Commentary: Stumbles by both Tennessee House caucuses bode no good for Tennesseans

Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

This week Tennessee General Assembly opened the 112th legislative session and it’s been notable for the messes in which both House of Representatives caucuses commenced the new year. 

The supermajority Republicans had a scandal in the making even before Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton gaveled in the session. 

On Jan. 8, just days before the legislature opened for business, the FBI raided the offices and homes of several GOP legislators, including former House Speaker Glen Casada, of Franklin, Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson, and newly-elected Rep. Todd Warner. Warner hadn’t even been sworn in yet before the feds came a-knockin’. 

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, looks pensive at his desk in the Tennessee House of Representatives Tuesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The political rumor mill has been alive with rumors as to what lies behind the investigation: is it the 2019 school voucher vote, in which Casada and allies reportedly made promises of payoffs in prestige for ‘aye’ votes? Or is the connection a shady direct mail scheme aimed at booting former Rep. Rick Tillis, an adversary of Casada’s who was replaced by Warner? 

Meanwhile, pity the hapless Democratic House Caucus, whose members couldn’t even agree to nominate anyone to run against Sexton or constitutional officers like Secretary of State Tre Hargett. 

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons first broached the subject at the December Democratic caucus meeting at which Rep. Vincent Dixie was elected chairman – defeating both Clemmons and Rep. Bo Mitchell. That day’s decision was to postpone discussion of an opponent to Hargett, a decision that was apparently delayed until the day before the election. With little time to assemble a game plan, caucus members could not come to a satisfactory mutual agreement on opposition to Hargett. 

One party consistently holding a super majority leads to the kind of arrogance that caused both the House and Senate this week to push a Medicaid block grant through. But when Democrats can’t even agree in their own caucus, there’s little hope they can get out of the super minority and provide the state more balance.  

“We had a qualified nominee, but our House caucus, after much debate, voted not to put forth a nominee to challenge Tre Hargett. I strongly disagree with this decision for many reasons,” said Clemmons. 

The outcome was a goat rope that resulted in a dozen Democratic legislators showing their disdain for Hargett by abstaining from the vote. Others who have previously been at odds with Hargett, including second term Rep. London Lamar of Memphis, voted for Hargett in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. 

Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Another Memphis Democrat, Rep. Dwayne Thompson, expressed the rationale behind voting for the GOP officers. 

“If we had fully planned this out and made the decision to be unified on this, I would probably have abstained on it,” said Thompson to the Lookout. “But I’m not going to suffer consequences to support the divided caucus.”

Both caucus situations are detrimental to Tennesseans, for different reasons. In the case of the House GOP, we always find our reputation tarnished when the FBI is investigating our legislators. (This isn’t the first time: this is the third FBI investigation in the last 30 years but to be fair, Democrats were the primary targets of those.) 

When legislators are preoccupied by their legal affairs, they clearly can’t give their full attention to constituents. Casada represents a populous and affluent county. It would be nice if he had spent less time engaging in whatever tomfoolery he’s been into — again —and more focusing on, say, infrastructure and education.

And we’d all benefit from having two strong parties: one party consistently holding a super majority leads to the kind of arrogance that caused both the House and Senate this week to push a Medicaid block grant through without testimony from a single person and with the very real chance President-elect Joe Biden rescinds the deal. 

Bipartisan cooperation is probably too much to hope for at this stage in America, but for the love of God, can our leaders get themselves together? When Democrats can’t even agree in their own caucus, there’s little hope they can get out of the super minority and provide the state more balance. 

As for Republicans, a little humility and a willingness to police your own members would be advised: as your Democratic colleagues can remind you — for their party held the majority for a century — pride goeth before a fall, and even a disorganized party will eventually stumble on success.