Monday, January 19, 2009

House of Acrimony

One of the unspoken tragedies of the fixing of the election of the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in Nashville last week is that it has created a level of mistrust and acrimony in the General Assembly that has not been seen in many years. Some have compared the present situation to 1987, when six renegade Democrats in the State Senate joined with the-then 15 minority Republicans to insure that John Wilder remained Senate Speaker over the objections of his own caucus. The situation in the Senate became nearly untenable, as some Democrats would not speak to one another. One huge difference, of course, is that Wilder had something of a real coalition in those days. Forty-nine Democrats plus the vote of yourself is not a bipartisan coalition, it is an imposition.

Rather than being like 1987, the volatility in the General Assembly reminds the historically informed observer of the boiling cauldron at the Capitol prior to the War Between the States. As in the federal Congress at that time, members often entered the House or Senate chamber with weapons. At times, matters came to blows and involved fists, and there was even talk of breaking the State formally in two. While this situation isn't nearly as bad, and the State isn't threatening to break apart, the distress created by the actions of the Democrats and Williams on Tuesday last is similar to that which once brought members to fists or nearly so.

"Pray for me," one House member asked me, "I'm a Christian and I do my best not to have hatred toward anyone, and I am trying not to hate Kent Williams, but I am having a very hard time not hating him for what he has done to us." Another member was less charitable when they admitted, "if I could get away with it, I'd deck that son of a b----." Several Republicans were offered the same chance Kent Williams was, and not all of these were among the former supporters of Jimmy Naifeh. One of those who was offered the chair and refused to take the bait approached me with their story. I won't reveal their name, but I will say that when I learned that this person was among those the Democrats asked, I was in complete shock. This member is among those for whom who Jimmy Naifeh has, in the past, made clear his personal disdain (no, not Stacey Campfield). A person of great honor, this member didn't even consider accepting the Democrats' offer. However, the very willingness of Democrats to consider their most ardent foes in order to nullify an election shows just how desperate and dishonorable they really were and are.

"Jimmy Naifeh always hated me, and told me so to my face," one Republican said to me last week, "but you know, he never once told me a lie. That is the difference between Williams and Naifeh." This is the situation that Kent Williams and the Democrats have chosen to create in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2009-acrimony, mistrust, and even, perhaps, pure hatred. None of that is good for the running of government, but all of it was done in the name of maintaining power.

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