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Willie Stark Would Be Proud

It's a story of southern political intrigue worth of Robert Penn Warren: A few weeks ago the Tennessee House of Representatives, with 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, was set to seat its first GOP speaker in 40 years. The Republican caucus had secured an informal promise from all its members to support a GOP candidate, presumably the leadership's favorite, Jason Mumpower. This was a problem for the Dems, since Mumpower, bucking tradition, was refusing to divide the committee chairmanships proportionately, claiming instead a winner-take-all mandate.

So a few weeks before the speaker vote, the Democratic leadership secretly met with moderate Republican Kent Williams, promising him their unified support if he'd stand against Mumpower (though Williams claims he approached them). The plan was so secret that most Democrats didn't even know about it until minutes before the vote, when the caucus leadership called them into a conference room and laid out the plan. When the vote went forward, Williams beat Mumpower, 50-49. Williams then apportioned the committee memberships equally, and gave the GOP seven out of 13 chairmanships. Reportedly, some Republicans even cried. Watch this highlight reel for some good downhome political theater.

As a result, the GOP has only titular leadership of the House, while Williams, who does not serve on any committees, will cast the tie breaker in any deadlock, giving him immense power. But Williams is essentially a captive of the Democrats' wishes. (said Williams to his colleagues after the vote: "I'm a Republican but not for much longer because you guys are going to kick me out, probably," and, indeed, they booted him from the caucus soon after.)

It remains to be seen whether the Dems can keep Williams--who told a post-vote press conference that he'd rather see a recession than vote for government spending--in line. But for a state party long in disarray, this is a brilliant show of political sleight-of-hand. Now, if they can only pull off a similar miracle in next year's gubernatorial election ...

--Clay Risen