Out Now the Ins

Rep. Mumpower has been masterful thus far, but "partisan" pitfalls remain

"Be nice to the outs, for someday they may be the ins."

—Winston Churchill

The Democrats who have been in for decades may regret ignoring that advice as the Republicans prepare to take over the state House of Representatives.

State Rep. Jason Mumpower, the presumed Republican Speaker of the House come January, has done a masterful job thus far walking a very thin tightrope. He has managed to pull together the disparate factions among House Republicans and get them to all promise they will vote for their own party's nominee for Speaker. In most other states and in any sane legislative body, the question would never have come up—but this is the Tennessee House of Representatives.

After 150 years of conditioning as powerless backbench freeloaders—free to introduce wacky bills, free of any responsibility, free to bitch and moan—the Republicans will now have to step up and govern. For two decades they have been under the thumb of Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and, before that, Speaker Ned McWherter. (How soon we forget Speaker Ed Murray, who served briefly in between.) For most of the Republicans it is still hard to imagine Naifeh not being in the chair. It is a similar phenomenon to when Republicans took over the state Senate. It was a form of Stockholm syndrome when some Senate Republicans could not imagine Lt. Gov. John Wilder not being in the chair—so some of them voted for him to retain power.

The difference in the House is that rather than the collegial and courteous Wilder, most of the Republicans absolutely despise Naifeh for his arrogance, his belittling of Republican members, and his iron-fisted control.

The Democrats have already started crying to the press about Mumpower and his new regime being partisan. This should only provoke hilarity as it comes from the jackbooted thugs who have run the House for the last two decades. Turnabout being fair play should allow Mumpower free rein to replace the constitutional officers, the legislative staff, and election commissions everywhere. But Democratic patronage has been going on so long that wholesale replacement of political hacks could appear to be a massive revolution. And it is. The Democrats have been constructing the massive fortress of Democratic control one brick at a time over decades: one office at a time, one job at a time, one change in the rules at a time. To undo this structure overnight is a massive task, it will be messy and the storyline could develop that the Republicans are not concerned about governing, but only about revenge.

It starts with the constitutional officers. The lament is already being heard that we shouldn't replace these non-political officeholders, given the current financial crisis, in the name of continuity. Let us not forget something called the "constitutional officers PAC" in which these non-political figures raised money to defeat Republican House members. Let us not forget a constitutional officer going into the district of House Republicans and campaigning against them. Non-political indeed.

Mumpower appears to be setting up a process and screening candidates for the job and allowing for full transparency. It's the right thing to do and the right thing politically. The quality of the replacements will be the best answer to the charge of "partisanship." People on the order of Justin Wilson should satisfy most critics.

Another problem Mumpower faces is the selection of leadership positions and committee chairs. Hurt feelings and anger are inevitable as members battle over the choice assignments. Naifeh has said he will continue to fight for his job until January and one suspects he is counting on some Republican to get very angry at the new regime and offer to cut a deal—Naifeh only needs one Republican vote, assuming he can keep the Democrats together.

Mumpower did a good job in the elections getting his vote to 50. He has done a good job thus far keeping them in the fold. If he manages to keep it together until January and avoid all the possible pitfalls, he will have demonstrated he has the leadership and political skills to be, well, Speaker of the House.