

All told, a quarter of the 99-member House's 25 representatives - 16 of them from the 75-member-strong House GOP majority and nine of the chamber's 24 Democrats - won't return to the lower chamber.

However, two Democratic representatives - one from Nashville and one from Memphis - hope to come back as senators.

Seven of the 16 House Republicans, meanwhile, are running for offices ranging from county mayor to Congress. Four of the seven seeking higher office have districts in or near the Chattanooga area.

Among them is Gravitt, who is running for Hamilton County Register of Deeds in Tuesday's election. Brooks, current vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, is seeking to become Cleveland's next mayor in the city's Aug. 2 election, while Alexander is running in Tuesday's Franklin County mayor election.

photo JoAnne Favors, Tennessee state representative and Mayor's Council for Women Co-Chair, speaks to attendees of the Women's Policy Conference at the Westin Hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Feb. 9, 2018.
photo Tennessee State Rep. Marc Gravitt talks Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Matlock, who unsuccessfully sought to oust Harwell as speaker, is running in the 2nd Congressional District's Aug. 2 Republican primary.

Over in the Senate, where Republicans now have 28 of 33 seats, two Democrats are departing.

One is veteran Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville, who faced a challenge from Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, one of the departing House members. The other is Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, who is running for Shelby County mayor. Rep. Raumesch Akbari, D-Memphis, hopes to replace him in the Senate.

Senate Republicans have already undergone one shuffle in a combination of President Donald Trump's appointments and ambition. At least one and possibly as many as three more could be in store by year's end.

Two GOP members - Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville - departed after the U.S. Senate confirmed Trump's nomination of Overbey as U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee and Tracy was named to a state position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Then-Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, resigned her seat after launching her bid for governor. Beavers later dropped out of the crowded GOP gubernatorial primary to run for Wilson County mayor.

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, meanwhile, is running for Rutherford County mayor.

And Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who was nominated last year by Trump to a U.S. District Court judgeship in the state's Western District, has yet to be confirmed.

Trump nominated a fourth senator, Republican Mark Green of Clarksville, for secretary of the Army. But faced with a firestorm of opposition from U.S. Senate Democrats, the LGBT community and others, Green withdrew from consideration, complaining he was being unfairly portrayed.

With two years left in his state Senate term, Green now is running for Congress. He's widely seen as the frontrunner and could be out of the Tennessee Senate come January.

Add up the Senate possibles and the usual incumbents left by the wayside in party primary or general elections and you can get to Haslam's observation of about a third of lawmakers serving in the 110th General Assembly being gone.

When Chattanooga's Favors, one of just two East Tennessee Democrats in the General Assembly, announced her retirement in November, the retired nurse and health center administrator cited as reasons increased responsibilities for her aging mother and young great-grandchildren.

But as the session was ending last week, the seven-term incumbent said this session reinforced another reason, as well.

photo Kevin Brooks

The occasion? The GOP super majority's last-minute deep-sixing of Democratic-sponsored bills by simply adjourning a committee meeting without taking up the health measures.

"One of the reasons that helped me to make my decision to not continue here and seek re-election was how the Health Committee has become too partisan," Favors said. "A lot of things have happened the last two or three years that I have not been happy about.

"And," she added, "I am not going to waste the time I have left on this earth because I can do more as a citizen in advocating for things [for] our citizens, being one of the poorest, sickest groups of people in the nation. And for us to do things like that is just wrong. And I really resent it."

Meanwhile, a Favors crusade, a bill aimed at getting seat belts on school buses after the fatal crash of a Woodmore Elementary School bus in Chattanooga, also didn't pass. Haslam did provide $3 million in the state budget for interested districts' use in covering the safety-restraint systems' portion of costs when they purchase new buses.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 616-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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