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VOL. 131 | NO. 65 | Thursday, March 31, 2016


Sam Stockard

Can GOP Keep Grasp On Success Ramsey Built?

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As much as Tennessee Republicans want to put a happy face on the departure of Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, holding it together in the wake of his departure will be an awesome task.

Even Ramsey says it will be hard for his successor – most likely longtime Sen. Randy McNally – to maintain the same control over the Republican Caucus and keep factions from fighting over direction and control of the Upper Chamber, where it holds a 28-5 advantage against Democrats.

“There is no doubt who took us from minority to majority, no doubt who raised millions of dollars through my PAC to get us there. It’s natural the next person won’t have that advantage that I have,” Ramsey says.

“To go out and work and get two-thirds of the members elected,” he continues. “I was very involved with all these elections, from the very beginning in 2004, I remember it very well when I decided we can win a majority, and there were four seats we needed to go after.”

Senate Republicans conducted polls and specifically targeted seats now held by Sen. Ken Yager of Kingston and Sen. Jim Tracy of Bedford County, as well as a seat Gallatin Congresswoman Diane Black won.

Ramsey admits he even lied to Black about how well her polling numbers looked to draw her into a race and called Tracy every Thursday as he was on his way to referee basketball games to persuade him to run.

Republicans also went after the late John Wilder, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor for 36 years, describing a trip to Wilder’s West Tennessee home in November 2003, visiting Jaybird’s house – where he kept his plane – and a cotton gin he owned, then telling him if he didn’t change parties the Republicans were going to run someone against him.

“I spent a week with him that day,” jokes Ramsey, who can be gregarious one minute but get irritated and preachy the next. “But obviously, he didn’t change parties.”

Ramsey, who is leaving at the height of his power and likely as the most powerful politician in Tennessee, is swearing off politics to stay in Blountville with his family, farm and real estate business.

He acknowledges he is concerned about fracture within the caucus upon his departure and says he wants the next speaker to “hold them together” and supports a “transition period” in which McNally, a 38-year legislator from Oak Ridge, would take the reins and guide the Senate in the direction he set.

In announcing his candidacy for the Senate speaker’s post recently, McNally, chairman of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, says he “will continue to support an independent state Senate” and remain committed to keeping state taxes low while maintaining financial integrity.

At age 72, however, McNally wouldn’t be a long-term Senate speaker. Though he says he’s in good health now, except for eating too many potato dishes because of his Irish heritage, he would be 78 at the end of another four-year term.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris – who is nearly as much of the glue in the Republican Caucus as Ramsey – is considering a gubernatorial run in two years if he wins re-election this fall. Short of governor, he could become Senate speaker.

A crack in the ship?

Political commentator Pat Nolan of Nashville points out Ramsey’s departure – he will hand over the gavel to someone in January – marks an “end of an era.”

No doubt about it.

Wilder’s lengthy tenure created a Senate operating independently of the governor, whoever it was. But Ramsey, by forging a supermajority, “made it more powerful” because it can override governor vetoes with relative ease in both the Senate and House, where Ramsey also recruited and funded campaigns to pick up a 73-26 supermajority.

Ramsey was the first state official to start his own political action committee, RAAMPAC, and helped Republicans achieve majority and then supermajority control, Nolan notes.

Nolan doesn’t foresee much change in those numbers because of this year’s election, especially with no statewide races, and in spite of widespread Republican disgust with a potential Donald Trump presidential nomination.

McNally also looks to be a safe pick to succeed Ramsey because of his experience and the respect he holds with Republican senators, even though he wasn’t instrumental in recruiting them to seek office.

Though Ramsey says he wanted no involvement in picking the next Senate speaker, he says he didn’t want a “bloodbath” either, and just days after five potential candidates surfaced, McNally emerged as the frontrunner. An arrangement could be made before the November election and caucus meeting to ensure he wins the seat.

The question is: How long can McNally and Senate Republicans keep emotions under wrap?

“In some ways, two to four years is several political lifetimes and eternities,” Nolan says.

And though a “knock-down, drag-out” fight over the Senate speaker’s post could take place if and when McNally decides to step away, trying to figure out whether Republicans can maintain their grip on the Legislature is hard because the cast of characters could change dramatically.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says he agrees with Ramsey’s assessment that the Republican Caucus holds a great deal of loyalty to him.

“He did an excellent job politically of recruiting quality candidates and raising the money to finance campaigns,” says Syler, ex-chief of staff for former Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon.

“He also had the good fortunate of fielding a lot of these candidates when the Republican Party was on a tremendous upswing in Tennessee. While the next Senate speaker might not have as many debts of gratitude as speaker Ramsey does, I don’t see the Republican majority going away any time soon.”

Yet the longer a party holds the majority and the longer one person keeps party leadership, the more challenging it becomes to make all the players happy, Syler notes.

For example, in the 1980s, a number of Senate Democrats grew weary of Wilder’s leadership and felt it was their turn to take the helm, backing Riley Darnell from Clarksville for the speaker’s post.

Wilder had to put together a coalition of Republicans and Democratic loyalists to recapture the two-year Senate speaker’s post he coveted almost more than his Senate seat. From that point, Wilder gave Republicans key committee positions in order to maintain the lieutenant governor’s post.

But after Ramsey started making inroads, Wilder couldn’t hold on, and Ramsey defeated him in 2007 after Democratic Sen. Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville joined the new Republican majority and backed him.

“Leadership fights can get very messy,” Syler says. “One of the reasons Rosalind Kurita defected and voted for Sen. Ramsey and made him speaker was she was upset.

“She felt like had worked very hard for the caucus, which she had. She had raised a lot of money for Democratic candidates yet really had no upward mobility. You’re dealing with a lot of egos. It can be challenging.”

A decade later, the only Democratic senators hail from Memphis and Nashville, two blue dots in a red state.

Keeping it rolling

Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican, says he understands Ramsey’s point.

“Ron certainly has been instrumental in the Republicans taking control of the Senate and now having a supermajority, and I think it’s true, to use a cliché, he’s a hard act to follow,” Overbey says.

“But we have good leaders in the Senate, and I think Chairman Randy McNally will be a worthy successor, and I know the members of the caucus will keep rolling in the same direction and do what we can to be of assistance to and support Sen. McNally as the new speaker.”

In fact, Overbey says he believes McNally could be the speaker for six more years if he decides to run for re-election in 2018. Considering his track records, there’s no reason to believe McNally would be defeated this fall.

Republicans also hold such a large majority and for the first time in modern history drew House and Senate district lines that Nolan doesn’t see much impact from the presidential election – at least not this fall.

On the other hand, Syler points out politics is a “national” animal now.

“A lot of the future of the Legislature and what the makeup is and all that is directly tied to the presidential race,” he explains

Timing was critical for Ramsey’s ascension to the speakership, and anti-Obama sentiment drove the Republican resurgence since 2008.

Says Syler: “You ride a wave in. You can ride a wave out.”

Without Ramsey paddling, Republicans will have to find someone with the chutzpah to keep them from drifting apart.

Their supermajority control seems safe now, but leadership can fall apart if even the slightest hint of weakness is detected. Control requires money and character. Ramsey holds both of those keys.

Looking ahead, McNally and even his successor might have to call Ramsey every morning – breaking up his babysitting and farm work – to get sound advice.

That’s assuming, of course, Ramsey lives up to his promise to stay out of politics for good.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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