GOP to vet state officer candidates
By Theo Emery • THE TENNESSEAN
November 16, 2008
Since Republicans gained majority status in both the state House and Senate on Election Day, one of the most hotly debated topics has been who would seek appointments as the state’s constitutional officer positions of treasurer, comptroller and secretary of state.
The new GOP majority is about to make a major change to that process, upturning long-standing practices to add transparency, weed out unqualified candidates, and iron some of the patronage out of what has long been a political process.
Under the Republicans’ new vetting system, which is in the final stages of completion, candidates for the positions would apply for the job, go through background checks, and face questions at a public hearing.
The proposal’s architect, Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, said it will create a “level playing field” and transparency for what has long been a closed-door system of selecting political insiders.
“It’s been decades since people have even had an opportunity to understand what these officials do. It could be enlightening in a number of respects. I think it’s a positive thing to approach it in a business-like manner,” he said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has said his one concern about the new GOP-controlled General Assembly is making sure constitutional officers get appointed who have qualifications and skills to handle those jobs, particularly given the state’s troubled economic condition.
Under the current system, candidates are essentially handpicked before the joint convention, with a consensus on who will be the Democratic candidate and who would be the Republicans’. With Democrats in the majority, there was rarely any ambiguity over which candidate would prevail when the legislature voted as a whole.
Panel to narrow field
The new process would be similar to the state’s selection process for judges, which reviews qualifications of judicial candidates before referring candidates to the governor for appointment.
The review committee of Republicans would whittle the candidates down to as many as three, whom the entire GOP caucus would then vote on. The winners would then become the party’s nominees and would go before the entire General Assembly for appointment.
The process would apply only to how the GOP chooses their caucus’ candidates. Democrats would be free to select their own candidates as they see fit, but with Republicans now in the majority, it is their nominees that would be likely be appointed.
In the week since the elections, there has been plenty of backroom talk about who would seek the positions. Names in circulation for secretary of state include former State Sen. Jim Bryson; Tre´ Hargett, a former House member and currently chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority; and Deborah Tate, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.
Justin Wilson, a chief policy adviser for Gov. Don Sundquist, is interested in being comptroller. Former Sundquist Revenue Commissioner Ruth Johnson has been named as a contender for treasurer, along with Ira Brody, an investment banker and former aide to former New York Gov. George Pataki.
Rosalind Kurita, who was just voted out of her Senate seat, was considered a candidate for secretary of state, but now appears unlikely because of Republican opposition. Former U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, another early candidate, said he’s no longer interested.