Republicans Ready to Assume Control of State Government

There was a big hiccup on the Republican march to take over the state House after the 2008 election. A rear-guard action by House Democrats to nominate and support Republican Kent Williams prevented total Republican control and there has been bipartisan control for the last two sessions—both Republican and Democratic committee chairs.

But after this election, the Republican margin is no longer one vote. In fact, the Republicans picked up enough seats to be only one vote short of having a two-thirds majority of the House. And new governor Bill Haslam is a Republican. Republicans control the Senate. One absent Democrat at a session gives House Republicans the power to call up anything they wish to pass, repeal or amend, leaving the Democrats without even a parliamentary or procedural defense.

Republican House members campaigning for Speaker of the House have already promised their colleagues there will be no Democratic committee chairs on their watch.

What will be the ramifications of total one-party rule, by Republicans, going forward?

• The Black Caucus, a key component in the Democrats’ traditional control of the House, will lose its power. If there are no Democrats as chairs of committees then there will be no black committee chairs. And no blacks in House leadership. They will be reduced to the back-bench status of East Tennessee Republicans over the past decades. Given that Congressman Steve Cohen has the traditional black congressional seat from Memphis, there will be no black politician with real political power in the entire state, except for Memphis local government.

Only the federal courts will be available to protect black legislators in the upcoming redistricting—the redrawing of all the legislative districts.

There is some sentiment that the Republicans should name at least one black chair of a committee, but most House members, shut out of chairs and leadership for their entire terms, say hell no.

• The Republicans will be in total control of the state building commission. This body, made up of legislative leaders, constitutional officers, and the governor’s office, signs off on all public building decisions. In years past, the building commission’s power often led to campaign contributions to Democrats by architects, engineers, and contractors. One assumes these contributions will now go to Republicans. One might also see an uptick in state buildings in Republican districts once the current budget crisis has passed.

• The Black Caucus is the only reliable bloc vote in the state House. It gave the Democrats cohesiveness. The speaker, with a large bloc of votes in his pocket, could keep unity among the Democrats. There is no comparable bloc of votes within the Republican Caucus. Regardless of which Republican emerges as Speaker, you can expect factions within the Republican caucus. They are still having a hard time transitioning from a back bench every-man-for-himself-cause-it-doesn’t-matter attitude to a governing party.

With large Republican margins and total control, the coming political fights may shift to geography rather than political affiliation. East vs. West. Rural vs. urban.

The number of rural Democrats has been reduced dramatically. The Democrats who are left are mostly urban—Memphis, Nashville, Jackson, Knoxville and Chattanooga. The governing Republicans in the House are majority rural and suburban. This might not be good news for cities in coming sessions.

• The freshmen Republicans campaigned as fiscal conservatives, some of them linking their opponents to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Last session Republican legislators rejected tax increases proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen. The prospects are even better this session that there won’t be any tax increases to balance the budget—which leaves Haslam with cost cutting as his only option.

After a stumbling start two years ago, the Republicans will now be in complete control of state government—let’s see what they do with it.

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