Even as the immediate shock effects of the the Kent Williams speakership coup settle into the past tense and the new Speaker eases into the routine of his legislative duties, the exact manner and motive and chronology of his coming to power in the state House of Representatives have remained something of a mystery.
No longer. Conversations in Memphis Thursday night with Williams and his major facilitator, House Democratic leader Gary Odom (both in town, along with State Rep. Mike Turner of Nashville, for various reasons, including that of simply getting acquainted with the people and institutions of the Bluff City), did much to peel away the last few shreds of uncertainty.
Resolved Issue Number One: By his testimony, Williams was the prime mover, not Odom. There has always been a discrepancy between two claims: that of State Representative Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) that when he called Williams on Election Night in November 2008, the Elizabethton Republican volunteered that he, Williams, would be Speaker; and that of Odom that he first broached the issue of taking the Speakership to Williams on a Thanksgiving visit to Carter County (point of origin for both men).
Both claims have merit, it turns out. Says Williams: Kelsey called me on Election Night and said, We have the majority and wanted to know if I would vote for [Republican leader] Jason Mumpower for speaker. Williams answered with an emphatic No -- coupled, he acknowledged, with an obscenity. Then who will you vote for? asked Kelsey. Me! Ill be Speaker, answered Williams, who explains that he was put off by being interrogated by Kelsey, who had traveled all the way to Carter County to campaign for his opponent back during the Republican primary. I was just [bleep]ing around with him. I knew there was no way the [Republican] caucus was going to vote for me.
Subsequently, Williams talked with Mumpower and proposed to support him on condition that the Bristol Republican would continue several Democrats in their committee chairmanships Joe Armstrong of Knoxville in Health and Human Services, Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley in Finance, Ways and Means, and Harry Tindell of Koxville in the House Budget subcommittee.
But Williams had planted the Speakership seed in his own mind (or cultivated one that was already there). And when Odom happened to raise the Speakership issue in their conversation a few weeks later, Williams began to give it serious thought. He next discussed the matter, he says, with State Rep. John Litz (D-Morristown), his good friend and near neighbor. I asked him, Do you really think I could get 49 Democrats to vote with me to be Speaker? Do you really think we could get that many people to agree and to keep it secret? Clearly, the two men came to the conclusion that such a thing was was indeed possible.
Thus was the maneuver launched, with Williams, Litz, and Odom the active participants.
Resolved Issue Number Two: Longtime House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh was never a party to the arrangement and only came to know of it at 5 p.m. the day before the scheduled Speaker election. Naifeh had in fact consistently importuned Williams (along with other friendly Republicans) to vote for him as Speaker right up until the eve of the vote. And I couldnt vote for Speaker Naifeh. I just couldnt, says Williams, who bases that resolve on his having given a now famous public vow to vote for a Republican.
Again, Williams insists and Odom concurs that Naifeh was utterly ignorant of the plot and knew nothing of it until the last minute, as it were, and then, with his own dreams of retaining the Speakership expiring, merely acquiesced.
This directly contradicts a widespread suspicion among Republicans and, for that matter, some Democrats not now serving in the legislature that the wily Naifeh must have had a hand in the undertaking. (One such Democrat was former state representative Kim McMillan of Clarksville, who served as majority leader under Naifeh and is now a candidate for governor. While making a visit of her own to Memphis on Wednesday night, McMillan, a Naifeh loyalist, made it clear she thought the longtime Speaker had to have been a participant in the plot. That just sounds like Speaker Naifeh! she said with an admiring smile.
But not so. In point of fact, Odom who had intended to challenge Naifeh for the Speakership had the Democrats maintained their majority chose, when asked point-blank, not to dispute the interpretation that his involvement in the Williams affair had been aimed at both Naifeh and Mumpower.
Naifehs long tenure had finally not served the Democratic Party well, Odom had concluded. He was the one always pushing the income tax, the current Democratic House leader said Thursday night, and that was the single greatest reason for the Democrats decline in Tennessee over the last few years. It was why Al Gore lost the state in 200, and it was why we kept losing seats after that, until finally we were in the minority.
Odom makes the case that only by starting anew, with totally fresh leadership in the House, could the Democrats began a serious comeback. He had meant to provide that leadership as Speaker himself, but the election results had forced him to look elsewhere in the direction of Williams, the maverick Republican who, as Williams related to a group of Democrats at a Playhouse on the Square reception Thursday night, had been a high-school basketball opponent of Odom, now a Nashvillian, when the two of them were growing up in Carter County.
Williams and Odom are teammates now, and back in January they collaborated on a buzzer-beater that dashed the individual hopes of both Jimmy Naifeh and Jason Mumpower but inaugurated a new era of power-sharing and kept Democratic hopes alive.