NASHVILLE - To say that Tuesday was a day of surprises in the Tennessee state Senate would be a classic understatement.
The bottom line: After 36 years as Speaker of the Senate and bearer of the title of Lieutenant Governor, 85-year-old John Wilder of Somerville, a nominal Democrat and a legislative institution, lost his latest - and last - try to continue in both offices.
Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who had been the GOP's majority leader, defeated Wilder by a floor vote of 18-15 and immediately took the gavel as the first Republican Speaker since Reconstruction.
All that would have been surprising enough, but the way in which the changing of the guard occurred was an astonishment of the first order.
Actually, a series of astonishments. The first of them occurred when the Senate's 16 Democrats held an emergency caucus just before the chamber convened at noon. During that stormy meeting, Senator Jerry Cooper of Morrison, who had served notice that he would not vote for his longtime ally Wilder, took direct verbal aim at the Speaker.
"You've been here too long. You need to go home," advised Cooper, who is currently under indictment for fraud involving a bank in which Wilder is a major stockholder. Though details have not fully surfaced, the rumor mill has it that Wilder has offered preliminary testimony unfavorable to Cooper's case.
Or so Cooper has believed, it is said.
When Cooper followed up that thrust with animated statements in the same vein, Wilder seemed taken aback and finally seemed to suggest that, while he intended to serve for two more years as Speaker, he might not run again for office when his seat comes up in 2008.
The Senate then convened, with East Tennessee Republican Micheal Williams of Maynardville, a Wilder ally who had promised the venerable Speaker his vote, presiding.
After Wilder and Ramsey had each been nominated, Williams proceeded with the calling of the roll. There was a perceptible gasp in the chamber when, after what had amounted, at that point, to a party-line vote, Cooper cast his vote for Wilder.
When that was followed up by pro-Wilder vote from Democrat Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville, who had publicly offered himself as an alternative to Wilder, it was naturally assumed that Wilder's reign as presiding officer would continue for one more two-year-term.
Then came the real bombshell. Rosalind Kurita, the senator from Clarksville who had gladdened the hearts of progressive Democrats until her surprise withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race last year, cast her vote - for Ron Ramsey.
At that, Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis seemed about to fall out of his chair. Leaning over in Kurita's direction, he asked disbelievingly, "Did you mean to say Ramsey?"
Without hesitation, Kurita responded, "Yes, I did!"
Once that domino had fallen, giving Ramsey the certainty of a one-vote victory, a fatalistic Williams ended the roll call by casting his own vote for Ramsey.
And that was that. A legislative era had ended. ( See Editorial, "John Wilder's Last Hurrah".)
After the Senate went into temporary recess, the first senator out of the chamber to meet with reporters in the adjacent lobby was Kyle. He confessed he'd been blindsided. "I didn't see it coming," he said, and denounced Kurita's action as a case of "broken trust." As he put it, "As a member of the [Democratic] caucus, who had voted with the caucus to support the nominee, she had a moral obligation to vote for the Speaker."
When it was her turn with the media gaggle, Kurita reversed that sense of things. "I had a duty to my conscience," she said, offering no other explanation and insisting that he had not discussed quid pro quos - committee members or anything else - with Ramsey.
In any case, what was done was done - though a clearly stunned Wilder received an accolade from the new Speaker once the body reconvened. Ramsey offered a tribute to his predecessor for having "served this state so long and so well," and Wilder was duly accorded his last hurrah - a prolonged standing ovation from the full Senate.
"I'll be a good senator for the next two years," the fallen Lion confided quietly after the session.
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