Friday, January 16, 2009

Tennessee's very own Saruman

This past Tuesday, the One Hundred Sixth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee was set to convene in organizational session, and it was to be an historic occasion.

History-making, because for the first time since 1969, a Republican was presumed to be sworn as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Assembled in the historic Capitol in Nashville were countless Republican state officials and dignitaries, including former governors and the only Republican to hold the Speakership in the Twentieth Century, former Judge and former U.S. Congressman Bill Jenkins (R-Rogersville).

When the time came for the election of the Speaker, disaster struck: the Democrats in the chamber voted en masse for a Republican, Rep. Kent Williams ("R"-Elizabethton).

In a chamber split 50-49, the deciding vote would come down to a Republican. In the end, it would come down to Williams himself.

This wasn't the first time that Tennessee Democrats had tried to persuade a Tennessee "Republican" to abandon his party and keep the Democrats in power for just a little bit longer.

Indeed, another East Tennessean, former Senator Mike Williams (I-Maynardville), had been elected as a Republican, only to defect to the Democrats to keep Lieutenant Governor Wilder in office for one more term when the Senate had been divided 17-16 (for his trouble, former Sen. Williams was elected Speaker Pro Tempore and was a pariah among both Republicans and Democrats for the rest of his time in Nashville).

The House Republicans, after defeating enough Democrats in the November 2008 elections to take a tenuous 50-49 advantage in the House, knew that the Democrats would try again.

And so, immediately after it became clear that their party would have an advantage, the Republican caucus met with their leader, Rep. Jason Mumpower (R-Bristol), and the fifty GOPers agreed to stick together this time and avoid a repeat of the Senate debacle.

Besides giving their word to Rep. Mumpower that they would vote for him to be Speaker, all 50 signed a letter stating that they would vote "for a Republican" for both Speaker and Speaker Pro Tempore.

But what about Rep. Williams? The Carter County-native signed the document, pledging to vote for a Republican. But he also made statements to Johnson City news radio -- less than a week before the opening session of the House -- that he'd given his commitment to Rep. Mumpower that Rep. Williams would vote for the GOP leader.

That's why so many Republicans were gathered in the historic chamber of the Tennessee House of Representatives -- where the slaves were freed, where Tennessee rejoined the Union, and where Tennessee became the ratifying vote of the Constitutional amendment giving women the franchise -- to see their leader, the man who had led them back into power for the first time in 40 years, become Speaker of the Tennessee House.

And that's also why every breath was held as the Clerk of the House called the roll for the election of the Speaker.

"Surely," Republicans had to be thinking, "this cannot happen again. Surely, no one would so blatantly lust for power to go back on his signature, his public statements, and his word."

But Kent Williams was that blatant.

As he said his own name, voting to abandon his principles and his honesty and the vast majority of his own constituents (who're 83% Republican), Williams voted to complete the quid pro quo: vote for yourself, attain the Speakership, and be our puppet.

As boos and calls of "Traitor!" and "Sellout!" rained down around him, Kent Williams shuffled to the rostrum and feebly attempted to calm the chamber.

But he was only a marionette, moving as directed by "former" Speaker Naifeh (D-Covington) and the other Tennessee Democrats who had managed, once again, to cling, kicking, biting, and scratching, to power, and no one paid him heed as he desperately struck the gavel.

Instead, every heart in the chamber knew that this session was lost. Partisan warfare had been declared that day.

And the people of Tennessee can only be grateful that the One Hundred Sixth General Assembly will give way to the One Hundred Seventh in January 2011.

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