House-Senate hostility is nothing new in Legislatorland, but the basis of tensions that led to the flare-up in the waning days of the first Republican supermajority session just might be more fundamental — and thus more enduring — than the squabbles in bygone days among Democratic leaders.
For one big thing, both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey would like to be governor.
Ramsey, who already has the title of lieutenant governor, tried to scratch the “lieutenant” part in 2010 but lost in the Republican primary to Bill Haslam. Today he says he “can’t imagine” putting himself through that “grueling” experience again and suspects a successful candidate would have to be rich enough to self-finance. But he doesn’t rule it out.
Harwell hasn’t tried before and is quite coy in talking publicly about it, but friends say that her long-term goal is to follow up on becoming Tennessee’s first woman speaker by becoming Tennessee’s first woman governor.
Of course, barring something bizarre happening to upset Haslam in 2014, they will have to wait until 2018 to become real rivals in a Republican primary. But they are potential rivals and understand that the records they build now will be factors when, and if, the rivalry becomes real.
Their Democratic predecessors, the late John Wilder in the Senate and Jimmy Naifeh in the House, had zero gubernatorial ambitions. Both were dedicated solely and zealously to maintaining the stature and power they enjoyed as speakers — and the power is considerable, arguably equal or superior to the governor’s power in some situations, albeit nowhere near as prestigious from the public perspective.
Naifeh and Wilder were also from the same wing of their party, describing themselves as “pro-business conservative Democrats” and shared the same rural West Tennessee background with many close political friends and neighbors. Their disputes were issue-specific and on such things as ethics legislation.
Harwell and Ramsey are from different wings of their party, though naturally they describe themselves as pro-business conservative Republicans. But they come from dramatically different backgrounds and that may be a factor in their evolution into differing party political postures when you get away from uniformity in backing business.
Harwell was born and raised in Pennsylvania, moving to Tennessee as a college student and achieving her political birth and growth surrounded by Nashville Democrats. Ramsey is a Northeast Tennessee native son, achieving his political birth and growth surrounded by Republicans left to argue mostly among themselves because few Democrats are available locally.
Simplistically, Harwell is a moderate/urban-suburban Republican; Ramsey is a conservative/rural-mountain Republican. Now, Harwell has tried occasionally to ally herself with more conservative Republicans; Ramsey has tried to behave moderately on occasion.
Arguably, one of the bills that provoked the end-of-session flare-up provides an example Ramsey’s effort to revise judicial districts that have not been changed since 1984. The districts made little practical sense when created; they make far less sense now.
Ramsey’s reasonable redistricting plan was killed by the House in what Ramsey called “a case study in mob mentality” that was aimed at him. In response, the Senate killed Harwell’s top issue bill, one that might have been inspired by a desire to appear more conservative. It allowed Nashville’s Democratic-oriented school board to be overridden by a Republican-controlled state board when it refused to authorize a charter school.
In the aftermath, the House and Senate Republican caucuses ended their tradition of joint fundraising. And Ramsey says he will no longer help raise money for House Republicans — after doing so for years.
Last week, naturally, the two speakers said their spat was no big deal and bygones will be bygones. Ramsey compared it to fighting with your spouse — it’s not fun, but you get over it as a matter of mutual respect. Harwell said there are no irreconcilable differences and “we don’t need a liaison” for speaker-to-speaker communication.
But maybe some counseling is in order.