Former House Speaker Kent Williams leaving Legislature; Will run for Carter County Mayor

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Rep. Kent Williams, whose 2009 election as House speaker shocked and infuriated fellow Republicans, announced Thursday he won’t seek a fifth term to instead run for Carter County mayor next year.

Republicans were still giddy from gaining their first majority in the state House since Reconstruction in the 2008 elections when the House convened for its leadership vote the following January.

But a one-seat advantage in the 99-seat chamber proved the GOP’s undoing, when all 49 Democrats banded together with Williams to elect the little-known restaurant owner from Elizabethton as speaker.

The chamber packed with Republican supporters erupted after Williams cast the deciding vote for himself, and some shouted “traitor” and “Judas” as he made his way forward from his seat. Armed state troopers came in to flank the speaker’s podium as Williams was sworn in.

Williams said in a phone interview Thursday that he wouldn’t have done anything differently, despite the denunciations from fellow Republican in the House following his election as speaker, and later being thrown out of the state GOP for the maneuver.

“People who actually booed when I was elected speaker, we’ve become really good friends — a lot of them understand, even though they don’t’ agree,” he said. “We’ve been able to get past all that and work together.

“I have no regrets whatsoever,” he said.

Williams had no trouble being re-elected as an independent, but further Republican gains in the Legislature meant his time as speaker would be limited to a single two-year term. He was succeeded by current Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville

Williams, who unsuccessfully lobbied to have his right to run as a Republican restored by the state party, said he will challenge the GOP nominee for mayor in next year’s general election.

While Williams said he is on good terms today with many of the colleagues who vocally criticized his election as speaker, not everyone has been willing to move on.

“There’s nothing to say about this other than the fact we can finally close this chapter in Tennessee history,” State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said in a statement.

Their role in the 2009 speaker’s vote represented a last hurrah for House Democrats, whose heavy losses in subsequent elections have relegated them almost to bystander status in the Legislature.

Republicans today hold 70 of 99 seats in the House, and 26 of 33 seats in the Senate.

But Williams looks back fondly on his time in the Legislature as he prepares to run for an office closer to home.

“Just being an old country boy, I think I’ve done well,” he said. “I still have a lot of energy and I still want to serve my community, but I think it’s time to do it on another level.”

Note: The above AP story updates and partly replaces earlier post. Here’s some stuff from the earlier:

Williams was banished from the Republican Party after joining with 49 Democrats in January, 2009, to elect himself as speaker of the House, which at the time had a 50-49 Republican majority. He continues to call himself a “Carter County Republican.”

Williams served as speaker until January, 2011, when Republicans had a bigger House majority and elected Beth Harwell as speaker. He easily won re-election to his House seat as an independent in 2010 and 2012 over Republican opponents.

From the Johnson City Press:

“Eight years is long enough to make that long drive to Nashville,” Williams said of his decision not to seek a fifth term. “I want to stay closer to home, but I also want to stay active … I am still full of energy and want to serve.”

Williams said he felt there is a problem in the county government with lack of cooperation.

“All that energy is being wasted in bickering and arguing. I have attended some of their meetings and it gets pretty nasty sometimes from both sides and from some of the citizens … When you have that problem, you lose focus and you are not accomplishing anything.”

Williams said he felt he could bring a fresh start to the county government, especially when he expects to see about 12 to 14 new members elected to the County Commission next term.

“With all those new people, it is important to get off to a fresh start.” He said his experience as speaker in the House in working with 49 Republicans members and 49 Democrats will help in getting business accomplished despite divided support.

“You have to provide leadership,” Williams said.