Thursday, June 09, 2011

Republicans Used to Like a Democrat Who Liked Them

Rodney E. Stanley and P. Edward French. Tennessee's John S. Wilder: The Longest Tenured State Legislator. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 2007.

John Wilder served for 36 years presiding over the Tennessee Senate as Speaker and the Senate, an office that also includes the title of Lieutenant Governor. Wilder is a Democrat but some claim he "thinks like a Republican." Wilder states "a good Democrat is a conservationist and a conservative businessman." He has won respect from people in both parties, as well as animosity from people in both parties who dislike a person who can often see both political sides.

In Tennessee, the Senate Speaker selects the Senate committee chair and vice chairs of nine committees. The Lt. Governor also decides which bills are referred to which committee. Wilder served 18 two year terms as Senate Speaker, making him the person who has presided over a legislature longer than anyone else in American history.

Wiilder is considered a "nominal Democrat" or "extremely conservative" Democrat who has appointed Republican Senators to chair committees. Wilder states he votes his conscious. One reason Wilder may have been able to remain a Lt. Governor is he was never viewed as using his office for advancement. He never ran for Governor, although he briefly considered running once, something his wife urged him not to do. He survived an attempt to oust him was Republicans Winfield Dunn and Lamar Alexander were Governor. He survived a Democratic Party split. He finally was ousted as Speaker in 2007.

Wilder describes himself as a Jeffersonian Democrat who supports the free market and dislikes government subsidies to farmers. He argues without subsidies that more food to food more people would be produced at lower costs. Wilder, like Jefferson, dislikes political parties. He believes partisanship harms progress.

Wilder is very religious. He believes people should talk to Jesus daily. From that, people will better love and respect others.

Wilder grew up in a farming family. U.S. Senator Jim Sasser convinced Wilder to become involved with the National Soil District which was created to conserve water and soil and prevent another dust bowl. He then became President of the Tennessee Agriculture Council in 1959.

Wilder ran for the Senate in 1959. He was named Vice Chairman of the Senate's Agriculture Committee and Secretary of the Conservation Committee based on his past experiences. He was defeated for reelection by the County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman, Jimmy Walker, who was also Mayor of Bethel Springs. Walker lost reelection to William Cobb in 1964. In 1966, Wilder defeated Cobb for reelection.

The 1966 Wilder-Cobb election was marred by the theft of some ballot boxes before the ballots were counted. They were found in bushes and the ballots then counted. The ballots increased Wilder's previous thin lead.

In 1971, the Senate elected Wilder as Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Senate. The previous Lt. Governor, Frank Gorrell, helped make the legislature more independent from the Governor. Gorrell had challenged the right of the Governor to appoint the Senate Speaker. He also helped change the Tennessee legislature to having annual rather than biannual sessions.

The Tennessee Constitution states the Senate Speaker serves as Governor in the Governor's absence. The Lt, Governor is a symbolic title, except for also serving as Vice Chairman of the Building Commission and as an ex officio member of the Council of Pensions and Retirement. The Senate Speaker serves on the Fiscal Review Committee.

The General Assembly in Tennessee appoints the Secretary of State, Comptroller of the Treasury, and the State Treasurer. This is a power not found in most other states giving Tennessee legislators and their leaders greater influence.

Tennessee created the Joint Legislative Service Committee in 1977 which is co-chaired by the Senate and House Speakers. This committee hires people to direct legislative administration, legal services, budget analysis, and information services.

Wilder became known for defending his constituents’ values. A slogan he used in his campaigns was “I will be as close as your telephone."

The Tennessee Senate served two year terms until 1966. Afterwards, they served staggered four year terms with half the Senate elected every two years. The Senate elects it’s Speaker every two years.

Wilder was a strong supporter of Speaker Gorrell. Wilder was elected to succeed Gorrell on the basis he would continue Gorrell's work. Wilder detested partisan politics which allowed him to work well with almost all Senators from both parties. He makes appointments form both parties, a rarity in American legislative politics.

In Tennessee, the Lt. Governor succeeds as full Governor if the Governor resigns or dies. This has happened four times in Tennessee history. If the Lt. Governor becomes Governor during the first 18 months of a Governor's term, a special election for the rest of the term would be held at the following general election for the rest of the term. If the Lt, Governor becomes Governor after 18 months into the term, the Lt. Governor will serve as Governor for the remainder of the term.

Wilder began serving as Senate Speaker in 1973 during tumultuous debate over redistricting as the courts had struck down a plan the legislature had previously developed. Wilder felt the courts had overreached in their intervention in redistricting. Wilder felt certain parts of the state were overrepresented. He defended representation for his western part of the state,

Wilder sponsored legislation that was enacted that had judges appointed by the Governor with an evaluation committee. The evaluation committee would have four appointees by the Senate Speaker, four by the House Speaker, and seven by the Governor. Wilder argued this gave the legislative branch more power.

Sen. Riley Darnell, a Democrat, challenged Wilder for Senate Speaker in 1987. 15 Democrats supported Darnell but they could not get two other Democrats to join them. Senate Republicans voted for Wilder, allowing him to win by 18 ti 15. Wilder removed six Democrats who oppose dhim from their committee chairmanships. That led another attempt to remove Wilson in 1987. Wilder won this time by 20 to 13. By 1991, Wilder and dissident Democrats reached an agreement.

The state Republican Party Chairman made an effort to defeat Wilder for reelection to his Senate seat in 2000. The state Republicans allocated $80,000 in this unsuccessful effort. In 2004, Wilder's campaign cost $870,364 while his Republican opponent Ron Stallings spent $203,948, making this one of the most expensive legislative campaigns in history.

The FBI indicted several Tennessee legislators on bribery charges. Wilder felt some were entrapped.

Wilder fought for prison privatization. The Corrections Corporation of America now operates several privatized prisons in Tennessee.

Republican Senators who supported Wilder were threatened with primary opposition if they continued voting for Wilder for Speaker. Wilder was defeated by Ron Ramsey, a Republican, for Senate Speaker in 2007 by 18 to 15. Two former Wilder supporters switched sides. Ramsey became the first Republican Lt. Governor since Dorsey Thomas in 1871.


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