FIRST DAY ON THE HILL
After I huffed my way to the top of the Tennessee State Capitol building so that I might attend the 113th General Assembly’s opening floor sessions, I caught sight of Magical Miss Mothie. Blue from head to toe in a sequin dress, tinsel wig, and tiara, the self-proclaimed queen of planet Ferina was in the midst of a pre-session protest: littered around the building’s entrance were signs reading “Bill 3 Is Transphobic” and “Physicians for Abortion.”
Once inside, the 164-year-old building commanded my full attention; the entry hall’s gravitas has a way of enveloping both the outside protest chants and the business within to create a cardinal kind of synergy. Designed by renowned Philadelphia architect William Strickland, the building is modeled after a Greek Ionic temple. Unfortunately, Strickland died suddenly in 1854 during construction, but remains close to his masterpiece; his body is buried in the north facade of the building.
Though the state museum offers guided tours, the character of the Tennessee State Capitol tends to tell on itself. For all the building's grandeur, you can't help but notice its human-like qualities: stairwell steps worn from foot traffic and corners smoothed from centuries of legislators milling about outside the chamber give you a feeling of being directly connected to the past. Walking through the steep and narrow passageways leading to the House and Senate galleries humbles you before you take a step onto the balcony overlooking the booming, grand chambers.
On the floor, it was back to business, a buoyant reunion of sorts as both the Senate and House went about getting things in order for the convening of the legislature.
SENATE FLOOR SESSION
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-5) was elected for the fourth time as the Tennessee senate speaker. After a nomination on the floor from Senator Jack Johnson (R-27), McNally drew laughter from the crowd as he cast the final vote for (surprise!) himself. Fading chuckles soon broke into loud cheering as the final vote count was taken and he accepted the position.
McNally made sure to boast about the strength of Tennessee and its conservative leadership during his acceptance speech, not missing an opportunity to criticize federal leadership before getting right to business. Some surprise was seen in the faces of gallery attendees as a complaint filed regarding the election in senatorial district 21 was addressed on the floor. McNally promptly assigned an ad hoc committee to investigate the complaint.
After passing all filed bills on first introduction, Johnson pulled some laughter from fellow senators by encouraging many of them to update their official pictures. “I’ve seen some of your photos and they’re getting a little dated,” quipped the senator. The same mixture of banter and business was carried out in the House chamber.
HOUSE FLOOR SESSION
Members immediately threw out shouts of cheer following the nomination of Representative Cameron Sexton (R-25) for Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. “It is an honor and privilege to nominate Representative Cameron Sexton as the next speaker of the house for the 113th General Assembly,” said Representative Sam Whitson (R-65) enthusiastically. This was a stark difference compared to the silence that fell in the chamber following Representative Gloria Johnson’s (D-90) nomination of Representative John Ray Clemmons (D-55). The final announcement of the vote tally ended in a standing ovation before Sexton was sworn in as the victor of his peers for the position.
Business barely ensued before various representatives began captivating their audience with a show of banter and jokes. “Alright members, your first duty: we have visitors invading us from the senate, do we hear them now or do we wait,” asked Sexton coyly. After a roar of laughter from the floor: “I hear wait! Alright, next order of business is the appointment of the officers of the house...”
All filed bills on first introduction were promptly passed, with the exception of HB16 which was removed. After both a pretend parking czar and committee were appointed to monitor poor parking by legislators— a piece of business jokingly introduced after an email complaining about people’s parking skills was accidentally sent via “reply all” by Representative Torrey Harris (D-91) (“We’ve all been there!”)—the session ended with a laugh.
All joking aside, the cordial nature that permeated the Tennessee State Capitol yesterday will soon be tested. Will the hostile tone of Tennessee Democrats spill out during floor sessions? Will the unity among Tennessee Republicans prove to be more performative than earnest? Time will tell.