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VOL. 39 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 24, 2015

With no real rival, state Republicans attack their own

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Republicans are sitting in Tennessee’s political catbird seat, but that doesn’t keep them from flying off in different directions.

Elected political leaders of the same stripe found themselves at odds this year over the Bible as a state book, Common Core education standards and Insure Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to catch 280,000 people in a medical coverage gap.

And as the summer heat settles over the state, at least one Republican lawmaker is boiling, calling for the governor’s impeachment for following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriages.

With 63 of 99 House seats, 28 of 33 Senate seats, the governor’s office, all but two congressional seats and both U.S. Senate posts, the Republican Party is bound to have its disagreements. After all, the party is made up of the mainstream business types, the tea party and Reagan disciples.

“The nature of politics is that there is always conflict, and when there’s not enough of the opposite party to fight with, you tend to fight among yourselves,” says Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor. “And I think that’s what is happening with the Republicans right now in Tennessee.”

A former chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, Syler has no doubts the tea party wing of the Republican Party is having a “significant” effect on the legislative agenda, and Insure Tennessee is the best example.

The market-based proposal to use roughly $1 billion a year in taxes paid by Tennesseans for the Affordable Care Act was brought by Haslam with Republican Sen. Doug Overbey and Rep. Gerald McCormick sponsoring it. But it failed on two Senate committee votes in special and regular sessions this year and never saw a House committee vote, much less a floor vote.

Syler says the General Assembly doesn’t have enough Democrats and moderate Republicans to build a coalition capable of passing legislation the more conservative wing opposes.

Ideological friction stems from the popular Haslam receiving a moderate vote statewide in contrast to legislators who hail from conservative districts, Syler notes.

“Many of them ran strong anti-President Obama campaigns, and it’s part of the symptom here of all politics being national right now, even more so than some of the political currents in Tennessee,” Syler says.

Political outlier

State Rep. Rick Womick recently posted comments on Facebook calling for Haslam’s impeachment after the high court’s ruling in favor of gay marriages overturned Tennessee law.

Though Haslam pointed out Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted in 2006 for a constitutional amendment on marriage as an act between a man and woman, he and the state attorney general called on county clerk’s offices to issue marriage licenses in accordance with the federal court ruling.

Womick, a Rockvale Republican from Rutherford County, contends the governor “bowed down to the five self appointed gods in black robes just minutes after they issued their ‘opinion!’”

“He changed Tennessee state law and our State Constitution without ever consulting with the General Assembly. I think it’s time to give serious consideration to impeachment hearings against Gov. Haslam and these five rogue SCOTUS justices!”

Asked about Womick’s statements, the governor laughed during a short press conference and declined to comment other than saying, “When I was sworn in I swore to uphold the law and the Constitution of the United States of American and Tennessee, and that’s what the governor’s job is.”

This isn’t Womick’s first criticism of the governor.

He called Haslam a “traitor” for using PAC money to try to unseat Republican incumbents in the May 2014 primary and said those who “speak out against the governor” will face millions of dollars being dumped into the 2016 primary against them.

Womick also challenged Beth Harwell for the House speaker’s post in advance of the 2015 legislative session but received only 15 votes to Harwell’s 57, though he claimed to have 30 “firm” commitments.

Reacting to Womick’s challenge, Rep. Glen Casada, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, says “Everybody has a right to their own opinions, no matter how wrong they are. And he’s just out there by himself. To my knowledge, no one else has joined him. So he’s just one person, one opinion.”

Despite Womick’s statements, Casada and Harwell refuse to punish him, even as some Democrats say he should be censured. In fact, though he doesn’t support Womick on this matter, Casada says he enjoys the party’s diverse views.

“The thing I like about the Republicans, especially the legislative body, (they are) extremely independent thinkers. In other words, there’s no steering them. They, on an individual basis, look at the facts and they make their mind up, and that’s healthy for a democratic republic,” says Casada, of Thompson Station in Williamson County.

Former state Rep. Ryan Haynes, now serving as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, says the party shouldn’t rest until it holds all 99 House and 33 Senate seats.

Even if that were to happen, Casada says, the Republican Party is a diverse group with liberals, moderates and conservatives who maintain those different views. The Democratic Party, he adds, is “just liberals.”

Casada says he doesn’t believe tea party legislators are handcuffing mainstream Republicans in the General Assembly, either. Instead, he says that section of the party brings ideas and debate needed in the Legislature.

“But it’s always healthy,” he says. “Everything put on the table is debated.”

Senate majority view

A third the size of the House, the Senate is much closer and more disciplined under conservative Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Consequently, Republican leadership doesn’t like to acknowledge discord.

“Although Insure Tennessee was an important piece of legislation for Gov. Haslam, it is not the only priority bill that he brought to the Legislature.

“If you look at the voting record on the governor’s initiatives you will see that he received overwhelming approval of his legislative priorities since taking office, and that this bill was the exception, not the rule,” says Sen. Bill Ketron, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus.

“I would guess that his legislative packages have received upward of 90 percent approval by Republicans, so this is a perception based on the amount of media attention that this high-profile bill has received. To characterize it as a major rift, and that it is the rule, rather than the exception, is not accurate.”

Ketron doesn’t concede, either, that the party’s conservative wing is steering the legislative process or causing friction harmful in the long run.

“We are all Republicans period, exclamation point. I have seen absolutely no favoritism or prejudice of any member as each bill is considered on its own merits. The voting record will positively reflect that fact,” says Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who is battling cancer.

Steady as it goes

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris focuses on what he calls the “three E’s,” economic development, education and employment, which typically don’t grab the most headlines.

“I talk a lot about how the economy is the great equalizer, and a strong economy means a better likelihood of a good job. And that’s really been sort of job 1 for us,” says Norris, a Collierville attorney from outside Memphis.

“I know there’s a lot of other stuff going on. There are people who try to break through the static and get attention for various reasons. And usually, when we’re out of session, it gets stranger.”

The latest reports from the Department of Economic and Community Development show Tennessee adding 53,800 private-sector jobs in the last year, putting it seventh in the Southeast and 18th nationally, Norris points out.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate also dipped to 5.7 percent from 6.6 percent a year ago, slightly higher than the national rate, he notes.

With an Economic Innovation Group’s report showing Memphis is second only to Detroit nationally in income gap and economic distress, Norris says more work remains, though new stats show the state is making progress.

But while Democrats are focused on being “the voice of the few” or those who might be overlooked, Norris says, Republicans are trying to be “the voice of everybody, because we think the rising tide lifts all boats.”

(Democrats also say they support education, economic development and jobs, but their outlook on education issues such as vouchers, charter schools and treatment of the teachers’ union are markedly different than Republicans’ views.)

Lawmakers need to continue pushing the governor’s Drive for 55 initiative for 55 percent of Tennesseans to hold a certificate or degree by 2025, Norris says.

He points out, however, that goal probably will jump to 60 to 65 percent if Tennesseans are to find good-paying jobs enabling them to raise a family. Reaching those numbers will require hard work and fewer distractions, he believes.

“We have to manage through the emotional differences between the Chambers (of Commerce) as well as between some members themselves,” he says.

Chambers of Commerce across the state and other Republican-leaning organizations support passage of Insure Tennessee and before the 2015 session backed steps to maintain Common Core, a set of standards for Tennessee’s students to follow.

Ultimately, the Legislature passed a bill creating another set of reviews – what is being called “Tennessee standards” for K-12 education.

Though he shares the frustration of fellow Republicans over the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and in upholding federal exchanges for the Affordable Care Act, Norris points out legislators took oaths to uphold the state and U.S. constitutions.

“And so the hard work is determining how to work through those analyses to come up with a plan for a more constructive result. I don’t fault or belittle anybody for their initial reactions, but as for the Senate, we’re not having any special session, period,” Norris says.

Election outlook

Republicans made major gains in 2008 and 2012 with Democrat Barack Obama on the ticket, and some Tennessee Democrats concede the president may have hurt them politically across the state.

Republicans, meanwhile, including Lt. Gov. Ramsey say they want a Republican to be elected president in 2016 in hopes the federal government will send block grants to Tennessee to fund the Medicaid program here – displacing the need for Insure Tennessee.

But if a liberal Democrat such as Hillary Clinton were to be elected rather than a conservative Republican, Tennessee’s GOP would most likely continue to benefit.

“Republicans are really lucky in that (Sens.) Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker and Bill Haslam aren’t controversial figures,” Syler says.

“They can gripe about them not being conservative enough, but they’re exactly what they need, not creating problems. In fact, they have coattails.

“There’s an old saying that all politics is local. We are in a political environment in America right now where all politics is national. And one of the things that impacts state House and Senate elections is who the president is and how popular he is and from what party,” Syler notes.

“The presidential elections and how happy or unhappy people are with the person in office is going to continue to be one of the major factors of how down-ticket races turn out.”

Sam Stockard can be reached sstockard44@gmail.com.

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