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Showdown in Nashville

Rosalind Kurita's takedown of John Wilder upended the state's political power balance. What comes next?



NASHVILLE -- Oddly enough, Ron Ramsey, the East Tennessee state senator who had just won the legislative version of the lottery earlier in the day, was wandering around in the bar of the downtown Sheraton by his lonesome late Tuesday night last week.

"I just came down to smoke a cigar. I figured I owed myself that. I couldn't do that upstairs," said the Blountville Republican and erstwhile majority leader. (Ramsey had a room in the hotel and was obliged to respect its smoking rules.)

Henceforth, of course, Ramsey himself will be making the rules in the Senate, having earlier in the day unseated the legendary Senate Speaker John Wilder to become Tennessee's lieutenant governor in his own right -- the first Republican to hold the title since Reconstruction.

It was understandable, actually, that Ramsey, who had come from Governor Phil Bredesen's reception honoring new members and had by now experienced God knows how many rituals of congratulation from God knows how many kinds of people, would want to take some private time to reflect on his good fortune.

But he emphasized: "It surprised everybody else. It didn't surprise me." Nor Rosalind Kurita, said Ramsey's interlocutor. It was, after all, the out-of-nowhere vote for Ramsey by the Clarksville Democrat that had sealed Wilder's fate. "You got that right," said Ramsey with the kind of giddy grin that you see on players at casinos who are lucky enough to win and smart enough to quit while they're ahead. And who can keep a secret.

Doing the right thing? Rosalind Kurita, flanked by flags in her office. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Doing the right thing? Rosalind Kurita, flanked by flags in her office.

"I've known about it for days," Ramsey said. At a late-afternoon press conference in Legislative Plaza, Ramsey had acknowledged having had previous conversations with Kurita. They had not discussed committee assignments, he insisted, other than to assure Kurita that he would be "fair" and would follow his Democratic predecessor's practice by appointing committee chairmen from both parties. He did cite Kurita's background in local (she had been a Montgomery County commissioner) and state government and repeated several times, "She can do anything she wants to do."

Cynics among the press corps had wondered if Wilder's failure to appoint fellow Democrat Kurita as chairman of the transportation committee two years ago had something to do with her bombshell vote for Ramsey on Tuesday. The one specific change Ramsey had admitted to: There would be a new Speaker Pro Tem to replace Micheal Williams, the Republican who had been a close confidant of Wilder's and -- before Kurita changed the arithmetic -- a likely vote for the former Speaker last Tuesday.

Beyond that, Ramsey had told the press very little except that he would, as expected, be a "conservative Republican" with a "pro-business" agenda and that there would be no passing of an income tax during his tenure as Speaker. He pledged to work with members across the aisle and with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Governor Bredesen, both Democrats.

Somewhat refreshingly, Ramsey had avoided cant at his press conference and confessed that he was "overwhelmed and flattered" to find himself in a position that, he had begun to realize on Tuesday, afforded him both a bodyguard and a driver.

"I'm the lieutenant governor of Tennessee!" Ramsey had said out of honest exultation. So indeed he was. Right up to the moment Kurita said his name out loud during the Senate's roll call, he had been universally expected to be the loser. Close but no cigar, just like two years ago, when Republican defections had caused him to fail by a single vote.

But there he was last Tuesday night, brandishing his cigar and feeling fully entitled to do so.

Even before Kurita's bombshell action lastz Tuesday, which had instantly reversed the general expectation of another two-year term as lieutenant governor for octogenarian Wilder, a nominal Democrat at best but still a Democrat, there had been fear and trembling in party ranks -- and not just in Nashville.

In Memphis, a week before the Senate reorganization vote was scheduled to occur, lawyer Jim Strickland, a former Shelby County Democratic chairman and a likely candidate for the City Council this year, had been musing about the likely outcome. He too had supposed a victory for Wilder, who had already served 36 years as the Senate's presiding officer, establishing what was generally assumed to be a record tenure for any legislative official in the nation.

"But what if Wilder doesn't win and Ramsey does?" Strickland allowed himself to wonder. He promptly constructed a nightmare scenario whereby a Lieutenant Governor Ramsey would, like some Volunteer State version of Newt Gingrich, act single-mindedly to consolidate his party's hold on the state Senate (which now has a GOP majority of only one) and organize a fanatical electoral effort to take control of the state House of Representatives as well.

After the last hurrah, John Wilder gets some last words from well-wishers. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • After the last hurrah, John Wilder gets some last words from well-wishers.

"That means I could be in the political minority in the state of Tennessee for the rest of my life," theorized Strickland.

Now that a sea change of sorts has occurred in the Senate, such forebodings are by no means uncommon among Democrats in Nashville, many of whom were already predicting, for example, that "tort reform" legislation, long desired by legislative Republicans, would get speedy action in the legislature, while bills to raise the state minimum wage, long favored by Democrats, would be short-shrifted.

Later last week, state senator Thelma Harper of Nashville, a veteran Democrat, advised her colleagues at a meeting of the legislative Black Caucus to avoid wasting time in consideration of legislation, however worthy, that had no chance of passing. Stick to the essentials, she said. "It's really an albatross based on what we have going on in our chamber."

Harper noted the presence of two new and presumably unschooled Democratic members and an even more troubling problem. "We just don't know where we are with some of our Democratic members. We don't know whether they're in or out. We're just waiting to see how many members of the Senate we have in the Democratic Party!"

What indeed hath Kurita wrought? Just as Jim Strickland had foreseen, the ripples of her action had already carried over into the other chamber, where longtime House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, the Tipton Countian who is himself used to being targeted for elimination by Republicans every two years, had seen the symbolic abstention of most House Republicans from what are normally routine votes on reappointing the state's constitutional officers.

The minority leader in that body, Johnson City Republican Jason Mumpower, was already forecasting a change in leadership two years hence and talking of a "new order" to come. Along with the merely partisan aspects of such a shift would come a regional one as well -- away from the West Tennessee domains of Naifeh and Fayette Countian Wilder to the relatively remote corners of East Tennessee that are home to both Ramsey and Mumpower.

It should be noted, however, that the new majority leader in the Senate, succeeding Ramsey, is Mark Norris of Collierville. Nominated by Ramsey himself, Norris was elected in a GOP Senate caucus last week that was characterized by a perhaps understandable sense of high humor, even giddiness.

At one point, Norris, who had served for two weeks already as the GOP's interim leader, posed a question to Ramsey, who doubles as chairman of the state Building Commission, about a matter dealing with Capitol Hill monuments. That prompted Knoxville state senator Tim Burchett to crack, "He's only been leader for two weeks, and he already wants a monument!"

Considerably more restrained at that meeting was Micheal Williams, the Maynardville Republican who had endured outcast status for the last two years. Williams had voted for Wilder two years ago and would presumably have done so again on Tuesday had Kurita's vote for Ramsey not already made the point moot. The new Speaker had been somewhat vague about his legislative goals and about such matters as committee assignments, but Ramsey had been firm about one thing: Williams, who had served as Speaker Pro Tem under Wilder, would not hold that position in the coming session.

Now here was Williams, whom Senate Democrats had privately spoken of as ready for a party change, nervously apologizing to his GOP Senate colleagues for missing caucus meetings and having appeared to be distant from their concerns. All of that, he told them now, had been due to a bad case of glaucoma, which he hoped to be able to bring under control.

Williams' testimony produced some good-natured jesting from the other senators about their own "vision" problem, and Steve Sutherland, another East Tennessean, from Morristown, rose to offer a prayer of healing on Williams' behalf.

The old order was changing, all right -- from Democratic to Republican and from west to east. The phenomenon had been underscored earlier in the week, on the night after Ramsey's election, when Bill Taliaferro, the state trooper who had been Wilder's plainclothes driver for well over a decade, sat down with Ramsey to discuss the matter of continuing in that role.

As Speaker Naifeh would note in reporting on the matter to a couple of his House colleagues, that probably meant that Taliaferro would have to shift his own residence eastward to accommodate the new Speaker's needs.

One of the ironies of Kurita's situation was that the Clarksville Democrat, who began and then withdrew from a U.S. Senate campaign last year, had been elected by her party caucus to head up Democratic recruiting efforts in the state Senate.

Jim Kyle, the Memphis senator who is the Democratic Senate leader, was asked: Would she be allowed to keep that position?

Kyle measured his words in responding. "It's hard to be an officer of any organization when the members can't trust you," he said. Immediately after Kurita's fateful vote, he had described it in terms of a "moral" failing and a "broken trust."

Sentate Speaker Ron Ramsey, turned away in 2005, finally got his cigar. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Sentate Speaker Ron Ramsey, turned away in 2005, finally got his cigar.

A week later, having had an opportunity to recollect in tranquility, Kyle put it this way: "No one begrudges Rosalind how she voted. People have to vote their conscience. What people begrudge is the fact that she misled us and broke trust with us." He insisted that Kurita had given "repeated" pledges of support for Wilder -- the last one as recently as two days before casting her lot with Ramsey.

Did he think Kurita had made a deal with Ramsey in return for her vote? "Perhaps by a wink and nod," he said. "We'll know better by Friday."

That's Friday of this week, by which time Ramsey has pledged to announce his appointments for committee chairmanships -- and Williams' replacement as Speaker Pro Tem, largely a ceremonial position but one of high visibility and potential political value.

Had not Ramsey promised to continue Wilder's tradition of bipartisan appointments? Did he not pledge to name some Democrats?

"Is Rosalind Kurita a Democrat?" was Kyle's cryptic response.

The day after he had been deposed, Wilder stood for a long spell in the doorway of his centrally located office in Legislative Plaza, the one he would shortly be relinquishing to Ramsey. For a little while longer, the bronze plaque bearing the name of "John S. Wilder" and identifying him as Senate presiding officer and lieutenant governor was still there, just behind Wilder's shoulder as he greeted well-wishers and discussed his abrupt change of status after 36 years.

"I'll be all right. I'll be a good state senator," the old man said. He shrugged off the loss of his honorific title as "governor" (one, however, which is likely to endure among his friends and even among many of his legislative foes). "It's just a name they give you for a while for presiding in the Senate," he said philosophically.

Ruefully attempting a grin, Wilder acknowledged he had not slept well the night before. Several observers had noted a brief conversation on the Senate floor that morning between himself and Kurita. What had transpired? "She wondered if she could come by and talk about things," Wilder said. And? "I said I didn't think so right now."

It will surely take some time before Rosalind Kurita, who at one time was regarded as almost certain to try again as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2008, is regarded without suspicion by her party-mates.

Commenting late last week on the momentous events she had set in motion, Kurita insisted that she had no intention of changing parties, that her action had been prompted partly by a disbelief in "the era of the smoke-filled back room" and a corresponding belief in "equal opportunity," and that, she said, made her a Democrat.

Though Ramsey had said he had known for "several days" that Kurita would vote in his favor, she said her decision on a vote for the Speaker had "evolved" and had only matured a day or two before the day of decision. She denied that she had any arrangement with Ramsey but did not disclaim an interest in the Speaker Pro Tem position or a prominent committee chairmanship.

"I voted my conscience, and that's more important than party line. We're individuals up here," she said. And, indeed, it was John Wilder himself who in 1986 had solicited both Democratic and Republican votes in a successful effort to keep his Speaker's seat. It was, in fact, verbal challenges from two other Democratic senators, Jerry Cooper and Joe Haynes, that had begun to erode Wilder's position in the days before the crucial vote deposing him, though both of those senators had finally toed the Democratic line on Wilder's behalf.

As for Kurita herself, she vowed to continue in the effort to solicit Democratic candidates for the state Senate, and she carried that message to last weekend's meeting of state party organizations in Nashville, where she characterized her vote against John Wilder as being motivated by a desire for "reform." A minority-party Speaker was, after all, not a "democratic" outcome.

Though she is prepared to accept the kind of ostracism that Micheal Williams had to endure from his fellow Republicans, Kurita is not without her like-minded champions in party ranks.

Observed Nashville blogger Sean Braisted: "It's still going to be hard for her to get back into the good graces of some Democrats who think 'ethics reforms' is a four-letter word, instead opting to continue the good ol' boy system which has systematically lost us the Senate and will probably lose us the House in a couple years if we don't work to correct it now.

"I'm not saying that Kurita is somehow a saint, or even that she is the standard bearer of what a good Democrat is; however, I think that she does raise some good points about the need for reforms in both the legislature and the Democratic party."

That's one way to put it; another was this response of a ranking Senate Democrat: "Just remember when you write about this: The term 'egg-sucking dog' is hyphenated."

Whichever way comes to be the consensus, there is no doubt that, for the time being, Rosalind Kurita, the diminutive former nurse whose major previous accomplishment was to succeed in banning smoking in state government buildings, has seized the moment -- and changed, perhaps forever, the direction of state government.

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