Griscom: Worm turns on the GOP in control

Griscom: Worm turns on the GOP in control

January 18th, 2009 by Tom Griscom in Opinion Columns

Lawmakers were in disarray.

Accusations of broken promises, of failing to adhere to party loyalty swirled in the halls of the state Capitol.

An expected leadership race was turned on its ear with an unexpected outcome.

There were threats of revenge in the next election.

This is not recounting the first week of the new General Assembly as Republicans boldly predicted that for the first time since Reconstruction they would hold the leadership in the state House and state Senate.

This is two years earlier when a Democratic state senator, Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, bolted from voting for her party's choice for speaker, John Wilder, and lined up with Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who became the Senate speaker and lieutenant governor.

The outcry against Sen. Kurita was long and loud and partisan. Republicans reveled in the disarray and their new leadership role in the state Senate. There were calls to strip Sen. Kurita of her Democratic credentials. In 2008 the revenge played out as the Clarksville Democrat won her party's primary only to have her victory stripped away over a charge of Republican crossover votes.

This week the shoe moved to the other partisan foot.

For weeks following the November elections, when Republicans gained a one-vote majority in the state House, 50-49, the table was being set for Republican control and a Republican speaker.

Looming in the background always was the specter of Democrat Jimmy Naifeh, the long-serving speaker, who has been counted out on other occasions only to beat the odds.

But as the legislative leadership races neared, a quiet confidence emerged from Republicans that Rep. Naifeh would not be successful. Republicans had a document with enough signatures (50) to vote for a Republican speaker and a Republican speaker pro tempore. The die was cast and the votes locked up. Naifeh was shut out.

Part of the GOP strategy was correct: Rep. Naifeh was shut out. There were not enough votes for his re-election as speaker. There also were not enough votes for Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, to be elected.

But the Democratic caucus decided it could come together and cast 49 votes for a single Republican, which would be enough to pick the next House speaker.

As the House convened for the leadership votes, Rep. Naifeh stated that the temporary rules to be used included calling names alphabetically. What he did not point out was which party would vote first.

When the tally was complete, Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, garnered 50 votes: his lone Republican vote and 49 Democrats.

Then similarly to two years earlier when the Democrats suffered the embarrassment as one of their lawmakers switched sides, Republicans in the House launched public outcries of turncoat, party disloyalty and falsehoods. There are the calls to push Rep. Williams out of the Republican Party,

making him either an independent or a Democrat. To date Rep. Williams has indicated no interest in being anything but a Republican.

From a broader perspective, Republicans have one of their own in control of the state Senate and state House. In the case of the House, it is not the person who was expected to be wearing the mantle.

From the partisan perspective, the disarray two years earlier that plagued Democrats in the state Senate now appears to have fallen on the shoulders of Republicans in the state House.

Republicans might have found it interesting to be at a Democratic event in Nashville the evening before the leadership votes.

Reportedly, former Governor and House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter is quoted as having reminded those assembled that when he first became speaker there was a lone Republican vote in upper East Tennessee that helped him win the leadership election.

Time will tell whether the political bickering soon is put aside to address the significant budget issues that face all of Tennessee.

To reach Tom Griscom, call (423) 757-6472 or e-mail