Backpedaling

GOP's a mass of contradictions on Speaker Williams' status

The first thing the new chair of the state Republican Party will have to do is to learn how to ride a bicycle backwards. Backpedaling is a difficult skill to learn, but it is essential if Chris Devaney is to get the state GOP back from the edge of a precipice.

These contradictory events have occurred in recent months:

Former chair Robin Smith threw Republican House Speaker Kent Williams out of the party because he used Democratic votes to defeat Republican House Caucus chair Jason Mumpower.

I understand that someone in Tennessee solicited $10,000 from Newt Gingrich's GoPAC to be used to defeat Williams in his next House election.

RNC chair Michael Steele came to Sullivan County for a dinner, and obviously prepped for the event, trashed Williams and said he would be targeted for defeat.

Mumpower tried to throw Williams out of the House Republican caucus, but failed.

On Saturday the party elected Devaney, who is likely to be under pressure to reverse the decision to throw Williams out of the party. Gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam says Williams should stay in the party. Candidate Zach Wamp had lunch at Williams' restaurant in Elizabethton and solicited his support. Candidate and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey knows he has to have Williams' home county—Carter County—to get a strong vote in upper East Tennessee and have a chance to win the primary. Williams would be invaluable in helping Devaney with fund-raising for legislative races, Devaney's primary goal in the coming year.

In Ramsey's case, Mumpower is from his district and has been his political protégé over the years. But Ramsey has had to work with Williams as the Republican leader of half the Legislature. And, as noted, he needs Williams' help in Carter County.

Williams has assiduously worked the House Republicans. He has made some of them committee chairs, a first since the early 1970s. He helped them pass legislation dear to their hearts that has been bottled up in committee for decades.

If Devaney finds a $10,000 check with Williams' name on it, he needs to send it back, or get permission to use it against a Democratic House member.

Ramsey is to be commended for being loyal to Mumpower, but if Mumpower wants to return that loyalty to Ramsey he needs to stop undermining Williams.

Carter County is going to return Williams to office by a huge margin; the Republicans need to see that he returns as a Republican. They don't have enough of a margin to be throwing members out of the party.

If the House Republicans are to retain their "sort of" majority and increase their numbers, they have to have a united front in next year's election—the Republican caucus and the party working in concert. If some of them are soliciting Williams' support to help with fund-raising and others are devoted to seeing him defeated, it is a campaign sure to give the Democrats a majority in the House. A Democratic majority that would then be in charge of redistricting after the 2010 census.

The week after Steele's visit to Tennessee and his castigation of Williams, the Democrats were teasing Williams on the floor. Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh rose to ask a rhetorical question. How did Steele come to be invited to Sullivan County to make his speech? Everyone in the House knew what he meant. Sullivan County is the location of Mumpower's district.

The gubernatorial primary will be divisive enough for the Republicans, they don't need to be working at cross purposes on electing legislative candidates. The best course of action would be for the Republicans to make it clear that Williams is still in the party and for the House caucus to make a statement of unity. Mumpower needs to put aside his personal hurt and help his friend Ramsey, and try to elect more Republicans to the House.

It's the politically smart thing to do. It's also the right thing to do.