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What kind of House Speaker will Cameron Sexton be?

Watching him take the oath of office on Friday morning, then listening to him address the House that had just elected him, I was struck by both the brevity and the tactical timeliness of his remarks. His words were few but to the House members in the chamber they spoke volumes in the immediate wake of so much disorder.

The new Speaker spoke of “our call” – the serious-minded, collaborative work that elected representatives are fundamentally called to do in a democracy.

“The good news is we agree on a lot more than we disagree on,” he said from the well of the historic chamber. “Respect for those on the other side will make us better.”

To my ear, this was the perfect note to sound after seven months of deep trouble. Everyone seated in the great hall, and all watching from the galleries above, knew exactly what he meant. The state House has been a troubled workplace in the first half of 2019.

The task now, leaving specific issues aside for a moment, is in fact for Sexton to install a higher grade of mutual respect as members approach their regular session come January. What’s needed is a return to regular order.

Why is the speakership important?

The speakers in both the state House and Senate have immense influence on state government, both formally and informally.

Officially, Sexton’s role will be to organize and manage the recently troubled House, installing his own array of committees and chairs, and provide a legislative staff of clerks and assistants who facilitate the workflow. (The speaker of the state Senate, called the Lieutenant Governor, has comparable duties.) The House and Senate, in turn, also elect the constitutional officers: State Treasurer, Comptroller, and Secretary of State. The two speakers sit as voting members of key decision-making bodies, including the State Building Commission.

All of that is statutory and straightforward. But each speaker’s deeper power flows from his informal but acknowledged authority to resolve conflicts, provide unofficial discipline, use the “bully pulpit” as needed, and to nudge or thwart bills and amendments in critical moments when he deems his direct participation is necessary.

Over my own two sit-down interviews with Sexton, in the days preceding his swearing in, I was impressed with how he analyzes policy issues and also with his mix of understatement and calm that are so called for now. (Re-reading that sentence, it strikes me that none of those words would have been applied to Sexton’s ousted predecessor, Rep. Glen Casada.) It does not matter now that Casada himself was absent on Friday morning, not in the great room to hear his successor speak, did not observe how the brief proceedings put a bold-faced period on the end of his own low story.)

What lessons might Sexton – or any of us, for that matter – take away from the short-lived Casada train wreck?

In tortured hindsight, it’s clear that Casada simply could not handle power.

He was able to win it from his GOP caucus members, but he could not live with it. His way was to spread around some early favors, probably thinking he was buying long-term loyalty and even friendships. To chosen members he dispensed better office digs, new chairmanships, and his attentions. For other members, less favored, his minions eavesdropped and soiled furniture.

In the end, what all that bought him was neither loyalty nor friendship, and soon enough the power was gone, too. In Casada’s hands, the partisan supermajority revealed its dark side – that place where fear and furtiveness live. Casada’s way made the people’s House on the high Hill a labyrinth of fear, a place of grime and punishment.

In the first of my interviews with Sexton, he too used the word “punish” but so as to isolate it as a management behavior to be avoided. He made clear it would not be his way of organizing or leading the House.

A ‘Better Way’

“People have to feel like they're included,” he told me, “and to feel like their voice is being heard. Obviously, the more people you have, the harder it is to hear every single voice. So I think that the supermajority kind of breeds that by itself, and so you have to be very self-aware of that capability.

“Sometimes politics is more about punishing than extending an olive branch,” he continued, “and so when I announce committees, what you'll see is not punishment, but really a true belief in how everybody has been elected by 65,000 people – the same number of people in each of our districts – whether you're Republican or Democrat. 

“As speaker, if I truly want to move the state forward and come out with the best policy, then including people and putting them in the spots to where they can be successful or at least have their passion, is the better way. It makes no sense to have someone who's really passionate about criminal justice reform, for instance, and put them over in Local Government (Committee). It doesn't help us move the needle.

“I think you set clear expectations: We're going to have decorum. Everybody's going to have their voice heard. We're not going to be talking over each other. You have to set the clear path. And I think sometimes in government or in a legislative body, or when you have supermajorities where you have complex hot issues or just how you treat people in general, you strive for stability, right?”

The Line of History

On a bookshelf in Speaker Sexton’s office, among his mementoes of a young but already accomplished political career, there are two books that tell stories of earlier political leaders who found ways to work across their partisan divide.

One of the two books is dark. It tells of the 1979 coup that ousted Governor Ray Blanton. Blanton had lost his compass, then lost his way, and in the end lost his job. Who removed him were leaders of his own party, one of them the Speaker of the House, Ned McWherter. The second book is full of light – how Republicans and Democrats through the 1980s and 1990s accomplished important things because they figured out how to work together.

For the better part of the past half-century, most Speakers of Tennessee’s House have been figures of respect, probity, forbearance, and also remarkable longevity. Some were regarded as more partisan than others, yet most accomplished a lot. Their names were Jim Cummings, Bill Jenkins, Ned McWherter, Jimmy Naifeh, Beth Harwell. These particular men and one woman served with particular distinction.

We now may hope the same for Speaker Sexton, however long he serves.

History is now his to write.