As we come to the end of the year, ringing out the old and ringing in the new has real meaning to me when it comes to what’s about to happen in Tennessee politics. And if you’re not ready, the ringing could become a loud clanging in your head for years to come.
The “new year” legislative session begins on the second Tuesday in January, as it does every year. That’s not new. But it could be a ringing out of a right-of-center Legislature for a more centrist one in the future, depending on what happens in August and November with the elections.
Of course, calling the current Legislature right-of-center might be generous. It appears, after years of trying, that the Legislature can’t even pass a pilot program to test opportunity scholarships in low-performing schools. Last year, none of the seven senators who voted to keep boys out of the girls’ locker rooms the year before would even make a motion to discuss and debate a more scale-down version of the same bill. But maybe that’s because some in leadership prefer to put the emphasis on the last part of right of center.
To get a feel for the “new” that’s coming, one need only look at the changes about to take place in the state House. Since every bill, to become law, must pass the state House, a shift to the left there could change everything.
In the state House, 15 members have already announced their retirement after this session, two more are leaving to run for the state Senate, and one has already moved to the Senate (by County Commission appointment). In other words, 18 of 99 seats will be changing hands in 2018, and that doesn’t count how many might not return because they lose a primary challenge.
But the biggest potential change in the House in 2018 will be the change in Speaker, brought about by Speaker Beth Harwell’s run for governor. The Speaker appoints all the committee chairs and decides how conservative, moderate, or liberal a committee will be based on whom he or she assigns to the committee.
Last year Speaker Harwell held onto her speakership against a more conservative challenger, Jimmy Matlock, now running for the U.S. House, by winning her caucus’ nomination by a vote of 40-30. The outcome of the caucus’ nomination for 2018 will turn on what happens in August.
At least 13 of the Republicans who voted in that caucus election are retiring. Whether Republicans will vote for a moderate or conservative Speaker of the House in 2018 will depend on how many of those seats swing from moderate to conservative and vice versa, and it may not take but a change of four or five, depending on what happens with some incumbent Republicans who may face primary challenges.
Of course, that’s not going be all the “new” that 2018 rings in. We will have a new governor. While I’m not ready to name names, I can say that not even all the Republican candidates are true conservatives in my estimation.
A governor wields a lot of influence, and, unfortunately, I’ve seen moderate governors move a conservative legislator to his way of thinking. I’ve never seen a governor lean on a fiscal or social conservative to stay the course when under pressure to move to the left.
What this means for you is that you better know who you are voting for in 2018, and we’ll do what we can to help. We will, again, be scoring incumbent legislators’ votes, but with so many incumbents retiring, finding a good way to evaluate those in a primary for those open seats will be a challenge. They will have no voting record, and increasingly candidates don’t like to fill out surveys that force them to talk about issues they would rather ignore.
Figuring out how to evaluate these primary candidates is one of the things I’ll be working on over the next few months. One possibility is enabling one of the organizations for which I work, Family Action of Tennessee, to do something new by making endorsements in some key races. If you have thoughts on that, let me know.
But one thing is for sure: The new year is going to bring a lot that will be new to the political world in Tennessee.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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