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Tennessee House Leadership Selections This Month Will Set the Stage for 2019 Session of the General Assembly
Now that the public voting is over and Tennessee state representatives and senators have been elected for the next two or four years, respectively, each legislative body goes about their own nomination process to select their leaders. The outcome of the selection process will be a strong indication about the direction of the upcoming 111th Tennessee General Assembly.
The State House, in particular, will begin its massive changes in leadership in less than two weeks. The two most senior members of the House of Representatives, Beth Harwell (Nashville) and Steve McDaniel (Lobelville), both Republicans who served 15 terms each, are gone. Harwell served as Speaker of the House, the first woman to do so, and McDaniel was the Deputy Speaker, a position appointed by the Speaker.
While the “Red Wall” of the House held off a “Blue Wave,” retaining its super majority and losing just one seat holding 73 of the 99 total, there are 25 new members. With one quarter of the body being new, the most since reconstruction, out of sheer necessity there will be changes to the chairmanships and members of the 15 standing committees and 14 non-standing subcommittees of the House.
House leadership is more important to Tennesseans than perhaps most citizens realize. The Speaker of the House is second, behind the Speaker of the Senate (Lieutenant Governor), in the line of succession to the governorship in the event of a vacancy.
On a day-to-day basis, the Speaker’s role is to preside over the House. But, one of, if not the most important responsibilities and the one with potentially the most impact, is to appoint the officers – chairman and vice chairman, as well as all of the members of the House committees.
House committee meetings is where most of the action occurs, with chairmen having wide latitude to advance or kill bills before ever reaching the House floor for the full body to vote on. Committee appointments can be used as the proverbial carrot or stick by the Speaker, as evidenced by Speaker Harwell’s removal of Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City) as the House Transportation Committee chair after running against her as Speaker, and subsequent replacement by Barry Doss (R-Leoma), who had never previously served on the committee or as a chair. Doss went on to champion Governor Haslam’s fuel tax increasing IMPROVE Act.
The Speaker Pro Tempore is the position that takes over in the absence of the Speaker.
Both the Speaker and Speaker Pro Tempore are elected by House members as their first votes as newly-elected representatives.
The newly-elected Speaker will appoint the Deputy Speaker to a two-year term, the only leadership position not elected by members.
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Other House leaders are elected by their respective parties to perform certain functions on behalf of the members of either the Republican or Democrat party. As the majority party that also holds the Senate and the Governor’s office, the Republican Caucus leaders will set the direction for the House of Representatives.
As the first ranking officer of the Caucus, the Majority Leader fulfills a very important role of being the chief spokesperson for the Republican House members. The Leader serves as liaison with the Senate, but its more noteworthy role is to liaise with the Governor’s office on behalf of the House and to carry, or sponsor, the Administration’s bills in the House. The Assistant Majority Leader, the third-ranking officer of the Caucus, does just what the name implies.
Each party also selects a Chairman and Assistant Chairman of their respective Caucus, which calls and presides over caucus meetings, elections, fund raising and other activities specific to that party’s members. The Republican Caucus Chair is the second ranking officer of the Caucus.
Other party-related positions include a Whip, which helps ensure that representatives vote with the caucus’ official position, Floor Leader and Secretary/Treasurer.
Here’s a look at the known Republican Party candidates for these positions and the positions they held during the 110th General Assembly.
Speaker of the House – Glen Casada (Franklin), Majority Leader; David Hawk (Greeneville), Assistant Majority Leader; and Curtis Johnson (Clarksville), Speaker Pro Tempore. Johnson, who has served seven terms, doesn’t make the news much but may be remembered for his tie-breaking vote on the IMPROVE Act in the House Transportation Subcommittee meeting, where the bill would have otherwise died. Hawk had an alternative to the IMPROVE Act, known as the Hawk Plan, which put sales tax directly into the Highway Fund, rather than backfilling it through a series of allegedly offsetting tax increases and decreases. Casada, entering his tenth term, is widely considered the favorite, largely due to his support, financial and otherwise, to fellow Republican representatives. Casada had an unsuccessful run for Speaker in 2010 as the conservative against the moderate and Haslam-backed Harwell.
Speaker Pro Tempore – Bill Dunn (Knoxville) who has served 12 terms and is the Chairman of the Calendar and Rules Committee; Kelly Keisling (Byrdstown), entering his fifth term; and Dennis Powers (Jacksboro), Caucus Vice Chairman, also entering his fifth term.
Majority Leader – William Lamberth (Cottontown), Chairman, Criminal Justice Committee; and Ryan Williams (Cookeville), Caucus Chairman. Lamberth is entering his fourth term and Williams is entering his fifth. Lamberth, as Criminal Justice Committee Chairman, recently presided over several controversial bills including the legalization of marijuana, strengthening of sanctuary city and historical monument protections and civil asset forfeiture. Caucus Chair Williams was tasked with trying to avoid the inevitable split among the Caucus on the IMPROVE Act.
Caucus Chair – Cameron Sexton (Crossville), Chairman, Health Committee; and Jason Zachary (Knoxville), Vice-Chairman, Insurance and Banking Committee. Sexton is entering his fifth term and Zachary his third, after being voted in via a special election in September 2015.
Assistant Majority Leader – Ron Gant (Rossville), Assistant Floor Leader; and Jay Reedy (Erin). Gant is entering his second term and Reedy, who sponsored and had a hard-fought battle last year over the bill that made local governments that adopted a sanctuary policy ineligible for state funds, is entering his third term.
The Republican Caucus meeting to select party-specific leadership positions will be held on November 20 and open to the press, although ballots will be secret. The deadline to announce an intention to run is Friday, November 9.
As a primary of sorts, the Republican Speaker-Select and Speaker Pro Tempore-Select, as they are called, nominated from the Republican Caucus meeting will then be voted on by the entire House of Representatives at the January organizational meeting.