Gloria Johnson thought she knew what to expect.
It hadn’t been any picnic to be a Democrat serving in a state House when she’d been there the first time. Republicans had taken control, and Beth Harwell was speaker. But this time around it’s Glen Casada commanding a GOP super majority, and things are meaner, scarier and getting downright macabre.
The picture of Johnson standing on the House floor with her arm in the air waiting to be recognized to speak during deliberations of the “Heartbeat” abortion bill is one of the iconic images of the 2019 session. It’s not like Casada couldn’t see her – she’s 6-3 and impossible to miss – but she stood there for nearly 45 minutes waiting for the nod that never came. Casada topped this unprecedented act of boorishness when, on the last day of the session, he attempted to prevent the Democrats from denying him a quorum by ordering the sergeants-at-arms to lock them into the chamber.
Casada, who used to be married, could probably have gotten away with grinding Democrats into the dirt every chance he got and labeling himself a “Christ follower” while spending his evenings in dive bars drinking with female lobbyists in the days before cell-phone cameras and Twitter accounts. But this is 2019, and he’s taking incoming fire every night from investigative reporter Phil Williams and has so many Republicans complaining about his banana-republic tactics that he’s hanging onto his speakership – and maybe even his seat – by a thread.
Casada’s debut session has alienated Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Gov. Bill Lee, who is showing precious little gratitude for Casada’s ramrodding Lee’s wildly unpopular voucher bill to victory. Even worse, the speaker’s strong-arm tactics have allegedly triggered an FBI investigation, which supersedes the stories about his $200,000-a-year former chief-of-staff’s racist and sexist slurs on social media.
So it’s been a heck of a year at the Ledge – but Johnson, who laughs a lot, still manages to find humor in Nashville’s hot mess.
“I expected to get the bad office. That doesn’t bother me,” she said of the hard-to-find office suite she shares with Bo Mitchell on the fourth floor of the Cordell Hull Building. Lobbyists have dubbed it “the penalty box.”
“It’s a big, square building, and everybody else’s office is on the halls – not mine and Bo’s. You have to walk through a maze of research analysts to get to our office,” she said, putting virtual quotation marks around the term “research analysts.”
She was kind of a super rookie this session, having been elected once before in 2012, but having her tenure cut short when she lost (narrowly) to Republican Eddie Smith in 2014, and then again (narrowly) to Smith in 2016. She beat Smith handily in 2018.
Casada’s “research analysts” are typically young GOP politicos with the buzzed “Proud Boys” haircuts and close-trimmed beards favored by the tiki-torch marchers, and many of them have side jobs as campaign consultants (several of Casada’s young henchmen worked in Jimmy Matlock’s sharp-elbowed and unsuccessful congressional-primary campaign). One of them has moved into a cubicle right up against the notoriously paper-thin walls outside Johnson’s door and tends to show up in places where Johnson is going.
“Jeremy Faison (a Cocke County Republican out of favor with the speaker) calls them ‘hall monitors,’” Johnson said the day after returning from a quick day trip to Nashville to check on a rumored ethics committee meeting. “Yesterday, that little guy was in that cubicle all day.”
She figures she knew the environment would be tough this year, based on warnings she was hearing:
“Forget about passing any legislation – I heard it pretty much immediately,” she said. “I’d heard that five members would not pass a bill this session: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, London Lamar, David Hawk and me.”
Did it come true?
“Yep. I’m pretty sure it did.”
Clemmons, Mitchell, Lamar and Johnson got blacklisted because they are strong, vocal Democrats. Hawk, a Greene County Republican, is there because he unsuccessfully challenged Glen Casada for the speakership. Johnson said Casada himself told one of her colleagues that the five of them would be frozen out.
This dovetails neatly with the talk at home in Knoxville, where the anti-Johnson campaign started buzzing during last year’s election season – “Gloria Johnson won’t work across the aisle.”
She was labeled extremist and ineffective. Republican TV pundit Susan Richardson Williams confronted her about it on the air.
“Republicans had their talking points on me. I was unhinged and angry – the Angry Liberal Who Wouldn’t Get Anything Done.”
So she knew she’d get a bad office and that her bills would be stymied (although someone else’s watered-down kindergarten portfolio bill, similar to a bill she supported, managed to squeak through).
Committee assignments were brutal, too. She recalls somewhat fondly that back in 2013, Speaker Harwell would meet with members to discuss committee preferences.
“Beth Harwell said, ‘Give me three choices. You’re guaranteed to get two of them.’ I asked for Education, Health and Environment/Agriculture. I got my second and third choices. This year, they said, ‘Give me three choices.’ I got zero.”
Johnson had allowed herself to hope for decent assignments after attending freshman orientation, presided over by Majority Leader William Lamberth.
“Theoretically, they look at your history, your background to see who has the experience and expertise for that area. But that’s absolutely not what they did in practice. You don’t look at all of that and put me on Local Government. I’ve never served on city council or county commission – why wouldn’t you put me where I have 27 years’ experience? Oh, because my teaching experience is in public education, not private education or home schooling …”
She said that there are many committees with only one Democrat, a system Casada engineered by creating numerous subcommittees. This means Democrats’ bills never make it to a recorded vote because they die for lack of a second.
As for being ignored on the House floor, she says that’s not something she recalls Harwell ever doing, and she asked to meet with Speaker Casada afterward. She says he told her she was being punished because she had supported the women who accused Education Subcommittee chair David Byrd, a Casada crony who was a high school girls’ basketball coach, of having molested them when they were teenagers.
“He told me it was retaliation for being involved with the Byrd protesters. I took (Rep.) Mike Stewart with me as a witness, and Glen literally told me the reason he did it was I was involved in the protest of Byrd in the committee room. They didn’t talk during the committee meeting, and I will be with them in that room any time they can be there. I asked him, ‘Does that mean you’re never going to let me talk on the floor? When you won’t let me speak on the floor, that’s 65,000 voters in my district not being heard, and my constituents are as important as your constituents. So you decide in Tennessee who needs to be heard?’
“I hate to say this is a retaliatory regime. Before, I would have felt paranoid saying that. But now Republicans are saying it, too. It’s not just Democrats. It’s as bad as what’s happening in Washington – we’ve even got our own pee tape (a reference to the allegation that GOP Rep. Rick Tillis’ chair was urinated on by one of Casada’s Proud Boys who suspected that Tillis was CHBmole – the anonymous author of a tell-all Twitter account critical of Casada).
“I firmly believe that people need to know what’s going on down there,” Johnson said.