Monday, March 23, 2009

Lack of Institutional Control

Knoxville conservative columnist Frank Cagle wrote last week that Jason Mumpower has not demonstrated the political skills necessary to be Speaker of the House:

It was a devastating blow when Republican Kent Williams joined 49 Democrats to make himself speaker in Mumpower’s stead. It was also a blow to the Republican caucus, the party, and thousands of Republicans who had worked so hard for so many years to overcome Democratic hegemony in the House.

Reeling from that loss, Mumpower and his allies have been unable to appreciate subsequent developments. Republicans chair half the House committees. Republicans have replaced the constitutional officers. They will control the state election commission; they have majorities on all the local election commissions. They control the state building commission. Republicans will see bills that have been bottled up in committee for years coming to the floor for a vote.

Mumpower no longer controls his caucus. When a majority leader asks his members for an important vote and they reject him, it is a fatal wound. It is analogous to a party leader in a parliamentary system that loses an important vote—it calls for a new election either to recommit to the leader or to pick a new one.

Before I go further in elaborating on Frank Cagle's thoughts, let me say that I have come to personally like Jason Mumpower and I believe that if circumstances were different, he would be a fine Speaker of the House. I believe that he would have been a good Speaker were he elected on January 13th, and that his detractors in both the Republican party as well as the House Republican Caucus likely do not give him enough credit to admit that.

Mumpower, however, is the one who dropped the ball. The night before the Speakership vote, I bumped into the Leader at the Nashville City Club and asked him very directly about a scenario I thought might happen. I said "you know, it is possible that Kent Williams will say 'to Hell with it, if they are going to through me out of the party, why don't I vote for Jimmy Naifeh and get some serious bones and influence.'" Mumpower's response was to tell me "we know that is a possibility, but we are doing our best to stay on top of that." Neither of us could have known what Williams and (depending on whose version you believe) Gary Odom and/or John Litz and Jimmy Naifeh et. al. were cooking up for the next day, but Leader Mumpower was clearly not on top of much of anything.

In the end, Williams was offered the ultimate bone by the Democrats. He was not the only Republican who was given the chance by the opposing caucus to take the top job in the House, and not everyone who was offered the "opportunity" was a "Naifeh Republican" either. The difference between Kent Williams and the others to whom the offer was made is that Kent Williams liked the sound of the words "Mr. Speaker" in front of his name enough that he gladly took it.

When Jason Mumpower was elected Leader he certainly had his conservative supporters, but more than one House Republican Caucus member told me at the time that they believed that the people who were the deciding votes that put Mumpower over the top were the supporters within the caucus of then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. If true, one of those votes likely came from a freshman Representative from Elizabethton named Kent Williams. Further, if the Naifeh boys are who guaranteed Mumpower's December 2006 Leadership victory, they can also break Mumpower in the same way that they made him-and one of them did.

Frank Cagle's supposition seems unfortunately accurate. Jason Mumpower does not have control over the Tennessee House Republican Caucus, and the reality is that he very likely never did. He was an unfortunate tool in a shell game (perhaps unbeknownst to him) designed to keep Jimmy Naifeh in control of the House when it was clear that Republican influence was slowly gaining, since the Republicans held their own in 2006 after being projected to lose seats. Jimmy Naifeh is not stupid, and is one of the most politically shrewd people in this State. He very likely knew that the Republicans had a good chance of a majority in 2008, and knew that Bill Dunn stood a good chance of being Speaker of the House merely because of the level of respect and esteem in which he is held even by those in the Republican Caucus who traditionally oppose him. Hence, when Dunn (who Naifeh hates) got a challenger, it became clear who Naifeh's Republican lackeys would back-the rest can be chalked up to Jason Mumpower being a very effective campaigner.

After his defeat, Bill Dunn very graciously waved off any further notion that he might seek the Leadership again-he says he has no intention to, even declaring that "God delivered me from it." When a small group within the caucus can decide a Leadership contest, however, that same group can bring the Leader down, and that is what is happening to Jason Mumpower. In addition, Kent Williams has shown that he is not giving away the store to the Democrats. He may not be trustworthy, and he may have given Democrats better offices and their staff better pay, but the most powerful committee in the House has a conservative Republican as Chairman.

That is part of the reason why Williams is still in the House Republican Caucus today. I don't know that I would say, as Frank Cagle does, that the caucus poll on Williams can be seen as a no-confidence vote in Mumpower right now, but his odds of being Speaker in two years may be seriously diminished.

(Hat Tip: Kleinheider)

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At Monday, March 23, 2009 2:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've really come around since January. I'm glad your back to reasonable responses instead f the Robin Smith hyperbole.


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