Wednesday, January 14, 2009


January 13, 2009: A Day That Will Live in Infamy

"Seems like I'm caught up in your trap again
Seems like I'll be wearing the same old chains
But Good will conquer Evil
And the truth will set me free
And I know someday I will find the key."
- Bruce Springsteen, "Trapped"

I hadn't planned on making the trip to Nashville to witness the swearing-in of the new Tennessee General Assembly members and the voting for the Lt. Governor and Speaker positions. While I've worked on many, many House and Senate campaigns in the past and been invited to the Capitol for the festivities before, my time after the elections has either been spent recuperating from the previous campaign or getting geared up for the next one.

After receiving some correspondence from friends and colleagues this weekend, I experienced a quick change of mind and decided to make the drive Tuesday morning as a form of celebrating the hard work of 2008. Angela often says that I don't bother to smell the roses enough and enjoy the fruits of my labor, so I thought that this might be a way of enlightening my view of Tennessee politics.

The trip was going to be difficult, though, as my around-the-clock work on a lengthy trial last week had left me a physical wreck. My immune system was weakened enough to catch Leo's cold, which has been plaguing me since Saturday. After spending most of the night rocking and consoling him Monday night, I wasn't in much shape to travel. Angela urged me to go, though, because she knows how seeing my friends in the General Assembly raises my spirits. The snow that was falling in Crossville Tuesday morning didn't help, either, but it was of small consequence.

I arrived at the Capitol well over an hour before the sessions were to convene. The early arrival aided me in speaking to several State Executive Committee members, constitutional officer candidates, Senators, Representatives, Congressmen, grassroots activists, and staff members, so many that listing them here would be inviting disrespect when I leave someone off the list.

I should say at this point that I had no concerns about either election. Republicans with even the least likely chance of being persuaded to break ranks had been consulted over the past week by various parties. Kent Williams was viewed as by far the most likely problem, but multiple individuals had approached him in the 24 hours preceding the session, and he had assured them that his vote was solid.

I did not attempt to cram my sick corpse into the House gallery, instead opting for the cooler confines in the rotunda between the two chambers of the General Assembly. This enabled me to view proceedings of both chambers and mingle with friends and colleagues, some of whom I had lost contact with and hadn't spoken to in over a decade. The Senate started close to time and moved expeditiously. The House, on the other hand, was trouble from the start.

First, Speaker Naifeh filed in late with a smile on his face. It wasn't a cordial smile, either. It was Naifeh's usual smirk that makes you think he has something up his sleeve (if not for younger eyes here, I would use the slang form of an "excrement-dining smile"). I looked over at Vance Cheek when Naifeh went by, both of us having witnessed Naifeh's strut and both of us exhibiting looks of concern. Democratic Rep. Gary Odom moved immediately to recess for a couple of minutes. Rep. Mumpower paid Odom's motion short shrift, but Odom surprisingly won the motion by one vote.

As the recess began, I grabbed the first friendly face I could find exiting the House doors. It was Rep. Stacey Campfield, who assured me that freshman Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver had misunderstood the question on the floor and had accidentally voted to grant the motion instead of table it. (I confirmed this with multiple other GOP Representatives at the time.) During the break, I spoke with a group of conservative GOP activists, at which time I stated that if a "miracle" were to happen and the Democrats would hang on to power, that they would point to the recess as the necessary element in their conquest, the key to their superior tactics. (And, voila, my predictive powers were vindicated on that count, even though the Democrats didn't all meet together during the break, which kind of spoils that version of what happened.)

When Kent Williams' name was put forth through nominations, the word that seemed to echo through the rotunda was "bait." However, I wasn't concerned. After all, Kent Williams had told colleagues and activists alike that very morning that he was still loyal to the Republican caucus' choice.

Because of Williams' name being at the end of the Republican party manifest, he cast the last vote. And when he did, all hell broke lose. People booed. Mouths hit the floor. Calls of "traitor" and "villain." Curses from Republicans and Democrats alike could be heard. As the new Speaker was being sworn in, I left (along with many of the Senators and their families). It was obvious to me (with a memory of 2001 in my head) that this situation was ripe for confrontation. Given this report, it appears that the Speaker thought so, too. As one of the Senator's wives said, "I hope that they have security set up for the new Speaker, because he might not get out of here unharmed when people who have devoted blood, sweat, and tears to this cause leave the gallery and accost him face-to-face." Knowing that I have a tendency to speak my mind, I thought it best that I leave, too.

I attended a luncheon with several of my friends thereafter, including Senator Mike Faulk and members of his family, Congressman Bill Jenkins, Tennessee Federation of Republican Women do-everythings Jennifer Little and Dagmar Schoenhoff, GOP campaign manager Darrin Kirkus, and several others. We continued to get text message updates from those still at the Capitol, including news of Williams sealing his fate by voting for Rep. DeBerry for Speaker Pro Tempore.

After eating a fantastic meal, I drove back to Knoxville, stopping once in Cookeville to change clothes for the UT/UK basketball game. And we all know how that turned out. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

A Democratic operative that I call my friend who was not part of this plot described the move as "a kick in the nuts." I told him that I didn't think that was completely accurate, because we had to see what the reaction was. If the Tennessee GOP is more fragile than I imagine and falls to its knees, then the description of a blow to the groin is on point. However, as I pointed out to him, as an individual, I am not bowed; I stand still. If anything, I am more determined than ever. At a time when I was unsure what my next move was (leave politics? cash in my chips and become a bureaucrat? join a 2010 campaign? run for State Chairman if Robin Smith runs for Congress?), this occurrence strengthens my resolve. It has not killed me; it will make me stronger. And the Tennessee Republican Party needs to react in the same manner.

Keeping in mind that I give a great deal of the credit for Republicans being in the majority to our State Party and its bold behavior, I believe immediate talk of stripping Kent Williams of his bona fide status is a bit premature. Yes, Williams is dead meat if the State Executive Committee brings the matter of his status to a vote. The by-laws were strengthened in 2008 to make sure that the rules had teeth to them, and Williams can be kicked out of the party at any time. But that is my point - rash decisions could be detrimental in the future. Let's be more than novice chess players and see four or five moves down the road like a Grand Master before we start doing things that cannot be undone. If Williams' behavior warrants removal from the party - and I think it will after seeing his behavior towards Rep. Kelsey and others today - then we can deal with that shortly. But let's do it on our terms and within our duly recognized rules.

So what do we know?

1) Kent Williams is a liar. That much is certain. He told everyone that he approached the Democrats to hatch this plan. I have been told that is 100% not true. I suppose that Williams is trying to make himself to be brighter than the puppet that he really is through this tall tale (which may be in the face of many in the grassroots and lobbying community who don't exactly reference Williams as the sharpest tool in the shed).

2) Tennessee has a problem. At a time when leadership and legislative responses will be crucial due to a global economy that is in crisis, I expect very little worthwhile legislation to pass out of the House over the next two years. Forget Williams' inability to lead for a minute. The problem here is that Naifeh, Odom, and Williams have raised the stakes of partisanship to a level we are unaccustomed to seeing out of Nashville. It is unrealistic for people to say, "Well, you lied, deceived, and embarrassed us at a crucial moment in the history of the state, but let's see how we can work together in a trusting relationship to move the state forward." That action lies outside of the norms of human nature; perhaps people in mental institutions or a man that believes he was fairly elected U.S. Senator from Minnesota would believe it.

3) Someone needs to take the reigns of leadership of the Republican Caucus. The two most likely people are Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey or Tennessee GOP Chairman Robin Smith. However, both are rumored to be interested in other jobs (Ramsey for Governor, Smith for the 3rd District Congressional seat) in 2010. Ramsey's demonstrated ability to raise funds certainly makes him the most obvious choice, as, assuming a Williams ouster from the party, Ramsey could assist in fundraising for the GOP nominee. Carter County is in Ramsey's neck of the woods, too, so his leadership could prove influential in this area. Which leads us to...

4) Kent Williams has committed political suicide. Several Democratic commentators who have probably never walked across the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, fished in the Doe River, or spent a relaxing day on Watauga Lake are saying that Kent Williams doesn't need a "R" by his name to win in 2010. They don't know Carter County at all. I'll say this - Mike Williams had a much, much greater chance of retaining his seat in the independent-minded 4th Senate District than Kent Williams or anyone else has of winning Carter County without the backing of the Republican Party. Surely even Williams had to have known this. Which begs the question - is the acquisition of short-term power and an extra $60,000 worth the remainder of your political career?

5) Republicans will never be able to match Democrats when it comes to treachery. It's interesting, but this was something I have been pondering for some time now. For those of you who (like me) are fans of the show, the Republicans' struggle greatly ties in with the hit television show, "24." In order to stop the Democrats, who, like the terrorists play by their own set of rules, the Republicans need a rule breaker themselves - their own personal Jack Bauer, if you will. But that isn't going to happen. The Republicans I know at the state level want maximum sunlight on their processes, want to follow the rules and by-laws set for their actions, and want an end to the backroom deals made in smokey rooms on Capitol Hill. They need Jack Bauer, but all they have are the FBI agents that can't stop the terrorists because of their belief in interrogation without torture, deference to the rule of law, and following agency protocol.

But the Republicans shouldn't try to beat the Democrats at their own game. As Bruce Springsteen concluded in "Trapped:"

"Seems like I've been playing your game way too long
Seems the game I've played has made you strong."

And if we lower ourselves to the level of the Democrats, that is exactly what will happen - the electorate will no longer trust either party and the Democrats as the minority party will be stronger for it.

With the Republicans not being good at dirty tricks, what's the next step? Easy - create a margin of victory that is so overwhelming that no bribe, no misreading of parliamentary procedure, no attempt to override the will of the people will be successful. And, in this state with this electorate and strong, well-funded candidates on the heels of the buying of a RINO and the overturning of the valid election of Rosalind Kurita, we are on the precipice of doing just that. Our bench in deeper, our campaigns are run better, and we can win despite the ridiculous gerrymandered districts throughout the state.

January 13, 2009 was a day I will remember for a long time, perhaps to the end of the my days. We must strive to make our party stronger because of it, too. As Lamar might say, we must find the good in this situation and praise it. If that happens, then we may look back on this day as a turning point in our party - the day our party was tricked and deceived and became better for it.

MORE: Blue Collar Muse has the entire round-up of conservative reactions to this important day.

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Excellent post, Rob.
I live in Carter County, walked across the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, fished in the Doe River, and spent many relaxing days on Watauga Lake... don't know many Democrats around here, although a few more Libertarians are popping up!
I am not rubbing it in because I really do feel your pain, but now you know how we felt when Kurita caucused with Wilder and then handed the Senate to the Republicans.

Now, she can't even get a job.

What goes around...
You write that "Republicans will never be able to match Democrats when it comes to treachery?" How can that be? Ever hear of Watergate? Iran-Contra? Don't both parties have corrupt people and don't both parties have noble, honest leaders? How can one party be more "treacherous" than the other?
He means within Tennessee...
It appears we were probably right next to each other during the procedings!

I like you strategy assessment and concur. Great post.
Dan -

Oh, please. You're comparing a failed break-in at the Watergate with a successful stealing of the Speaker's position in Nashville?

It is interesting that you point to one of the highlights of liberal history, though. In the comparison, who would be Nixon? Naifeh? Odom? Williams? Guess it depends on who you believe, since none of them tell the same story.

Iva -

Yes, judging from the second picture in your post, I suspect that we must have been standing side-by-side for much of the time. I was standing behind the couch that you had pictured when the results of the vote were announced.


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