NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Democrats made history Sunday by electing a black lawmaker as their new leader in the Republican-dominated chamber.
Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis was elected leader on the second ballot in the three-person contest, winning a majority of the 24 representatives present at the 26-member minority caucus's meeting.
Speaking before the vote, the 60-year-old U.S. Army veteran recalled Democrats' glory days when they were in charge of the House, saying she wanted to lead them back to the times when they had "an aggressive agenda and we were fighting for that agenda day and night."
"I want to get a team together to help us do that so that we can move our agenda forward for the things that we want for our caucus and things we want for our state," Camper said.
She defeated Rep. Johnny Shaw of Boliver, who also is black, and Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville. Shaw, who had the fewest votes, fell off after the first ballot. Camper went on to defeat Mitchell.
No vote totals were announced, but Camper needed at least 13 ballots to win.
Camper succeeds former Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who didn't seek re-election to the House in an unsuccessful bid for the governor's seat.
Democrats account for only about 25 percent of the House, with Republicans maintaining their super majority, now at 73 members. Democrats in the November election made their first gain in years, resulting in a net increase of one.
In other leadership contests, Rep. Mike Stewart was elected by acclamation to continue as Democratic Caucus chairman.
Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis was elected leader pro tempore by acclamation, as was Rep. Rick Staples of Knoxville, who was elected assistant Democratic leader.
Stewart also recommended to fellow Democrats that they probably should nominate their own candidate for House speaker and House speaker pro tempore when the 111th General Assembly convenes on Jan. 8, despite there being virtually no chance of winning.
"I think the electorate will expect us to come up with our own recommendations," Stewart told caucus members, who went on to nominate Camper as their candidate for speaker and Mitchell as nominee for speaker pro tempore.
Republicans last week nominated Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin, who'd been serving as majority leader, as their candidate for speaker.
The current House speaker, Republican Beth Harwell of Nashville, became the first female speaker in Tennessee history. Harwell gave up her legislative seat for an unsuccessful bid for governor.
Democrats' previous top female leader was back in the early 2000s when then-Rep. Kim McMillan of Clarksville was their majority leader.
Among Democratic Caucus attendees on Sunday was Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, who in November was elected to replace retiring Rep. JoAnne Favors, a fellow Democrat.
Hakeem, who is black, nominated Shaw for the Democratic leader post.
Speaking later with a reporter, Hakeem, a former Chattanooga city councilman, said that while he knows both Camper and Shaw, "I do have, I guess, a bit more history with Rep. Shaw being in the NAACP and so forth."
Nonetheless, he said smiling, "I will support the leader."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.