Republicans Take Even More Control of the Tennessee Legislature

POWER TRIO: From left, Rep. Joe Armstrong, Mayor Madeline Rogero, and 13th House District winner Gloria Johnson confer at the Knox County Democrats’ election-night party at the Square Room downtown.

POWER TRIO: From left, Rep. Joe Armstrong, Mayor Madeline Rogero, and 13th House District winner Gloria Johnson confer at the Knox County Democrats’ election-night party at the Square Room downtown.

The super-majority wasn't a surprise.

It had been projected for weeks by Republicans across the state. Even Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester told the Nashville Scene two weeks ago that the Democrats would be in the super-minority "unless lightning strikes."

There was rain on Tuesday, but there was no lightning. The GOP picked up enough seats in both the state House and Senate to hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

"For the first time in history, we're going to have a walk-out-proof majority, whether or not the Democrats want to participate or not, and I think that's a good thing for Tennessee," said Rep. Ryan Haynes on stage at the Knox County GOP's election night party at the Crowne Plaza ballroom downtown.

A few minutes later, Rep. Bill Dunn took the stage with Rep. Harry Brooks. "We've got a super-majority in the House and the Senate," Dunn said. "We're gonna git 'er done!" The ballroom cheered.

It's not like the Legislature didn't get it done this past session, after Republicans took control of both chambers in 2010. But with the two-thirds super-majority, the GOP has a quorum even if Democrats walk out, and they also have the option to suspend normal rules to quickly pass legislation.

In short, if you thought the past two years of embarrassing national headlines were bad, prepare yourself—things might get worse.

***

The crowd at the Crowne Plaza was overwhelmingly white and dressed in red (or, in many men's case, wearing red ties). Musicians played staples of the big-band and swing era; a few people danced. But after they were done with the buffet and had grabbed a glass of wine (or iced tea), most of the guests crowded around the televisions, watching the presidential results roll in.

You could feel the room deflate after Fox called Pennsylvania for Barack Obama. "I thought that was one of the ones we were supposed to get," one woman commented in surprise. After Michigan and New Hampshire were also called for Obama, the crowd started to thin. By 10 p.m., two-thirds of the room had gone home.

But the glee over the state and national victories, even if most of them were no surprise, was real. U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan won reelection with 71 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger Troy Goodale and gave a brief victory speech in which he emphasized cutting foreign spending. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's victory party was in Nashville, but people cheered his win also, with 70 percent of the vote.

The local Republican legislative delegation will basically remain the same next year in Nashville. Haynes and Dunn both won reelection by wide margins, Haynes with 75 percent of the vote over Democrat Jerome Miller and Dunn with 85 percent of the vote over Green Party candidate Bryan Moneyhun. Brooks was unopposed, as was the sole newcomer, Roger Kane, who won the 89th House District in the August primary. Rep. Steve Hall topped Democrat Anthony Hancock 61 percent to 39 percent, and Sen. Becky Duncan Massey beat challenger Evelyn Gill 69 percent to 31 percent.

Massey, holding her three-month-old granddaughter Bailey Jane in her arms, said she plans to continue the work she started in her partial term that began last year.

"I think we'll keep working to pass legislation to make the state more efficient and more consumer-friendly, so we can get the money we save back to the counties and cities," Massey said.

Dunn also said the work started in the last session would continue.

"I think we're going to continue to improve education and keep looking at the tax structure. And personally I want to do something about prescription drug abuse," Dunn said.

No one mentioned social issues all night, like Sen. Stacey Campfield's notorious "Don't Say Gay" legislation, or Dunn's bill to allow "critical thinking"—i.e., creationism—in the classroom. Campfield, who had predicted a Republican trouncing both in Tennessee and nationally, was notably absent from the gathering.

***

The news wasn't all terrible for local Democrats, of course. The night may have started off slowly at their party in the Square Room, but the room went wild a few times during the night, building up to President Obama's eventual victory. But the cheers might have been just as loud when Gloria Johnson was named the winner of the 13th House District race against Republican Gary Loe.

Johnson prevailed with 48 percent of the vote to Loe’s 46 percent—a difference of just 395 votes, according to unofficial results from the Knox County Election Commission. Independent Nick Cazana won 5 percent of the vote. As of late Tuesday night, Loe had yet to concede, saying that absentee ballots might make the difference; those results had not been tallied by press time.

Johnson, who’d done interviews for several news outlets throughout, was losing her voice by the time people started to make their way out of the party. Earlier in the night, she’d said she was ready to have the votes counted, and by the end of it, she looked beyond relieved.

“It’s been one heck of a day. Like, you’re going 100 miles per hour and all of sudden you stop and there it is,” she said. “It’s what we worked for, and it’s going to be great for Knox County and working families in Tennessee.”

Rep. Joe Armstrong also easily won reelection in the 15th District, receiving 82 percent of the votes cast. Armstrong said he was excited to work with Johnson. In a speech to the gathered revelers, Armstrong, who sported a spiffy purple tie in support of pancreatic cancer awareness, said, “All across the nation we are electing great women. We already do that in Knoxville! We elected a great mayor in Knoxville. I was recruited to the general assembly by a great woman. Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.”

Even while facing the reality of the local party’s losses, Armstrong was upbeat.

“We had some people who fought a great fight, although they did not make it tonight, but they fought a great fight, and I can tell each one of them, ‘Each journey begins with the first step.’ So let’s congratulate some of our Democrats who fought the good fight.”

But those optimistic Democrats will face intense opposition once they get back to work, although both Johnson and Armstrong said they were hopeful they could work with Republicans to create jobs.

“We all want to get people back to work and we all want to make sure our kids have the best education,” Johnson said. “That’s something everyone can agree on and we just need to talk about the best way to do that, and I don’t think there’s any better way to find out what’s best in education than having an educator in the room.”

Armstrong also noted there are divisions in the Republican Party, which will make it difficult to come to a consensus even with the super-majority.

“If you look at some of the party Republican chairs across the state, they asked the governor to resign because he appointed someone of a different faith to a deputy position. You’ve got some division in the Republican Party. I think that division is only going to get wider," Armstrong said. "I think that with some of the draconian legislation that they passed last year—you know, when they came after teachers, when they came after public employees, we’re talking about firemen and policemen, and the things that were going on there—I think that you’re going to see the public finally waking up and saying 'Wait a minute.' … Democrats? We’re unified.”

***

Though the state legislature will still be mired in partisanship, both Democratic Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Republican Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett had their own victories on Tuesday. All the eight amendments to the city and county charters passed in a landslide, although Rogero and Burchett were most concerned with the two that dealt with pensions.

The city's charter amendment creates a new hybrid pension plan for future city employees hired on or after Jan. 1, 2013. The estimated savings are $2.2 million from the city's annual budget, although since the new plan requires a 10-year waiting period to be vested in the plan, it will be a while before the city sees any savings.

But in any case, the 3-to-1 margin the measure passed by was a victory for Rogero, who promised pension reform in her campaign for mayor last year.

“This is one way we all came together in a nonpartisan way to look to the future to make sure that we could save taxpayers money, but at the same time offer very competitive benefit package for our police officers, our firefighters, who we depend on every day, our public sector employees,” Rogero said.

County voters also overwhelmingly voted to close the Uniformed Officers Plan, which was approved by voters in 2006 and quickly became financially unsustainable. The vote sets in place a year-long plan to come up with another option, likely a defined-benefit plan, to go into effect in January 2014.

"I think most people understood, it's not a vote against law enforcement, it's a vote for fiscal responsibility," Burchett said.

The other six county charter amendments, which were mostly language clarifications, also passed easily.

***

Overall, turnout was down in Knox County from 2008—167,330 people voted in this election, compared to 186,057 in 2008. And like in that year, the county stayed devoutly red: 63.6 percent of the vote went for Romney and Ryan, whereas 34.4 percent went to Obama and Biden. (Libertarian Gary Johnson got 1 percent.) In 2008, 38 percent voted for Obama, versus 61 percent for McCain.

It's not surprising that turnout was down. Tennessee was written off as a red state months ago, to the point where the major news organizations decided not to even do exit polls here. Indeed, the minute the polls closed at 8 p.m., the networks had called the state for Romney, even though here in Knox County, people were still waiting in line to vote for almost an hour longer.

With those results, the super-majority—the Senate gained six new Republicans and the House also gained six—along with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, feel like they have a mandate to turn Tennessee even redder.

“Tennessee voters affirmed tonight that our state is heading in the right direction,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney in a press release. “Republicans are once again honored that voters have put their trust in our party to lead our state to a better future."

For the minority in the state who don't feel like it's the right direction, it's going to be a long session.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the House only picked up six new GOP seats, not seven, as was first thought during preliminary election returns Tuesday night.

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Comments » 1

X_the_Unknown writes:

The Republicans gain a super-majority and Bill Dunn immediately quotes that inspiring political figure, Larry the Cable Guy.
Looking forward to that Jeff Dunham "I Won't KEEEEEL You" anti-abortion bill, coming next session.

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