Political attention at the Capitol right now is mostly focused on potential splits and fracturing in the Republican supermajority. However, it’s become clear over the past week that all is not entirely harmonious within the conspicuously lesser ranks of legislative Democrats.
During House Democratic Caucus leadership elections Tuesday, the party’s lawmakers kept their top leadership in place, but House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory had to contend with a challenge from Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar.
Turner won the day and retained his post. But the challenge showed that some members were not happy with retaining leaders who’ve overseen the House Democrats’ steady deterioration to an anemic “super minority.” Democrats now need not even be show up for House Republicans to achieve a quorum.
Intraparty fissures are apparent among the feeble Senate Democratic Caucus as well. Jim Kyle of Memphis, leader of the Senate Democrats, narrowly survived a challenge from fellow Memphian Sen. Reginald Tate.
Sen. Ophelia Ford of Memphis was the swing vote in the 4-3 contest, according to reports.
From the Memphis Flyer:
The vote was taken by secret ballot; so how the balloting went was subject to some guess work later on. Tate himself seemed fairly sure, though, of who the swing vote for Kyle was. At the Cannon Center in Memphis on Thursday night, where he made a brief appearance at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Tate was asked about his narrow loss.
“Yeah, it was Ophelia Ford,” he said, with a shake of the head sidewise.
Ford could not be reached for comment.
Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron said Tate spoke to him later and was “really shocked and hurt and mad” that he wasn’t elected caucus leader.
“He was depending on Ophelia Ford, and she voted for Senator Kyle. Senator Tate was very disappointed. And I was very disappointed because I get along fabulously with him,” Ketron said.
Shaw, too, believed his caucus could use an infusion of new blood at the top of the leadership ranks. While Rep. Turner is no doubt a colorful character, the pugnacious firefighter is known to have a short fuse on a combustible temper. Shrewd deal-making with a domineering GOP majority isn’t a political art for which he’s demonstrated a taste or convincing aptitude, Shaw intimated.
“I just felt like I could offer the caucus something where we are at this point in time, because you’ve got to know we’ve got 70 Republicans in the House and when you’re down, my friend, you’re down,” Shaw told TNReport. “You’ve got to find some way to negotiate to come back. You can’t curse the guy out that’s holding the gun on you.”
Shaw said he didn’t think the House Democratic Caucus was inclusive enough or transparent enough.
Shaw is a member of the Black Caucus and was asked if he thought it was also important to have a member of that caucus in one of the top spots. Both Turner, and Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who was re-elected Minority Leader with no opposition, are white.
“I didn’t want to run on race by any means,” Shaw said. “But I thought because half of the caucus now were people of color… we would see how important it was for us to have a seat at the table. But obviously some caucus members didn’t think we needed that seat at the table.”
Certainly, though, the ranks of the House Democratic leadership team is no all-white enclave. Examples include Rep. Lois DeBerry, of Memphis, who was elected deputy leader, a new position; Rep. Joe Towns Jr. of Memphis, who was elected assistant leader and freshman Rep. Harold Love, Jr., who was elected secretary.
Turner made the case for another two years as caucus chair pointing to gains made in the House against the GOP juggernaut.
He pointed out that the redistricting map voted on last year carved out 10 fewer House Democrats and “we won four of them back.”
“And that was the effort of the members of this caucus working together to win those seats,” Turner said. “And we beat an incumbent Republican. That’s the first time that’s happened in probably 12 or 15 years.
“Now’s not the time to be shy. Now’s not the time to shrink. Now is the time to be bold.”
Shaw did say he would be a team player during the next legislative session.
“I’m going to be a loyal caucus member, I’m going to be loyal to Mike, as always,” Shaw said. “I’ve always been loyal and I always will be and I consider him as my friend.”
Turner also said that Shaw is a friend.
As Republicans and Democrats mend fences in their own parties, the voting public appears to want them to get along with the opposing parties, too.
Regardless of party, a clear majority of Tennessee voters want their national and state legislators to work with members of the opposition party, according to a poll released yesterday.
“Tennesseans want problems solved. It is not just about ideology,” Vanderbilt University Poll Co-founder, John Geer said.
According to the poll: The support for compromise is highest among self-identified Democrats (86 percent) and independents (76 percent), but compromise is also supported by Republicans (58 percent) and self-identified members of the Tea Party (58 percent).
Trent Seibert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter (@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.