April 02–NASHVILLE — Tennessee Democrats say they want no part of Republican legislation that would remove the nomination of the state’s two U.S. senators from open primary elections decided by voters and give the power to the party caucuses in the state legislature.
Voters would continue electing the senators, on ballots with independent candidates and the party nominees selected by lawmakers.
The bill was scheduled for a state Senate floor vote Monday night but was delayed to the last day of the legislature’s 2013 session later this month after a brief debate. The sponsor, Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plaines, made it clear that he would like to repeal the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that moved selection of U.S. senators from state legislatures to popular election but acknowledged that “at this point in history, I think that would be almost impossible.”
The 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, and Nicely told the Senate that “1913 was a very unlucky year for Americans. We got the income tax, we got the central bank and legislators lost their ability to elect the Senate.”
But Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron called a Capitol Hill news conference to denounce the bill and ask that his party be removed from its provisions, allowing contested primary elections to continue to select Democratic nominees for the Senate.
“Democrats believe that the people should pick the politicians, instead of the politicians picking each other. But now the April foolishness of radical Republicans want to steal the people’s right to vote to nominate our United States senators,” Herron said.
Like most states, Tennessee holds primary elections to select party nominees for the Senate, followed by general elections.
Prior to ratification of the 17th Amendment, state legislatures actually elected their state’s U.S. senators, while voters elected members of the House of Representatives.
Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown also denounced the bill on the Senate floor. “This bill is anti-democratic, this bill smells of elitism and it would open up a system that was and would be in the future rife with corruption. It is a bad idea,” he said.
Herron noted that the bill initially was up for a state Senate vote on the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s ratification of the 17th amendment, on April 1, 1913. “Radical Republicans want to take us back to the 1800s, where incident after incident of corruption eventually led to the 17th Amendment and the people’s right to elect their U.S. senators,” he said.
The House version of the bill, HB 415, is set for House committee review Tuesday.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said last week he favors the bill because he believes legislative nomination of senators would get the U.S. Senate to focus more on what state officials want .
“I’m going to vote for it. I think it’s an interesting concept. It goes back to the founding fathers’ original idea that the way you keep Congress, and especially keep the U.S. Senate, in close touch with the states is they originally were elected by the state Senate. Obviously we can’t go back to that because of the 17th Amendment, but at the same time, this is a way that we can actually choose the candidate and make them responsible. In general, states are being run well; the federal government is completely broken and there’s got to be something to get their attention, and this could be it,” Ramsey said.