Lies and Betrayal, the Kent Williams Story

I told my son this morning I was going to watch history being made. Little did I know…

After a historic November election, today was supposed to be another historic day in the Tennessee politics. The GOP would seat it’s first House majority in almost 150 years along with a Republican Speaker of the House. It was supposed to be Jason Mumpower. It ended up being Kent Williams. The plummet from top to bottom took about 90 minutes.

Immediately after the 106th Congress was sworn in, Democrat Gary Odom moved for a 30 minute recess. He said it was for pictures. Or perhaps the final touches were being put on what was to come.

After recess, the first order of business was electiing the Speaker of the House. As expected the GOP nominated Jason Mumpower. After his nomination was seconded, Rep. Glen Casada raised his hand to be recognized as did Rep. Odom. The outgoing Speaker, Jimmy Naifeh, recognized Casada first who immediately moved nominations be closed. That motion was seconded. Before a vote on the measure, Naifeh recognized Odom who asked to add another nominee for Speaker. In response, Naifeh actually said he knew Rep. Odom had a nomination and he should not have recognized Rep Casada. He retracted his recognition of Casada to allow Odom to make his nomination. Rep. Mumpower objected saying the Casada motion, properly made and seconded, needed to be voted on first. This led to a 20 minute discussion with attorneys and officers over how to proceed.

Mumpower eventually withdrew his objection and Rep Odom began his nomination. There was open laughter in the gallery when he said his nominee was known for putting people over partisanship. It would have been justifiable laughter had Odom nominated Jimmy Naifeh as expected. His next words prompted a stunned silence in the chamber. He said it was probably the first time in Tennessee history that a member of one party nominated a member of the other party for Speaker. The name he put forward? Kent Williams, Republican from Carter County.

The nominations closed and voting began. Each member’s name was called and they called back their choice: Williams or Mumpower. Whether tradition or theater, the roll was alphabetical by party starting with Democrats. 49 names were called, 49 times one name was called back – Kent Williams. Every Democrat voted the party line.

About this time I realized calling the roll like this, Kent Williams would be the last person to vote. As the GOP roll was called, as it drew closer to the end, the gallery got more restless. 49 names were called, 49 times one name was called back – Jason Mumpower. When Williams, the 50th Republican, was called, he responded “Williams!”

Rejoicing Democrats burst into applause. GOP supporters did not. Williams was booed. At least one person yelled down, “Traitor!” But at the end of the day, it was Kent Williams who took the oath as Speaker. His acceptance speech appeared, from my vantage point, to be hastily written. His words, hastily written or not, confirmed the GOP’s worst fears.

Williams said he was a Republican but wondered for how much longer noting the GOP would likely get rid of him. The GOP is on record as warning wayward Republicans would pay a price. Williams noted cooperation and bi-partisanship were needed to move Tennessee forward. In that spirit he said Committee chairmanships would be offered to both Republicans and Democrats. In a final slap to the GOP, Williams’ first official act as GOP Speaker was to give the gavel back to outgoing Speaker Naifeh to finish the session. House business moved beyond the drama to nomination of the Speaker pro Tem. After Lois DeBerry was nominated by Democrats, Mumpower asked for his own 30 minute recess for the GOP caucus to meet. It was granted. Odom and Mumpower indicated th Democrat and GOP caucuses would meet in specific locations for deliberations. The question on everyone’s mind? “To which room should Kent Williams report?”

Democrats lost their majority and the Speakership today. You would think they’d be devastated. You’d be wrong. Their mood can best be described by the photo I took on my way out. scaled-odom.pngJimmy Naifeh ran the gauntlet of cameras and reporters to head downstairs to the Democratic Caucus. It seemed weird no one followed him shouting questions like on TV. Rounding a turn, Naifeh was met by Rep. Odom. I tried for a picture of the embrace the two shared. My camera focused for a moment so I got only the aftermath. But it’s clear Democrats were not unhappy with the way the day turned out. One wonders if Tennesseans will be?