Some superlative legislative performances during the first supermajority session of Tennessee’s 108th General Assembly:
Best Oratory: Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, is generally a fairly mild-mannered and quiet fellow. But on the final day of the session, the bespectacled appliance salesman rose on the House floor to lead the rhetoric in rebellion against what he depicted as dictatorial state senators trying to cram a judicial redistricting bill down the throat of the “people’s chamber.” Gesturing with arms and hands, spinning this direction and that, the impassioned Sanderson’s sizzling speech left jaws dropping — and red “no” lights bright on the vote tally display board.
Best Loser: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, House sponsor of the failing wine-in-groceries bill, the failing bill to increase penalties for cockfighting and the failing judicial redistricting legislation savaged by Sanderson. The Lundberg losers were bipartisan bills with logical and reasonable policy arguments behind them and entrenched interests opposing them. Just like in the years before the supermajority.
Freshman of the Year, Republican: Rep. William Lamberth of Cottontown introduced the maximum 15 bills permitted under new rules and proceeded to violate the old, unwritten rule that calls for freshmen to keep quiet, listen and learn in their first term. Lamberth saw 10 of his bills enacted, more than any other freshman — perhaps most notably one that makes secret the Department of Safety’s list of 400,000 handgun permit holders. A gregarious sort, the former prosecutor was an aggressive questioner in committees, particularly on crime bills, and rarely was on the losing side of a vote.
Freshman of the Year, Democrat: Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, if anything, was an even more flagrant violator of that old tradition of the silent freshman. But then, as a Democrat already a top target for the state Republican party in next year’s elections, what else should the school teacher do? On lost causes ranging from the bill she sponsored to ban mountaintop removal coal mining to a critique of the state’s for-profit virtual schools operation and the “ag gag bill,” Johnson became a party point person. And she actually got one passed of eight bills she sponsored.
Most Quotable: Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, has an opinion on everything, a “little history lesson” on most matters and a way of phrasing things that keeps reporters scribbling in their notebooks. Here’s a sample from a conversation on the state capitol’s multimillion dollar security system that was put in place this year: “This rinky-dink security system? It’s like something Wile E. Coyote ordered from Acme.” Runnerup honors go to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who is never at loss for words in bashing the supermajority.
Supermajority Operative of the Year: Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who was elevated to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the session’s outset and — there and elsewhere — was stirring most every legislative pot that boiled. Kelsey took a lead role in committee, for example, in defeating legislation, pushed by legislators who considered themselves more conservative than he, giving the General Assembly authority to nullify federal laws. Then he was much involved in efforts elsewhere to broaden Gov. Bill Haslam’s school voucher bill, basically arguing it wasn’t conservative enough. That, of course, led the governor yanking the bill for the year. Sometimes he was successful, sometimes not — rather like the supermajority as a whole. In past years, Kelsey came across as one of the most conservative legislators. Today, it seems he’s sort of in the middle of the mix.
Superminority Operative of the Year: House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a self-described conservative Democrat, seems transformed this year from political diplomat to political warrior. Last session, Fttzhugh left most of the partisan criticism of Republicans to his sidekick in Democratic leadership, Turner, while voicing mild misgivings, often coupled with kind words about individual Republicans. Not this year. While still not as harsh as Turner, the minority leader has demonstrated a willingness to throw rhetorical rocks and has become adept at drafting floor amendments that make some Republicans uncomfortable about voting them down.
To be continued (reader nominations welcome).