Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Tennessee’s Legislature Dissolves Into Chaos

Why has the state's Republican Legislature descended into chaos and hostility? Plus, it's probably too late to beat Trump and Richard Russo and the humor of mergers.

Tennessee’s state Capitol building
Tennessee’s state Capitol building. (David Kidd)
Editor's Note: this article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

Tennessee’s Legislature Dissolves Into Chaos: One of the year’s most disturbing mass shootings took place in Nashville at the Covenant School back in March. In response, Tennessee GOP Gov. Bill Lee called a special session, hoping the Legislature would allow judges to remove firearms from dangerous individuals for up to six months. Given the makeup of the Legislature – dominated by Republican supermajorities – that was never going to happen. But Lee, who lost two friends among the teachers who were slain, could not have anticipated just how ugly the blowback would end up being.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton pursued a strategy of passing numerous bills to address safety. None of them were as bold as what the governor wanted, but there were an awful lot of them. It turned out, however, that the Senate had no interest in that approach. Senators openly mocked their House counterparts, saying they had compromised simply by showing up. “Just tell them they’re lucky to get the three bills we gave them,” state Sen. Rusty Crowe said.

The House kept passing bills and the Senate kept swatting them down, in some cases dispensing with legislation during committee meetings that lasted less than a minute. House members took offense, with one deciding to present the Senate with an ostrich egg, implying that senators were digging their heads in the sand rather than dealing with pressing issues.

As tempers flared among legislators, protesters were kicked out of the House chamber, with a Covenant mom removed from a committee meeting. As the session ended Tuesday, with only modest legislation passed, Sexton had to push his way through an angry crowd chanting “vote him out,” with Sexton and Democratic state Rep. Justin Pearson – one of the Democratic lawmakers expelled from the state House in April – both accusing the other of having shoved him.

It was always unlikely that a Republican Legislature was going to pass serious gun control legislation, but why did things descend into chaos and hostility? It may have been that the GOP’s majorities are just too big. Legislative supermajorities, while able to run roughshod over the minority party, often end up splitting into factions amongst themselves. “A lot of the issues become more personal than political,” says Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer. “When you have a massive majority, you don’t need to stick together. You have elected officials who are no longer incentivized to work together.”

Sexton’s desire to appear to be addressing the issue reflected a separate political reality in his chamber. While there are essentially no competitive districts in the Senate, there are some House districts where Republicans might lose, mostly in suburbs where support for gun control is stronger. Senators – whose districts are three times larger – have more of a “rural safety net” than representatives, says Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University.

Gun control activists can try to run candidates sympathetic to their cause, but until that happens (and they score some wins), Republicans will believe it’s safer to side with gun owners’ rights. Tennessee GOP senators have burned into their collective memory the near-defeat of Majority Leader Jack Johnson in a primary last year, when he barely held off a more conservative challenger with 51.6 percent of the vote. “What matters to the vast majority of Republican members is primaries,” Syler says. “They’re worried about someone getting to their right on guns.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (TNS)
It’s Probably Too Late to Beat Trump: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is one of the few Republican officials willing to state publicly that nominating Donald Trump again for president would be disastrous for his party. Sununu argues that if the GOP’s large field narrows in time, a majority of primary voters stand ready to vote for someone else. “Provided the field shrinks by Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Trump loses,” Sununu wrote in The New York Times. “He will always have his die-hard base, but the majority is up for grabs.”

There are a lot of reasons to believe Sununu is wrong. Certainly there are examples of early front-runners imploding, including Trump’s alleged co-conspirator Rudy Giuliani in 2008. But no one has lost a lead as large as Trump’s in the modern primary era. Sununu points out that a majority of early-state voters are not with Trump, according to polls, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily against him, says George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Sununu seems to work on the premise that everybody who isn’t for Trump now will never be for Trump,” Edwards says. “I don’t think that’s the case. If Trump has 40 percent of the vote, that means he only has to pick up a small percentage of the other 60 percent to get a majority.”

The other candidates are doing very little to make any kind of a case against Trump, except for a couple of also-rans. And, as he showed in 2016, Trump doesn’t need to win a majority of the primary vote to take the nomination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared to be the bright hope of party leaders looking for a Trump alternative earlier in the year, but his actual campaign has only served to drive down his popularity. DeSantis is still the leading challenger, but just barely. Last week’s debate showed that other candidates remain viable and certainly aren’t conceding the chance of remaining standing if and when Trump’s legal problems doom his chances in a way that they’ve notably failed to do thus far.

If party leaders were indeed going to coalesce support around a non-Trump candidate, they’re probably already too late. “I think Sununu’s analysis is correct for 2016,” says Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University and coauthor of The Party Decides, an influential book about party leaders helping to pick presidential nominees. “The party could have stopped Trump in mid-2015 if they coordinated around a single alternative, or even if they just made it easier for voters to do so by narrowing the field.”

Cover of Richard Russo's novel "Somebody's Fool"
(Penguin Random House)
The Humor of Mergers: Not many novels open with accounts of municipal mergers, but Richard Russo’s latest does just that. Russo sets most of his novels in post-industrial towns in Maine or Upstate New York. His characters struggle financially, and their fortunes are reflected in the declining tax bases of the places where they live. In other words, they are the type of cities that, out of desperation, sometimes pursue mergers as a way of cutting costs.

Russo’s Somebody’s Fool is the third of his novels set in the fictional town of North Bath, N.Y. But North Bath has gone away as this one begins, absorbed by neighboring Schuyler Springs. Real-life mergers are often gradual, but that’s not the case here. The North Bath police force has already been dissolved and the high school, middle school and one of the two elementary schools won’t survive past the current school year.

North Bath had once been a model of fiscal restraint, refusing to spend money on just about anything. “If potholes and second-rate schools kept taxes low and degenerates, atheists and Starbucks out, then let’s hear it for potholes,” Russo writes, summarizing the local attitude. But then a Democratic regime comes in, feeling it must compete on niceties with Schuyler Springs. The town, in the end, just couldn’t afford that.

Savings from mergers are often oversold, and that turns out to be the case here. Due to North Bath’s debt, taxes must increase. With their bills going up, many residents will have to move elsewhere. “Wouldn’t they just end up in some other town like Bath that couldn’t afford services like trash removal, except with a longer commute?”

Russo manages to summarize many of the key dynamics around municipal mergers in his book’s three opening pages, making a lot of jokes along the way with language a bit too dirty to quote in a nice family newsletter like this. The merger then mostly disappears as a plot concern, but Russo has already summarized a key lesson: Cities can’t solve their problems just by handing them over to somebody else.

Previous Editions
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners