Politics » Politics Feature

Rosalind Kurita: Speculation About Deal with Ramsey "Nonsensical"

For the Clarksville Democrat, there's no "pretend factor" to being Senate Speaker Pro Tem.

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JACKSON BAKER

Nashville blogger Adam Kleinheider this week posed a perfectly sensible question regarding Democratic state Senator Rosalind Kurita’s decision to cast an unexpected and decisive vote early this year that unseated the venerable John Wilder, a nominal Democrat. as lieutenant governor and gave that post to Republican Ron Ramsey.

Kleinheider, commenting on someone else’s prior interview with Kurita and imagining what he might ask her if he had the opportunity, had this to say: “[I]f your conscience prevented you from voting for Wilder, if you knew you did not want him to be Speaker, why not vote for Haynes?” That was apropos Kurita’s action in an earlier Democratic caucus vote that preceded the floor vote unseating Wilder.

At that prior vote, widely regarded at the time as a dress rehearsal for the Senate vote itself, Democratic caucus chairman Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville had sought the party nod as Senate speaker, but the consensus – including Kurita – sided with Wilder.

Kleinheider continued: “I wanted to hear why, given the choice between Haynes and Wilder, Kurita stuck with Wilder….Obviously she thought that Wilder was not worthy of the office and that his leadership had lead to a dearth of Democratic initiative, right? That's what she said in the interview. So why not Haynes?”

I had the opportunity of putting Kleinheider’s question to Kurita during an interview with her in Nashville on Thursday. Her answer: “That’s a nonsensical question. I voted for Ron Ramsey because I thought he would do the best job for the people of Tennessee. The basic tenet of a democracy is that the majority rules. It’s not about putting together 17 votes to pretend we [the Democrats] are in charge.”

The import of her answer, then, would seem to be that the principle of majority vote superseded that of Wilder’s suitability to lead– or Haynes’, for that matter.

Kurita declined to discuss the option of voting for Haynes rather than Wilder in the party caucus. “That’s a ridiculous question, that’s hindsight. It doesn’t have any bearing on how we do good for the people of Tennessee.”

The Clarksville senator, who gained the position of Senate Speaker Pro Tem as a result of Ramsey’s ascension, was then asked to respond to this speculation on blogger Kleinheider’s part: “[D]id she vote for Wilder because she she wanted to run stealth? Did she vote for Wilder because she did not want her colleagues to suspect her as the traitor and thus make her betrayal easier? After all, had she voted for Ramsey when Haynes was the nominee, she would have caught infinitely more flack.

“Was she voting for Wilder in the caucus because she and Ramsey had already hatched the scenario that made her the woman of the hour and a Haynes nomination would have sullied that scenario and ruined her deal with Ramsey?”

To which Kurita said only: “He must be projecting the way he operates. It’s not the way I operate.”

During her short tenure as Speaker Pro Tem, Kurita said, she had gained “access to a more bipartisan aspect [of legislation] than I ever did before.” She contrasted the drawbacks of partisan “one-upmanship” with the goals of “making a difference.”

She said her new position had allowed her “to carry bills of greater significance” – notably an energy package and an initiative, proposed last year with Republican state Representative Brian Kelsey of Memphis, to amend the state constitution to the end of electing constitutional officers. (“That’s moving now.”)

A licensed nurse, Kurita prides herself on having waged a successful campaign against the excesses of cigarette smoking – having been the prime mover in getting smoking banned from state buildings. She has new legislative proposals to prohibit giveaway packs of cigarettes in the state and to mandate treating tobacco solid in Tennessee so that it doesn’t smolder and “burns itself out.”

Kurita professes to enjoy the act of presiding over the Senate, something she has done so far at the rate of once a week. She’s still learning the ropes, as she candidly admits. As she observed about presiding Thursday morning, “A couple of people were trying to get my attention, and I didn’t see them right away. I’m not completely used to scanning the chamber yet.”

On the plus side, she pointed out, “You may have noticed there were some rather chatty senators I had to calm down.”

As it happened, too, Kurita’s floor duty required her to have brief pro forma interchanges on Thursday with both Wilder, now an ordinary senator in the body he led for 36 years, and Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle, who has made no secret of his discontent with Kurita for her vote on Ramsey’s behalf and who recently dispatched a critical letter to statewide Democrats challenging her bona fides.

She recognized Wilder to note the presence of visitors from Fayette County in the balcony and acknowledged Kyle for the purpose of his making a motion. (Note: Former Lt. Gov. Wilder was in critical condition at The Med on Friday after suffering a fall at his Fayette County home on Thursday night.)

Asked about Kyle’s letter, Kurita shrugged and said, “Well, you know, Senator Kyle’s a smart guy, and he’s a good senator, but I think anybody who knows him knows that when he’s angry, he will lash out at people. And that’s what he did. And hopefully in time he won’t feel that he has to lash out.”

As for Wilder, who (to put it mildly) had also been unhappy with her, Kurita said somewhat ambiguously, “There’s no difference in the number of times we communicate now from a year ago.”

She had some kind words for the former speaker’s method of presiding over the floor. “He tried his very best to be fair to everyone in terms of letting everyone speak.”

Wilder had, in fact, offered her the same chance he afforded others – to preside briefly, and somewhat honorifically, over the Senate. She never took him up on it.

“The pretend factor of it just didn’t appeal to me. If it’s a real job, I wan t to do it.” And so she is doing it now, at least at periodic intervals, as backup presiding officer to Ramsey.

Indeed, there is no pretend factor to it. For better or for worse, and altogether for real, Kurita has become a high-profile member of the state Senate. And, whatever some others may think, she likes it like that.

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