Would Kent Williams Work Against Himself?Frank Cagle says that Tennessee Republicans need reconciliation, and as a result they need to come to some level of acceptance of Kent Williams as Speaker of the House:
It would be very helpful for the Republicans to have the speaker of the House helping their nominee win the seat—with fund-raising and with campaigning. But the party’s official position remains that the “Carter County Republican” Kent Williams is not a member of the party. This special election is a microcosm of next year, when all House seats will be on the ballot. Will the party use Williams for fund-raising and for campaigning to keep seats and pick up additional ones? If they don’t, it’s like playing a game of chess and leaving your queen off the board. In chess, the technical term for this is “stupid.”
It is completely understandable for members of the Republican executive committee to still be upset with Williams. Williams’ sin was getting himself elected Speaker in place of Majority Leader Jason Mumpower with Democratic votes. Former Republican Party chair Robin Smith has decreed that Williams can’t run for reelection as a Republican.
If Williams is not a Republican and is forced to run for reelection as an independent, it will be impossible for him to raise money and campaign for Republican candidates. He got elected speaker with Democratic votes. Why should he anger the Democrats by campaigning for Republicans if the Republicans have thrown him out of the party?
The real question is not whether we should accept Kent Williams as Speaker of the House. At first, Williams "election" as Speaker was very difficult for me to swallow. I was on the floor that day and it was clear that the Democrats were the ones who chose Williams, and that the Leadership kept their plan secret even from many members of their caucus until just minutes before the vote. It was one of the most deceitful and underhanded political power plays I have ever heard of-and I witnessed it. At the time, I really believed that what happened on January 13th would bring the business of the House to a grinding halt. It didn't happen that way...
As I have written in this space in the preceding weeks, Williams' tenure as Speaker has certainly been far better than I had ever expected. Large portions of the Republican agenda passed because Williams kept his promise to bring those matters to the floor, which is a vast improvement over Jimmy Naifeh. Naifeh understood that many Democrats from rural districts agree with Republicans on social issues and Second Amendment rights, and that even with a Democratic majority in the House, pro-life bills, gun bills, and other conservative matters would pass the House with solid votes in favor. Thus, Naifeh twisted arms and used (or rather, abused) his authority to vote in all committees to keep bills he knew would pass bottled up or make sure they died. Members who played ball with the Speaker were given the money for their district to help them get re-elected-regardless of party.
Williams hasn't hard-balled the conservative agenda the way that his predecessor did, and his few efforts to attempt it haven't been terribly successful. The split committee system he has created has killed several good bills, but just as many bad ones. The gridlock it has created has often proven to be a good thing.
Asking Williams to campaign for Republicans may be quite a long stretch, however:
I cannot recall anyone suggesting throwing former Congressman Jimmy Quillen out of the party when he used his influence and organization in East Tennessee to elect Democrat Ned McWherter governor over Republican Winfield Dunn. No one is suggesting throwing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey out of the party—even though when he was in the House he voted for Democrat Jimmy Naifeh for Speaker. (The majority of the Republican members of the House with any length of service voted for Naifeh at some point.) Who wants to throw out Ramsey and most of the other Republican senators because they voted for Democrat John Wilder for Senate Speaker?
Frank is right that at some point every Republican he mentioned-and few would question the conservative credentials of someone like Ron Ramsey-has supported Democrats in leadership when they felt their position warranted it. The great difference in the examples Frank Cagle cites and the case of Kent Williams is that none of those were nearly as hidden as the Williams coup. The famed 1987 Wilder coalition was organized around 15 Republicans and six Democrats whose loyalty to Wilder was widely known. Wilder could not have been re-elected Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate without the Republican Caucus, and he organized the Senate in such a manner.
In the case of Kent Williams, he owes nothing to Republicans, because the only Republican who voted for him was himself. Asking Williams to campaign for Republicans is a bit like asking Henry VIII to chair a campaign against beheadings. To maintain power, Williams will have to organize a coalition of some sort should the Republicans expand their majority. It certainly isn't impossible given Tennessee history, but the larger the Republican majority, the less likely Kent Williams will be able to hang on. If the Democrats retake the majority, they almost certainly will not renominate Kent Williams. Thus, it is in Williams best interest to keep the Republican numbers in the House low enough that he can cobble together the votes for re-election as Speaker. That threshold is somewhere between the 50-49 majority we now have and 53-46. If the Republican majority were to reach 55, it would be very hard for even dissident Republicans to justify a vote to retain Democratic Caucus nominee Williams. Kent Williams knows this, so why would he work too hard to cut his own throat?