The Rabble Starts Racking Up Wins
The core group of conservatives, flush from their Common Core revolt in the 2014 session, decided they needed an early target to help facilitate and test their theory of conservative power. They did not have to wait long.
According to RTP sources, the Conservative Majority Caucus organized just days before the inauguration. They realized it would be a trial by fire to see if they could coordinate and operate as a group and whether they could positively impact issues during the session.
Their first target was a rule change crafted by leadership during the organizing session in January. Leadership attempted to curtail or end personal privilege speeches from the floor, ostensibly to remove a platform for the Democrats to draw attention to their issues. But the conservatives saw it as attempt to not only silence the free speech of the Democrats, but to silence conservatives as well.
One of the group’s members, who agreed to talk to a RTP contributor on the condition of anonymity, said: “Republicans didn’t like it when the Naifeh crowd tried to shut us up. So for us to stand by and let the Republican leadership try to do the same thing with the Democrats seemed to us to be just as wrong. But we also had a sneaking suspicion their real target was to prevent free speech by dissenting, conservative Republicans.”
Leadership tried to assure the GOP caucus the rule change was merely an innocuous little piece of “housekeeping,” but the conservatives weren’t buying it. In a hastily called recess by leadership to tamp down the mini-revolt, the Republicans gathered in the well for an emergency caucus meeting. Speaker Harwell tried to convince her caucus to just pass the rules that day and then they could “take out” the offending rule change the next day. That brought a spontaneous and very vocal protest from a clear majority of the caucus members. The Speaker and majority leader Gerald McCormick quickly retreated. No rule change. Victory #1 for the CMC.
Emboldened by their initial success, the group turned their sights on the special session. Through meetings and phone calls during the two-week recess leading up to the special session, the group devised a modest but effective plan of action. Members of the CMC were asked to talk to their colleagues to try and get a sense of the support (or non-support) in the body for the governor’s InsureTN program. Some of them worked, at arm’s length, with groups such as AFP. Others fanned out to quietly lobby undecided members, especially Senate Health Committee members, where the measure died 7-4. Victory #2 for the CMC.
The MSM, typically, got it wrong. They harped on the 7-4 vote in the Senate committee and whined that if only it could have been voted on by the entire legislature, things would have been different. Such an assertion reveals a profound ignorance of the sentiment of this legislature and the electorate. Internal whip counts conducted by the Speaker as well as by the CMC showed the governor’s plan was hemorrhaging votes. The senate committee was merely selected by leadership as the place for the execution — allowing the other members of the legislature to avert their eyes and not have to vote. With the ignominious death of the governor’s proposal (as well as a second killing two months later – call that CMC victory 2+), the quiet talk around LP was not only about Haslam’s fecklessness, but a growing resentment that members were put into this position in the first place. And that has breathed new life into the conservatives.
Time now for a little RTP analysis: For the last couple of years, there have been other factors helping precipitate this uprising. CMC members and other legislators have long complained about broken promises, threats, appeals to “not embarrass the governor,” the pernicious bogus fiscal notes, “flagging” bills, creative calendaring of legislation, withholding key information, obfuscation and sometimes outright untruths by leadership in an attempt to “keep the lid on” conservatives. But now it seems the frustration is quickly approaching a full boil.
Harwell has been walking a tightrope between her members, her own political ambitions and her fealty to the governor. She is nothing if not adept at making it appear to be sympathetic and responsive to her members, while at the same time trying to pass the governor’s agenda over their opposition. It’s a tough job. But as we are beginning to see, Harwell’s balancing act has put her in an untenable position.
Harwell’s recent sops to the right are surely tied to her desire to be the next governor – a path that must go straight through a Republican primary where conservatives have a dominant role. Lately, she seems to be more reluctant to walk out onto the plank on Haslam’s behalf and has found a new interest in reaching out to the conservatives in her caucus. As she nears a gubernatorial run, don’t be surprised to see her attempt to pivot to the right. But so far, no pivots – only feints in that direction.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program….
With their success helping turn back InsureTN, the CMC looked for their next target. It was an unlikely one.
Governor Haslam proposed a major revision of the longstanding “longevity pay” enjoyed by senior state employees. The governor tried to change the system by making it more like private business incentive pay schemes. Fair enough. But as has been the case all too often with this governor, he made a couple of bone-headed mistakes:
- He failed to recognize his sweeping reform of state employee compensation essentially violated the implied contract with the employees when they were first hired that provided the longevity pay. Not a smart move.
- He did not inform legislative leaders in advance of announcing his proposal, catching them flat-footed when they caught hell from state employees and their allies.
- He assumed that every Republican, especially the conservatives would be “all-in” on an ostensibly free enterprise-style reform. Wrong.
Every member of the CMC has state employees in his or her district. And many CMC members are small business people. They hold to the small business principle that “your word must be your bond” if you are to attract, motivate and retain good employees. Word spread the Haslam plan was being attacked not only by Democrats in the legislature, but by pro-business conservatives as well. The governor’s proposal was amended down to nothing. Victory #3 for the CMC.
Common Core: The CMC out-maneuvers the establishment.
The importance of the Tennessee Standards legislation passed last week cannot be underestimated. After untold millions were pumped into promoting Common Core by the likes of Bill Frist and Bill Gates and the unwavering support of Gov. Haslam, opponents began to despair of stopping the juggernaut socialist-style, one-standard-fits-all education doctrine.
Between Jamie Woodson and SCORE, the governor, Kevin Huffman, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, Bill Frist, a pliant news media and millions of dollars and scads of lobbyists and PR types, it is hard to remember when an administration had invested so much of its political capital and credibility in just one issue.
But members of the CMC decided to get behind a bill by Rep. Billy Spivey that demanded Common Core be “reviewed and replaced.” What’s more, it required a panel of Tennessee-only educators and experts. Even worse for the administration, it required the governor give up 60% of his appointments to the selection committee that would choose the review panels that would set the new standards. Although the bill did not go far enough for some members of the group, the CMC realized the importance of hanging together and held firm in their support of the Spivey gambit.
It passed overwhelmingly and gave the CMC its most important win of the session. Victory #4.
Two “grass tops” groups which were formed to push for Common Core — SCORE and Tennesseans for Student Success — immediately rushed out to condemn the legislation only to find, once again, the governor had pulled the rug out from under his friends. Jamie Woodson went quiet and is reputedly being held at an undisclosed Frist mansion somewhere in the Bahamas. Jeremy Harrell fumed against the bill while holding a rally with a handful of protesters wearing what appeared to be recycled AFP t-shirts. Meanwhile, the governor was quietly negotiating away any credibility his Common Core advocate groups may have once possessed. What’s worse, these special interest groups were not even allowed a seat at the negotiating table. They were shut out.
The pro-Common Core advocates and the news media are now comically trying to claim “victory” and praising what they term a “compromise.” Hard to claim there was a compromise when it stripped the governor of a majority of his appointments and you weren’t even allowed in the negotiation room. The Tennessean, predictably, got the story completely wrong when they called it a “re-branding.” After the recent self-prostituion of their newspaper, we can understand their confusion over the whole re-branding concept:
Before anyone (including RTP) even knew of its existence, the Conservative Majority Caucus was well underway. Will they be able to capitalize on this momentum? Stay tuned.
Coming up: “CMC’s last-minute victory.”