VOL. 133 | NO. 177 | Thursday, September 6, 2018
View From the Hill
Leadership Holes in State Legislature
With apologies to Robert Zimmerman, “the times they are a-changing.”
Unlike Bob Dylan’s 1964 song of rebellion, Capitol Hill isn’t turning into a bed of liberals, although someday the first could be last. In fact, it could turn more conservative this fall before things take a different direction. But leadership down the line in both parties is due for a big turnover.
The most obvious change will be in the governor’s office where Tennessee voters will choose between Republican Bill Lee and Democrat Karl Dean. Their differences seem to be growing wider daily, especially with reports Lee would like to get rid of handgun permits.
Replacing House Speaker Beth Harwell, who opted to leave the Legislature to make an ill-fated run for governor, will be a big decision, too, but lying in the hands of the supermajority controlling House Republican Caucus, not the voters.
Vying to replace her are frontrunner House Majority Leader Glen Casada of Williamson County, Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson of Clarksville and Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk of Greenville.
Casada set aside more than $200,000 to boost Republican candidates in the primaries and is putting together another budget to help conservatives win seats Nov. 6. Johnson, who rarely held the speaker’s gavel as deputy because Harwell took few, if any, legislative initiatives, also gave donations to 19 campaigns. He says that’s in keeping with tradition. Hawk, too, with more than $100,000 in his campaign account, is prepared to make donations to fellow Republicans if they seek them.
Announcing his candidacy at a Cordell Hull Building press conference – a rarity for a House leader race – Hawk broached the IMPROVE Act and whether votes cast in it could be a deciding factor in this speaker’s race.
More likely, though, this will be a popularity contest. While Johnson could be seen as more of a speaker in the vein of Harwell, Casada — even though he ultimately voted for the IMPROVE Act and its gas tax — is conservative enough he will be able to work the caucus to get the 40 or so votes needed to win.
It’s a prospect that has Democrats shaking in their boots, the thought of Casada running the House while Bill Lee tries to figure out how to run the governor’s office – if he wins. On the other hand, a Dean governorship and a Casada speakership would provide all sorts of news fodder. If Dean said dark, Casada would say light.
Running the floor
Herding cats in the Republican Caucus will be up to either Rep. William Lamberth, a Sumner Countian who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, or – likely – Majority Chairman Ryan Williams of Cookeville.
Williams, whose job is helping Republican candidates across the state win elections, has been focused on his position as caucus chairman and says it’s too early to make an official announcement for the caucus leader race, especially with some 27-plus potential new Republican faces in the House. He believes he has the leadership experience to handle the job, though, and an announcement within the next few weeks wouldn’t be surprising.
Williams has made donations to some of the Republican Caucus’ most conservative members, such as Reps. Micah Van Huss and Matthew and Timothy Hill of East Tennessee. (He also received a $6,000 contribution from U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s PAC.)
The question is whether those types will reciprocate with votes come late November when the caucus gathers to choose leaders.
Lamberth is definitely in the hunt and won’t shy away from donating to candidates this fall, saying he’s putting together a “significant amount of funds” for a spending plan. He gave money to gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Diane Black and Senate candidate Blackburn this summer, in addition to Rep. Jay Reedy. But look for his spending to swell this fall, considering he has $213,000 in his campaign account and $13,000 in his PAC.
Lamberth, a former assistant district attorney considered by liberal House Democrats to be the reincarnation of Darth Vader (even if he talks faster), says he has long been interested in forming “good” policy that can become law, and he considers the state’s conservative bent the right direction.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Andy Holt is warming his hands over a fire fueled by red-light camera tickets, trying to decide if he’s getting in the race. He says he’s still considering a run, but turning it into a three-man race would take votes away from one of the others.
Memphis on the rise?
A Shelby County delegation member could become the next leader of the House Democratic Caucus, although in the minority with only 25 it struggles to find relevance each day.
Memphis Reps. Joe Towns and Karen Camper have sent letters to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart letting him know they’re running for the job. Memphis Rep. G.A. Hardaway is expected to join the fray as well, potentially pitting veteran legislators against each other. Also seeking the job are Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar and Rep. Harold Love of Nashville.
Replacing Craig Fitzhugh, a longtime House member from Ripley in rural West Tennessee and a former majority leader, will be difficult. His institutional knowledge and ability to speak off the cuff is second to none in the House. But with only 25 members in the last session, Fitzhugh and the entire caucus were handcuffed most of the time, finding a way to insert themselves into the dialogue mainly by siding with a group of Republicans to pass the IMPROVE Act in 2017.
Among those candidates, Hardaway would have to be considered the most outspoken, though Towns probably puts the most weight on the Richter scale. Camper is the most likely to negotiate and work through the process, though her efforts to bring Memphis $250,000 for its bicentennial celebration failed this year when Republicans chose to punish the city for taking down Confederate statues.
Love is much like his name, seeking the high road at every turn, while Shaw, though willing to take a stand, would have to sharpen his tongue to deal with this Republican leadership.
A look at the Senate
Wandering in limbo is Sen. Mark Norris, the Senate Majority leader nominated for a U.S. District Court judgeship. He could get the call any day, however, leaving a major vacancy within Senate leadership since few people can equal him as a policy wonk or go-between with the governor. Shelby County also would be forced to decide if it wants to appoint a replacement or hold a special election.
On the Democrats’ side, Rep. Raumesh Akbari is set to elevate to the upper chamber and take the post held by newly-seated Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Akbari, though not afraid to take a stand or sponsor progressive legislation, will have to take her game to another level to match Harris, who did battle daily with Republicans as Democrats struggled with a 28-5 deficit in the Senate.
In a way, Senate Democrats are gaining through addition by subtraction. They lose Reginald Tate, who called himself a “black Republican” and said Democrats are “full of s---” on a hot mic early this summer. As a result, he wound up getting trounced by Katrina Robinson in the Democratic primary.
In addition, Rep. Brenda Gilmore is set to replace longtime Sen. Thelma Harper, who held some sway but, in reality, checked out long ago.
If nothing else, maybe the Senate Democrats will be able to get all of their members to turn up at caucus meetings. Tate and Harper didn’t go or get involved much in Democratic-backed legislation.
One for the road
After picking up at least one more legislative per diem by attending a Joint Fiscal Review Committee meeting last week, Tate was congenial in the wake of his loss.
Asked why he didn’t return phone calls this summer seeking comment about everything from his hot-microphone comments to his campaign stance, Tate said he wasn’t about to answer questions about those matters. He pointed out everybody on Capitol Hill knows what he’s about, which could be his problem. He also never answered questions about his campaign making donations to his former restaurant, A&R Bar-B-Que, for community events, of course.
“That was bulls---,” Tate said, leaving the Legislature with a parting shot for his beloved Memphis constituents, words not quite as melodic as those of Dylan, though maybe as prophetic.
Sam Stockard covers the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.