NASHVILLE - Tennessee Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith said today she effectively is ousting House Speaker Kent Williams of Elizabethton from the GOP after he joined with all 49 House Democrats last month to make himself speaker.
Her action follows a resolution recently approved by the Tennessee Republican Party's executive committee that calls for Rep. Williams to be barred from running again as a Republican and calls on news media to quit referring to him as a Republican.
"I will honor and enforce the resolution passed by the state committee ... and no longer recognize Kent Williams as a Republican in good standing in the state of Tennessee," said Mrs. Smith, who under party bylaws has sole discretion to make the decision on whether someone is a "bona fide" Republican or not.
"The principles of the Republican Party must stand on the foundation of integrity, honesty and character," she said. "Our deliberations reveal that the choices of Kent Williams are not partisan or bi-partisan. His choices appear to be only self-serving, and that is wrong."
Speaker Williams later issued a statement in which he said, "Robin Smith has determined that I am not a Robin Smith Republican - that is, a Republican in her mold."
He later told reporters he considers himself a "Carter County Republican. I guess I'm not a part of the Tennessee GOP."
The move will have little practical effect on House operations, said Speaker Williams, who appointed seven Republicans and six Democrats to head the 13 House standing committees.
Republicans had had a 50-49 majority in the House but the expulsion of Rep. Williams now leaves the chamber with 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and Rep. Williams as an apparent independent.
Many GOP officials and lawmakers are incensed with Rep. Williams after all 49 Democrats banded together with him to elect him speaker over Majority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, on Jan. 13. He was elected on a 50-49 vote with Rep. Williams voting for himself.
Rep. Mumpower told reporters today that "I respect" the GOP executive committee's "decision. We think it was the right decision."
Speaker Williams said if "forced" he would become an independent should he run again in 2010.
"But it's a long time until the election," he said. "We could have some changes, and hopefully we could have some changes in our Tennessee GOP. Maybe we would have someone more level-headed, someone who doesn't rule by hate."
Mrs. Smith, who is from Hixson, is considering running for the Republican nomination in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District. She said that had no bearing on her decision.
Speaker Williams said he was "really shocked" when Mrs. Smith came up to the podium after he had been elected speaker on Jan. 13.
"Her exact words were, 'Congratulations Speaker. It's hard to kill the Devil but (in) two years you're a dead man.' That's a pretty harsh statement."
He said his "basic response was bring it on."
Mrs. Smith said this afternoon that "that is an absolute lie" that she called Speaking Williams a devil. She said she was standing beside Rep. Mumpower's desk and was looking at former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, not Rep. Williams, at the time she made the remarks.
"I just mouthed the words, 'It's hard to kill the Devil," she said, noting she was "looking at Naifeh straight in the eye."
She said Rep. Williams "continues to try to personalize this."
In a subsequent e-mail to the Times Free Press, Mrs. Smith noted that as she stood beside Rep. Mumpower she also looked at Rep. Williams and said, "Good luck. You'll need it."
Rep. Naifeh recalled he was at the podium with Speaker Williams. He didn't recall anyone calling him or Speaker Williams a "devil." But Mr. Naifeh said he did recall a woman who "yelled" something like "we're coming after you. Then he (Williams) said, 'Come on."
"Something like that. She wasn't talking to me."
Mrs. Smith said her decision was based on Rep. Williams having joined with Democrats to elect himself speaker and also joining with Democrats to elect Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, as speaker pro tem.
House Democratic Leader Gary Odom of Nashville issued a statement calling the GOP's actions "curious at best. Their decision to oust Speaker Williams from the party surrenders not only the speaker position but also the Republican majority in the House. Apparently when their anointed one failed in his bid to become House speaker, retaliation became more important than conducting the state's business."
For complete details, see tomorrow's Chattanooga Times Free Press.