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VOL. 40 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 19, 2016

Matlock the ‘truth,’ ‘justice’ candidate for House speaker

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Republican state Rep. Jimmy Matlock insists his quest for the House Speaker’s post is not a challenge of Beth Harwell’s leadership.

But it’s clear he sees a need for change.

He compliments the two-term speaker, saying he respects the Legislature’s first woman speaker, even calling her a friend. But his style, Matlock says, would be more reserved, more balanced.

“I’m not one that probably you would see on the headlines on the paper locally because I’m not that type of individual,” Matlock explains.

“I think members would think it was a fresh day when they all were responded to quickly, they were given an audience openly, and from what they tell me, and I think they’re being honest with me, they’re sensing that it’s a good opportunity for a reset.”

Matlock says members of the 73-person caucus are “frustrated” and feel a “new direction” is necessary for the supermajority. They want “transparency,” and if people can say anything about him consistently, it’s that he’s “fair-minded” and “honest up front.”

Matlock

In announcing his bid for the leadership post, the 10-year House veteran from Lenoir City wrote to fellow Republicans, saying he wants to make the GOP Caucus stand for “justice and truth” as the 110th General Assembly approaches. The Republican Caucus would vote on the matter in December before the Legislature convenes.

In his letter, Matlock also says, “Honesty, integrity and transparency are values that I not only believe in, but expect of myself in all that I do. These values are what have compelled me toward the decision I am making today.”

Chairman of House Transportation Committee, Matlock would be biting the hand that fed him since Harwell is responsible for appointing committee chairmanships.

Harwell

Yet, he wrote, “My primary goal is to help our caucus become what it was always meant to be, a caucus that stands for justice and truth, a caucus that has bold and creative ideas, a caucus that at its heart stands for the people of our great state. I am ready to guide us forward, unite our causes and provide support to each of you.”

Asked if Harwell considers Matlock’s words criticism of her actions as speaker, spokesperson Kara Owen declines to address specifics in the letter. But she confirms Harwell does plan to run for House speaker again and says her priority is winning her own re-election campaign and assisting Republican colleagues with their races.

Harwell collected 3,135 votes in an uncontested primary in her West Nashville district and on Nov. 8 will face Democrat Chris Moth, who defeated Sydney Rogers 1,836 to 1,751.

Harwell, Davidson County’s only Republican House member and a 26-year veteran of the Legislature, became the first female House speaker four years ago and is considering a bid for governor, making this a good barometer for a gubernatorial race.

She soundly defeated Rep. Rick Womick of Rutherford County in 2014 to retain the powerful post. Womick claimed he had a significant number of votes but received only 15 from the caucus.

Durham in everything

Harwell dealt with sexual harassment allegations against Franklin Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham during the 2016 session. Reports showed she and other lawmakers knew about accusations regarding Durham for months, if not years, before taking action.

Ultimately, Harwell appointed a task force to handle the allegations against Durham, and an investigation by the attorney general’s office found he harassed 22 women at the Legislative Plaza.

Despite those findings, the committee opted to let voters decide whether Durham should be replaced. He suspended his campaign and was defeated by Sam Whitson in the recent Republican primary in Williamson County.

House leaders also discussed holding a special session to consider removing Durham from office but couldn’t muster enough signatures to convene this summer. Durham was able to keep his state pension and health benefits.

Matlock’s name hasn’t been mentioned as one of those howling for Durham’s resignation as caucus whip early in the 2016 session or from the Legislature amid reports he made inappropriate comments, text messages and physical contact with numerous women.

Yet Matlock says he heard of sexual harassment accusations against Durham in late 2015 and, despite having no certainty the allegations were true, felt close enough to tell him to step down.

“I actually reached out to Jeremy on three occasions and personally spoke to him and tried to offer counsel and, yes, I encouraged him to resign as far back as November of last year,” Matlock adds. “But really that issue in my judgment is one in which the voters of Williamson County would decide. They obviously have decided, and it appears they’ve spoken.”

Is it too early?

Surprised by Matlock’s announcement, House Republican Caucus Leader Gerald McCormick says this is the earliest he’s seen a caucus race start in his 12 years in the Legislature.

Declining to say anything critical of Matlock, whom he describes as a “good person, a good guy,” McCormick still says, “the timing could have been better.”

He points out three months are left until the Nov. 8 election when the caucus membership is finalized. He thinks Republicans have a shot at picking up several seats from Democrats.

“Certainly Jimmy and anyone else has a right to run for whatever office they want to in the caucus, but I don’t want to do anything that takes away from our efforts to win seats that we have contested right now, and especially, to pick up some seats and defend seats we have that incumbents are running in,” McCormick notes.

Matlock acknowledges McCormick raised the concern with him. But he had already made the decision.

“And I felt the need just to go ahead and offer myself as an option, and at this moment I’m at great peace with that,” he explains.

Matlock also faces a Democratic challenger, Pam Weston, in November, but his race probably won’t be as hotly contested as Harwell’s, based on the primary voting results. Thus, he could spend more time over the next three months lobbying returning caucus members for their votes.

The question is how he will “unite” 73 people with a wide range of views, motives and voting records amid a serious split between establishment Republicans in the Bill Haslam camp and tea party types who believe they were targeted in the primaries by the state Republican Party.

Describing himself as someone who tried to serve “in a respectful and honorable way” without making enemies, a team player who voted his conscience, he believes he can somehow bring those factions together. He also held a modicum of authority as Transportation Committee chairman, a position he feels he garnered as a tire industry businessman and steady hand in the Legislature.

Democratic view

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who is unopposed in November, says while House Republicans fight for political power, he’s focused on Nashvillians and the integrity of the House, “both of which have been dealt serious blows of late.”

“As much as I honestly enjoy watching the various factions of the Republican Caucus lob grenades into each other’s foxholes, my chief concerns are whether Nashville will have a friend and champion in the speaker’s office and whether the House Transportation Committee will have a steady, experienced hand guiding my transportation infrastructure and funding legislation to the House floor,” Clemmons says.

In his first legislative term, he says, Harwell and Matlock have been “relatively straightforward and fair” with him.

House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who faces a Republican challenger in November, calls Matlock a friend, “a good, solid man” and a “principled person.”

Calling Matlock’s decision “a bold move,” Fitzhugh says, “Any time you’ve got a caucus as big as Beth’s caucus is, you’re going to have some problems, and she’s got ’em. So it’s pretty unusual for a chairman to announce and come out against her.”

Power struggles, disagreements and mini-factions are expected, says Fitzhugh, recalling the same type of “internal strife” the Democratic Caucus had when its numbers were stronger. The Ripley attorney says he doesn’t keep close tabs on House Republicans but notes, “you can tell it’s not all rosy over there.”

Final analysis

No doubt, the last session was a mine field for Harwell, partly self-inflicted because she didn’t nip the Durham debacle in the bud. Ultimately, she got what she wanted, contending he was finally held accountable. But letting it fester hurt her politically.

Whether Matlock, a genuinely nice guy, would be able clamp down on rogue reps such as Durham is a tough call. After all, Durham apparently ignored Matlock’s advice to resign.

As the only Republican in Democratic and urban Nashville, Harwell also has to play nice – to a degree – with the Davidson County legislative delegation, which probably irritates some of the more conservative members of the Republican Caucus. In their zeal to take control, even the slightest Democratic victory irks some Republicans.

Another interesting thing would be to see whether Harwell reappoints Matlock as Transportation chair post if she defeats him in the December caucus leadership vote. Doing so could cement her leadership.

At this point, though, Matlock claims he’s up by several votes in the House speaker race, possibly because he’s been working the phones while Harwell probably hasn’t been able to campaign much.

“I think it would be a shock to people if they realized how many folks are prepared to support me. I have been taken aback by it,” Matlock says.

If he can maintain momentum – a tough task – through December, it will be a close vote for the top House leadership job between the low-key Matlock and the guarded Harwell, certainly closer than her race with bombastic Womick two years ago.

But if Matlock wins, he’d better be prepared for the limelight, because life in the background will be done. The press will be knocking on his door every day.

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

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