Marginalized Democrats Push for Openness

Democrats in the state senate say caucus meetings should be open to the public. Photo credit Blake Farmer/WPLN

Democrats in the state senate say caucus meetings should be open to the public. Photo credit Blake Farmer/WPLN

Democrats are trying to stay part of the lawmaking process, despite being outnumbered by more than two to one. In the state Senate, the minority party is trying to force meetings to be held in public.

The two-thirds majorities Republicans have mean they could debate behind closed doors, then pass almost anything without a single Democrat.

So Sen. Jim Kyle, the minority leader from Memphis, says party strategy sessions – called “caucus meetings” – should be open to the public.

“We will become relevant and we are relevant if we are right. And we are right in demanding open government.”

For most of the last 150 years, Democrats ruled the legislature, and Kyle says longtime Senate Speaker John Wilder had a policy of openness.

“Bull crap. Quote me on that. He may have been the most closed-meeting person I ever met in my life.”

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey remembers Democratic-rule differently. And he says there’s more openness in state government than ever before, citing how every committee meeting is now webcast.

A blanket proposal to open party caucus meetings to the public was considered by a special Senate rules committee late Wednesday. Committee chair Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, says he believes those meetings are already required to be open. A rule adopted two years ago forces open meetings if a quorum is present. And Republicans now make up a full quorum in the Senate.

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