Odom's Quandary: How Some Plain Talk by the House Democratic Leader Generated a Controversy 

For much of last week, going into the current one, Gary Odom of Nashville, the leader of the Democratic Party in the state House of Representatives, was experiencing a dramatic reversal of fortune. Suddenly endangered were not only the laurels he seemed to have won by engineering the election of Democrat-friendly East Tennessee Republican Kent Williams as House Speaker but, indeed, Odom's own position of party leadership.

A rebellion swelled up in House Democratic ranks, ostensibly over remarks made by Odom during a visit to Memphis weekend before last. Led mainly by close allies of former House speaker Jimmy Naifeh but including also Democrats close to Odom himself, like fellow Nashvillian Mike Turner, the party's caucus chairman in the House, the challenge was based on two matters: What Odom said about the origins and timeline of Williams' ascent to the Speakership, and what he said about Naifeh's legacy as Speaker.

The two issues conflate in the sense that both concern Naifeh's role. On the question of how Williams came to be Speaker, not only Odom but several specific others - including, importantly, Williams himself - concurred from the beginning that Naifeh knew nothing of the Williams ploy until 5 p.m. the evening before the vote. Until then Naifeh was by all accounts, including his own, still preoccupied with trying to round up votes for himself.

At the height of last week's furor, Turner and state Representative John Litz of Morristown, a Democrat and Williams confidante, held a press conference in which they outlined a counter-theory, one in which Naifeh had been an active collaborator in the maneuver which would see Williams cast his own vote, along with those of 49 Democrats, to overcome Republican House leader Jason Mumpower, who had expected to gain the Speakership in a chamber which had a 50-49 Republican edge after last fall's election.

On the surface, it would seem that the two extant chronologies are inconsistent with each other , though there are some who argue - a la left hands not knowing what right hands are doing - that the rival versions are compatible. The meta-issue would seem to be whether Naifeh comes off better as somebody who helped mastermind the Williams coup or as somebody who stayed free and clear of a plot which still riles partisan anger.

The other point of contention regarding Odom concerned the wisdom of his having offered opinions in Memphis regarding what he saw as the negative effect of Naifeh's erstwhile support of income tax proposals on party fortunes and the need for Democrats to chart a different course regarding that still tender subject.

Perhaps Leader Odom was indiscreet in having so spoken (to a handful of political adepts at an after-hours gathering following a formal reception for Williams and himself with local Democrats), and perhaps he regarded his remarks - though not accompanied by "off the record" or "between you and me" or any of the usual disclaimers - as meant privately rather than publicly.

In any case, there was nothing inherently either treasonous or disrespectful about what he said, and, as somebody who strongly opposed income-tax legislation back during the legislative wars of the late '90s and early 2000's, and as somebody who now has a position of influence within his party, Odom may have both a right and duty to espouse a different view on the issue than once prevailed in Democratic ranks.

Reality and protocol both dictate that Gary Odom now make amends and pay some kind of public homage to the distinguished Jimmy Naifeh, whom - it is well known - he considered challenging for the speakership had the Democrats maintained their House majority. But that is not the same thing as needing to backtrack on his political philosophy or his views concerning his party's proper political tactics.

Odom's fellow Democrats elected him to a leadership role two legislative sessions ago in search of an aggressive, alternative mode. It would be ironic indeed if he should now be penalized for supplying it

UPDATE Leader Odom apparently met with the Democratic caucus Monday night and apologized directly to Naifeh. He also apparently attempted to maintain that the Flyer's account of his remarks in Memphis were inaccurate in some way. This is untrue and unacceptable, and proofs are likely to be forthcoming.

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