Center of political power in Tennessee shifts to one county

Center of political power in Tennessee shifts to one county

November 25th, 2018 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE — Come January, three of Tennessee's five most powerful officials will hail from just one mid-state county, Williamson County.

Gov.-elect Bill Lee and fellow Republican U.S. Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn both call the affluent GOP stronghold south of Nashville home.

As does the presumed new Tennessee House speaker, Glen Casada, a Republican representative who just last week was nominated for the post by GOP Caucus members, who hold 73 of the chamber's 99 seats.

Lee, a successful businessman, lives near Franklin. Blackburn, currently a U.S. representative, calls Brentwood her home. Casada, who has been serving as House majority leader, lives in Franklin.

It's a geographic power shift of sorts from traditionally Republican East Tennessee not only to Middle Tennessee but to Williamson County.

Lee is succeeding the term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, while Blackburn will take over from Republican Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor who is retiring.

Casada, meanwhile, is expected to succeed current House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who ran for governor and lost to Lee in a four-person primary.

Asked last week by reporters about what East and West Tennesseans are to make of the Williamson County "triumvirate," Lee said that "one of the things I want Tennesseans to know is that when I decided to pursue this office it was with the intent to serve every single Tennessean."

Lee said he's keeping that in mind as he works to assemble his cabinet prior to being sworn in as governor on Jan. 19.

"I'm looking to put people forward from all geographic regions, if you're talking geography, at the highest levels of state government — and we'll be doing that," Lee said. "Not only do I want to assure people with my words, but my actions will show that I want to serve every Tennessean."

Casada shrugged off similar questions about a concentration of government power in Williamson County, saying "there is a healthy rivalry between the House, the Senate and the governor. So it's not like we're all on the same side of government."

As for the impact on Williamson County, Casada paraphrased the late President Ronald Reagan, telling reporters that "a rising tide raises all ships. So if Tennessee does well, [Williamson] will do well. So that's the goal. To make sure all Tennesseans do well."

Meanwhile, the two other top posts remain in East Tennessee Republicans' hands. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor, is originally from Maryville and has homes both in nearby Walland as well as Nashville.

State Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, is expected to be re-nominated next month by fellow majority Senate Republicans for the post, which carries the title of lieutenant governor.

Given the Senate GOP's 28-5 majority, McNally's a shoo-in to become speaker again.

But the No. 2 spot in the state GOP-dominated Senate is up for grabs. And yes, another Williamson Countian wants the job. Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, is vying with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who is from East Tennessee.

The Tennessee GOP's modern era began in the traditionally eastern part of the state, arguably with the 1962 election of Republican Bill Brock of Lookout Mountain to the U.S. House, becoming the first Republican in the 3rd Congressional District in 42 years. In the 1966 election, a Republican congressman, Howard Baker, was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Two years later, another East Tennesseean, Bill Jenkins, became the first Republican state House speaker since post-Civil War Reconstruction. And in 1970, Brock won election to the second Senate seat while Winfield Dunn, a Memphis Republican, was elected governor.

Democrats eventually re-took all the posts. But they and Republicans continued to swap Senate seats and the governorship for years.

Middle Tennessee, however, remained largely Democratic until Republicans in the mid-1990s began making gains. But it started in the 1980s in Williamson County, a one-time rural county that exploded first as a Nashville bedroom community and is now a bustling suburban county with the state's sixth largest population.

In 1994, the GOP hit the Senate jackpot with two Middle Tennessee Republicans: Nashville physician Bill Frist, who rose to become Senate majority leader, and attorney-turned-actor-turned politician Fred Thompson, also of Nashville. Alexander, a former governor, replaced Thompson. Corker replaced Frist.

And Blackburn held the seat on Nov. 6 despite the best efforts of Democrat and former governor and Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen.

"Williamson County has always been a Republican-rich county," said Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor who formerly served as chief of staff to then-U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro. "Republicans have dominated politics there for many, many years."

As for the election of Lee and Blackburn and the expected ascension of Casada, Syler said, "I think the fact that at this time they are flexing their political muscle with elected officials is kind of a combination of that strong base and timing. It just kind of worked out that they wound up with three of the five most powerful positions.

"Marsha Blackburn has been involved for a long time and 2018 just happened to be her year," Syler added. "Bill Lee was the right guy at the right time. You had unusual circumstances in the general election. You had two Democratic candidates from Davidson County and two from adjoining Republican counties."

Lee defeated former Nashville mayor Karl Dean in the governor's race by 20 percentage points while Blackburn beat Bredesen by 10 points.

Republican political strategist Tom Ingram, who has advised any number of successful Tennessee Republicans, including Alexander, Haslam and Corker, said the rise of Williamson County Republicans "certainly has something to do with the evolution and growth of the Republican Party in Middle Tennessee, particularly in the doughnut counties" surrounding Nashville.

"Beyond that," he added, "I think it's mostly coincidence."

Ingram said Lee and Blackburn "can't be too provincial now. They'll have to be sensitive to all parts of the state. And Bill [Lee], in his campaign, particularly spoke to the needs of rural Tennesseans" winning victories in both the GOP primary and the general election.

It's a little different in terms of the Senate "because you're dealing with national policies instead of state perks," Ingram added.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.


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