Advance by Standing Still
Dunn’s waiting for his colleagues to get elected and organized
by Frank Cagle
State Rep. Bill Dunn was conservative before it was cool. He used to be the only Republican who refused to vote for the Democratic speaker, a position that is standard now for most House Republicans. In these ethically challenged times it ought to be noted that lobbyists have never bought him a drink. No one in his extended family has gotten a state job or a state contract. He is the House Republican most on top of the state budget, and he asks the hard questions on the fiscal review committee. He is a straight-arrow without being sanctimonious.
Dunn has an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee. He earns his living managing crews for Cortese Tree Service. He may be the only person in the legislature who wears a hard hat in his regular job. I’d say it is a cinch he’s the only one who regularly wields a chain saw.
There are those who cannot stand Dunn because of his social views. He was the prime mover in putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year to ban gay marriage. But Dunn has been remarkably consistent since his election in 1994. He has moved from an outsider and a loner to one of the leaders of the Republican Caucus while standing in the same place. It’s just everyone else who’s moved. For those and other reasons the Knox County Republican stands a good chance of being the next Minority Leader, replacing the resigning Tre Hargett. (You need 23 votes to win. After each round of voting, by secret ballot, the legislator with the lowest total drops out. As people drop out, their voters go to a second choice.)
When Dunn was elected, he was considered a one-issue, anti-abortion candidate. He is a devout Catholic, with five children whom he home schools, and he remains a social conservative. When he arrived at the Legislature he was very often alone. The Republicans in the House then consisted, in large part, of back benchers there for the parties and the ambitious legislators anxious to go along and get along with the Democrats in leadership. The party was mostly a disorganized rabble. It’s hard to imagine the changes in the state House over the past decade.
As the income-tax battle during the last term of Gov. Don Sundquist focused public attention on the Legislature, Dunn was often in the forefront asking awkward questions about spending priorities and questioning the need for additional taxes. The income-tax vote in 2002 changed the Republican caucus. Many of the quislings who had supported House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh were subsequently defeated and replaced by deficit hawks and tax cutters. Some Democratic seats in Middle Tennessee were taken over by this new breed of militant Republican. A critical mass was reached, allowing the House Republican caucus to begin acting like a political party.
It suddenly became a liability for some Republicans to vote for Naifeh for Speaker. Dunn found he was no longer alone on the issues. The new crop of House Republicans contains some breast-beating conservatives eager for confrontation and spoiling for a fight. Dunn has continued to do his homework. When he rises to fight a battle it is well thought out. He does not shoot from the hip.
Over the years, Dunn has come to earn the respect of his colleagues and some members of the press corps, even among people who do not share his conservative beliefs on social issues. (That would include me.) In the current battle to replace Hargett, there are enough hard-core conservatives in the caucus to contend for the leadership. Dunn announced that he would not be a candidate. The members have been calling each other furiously for a couple of weeks. A consensus is emerging. The conservatives certainly have no problem with Dunn; he has their respect for his years of fighting for their issues. The less-conservative members look at Dunn and prefer his measured approach to getting things done. They look at some of the radical talk-show heroes who just want to fight, and they think Dunn is the better choice. With assurances from his boss, Jim Cortese, that he will get time off to handle leadership duties, Dunn is back in the race.
Naifeh and his powerful lobbyist friends often intercede to prevent the Republicans from electing the most capable (or, as they would say, “partisan”) member to leadership. I can’t imagine they are happy with the prospect of Minority Leader Dunn. They may yet derail the consensus that appears to be emerging.
But Dunn’s election would signal that things have changed in the House. It will mean that the Republicans intend to be a political party and be ready to assume control in the next election or two. They are no longer content to be an unorganized rabble.
Dunn has come a long way by standing in the same place.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .