In a secret ballot today, the Republican Caucus voted to replace Judd Matheny from his second-in-command post in the House. They replaced him with Rep. Curtis Johnson of Clarksville. Since Republicans have a super majority, the Caucus decision is tantamount to the election. The vote was by secret ballot and vote totals were not made public, so no one knows whether Matheny lost by a single vote or a landslide.
Back in August, Matheny was threatening to mount a campaign to run against Speaker Beth Harwell for her post as Speaker of the House. Matheny is associated with the more extreme elements of the tea party. They are not necessarily more conservative than other Republicans, but tend to be dogmatic and are prone to embrace conspiracy theories. They helped engineer the defeat of Debra Maggart in her Republican primary race this year.
Much of the funding for this faction comes from Andrew Miller, a wealthy man who made his fortune in the health care industry. This faction is supportive of the guns-in-parking-lots bill and is concerned about what they see as the spread of Sharia law in Tennessee. Miller heads a group called Tennessee Freedom Coalition which supported various candidates in the primary. He is also a supporter of Lou Ann Zelenik, the anti Muslim zealot, who has tried several times to unseat Republican Representative Diane Black.
Earlier this year when the Department of Economic and Community Development hired a very qualified Tennessee native by the name of Samar Ali, who happened to be a Muslim, the Tennessee Freedom Coalition and the 9-12 group and others expressed angry opposition to Haslam. The 9-12 group took a full-page, $5000 ad in the Tennessean to denounce Haslam and several county parties passed resolutions condemning the hiring of Ms Ali. They feared her employment was a first step to imposing Sharia law in Tennessee. (To learn more about this go here, and here.)
Last year Matheny was the sponsor of a bill that would criminalize the practice of Sharia. Originally the bill was so broadly written that it would have criminalized the most benign of Muslim religious practices. The bill passes after it was rewritten and so watered down that it was pretty much meaningless and would do no harm nor good.
While Speaker pro tem really doesn’t do much, and while one should not read too much into this leadership change, I think it is a positive signal that the legislature will more likely focus on important issues such as education reform and economic growth rather than fighting phantom issues such as expansion of gun rights, Agenda 21, and Sharia law.