Under East Tennessee's Influence
The state's traditional base of Republican power is overrepresented in legislative leadership. But probably not for long.
by ian round • May 10, 2021
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, brings the gavel down on may 5 to adjourn the state senate for the year. (Screenshot courtesy of tennessee general assembly)
A disproportionate number of high-ranking lawmakers in the General Assembly are from East Tennessee, a fact at odds with the region’s long history in the political minority of state politics.
Even as the GOP has become Tennessee's majority party, its geographic center is shifting.
Among committee chairs and Republicans in House and Senate leadership positions, East Tennesseans occupy 24 out of 53 spots. Out of 43 people in those spots (some hold more than one), 19 are from the mountains. On the flipside, West Tennessee is underrepresented in the same positions.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who represents Oak Ridge and a portion of Knox County, is the longest serving member of the state Senate. A member of the minority party for most of his lawmaking career, he now appoints Senate committee chairs and has great power over what legislation passes.
McNally appointed colleagues from Appalachian districts as chairs of seven committees, including some of the most influential:
- Judiciary: Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville
- Finance, Ways and Means: Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson
- State and Local Government: Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville
The Senate also elected Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, as Deputy Speaker.
In the lower chamber, Middle Tennessee lawmakers occupy more leadership positions, with Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, at the top. But Sexton did give 10 of 25 committee gavels to East Tennesseans, and one of the most prominent members of his leadership team, Rep. Jeremy Faison, is from Cocke County.
Of course, geography isn’t the only way the General Assembly is imbalanced. There are far more men, white people and Republicans than their shares of the population.
These trends don’t hold among Democratic lawmakers. Almost all of them are from Nashville and Memphis, with a handful from other urban parts of the state. Most are Black, and women see more representation, both among all members and in leadership. Only one Democrat chairs a committee.
Minority to Supermajority
Republicans have held political power in East Tennessee since the Civil War, but they’ve been the minority party statewide for most of that time, with a few notable exceptions.
“The south was always Democrat,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. “(But) a Democrat 20 years ago was not the Democrat of today.”
The state had been run mostly by Democrats until 2010, the year of the first midterm election after Barack Obama became the first Black president.
“The rural areas, very conservative, started flipping parties,” White said.
Republicans made massive gains across the country and took control of the Tennessee General Assembly. Within just a few years, they won a supermajority in both chambers, having completely overtaken mostly-white rural areas in Middle and West Tennessee.
And when they won majorities, leadership positions went to the members with the most seniority. Of the nine longest-serving state senators, seven are from East Tennessee.
“We got a lot of new people” in West Tennessee, White said.
No Incentive for Moderation
But the Democratic and Republican parties of today have little in common politically with earlier versions of themselves.
The Democrats who represented rural areas were traditionally quite conservative, the architects of the Jim Crow segregation laws. And since East Tennessee’s economy was more dependent on mining than slavery, there was a stronger pro-labor segment of the Republican Party.
The fact that Republicans had a strong presence in Tennessee made some Democrats less hostile to Black people, according to Sekou Franklin, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University. Tennessee senators voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
“The Republicans back then were for the most part Lincoln Republicans,” Franklin said. Now, Republicans are “more like the Jim Crow Democrats.”
“Tennessee is unique because, probably more than any other state, maybe with the exception of Texas, the white Democratic leader in Tennessee was probably willing to take more risks on race than other Democrats,” Franklin said.
Even though party leadership flipped, the General Assembly remained conservative.
But now, Republicans have accumulated so much power that leaders see little incentive for moderation or bipartisanship. Instead, according to Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, they now pursue solutions to “Fox News problems.”
Kate Craig, chair of the Washington County Democratic Party, said Republicans have become increasingly extreme in recent years. Craig, a masculine-presenting lesbian, said she’s received death threats for her vocal support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Politics weren’t the same in Johnson City when Craig was growing up there; she made sure to stay away from home on election night, just to be sure.
“I didn’t (used to) fear for my safety,” Craig said. “I think that’s important to point out.”
All Roads Lead to Middle Tennessee
Observers don’t expect East Tennessee's position as a political power center to last long. All signs are pointing to Middle Tennessee, where the economy is booming and the population is growing.
While lawmakers from the state capital have little say in the legislature, Williamson County, just south of Nashville, is home to some of the most powerful Republicans in the state, including Gov. Bill Lee.
“The power base is clearly in Williamson County,” Franklin said.
White, the Memphis Republican, said it’s possible that Middle Tennessee will pick up seats in Congress after this year’s Census reapportionment, while the other two grand divisions could lose seats. (The state will keep the same number of seats overall.)
In East Tennessee, Democrats made gains in some pockets between 2016 and 2020, and organizers are trying to revive the latent progressive movement.
“I think if Biden and the Dems in D.C. can deliver on what they’ve promised, it will continue to trend that way,” said Brad Batt, a Johnson City Democrat who lost a race for a state House seat in 2020.
“Many in the Tennessee GOP have adopted Trump’s rhetoric of blaming immigrants for all our problems and calling any successful government investment ‘socialism,’” Batt said. “It’s ridiculous and their scare tactics will only work for so long ... If the Dems deliver on their promises then the GOP rhetoric is going to wear thin real quick.”