State Senator Jack Johnson Describes the Job of Majority Leader in Tennessee Senate and Upcoming Agenda

Nov 3, 2022

Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed State Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) in the studio to describe the Senate majority duties, relationships, and upcoming agenda in the Tennessee Senate.

Leahy: In the studio, our very good friend Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who represents most of Williamson County. Doesn’t have a challenger, so he’ll be re-elected five days from today on November 8.

Jack, tell us a little bit about the job of a state senator as a majority leader. What do you do? What’s your relationship with the President of the Senate, Randy McNally, who is also a lieutenant governor, the way it works here, and how do you relate to your other Republican colleagues?

There are 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats. How do you relate to the Democrats? What’s the job of being a majority leader in the state Senate?

Johnson: Sure. You hit the nail on the head. First of all, our leadership structure, the Speaker of the Senate, who is our lieutenant governor, Randy McNally, who is a great friend and a wonderful mentor to me and others in the Senate, he’s our longest-serving member.

He’s forgotten more about state government than most of us will ever know, I’ll say that. So we’re very lucky and fortunate to have him where he is.

And then you have the majority leader or the Republican leader, and that’s because the Republican Party is the majority party. That makes me the majority leader. Jeff Yarborough from right here in Nashville is the Democratic leader, and he’s the minority leader.

So my job is to work with my colleagues and focus more on the policy side of things. We have our caucus chairman who’s also in leadership, Ken Yager. He’s kind of more focused on the political side of things, working with our members, and so forth.

I focus a lot on policy, be it the governor’s agenda. And when Governor Lee has a legislative initiative, I’m the Senate sponsor of that legislation, and I work with my colleagues to try to get that advanced. It’s also my job to tell the governor when I don’t think we’re going to be amenable to something that he proposes.

Leahy: So the perception is that when there’s an agenda for the governor, his team and he developed an agenda item, a series of bills they want to introduce, but he doesn’t just go out and introduce them. He talks to you. He talks to Lieutenant Governor McNally. He talks to Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton.

Johnson: Absolutely.

Leahy: And basically he says, will this thing fly?

Johnson: Exactly.

Leahy: Are there times when you say, love you, Governor, but this thing, I don’t think it’s going to fly?

Johnson: Well, obviously, the governor is a great friend, and we’re both – I would consider us both very conservative Republicans, and so we agree most of the time, but certainly there are times that we don’t agree, or maybe I agree with him.

But I go back and talk to my colleagues, and we use the term “I feel a cool breeze blowing” on a particular idea. So it’s equally my job to go back to the governor and say, hey, what you’re proposing, Governor, I don’t think we can get across the finish line.

Or, maybe suggest changes or say, I think if we approach it from this angle, I think we can get there. But obviously when it comes to things he’s proposed, like the Heartbeat Bill and tax cuts and things like that, most of the things the Governor’s proposed find broad support.

But yes, it’s a two-way street. It’s to be supportive of his agenda when I can be and my colleagues can be, but also to work with him when maybe we’re not on the same page.

Leahy: Now, the other part about this that’s sort of interesting is, back to the constitution of the state of Tennessee. Just structurally, the Tennessee General Assembly, that is, the Tennessee State Senate and the Tennessee House, have a lot of power in the state. And to me, as I read it, it’s because you can override a veto of the Governor with just a majority vote in both Houses. Is that right?

Johnson: That is correct. That is correct. Unlike the federal government where it takes a two-thirds vote of both chambers to override a presidential veto. So it very rarely happens because very rarely in our history has either party had a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

But you’re right, and I’ll give you an example. We had legislation back during the Bredesen administration relative to the ability of a carry permit holder for carrying a weapon, to be able to take that into a restaurant that served alcohol.

And that was illegal and we said it shouldn’t be illegal. Now, it’s illegal to consume alcohol while you’re carrying a weapon, but if you want to go and have iced tea and some chicken fingers and the restaurant doesn’t care, you should be able to take your weapon in.

Governor Bredesen vetoed that legislation and then we overrode his veto. It doesn’t happen a lot, but I will say Governor Lee in his entire first term did not veto a single bill passed by the general assembly.

Leahy: But it’s a power.

Johnson: Exactly.

Leahy: And in the state of Tennessee, if the leadership of the state Senate is aligned with the leadership of the Tennessee House, that is a very powerful combination. And what I’ve seen is extraordinary cooperation between Lieutenant Governor McNally, the president of the state senate, and Speaker Cam Sexton.

Johnson: Yes.

Leahy: It seems to me that ideologically the Senate and the House are very closely aligned in ways that perhaps previously in Tennessee state history didn’t happen.

Johnson: Absolutely. And it’s not lost on me or my colleagues. We are in this incredible situation right now as a state, and with that, I think, comes tremendous responsibility because we have these supermajorities.

We are very closely aligned. We have some really incredible men and women serving in both the House and the Senate. And that’s one reason our state is in the incredible condition that it’s in right now is that we’ve been able to work together now, I would say, and it’s not going to happen.

But can you imagine being a Democrat governor with these supermajority Republican legislatures, both the Senate and the House, with everything that you said, our ability to override vetoes with a simple majority.

Leahy: Let me just say, let me paraphrase something that Barack Obama said. On the other hand, in that circumstance, if there were a Democrat governor, the Tennessee General Assembly would say something like this governor, we have a veto pen and we’re not afraid to use it. (Laughter)

Johnson: That’s right. We have a phone and a pen and we’re not afraid to use either one.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Jack Johnson” by Senator Jack Johnson. Background Photo “Tennessee State Capitol” by Andre Porter. CC BY-SA 3.0.