Only ten days ago the script was set for the Arkansas House Republican Caucus. On election day, Republicans predicted that they would win over 60 seats in the House and elect Rep. Terry Rice as the first Republican Speaker of the House. Yet somewhere between then and now, things changed.
It could have been when the dust settled from election returns showing that while Republicans took the House, it was a razor thin 51-vote margin. It could have been somewhere along the way of how Republicans would lead the House once the majority was set. It could have been with the mistakes made last Friday as House members chose committee assignments and Republicans failed to take majorities on several key committees including Joint Budget, Public Health, and Insurance and Commerce. Or it could have been something entirely different.
Talk Business first broke the news on Tuesday afternoon that another Republican candidate was considering running. By that evening, I reported confirmation from numerous sources that Rep. Davy Carter was in discussions to enter the race. It was apparent that a small group of young conservative Republicans were seeking to advance Carter as a viable alternative to Rice. It was also apparent that most Democrats saw this as an opportunity to select a Republican that they felt would work in a bipartisan manner.
But Carter's candidacy was not certain and a very fluid situation evolved in the last 48 to 24 hours leading up to Thursday's vote. Carter met by phone and in person with incoming and returning House members, even traveling up to northwest Arkansas to meet with Republicans at Neal's Cafe as reported by Larry Henry with News 5. Wednesday evening, a pow-wow was reportedly held with Carter and Rice and their intermediaries, but no resolution was reached.
On Thursday morning, both parties met within their caucuses to discuss the strategy for the day. Democrats met briefly with a general consensus to support Rep. Darrin Williams in the initial vote, but then throw support to Carter if they were not successful in keeping Williams in office.
However just a few blocks away, Republicans met in a meeting that was much more contentious. The caucus meeting began at 7:00 am and lasted over four hours until shortly before they had to dismiss as the House convened at noon. Republicans were tight-lipped as to details of what was discussed, but the meeting was described by several members as “a mess.”
Just minutes before the gavel came down on the full House caucus, it was still not clear if Rep. Carter would run or even if Rep. Williams would lose the Speaker's chair.
Williams appealed to the House to keep him in his position pledging to work with both parties despite the fact that Republicans had taken a narrow majority. In the end, Williams was unable to obtain the 51 votes needed to retain the office with the final tally 49 against to 48 for.
After the vote, Williams withdrew his name from consideration, saying he was “not that stubborn” and that the vote went “exactly as (he) expected” and pledged to get behind whoever was elected Speaker.
“There was not a process for me to just step aside,” said Williams. “The folks who supported me asked me not to quit. I always told them that I would do what I asked them to do but I would not – for example – be in the second ballot if I didn't get a majority. The majority has spoken or at least didn't confirm me and it's fine.”
A bit of a scramble then took place as Reps. Rice and Carter remained behind the closed doors of the Speaker's office. Reporters even chased down Rep. John Burris as he went to the snack bar for crackers and created an interesting exchange.
When the House reconvened, a tension hung in the air as Moore gaveled in the session and called on Rep. Carter to address the House. An exhausted Carter gave an emotional speech which appeared to be off the cuff.
“We have challenges that we face that I honestly don't know the answer to and none of us obviously agree on how to solve these problems,” said Carter. “So we are going to disagree and that's okay. We shouldn't always agree. We owe that to the people of our districts and the people of this state. And I promise you that no matter what situation we are in to the best of my human ability that I will do what I think is the right thing to do and that is all that I can give. But we all know we are going to have to work together.”
Rice was then called to address the House where he repeated many of the same points he made in his speech he gave last year when he ran against Democratic Rep. Darrin Williams.
“If I am elected Speaker – I want to know this – I will consistently select House leadership on the basis on individual abilities and leadership qualities – please hear me – not of party affiliation,” promised Rice. “This is about fairness and I am a fair man and that is the only way that it will work for this body.”
But when the votes were announced, Rep. Carter was elected the new Speaker Designate with 52 votes to 45 votes for Rice. It is unknown how the partisan split fell, but it is perceived that most if not all Democrats voted for Carter. With 3 Democrats unable to attend or to submit an absentee vote that would put Carter's votes from Republicans around 6 or 7 depending on if any Democrats split to vote for Rice and how Green Party Rep. Fred Smith voted.
Afterwards, Carter met with the press who grilled him on how the events of the last week lead to his ascension to the Speaker's office.
“I am humbled to be here. I am honored to have been able to gather the bipartisan support on the floor today as all of you know the Speaker's race is very important to membership and I am honored that they have chosen to allow me to work for them.”
Carter insisted that he did not cut any deal to gain the Speaker's chair.
“My commitment has been to follow a leadership style similar to Speaker Moore's – that it represents the body of the General Assembly, that it is fair, that it is represented proportionally by party and I intend to follow through with that,” said Carter.
Carter said the the decision to run was an evolving process that picked up speed in the last few days. He emphasized that Rep. Rice is one of the finest men that he knows and his decision was not based on a lack of confidence in Rice's leadership.
You can see more of a picture in a timeline of the day here.