Bell, Johnson square off today for Tennessee Senate's No. 2 post

The Tennessee General Assembly, shown being addressed by Gov. Bill Haslam, is the finish line for legislative candidates in the upcoming August primary and November general election.
photo Mike Bell
photo Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, speaks with a colleague on the Senate floor in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. Johnson is sponsoring a bill to do away with teachers' collective bargaining rights in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - When Tennessee Senate majority Republicans meet to pick their leaders today for the new 111th General Assembly, the focus won't be so much on Speaker Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, who has no announced opponent and is expected to be a cinch to re-nominated to the GOP-dominated chamber's No. 1 post.

Look for the action instead in the contests for Republicans' now-vacant No. 2 post - majority leader - and the No. 3 job of caucus chair.

The hottest race is seen as that for Republican majority leader, the second most powerful job in the 33-member Senate. The seat was left vacant this month when then-Leader Mark Norris resigned after finally being confirmed in October by the U.S. Senate for a federal judgeship in West Tennessee.

Hoping to succeed Norris are Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville, whose district includes part of Bradley County, and Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson of Franklin, south of Nashville.

The leader serves as Republican senators' chief presence on the Senate floor, is the party's policy spokesman and also has the major responsibility for handling a governor's legislation when they are of the same party.

And that will be the case when Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee is sworn into office on Jan. 19.

Both Bell and Johnson began campaigning for the post a year and a half ago after Norris, a Collierville attorney, was nominated by President Donald Trump to a U.S. District Court judgeship.

At last year's GOP Caucus meeting, Bell, an avid hunter and fisherman, sought to woo his electorate by providing bear-sausage meatballs. But the contest was suspended as Norris' confirmation was held up for nearly a year and a half in the U.S. Senate amid opposition from Democrats.

"This may go down as the friendliest leadership race in the history of the Senate," said Bell, first elected to the Senate in 2010 after earlier serving in the House. "Jack and I are great friends. There's been no bad mouthing by either side."

Johnson, first elected to the Senate in 2006, agreed, calling Bell "one of my best friends in the Senate and quite capable. I don't have a single negative thing to stay about Mike. . May the best person win."

Both lawmakers say they want to keep lines of communication open with fellow Republicans.

Bell said if he's elected leader he will be less "hands on" than Norris was in terms of carrying bills himself - Norris handled most of outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legislative package - and instead he'll be willing to parcel out bills to fellow members to handle.

Citing the governor's annual budget as an example, Bell said he would let Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson of Hixson carry the bill, following the customary practice in the House.

"That person is the expert," Bell said, noting "I think it makes much more sense for the chairman to carry the bill."

Johnson said that "one of the things I want to make sure is that I'm accessible and available to members. That's not to say Mark wasn't. But I've always been that way as chairman of the Commerce Committee and in any other capacity.

"I've always had an open door policy, within reason, for members or any other stakeholders to get in to see me and to talk to me about their concerns or issues," Johnson added.

The job has a "strong policy side" to it, Johnson said, noting that's one of the aspects that draws him to the post.

Several factors could be in play.

Like Johnson, Gov.-elect Lee is from Franklin and presumed Republican House Speaker Glen Casada is too. U.S. Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn is from nearby Brentwood. Both are in Williamson County.

"I know some people are talking about that. I have not," said Bell when asked about many top posts filled by people living in the same county. "I honestly have not brought that up with anybody."

Johnson said "it's really more coincidence than anything else. Has it come up in conversations? - it certainly has. I've had folks who have committed to vote for me just say, 'Hey Jack that's a lot of power from Williamson County there. You make sure you do the right thing and treat everyone fairly,' and of course I will."

Another potential factor is the highly coveted Commerce and Labor Committee, a powerful and highly visible post where any number of business interests make political contributions to members with chairmen being prime beneficiaries.

A well-funded Johnson has made a number of contributions to members through his political action committee. Bell only started his own leadership PAC this year. Johnson contributed $3,000 to him, records show.

But several members and lobbyists wonder whether some caucus members might base their vote not so much on campaign contributions but on a chance at moving up themselves. If Johnson is elected majority leader that results in a vacant Commerce and Labor Committee chairmanship.

The appointment would be made by McNally.

As for their chances heading into today's vote, both Bell and Johnson are saying pretty much the same thing about where they think they stand among the 27 senators, including themselves, who will be voting. Republicans have a 28th seat but that was Norris' post. Democrats have just five members.

"I am cautiously optimistic for tomorrow," Bell said. "I think it's going to be pretty close," perhaps a one or two vote difference.

Said Johnson: "I feel cautiously optimistic about my vote count. But at the end of the day it's a secret ballot."

In addition to the majority leader's contest, there's the three-way race for Republican Caucus chair between Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston, whose district includes Rhea County, Sen. Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown.

The caucus chairman is active in the political affairs of fellow party members, helps keep members informed, presides over caucus meetings and is heavily involved in planning political campaign fund-raising events and supporting colleagues' re-election efforts.

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.