Tennessee's progressives are counting on Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell to moderate the extremism of the ruling party's right wing. But the barbarians are rattling the gates this legislative session and threatening to crash through any moment now.
Signs increasingly point to revolt. Only last week, Senate Education Committee chair Dolores Gresham, R-Summerville, boldly trotted out her own school voucher bill as if the governor — and leader of her own party — already hadn't offered his own proposal earlier in the session.
Under her plan, a family of four earning as much as $75,000 qualifies for vouchers, and as many as 10,000 vouchers could go out next fall. In scope, that dwarfs Haslam's plan, which gives vouchers only to low-income kids in failing schools.
Offering a rival plan is one thing, but another Republican senator — Brian Kelsey of Germantown, Tenn. — is threatening to erase Haslam's bill altogether, amending it to make it even more expansive presumably than Gresham's.
In another public dissing of the governor last week, the Senate Transportation Committee decided to let motorcyclists live free or die and ride without helmets under certain conditions, even though Haslam has advised lawmakers against it. In the past, it would have been almost unthinkable for the governor to flag a bill, then watch as his own party passed it anyway, basically flipping him off in the process.
Harwell, too, is losing control of the asylum's inmates. Last week, her chairman of the House Local Government Committee — Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough — reversed his position and cast the deciding vote to kill the wine-in-supermarkets bill. It was a public embarrassment for Harwell, who was sitting on the committee to vote if necessary to make certain the bill passed. The speaker said she would have kept it alive by breaking a tie vote. But it was 8-7, so she didn't get the chance.
Hill said he reversed his position and betrayed Harwell because he wanted to debate and vote on 10 amendments that never were brought up. The bill, a perennial in the legislature, made it out of a couple of committees this session for the first time. It's wildly popular with consumers, but falls victim every year to a lobbyists' dream team of Bible-thumpers and cash-happy liquor-store owners.
"I know there are a lot of angry people out there, and I'm sorry they are angry. But do they want us to pass a bad law? No, they don't," said Hill, an Obama birther and host of a Christian Right radio show in Upper East Tennessee.
Can you imagine a committee chairman pulling such a stunt when Jimmy Naifeh was speaker and controlled large majorities in the House? Hill stabbed Harwell in the back with her sitting right there in the room with him. Democrats who served in Naifeh's reign of terror are shaking their heads in amazement.
"If you went against Naifeh, he would punish you or he would try," Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said.
Of course, as Turner pointed out, a committee chairman never would have gotten the opportunity to cross Naifeh, because the vote never would have been close enough in the first place. Naifeh already would have nailed down all the Democrats' votes on the committee, or no vote would have been taken at all.
Haslam's reluctance to throw around his weight is just as puzzling to Democrats. Turner recalled how a couple of Republican county parties denounced Haslam last year for hiring Samar Ali, a Muslim, as the Department of Economic and Community Development's international director. That would not have been tolerated from Democrats when Ned McWherter was governor, Turner said.
"McWherter would have sent the goon squad down there and done away with the whole county," Turner said. "You have to have a certain amount of discipline.
"The governor is the head of the Republican Party in this state. All these crazy bills — if he doesn't stop them, whether he's for them or not, he is still ultimately responsible for them."
Haslam puts a happy face on his difficulties, describing them as "legitimate philosophical differences," as if he's president of a harmless little debate society. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, himself a favorite of his party's hardliners, brushes aside reporters' questions on the right wing's rebellious ways.
"There are three equal and separate branches of government," Ramsey said. "That's the way our founding fathers wanted this to work. We're not rubber stamps, never have been rubber stamps for any governor."