The Fight For 51 And The Speaker’s Chair (UPDATED)

by Jason Tolbert ([email protected]) 122 views 

Right now, Republicans have the lead with 51 seats in the House, but it is not quite over.  The fight for the 51st seat as well as the Speaker’s chair continues.

In House District 52, Republican John Hutchison leads by only about 49 votes. According to the Secretary of State website, the race is 5,048 votes for Hutchison and 5,004 for his Democratic opponent L.J. Bryant.  In addition, the Craighead County Election Commission approved 13 out of 49 provisional ballots early this morning that put Hutchison up another 5 votes.  I am hearing there are also 4 military ballots that could come in.

So basically, Hutchinson barely leads.  There was discussion from the Bryant camp last night about 200 provisional ballots, but it appears this number is not accurate.  This may have been a total number for Craighead County and not just the House district.  It is not completely clear.

But what is clear is that Hutchison’s seat is necessary for the Republicans to have a clear 51-seat majority in the 100-seat Arkansas House.  It is certainly expected that Bryant will call for a recount since that seat is critical.  He has three days to so.  If the recount is unsuccessful, Bryant has to pay for the cost, but I am sure he could get some help with that from Democratic supporters.

Either way, Bryant tells me today that he has not yet reached a decision.  I have heard from Republican sources that a legal team is on their way to Craighead County to make sure that no funny business goes on up there.

With the 51st seat up in a razor-thin lead, Democratic Speaker-designate Rep. Darrin Williams issued an interesting statement that signals he is not ready to give up his chair to the Republican’s choice of Rep. Terry Rice just yet or maybe even anytime soon.

“This year’s House elections have been among the closest, most expensive and divisive campaigns in our state history. And today the outcome in District 52, and therefore the balance of power in the House, is still in question,” said Williams in a statement released by the House Communications Office.

He also hints that even if Republicans maintain 51 seats, he is not yet conceding the Speaker’s Office.

“Regardless of the outcome, I pledge, as I did back in March when my colleagues elected me Speaker-designate, to work with each member to move our state forward and continue the progress we have already achieved in so many areas,” said Williams. “The Speaker has always served at the will of the majority of the membership and there should be no difference in the 89th General Assembly, regardless of which party holds the majority in the House of Representatives. ”

Although Williams was elected as the Speaker-designate on what was most certainly a straight party line vote, the Speaker actually is elected on the first day of the regular session in January 2013 by the new legislature, according to the House Rules.  This could present a bit of drama on the opening day.

In all likelihood, the House members will vote as a party and if the Republicans hold their 51 seats, they will elect Rep. Terry Rice as the Speaker.  But it could go a number of different ways.

For example, Williams could work on negotiating a deal with at least one or two Republicans offering goodies, such as a committee chairmanship in exchange for their vote for Speaker.  This would be highly unlikely that a Republican would make such a split, but it could happen and the possibility could – and perhaps will – give Williams the excuse to continue to operate as the Speaker-designate for the next two and half months.

Another somewhat wild scenario arose in Tennessee a few years ago when Republicans took control of the state house for the first time, but by only a single vote.

With 50 Republicans to 49 Democrats, Republicans expected their selection of Rep. Jason Mumpower to be elected.  But Democrats pulled a fast one and nominated Kent Williams for Speaker as well.  Williams was a moderate Republican who voted last as his name is last alphabetically. When it was his turn to vote, there were 49 votes for Mumpower and 49 votes for himself. He chose to go with himself and become the Speaker much to the anger of every other Republican.

A word of caution to any Republicans considering this deal.  It did not end well for Williams.  The Republican Caucus voted to kick him out leaving him a man without a party.  He refers to himself now as a “Carter County Republican” – whatever that means.  The next election, Republicans won a bigger majority and Williams is now basically ignored completely by both parties.

But the point is that such a closely-divided House could be very interesting as you can see in this video below from Tennessee.


UPDATE – A couple of interesting notes have come my way.

First, I am told that all election day voting in District 52 took place on electronic machines, not paper ballots. Therefore, a recount would only be for the handful of absentee and an even smaller number of provisional ballots. The chance of this recount changing the result is virtually non-existent.

Secondly, there is a little known provision – ACA 10-2-107 – that could force a new election for Speaker-designate from the new incoming House members.

10-2-107. Election of Speaker of the House of Representatives in doubt — Procedure.

(a) If, after the biennial general election and prior to the convening of the regular session, a statement signed by fifty (50) or more members of the House of Representatives who will serve at the next-following regular session of the General Assembly is filed with the current Speaker of the House of Representatives stating that the members believe that the formal election of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives is in doubt, then the current Speaker of the House of Representatives shall call a one-day organizational meeting of all members and members-elect of the House of Representatives who will serve at the next regular session. This meeting shall be held for the single purpose of designating the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the next General Assembly.