What was the single most important vote ever cast in the Tennessee House of Representatives? That’s a question that could get a good debate going.
For many local folks, then- House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter’s decision in 1974 to override then-Gov. Winfield Dunn’s veto of legislation to create a medical school at East Tennessee State University is the most important deciding vote ever cast by a single lawmaker. It was certainly a crucial vote for this part of the state and for McWherter’s political career. Our area gained a medical school, and McWherter would later be elected governor — thanks in part to the support of Northeast Tennesseans who remembered his vote.
Then there is state Rep. Kent Williams’ vote in 2009 to elect himself speaker of the House. If you recall, then- House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, was ready to celebrate his election as the first GOP speaker of the House since Reconstruction when Williams beat him to the punch by joining with Democrats to elect himself to the job.
Much was made at the time of the fact Williams voted for himself for speaker. Certainly Williams voted for himself, just as Mumpower had voted for himself. But Williams cast the one vote that counted. Afterward, not only was Williams shunned by most of his Republican colleagues, but he was booted out of the party altogether. Some would argue that’s not a bad price to pay to be speaker of the House.
At least Williams wasn’t chased around the floor of the House by an angry mob following his surprising vote, which was what happened to Harry T. Burn when he cast what many would argue to be unquestionably the single most important vote in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly. On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, I believe it’s appropriate to recall the 24-year-old House member from East Tennessee whose devotion to his mother made him decide that giving women the right to vote was a good idea.
It was Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. It was a hot day, even by Nashville’s standards, and the debate inside the state Capitol Building was even hotter. It appeared to many that after days of debate and several votes, the state House was still at a stalemate over the 19th Amendment.
When a new roll call vote was taken, Burn — who was wearing a red rose of the anti-suffragists on his lapel — surprised his colleagues by voting for the amendment. Eyewitnesses said several lawmakers began chasing Burn around the room.
According to one account, Burn was forced to climb out of a third-floor window onto a narrow ledge and escape to the attic of the Capitol Building, where he hid from an angry mob.
Burn (then the youngest member of the General Assembly) later explained he had a change of heart on the 19th Amendment after receiving a letter from his mother (known to the folks back home in McMinn County as Miss Febb) telling her son, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!” She also instructed Burn to be a “good boy” and help “put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.