Post Politics: The curious case of Kent Williams

Monday, June 1, 2009 at 1:00am

While nary a Republican has forgiven or forgot, as this latest session of the General Assembly winds down most folks have come to accept the fact that, no matter how he got there, Kent Williams of Elizabethton is the Speaker of House. The white-hot hate amongst Republicans over his betrayal is still there but has been set on the backburner, shelved while the business of state is accomplished.

Then Michael Steele, the gaffe-prone, African-American chairman of the RNC, had to go bring it all back up again.

Attending a Reagan Day celebration in Sullivan County, Steele threw down the gauntlet. "I can tell you one thing, when 1,172,000 people vote the Republican Party to control the state legislature and one man takes it away from them, I got a bull's eye right on his back, and we're taking him out," Steele reportedly said.

Of course, Williams had to retort.

"Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has publicly stated that he is going to take me out. He came in from Washington to speak in Kingsport, Tennessee. I believe it was his first trip here ever. I was not present when he made his remarks and he has had no contact with me. I have never met the gentleman." Williams said.

The Speaker then went on to describe in detail the ways in which he believes he is still very much a Republican. Indeed, while he is not doctrinaire conservative, his politics are not unrecognizable as Republican. On issues of small government, abortion and guns he has been true to his word and cast conservative votes. He's not been quite the puppet of former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh some thought he would be.

There have been stumbling blocks. Williams has failed to intervene in crucial committee votes and relied on advice from Naifeh far more than any Republican should, but he's blazed his own trail and some seem content to let him go ahead and take that path as far as it will take him. Some Republicans have elected to leave the man be. Certainly not all, but some.

Now the question of whether Williams is a Republican has inserted itself into the Republican gubernatorial primary. And it was from a surprising quarter that one implicit affirmative answer came. Zach Wamp, who has positioned himself as the conservative ideologue in the race, visited the Carter County Republican at his restaurant in Elizabethton.

There Wamp gave an interesting answer about the state of politics at Legislative Plaza to George Jackson of NewsChannel 11 in the Tri-Cities.

"Republicans are going to have a chance to actually set the agenda when we elect a Republican governor. With Speaker Williams and Lt. Gov. Ramsey, we have a majority—albeit small in the state House and the state Senate. So, if we get a chief executive, a governor, from our same party we can set the agenda. Now, with that opportunity comes the burden of governing and being successful," Wamp said.

Now, it may be subtle, but this is quite the political bear hug. The simple act of even going to the Speaker's restaurant makes a statement, but to imply that he is a true Republican? Well, that's something you wouldn't expect out of a conservative stalwart whose party has stripped Williams of his GOP bonafides.

What is most interesting is that Wamp presents himself as the missing piece of a GOP power puzzle that includes both Ramsey and Williams. Wamp's words seem to leave open the possibility that he, if elected governor, could be serving alongside both Ramsey and Willliams in 2010.

Certainly that couldn't happen, right? Everyone  understands that while they are stuck with Speaker Williams for the remainder of the 106th General Assembly 2010 is a different story. Even if Williams is able to beat the Republican nominee as an independent in a GOP stronghold and keep his seat, any change in the 49-49-1 partisan makeup of the General Assembly would make a his re-election as Speaker an impossible mathematical equation. Right?

Or is it possible for Williams to be re-elected Speaker? Is it possible that, even if the GOP gains a seat or two that  Williams could peel off one or two Republicans who prefer his independent streak to the more doctrinaire conservatism of Jason Mumpower? After all, only 50 votes are needed to be elected speaker. If Williams has support, depending on the new breakdown, he could at least deadlock the Speaker's election and force the two sides to bargian for the support of his Independent caucus.

Wamp is merely doing what the Republican Party should have done from the beginning and what some Republicans have already done: Get over the events of Jan. 13. It's over. Kent Williams took his shot. He accepted the Democratic nomination for Speaker. You can despise the means he employed to get there but he did get there.

Tennessee may be a red state but there are a lot of  Republican leaning voters and independents who don't march in lockstep with the call of a party. Not for everyone is politics a team sport.

There is an appeal to Williams' brand of independent Republicanism. Neither that brand nor Williams himself should be completely shunned by the party, it should be co-opted. Williams may have seized power unethically but he did seize it. He is now a force to be reckoned with. Zach Wamp realizes this. All members of the Republican Party would be wise to follow suit.

Kleinheider is's political blogger. Visit Post Politics at

3 Comments on this post:

By: timeout on 6/1/09 at 7:11

Was Williams part of the cabal that tried to get guns into bars? Probably.

By: dnewton on 6/1/09 at 10:55

Independant Republicanism: A Democrat trying to justify calling himself a Republican because the Democrat seats were already filled or promised.

By: sarabellum on 6/3/09 at 6:03

I don't think it really matters what they call themselves. In the end they're all self-serving politicians.