For eight or nine years, I had dinner with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey once a week on average during the five-plus months that the legislative sessions lasted. So when he announced this week he was not going to run for reelection, it brought back a flood of memories and history that few know and fewer, if any, even remember.
Ron (readers, pardon me for my informality, but I’m writing about my friend) and I talked a lot about issues and caucus matters when Republicans were the minority in the Senate. During the last two years of the Sundquist administration, a frequent topic was keeping our state income tax free and how the income tax had divided our caucus.
Ron and I felt that we needed stronger leadership in the caucus to oppose an income tax, but there were only two leadership positions available to the minority caucus—leader and caucus chair.
Given the Republican leader’s years of service and expected retirement in two years, our thoughts turned toward having a new caucus chair, the current chair being inclined toward supporting an income tax.
I didn’t really want to run for caucus chair for a number of reasons and, for those same reasons, I didn’t want to “move up the ladder” to run for caucus leader in two years.
But since Ron was interested in running for leader in two years, we settled on me running for caucus chair. He would run for leader two years later without opposition from me. I sent out a letter to the caucus announcing my interest in the position.
A few days later, Ron called. He said that someone had asked if he would consider running for caucus chair. He said that, on second thought, he would like to run. That was fine with me, and I withdrew and gave my support to Ron.
The anti-income tax members of our caucus prevailed in a pretty close vote and Ron became the caucus chair. With that, everything began to change.
What changed was what everyone now knows as Ron’s mantra, “It matters who governs.” Up to that point, Republican leadership in the Senate had reached a truce with Democrats under what was known at the “Wilder Coalition.”
For those who don’t know, the Wilder Coalition came together when Democrats tried to unseat then Speaker John Wilder, a Democrat, because he wasn’t Democrat enough. But he remained speaker when a few Democrats loyal to him joined the minority of Republicans to cobble together the 17 votes he needed to be elected speaker.
Speaker Wilder treated the Republicans pretty well, considering they were the minority party, giving Democrats only a one-vote majority on all the committees and letting Republicans chair some of the more minor committees. In sort of an unspoken truce, Republican senators didn’t ever try to defeat an incumbent Democrat. No one recruited challengers to Democrats, and those who decided to run on their own were on their own.
Ron was not willing to be in the minority, so he began raising more money and recruiting candidates to run against Democrats. When Ron did that, Democrats were shocked. The Wilder Coalition continued because Republicans were still in the minority, and Democrats could still not get rid of him because Wilder still had his loyalist.
Perhaps the Wilder loyalist never thought they’d see the day when Republicans could win enough Senate seats to be the majority party, or perhaps it just didn’t matter because personal loyalty to Wilder meant more to them than party control. But that was the beginning of the end for the Democratic Party in the Senate and eventually in the state Legislature.
A few years later, the Republicans had 17 of the 33 seats. Two Republican senators remained loyal to Wilder so he remained speaker, but when he did not give Republicans chairmanship of a majority of the committees or even chairmanship of the two biggies, Finance and Commerce, the coalition was sure to end. Two years later it did.
That’s some history about Ron’s journey to speaker and why his tenure is rightly seen as historic. Now I want to close with something about Ron’s retirement that is historic in another sense.
Few people attain to such a powerful position in political leadership, and if we look to modern history, most who leave their political positions do not leave of their own volition. Power is just too hard to give up. In the House, Speaker McWhorter became governor and his successor as speaker, Jimmy Naifeh, was defeated as speaker when he couldn’t pull together his own form of a Wilder Coalition. Of course, Speaker Wilder was defeated.
At the end of the day, the ultimate values I believe Ron ran for office to protect were the values that called him home. He listened when they called and let go of political power. That is historic. For me, it defines who he really is. And it’s a great example for others to follow.
Godspeed, my friend. Enjoy your family.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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