It was standing room only at the first meeting of the new House Republican Caucus last week. It might as well have been a meeting of the state House of Representatives. After all, this side of the 2012 elections, you only need Republicans in the room to pass laws in Tennessee. And you don't even need all of them.
Outside the door of a conference room at the Union Street offices of the lobbying and law firm Waller Lansden, copies of the new state political map illustrated the new reality. In the state House and Senate, Republicans now hold 70 and 26 seats respectively. That's four more than the two-thirds required to do business in each, and enough to make the few clusters of blue on the map — and one streak of green, for Independent Rep. Kent Williams — look like places somebody forgot to fill in.
Inside, returning legislators mingled with incoming freshman, some of whom wore name tags, giving the gathering the feel of a back-to-school mixer (soft drinks, but no music). Of the new faces, two are particularly well known to state political observers — and one is actually not new at all.
The latter is Susan Lynn, a former state representative who won back her District 57 seat earlier this month after giving it up for a failed primary challenge against Sen. Mae Beavers two years ago. Lynn, who was first elected in 2002, is best known for her long-running feud with Beavers, who had initially declared her intentions to run for Wilson County mayor in 2010, but changed her mind after Lynn had committed to running for her old Senate seat.
The absurd saga is the stuff of tabloid legend, including allegations — which Lynn has vigorously denied — that while Beavers was suffering from cancer in 2004, Lynn was conspiring to take her seat. Residing in different chambers, the two shouldn't be forced to work too closely, but the halls beneath Legislative Plaza aren't that wide.
Truly new to the crowded caucus is Courtney Rogers, a 28-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserve, who ousted then-House Republican Caucus chair Debra Maggart in a heated primary back in March. Backed by tea party members and the gun-rights lobby, Rogers was widely seen as the vehicle for political retribution against Maggart, who became the scapegoat for the failure of guns-in-lots legislation pushed by the National Rifle Association.
The widely covered campaign, and Rogers' sizable victory, resulted in a somewhat outsized profile for a political newcomer. But at her first caucus meeting, Rogers was shaking hands and getting used to the new surroundings.
"It's just good energy," she told the Scene of the biggest gathering of House Republicans in recent history. "I'm just ready to get started and get settled in. You know, all of us freshman, we're still trying to find our offices and get the technology hookups."
The business of the day, however, was the election of the caucus leadership. Speaker Beth Harwell, the only Davidson County representative in the room, was re-elected to her post unanimously on a voice vote, as was Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.
The new supermajority saw fit to replace Rep. Judd Matheny as speaker pro tempore. A conservative from the party's restless right wing, Matheny publicly considered a challenge to Harwell earlier this year. He'd criticized the leadership's decision to compromise on a "core constitutional principle" by deciding not to back the guns-in-lots legislation. Rep. Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville businessman, was chosen to take his place.
For the far right, though, a seat at the head GOP table was still preserved. In place of the ousted Maggart, Rep. Glen Casada — the Williamson County representative who led the push to nullify Nashville's anti-discrimination ordinance — was selected as caucus chairman. He previously held the post before losing to Harwell in a bid for the speakership in 2010.
Whether to ask them for their vote before the secret ballots were cast, or to thank them for their support once they were counted, the leading members were granted several minutes to address their colleagues. Just before he was named second in command, Johnson recalled the party's days in the minority, noting that his "first office was a breakroom." Presiding over the meeting, McCormick jokingly referred to himself as the "supermajority leader," and new caucus secretary David Alexander told the group he was "ready to take this supermajority out for a drive."
Ronald Reagan was quoted twice. But it fell to Rep. Kevin Brooks, tapped for the role of assistant Republican leader, to quote a source even more powerful than he.
"To whom much is given," he said, summarizing the Gospel of Luke, "much is required."
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