In this week's City Paper, I report on Judd Matheny's gavel dreams as another flashpoint in the increasingly evident struggle between the state's elected Republican leadership and a cantankerous faction on its right wing.
The latter group's displeasure (and money) have shown up recently in primary battles between Courtney Rogers and Debra Maggart (where they were successful), and Lou Ann Zelenik and Diane Black (where they were overwhelmingly unsuccessful).
Matheny describes the two groups thusly:
“I think you can break up the state into two categories. You have a group of what I call the ‘pathminders,’ who are happy, primarily, with the status quo, they understand that we do have some problems nationally that are severe, but their timeline is unrealistic to address them and deal with them. Then you have group that I call the ‘pathfinders,’ and I consider myself one of those.”
The latter group, he said, knows “we have to alter the trajectory that we’re on or we will not be able to survive.”
Though they might sound like rejected Big Ten division names, Matheny appears to use them to delineate between those who are willing to hold the hardline and those who aren't.
In the GOP leadership's decision to hold off on the NRA's guns-in-lots bill, in the name of working out a solution palatable to the gun lobby and business interests alike, Matheny sees a "core constitutional principle" being compromised. ("If it can be done in one area, it can and will be done in other areas," he told me.) On health care, while the GOP leadership says they're still on the fence about implementing the Obamacare, Matheny says the state "shouldn't even be considering the expansion of the health care law in Tennessee."
When I asked Matheny about his motivations for the challenge, he listed compromise where it doesn't belong as a primary factor.
"Folks don’t mind compromising, I don’t mind compromising, there’s lots of middle ground on many issues, but there are core constitutional issues that we don’t compromise on," he said. "When the very foundation that many of us stand on is rattled and put into uncertainty, then we have to correct that.”
On an issue of great importance to Matheny and Pathfinder-funder Andy Miller, Shariah law — which would have been criminalized under the original language of a bill sponsored by Matheny in 2011 — Matheny says it's not a "defining factor" separating the two groups, but said apathy toward the issue is symptomatic of the problem in general.
"What allows an additional political system to take root within our country is apathy," he told me. "And both groups' jobs are going to be are going to be to educate people against this apathy."
Since the establishment continues to say Shariah law is not coming to Tennessee, one assumes the bulk of the work on that front will fall to the Pathfinders.
For fans of inside baseball — a term which is itself somewhat inside baseball, and primarily used to signal to others that one is on the inside of something — House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick was more than dismissive of Matheny's charge that he has been "marginalized" or intentionally kept out of the loop by leadership.
“I don’t think that’s a fair charge at all and I can give you an example," he said in a phone interview last week. "I’ve called Judd three times yesterday and never got a return phone call. His voice mail is always full. You cannot leave him a voice mail. He’s basically hard to find. And we would have welcomed his help. I was overworked in the last two years and I would have appreciated if he had pitched in and helped do some things. And quite frankly, he was hard to get in contact with and didn’t do much.”
McCormick reiterated that point several times. With due respect, Matheny disagreed.
“Well I think we have a difference of opinion there," Matheny said. "I think I was called forward sometimes on convenience from issue to issue. I would more prefer to be consistently kept up to date on issues. It’s just a matter of perception, I guess. I've got all the respect in the world for Gerald, too, and I look forward to continuing to work with Gerald. But I intend to take a larger role in the General Assembly. This is my way of doing it."
McCormick said he thinks challenges to leadership are more about a desire for power than a difference in ideology. For what it's worth, it seems like both to me. The curious thing is that people who are so strongly opposed to the trappings of governance — compromise, waiting for all the facts before making a decision, etc. — are so strongly set on controlling the government.