ELIZABETHTON - New Tennessee House Majority Leader Gary Odom indicated Monday that the success of the state's legislative agenda this year will hinge on whether lawmakers get lost in partisanship.
"We don't have time to be partisan," Odom, a Carter County native, told Carter County Democrats during a reception held in his honor.
Odom cited the start-up of the state's "Cover Tennessee" health care plan and education funding changes as two reasons why lawmakers need to refrain from partisan rhetoric.
"I believe we will be able to work together," said Odom, a Democrat who has served Nashville in the state legislature for more than 20 years and was a Metro Nashville council member. "(House GOP) Leader (Jason) Mumpower, I consider him a friend. He's a good person and a very capable legislator, but one of the tendencies that seems to occur is the partisanship issue that surfaces.
"I told the 17 freshmen members during orientation ... I said â€˜I hope you don't get caught in the partisanship that sometimes rears its ugly head down here.' The elections are over. The people of Tennessee have elected us to carry on the state's business, and that's what I intend to do."
But Odom also indicated he will fight political fire with fire of his own.
"Don't get me wrong. If someone tries to be partisan in a way where I think they are taking shots at my caucus members, then I'm going to do my best to defend my Democratic caucus and speak the truth about what our views are," he explained.
Freshman state Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, told Carter County Democrats that he got some advice about how to deal with Odom.
"They told me: â€˜Don't lock horns with Gary Odom. You can't win. You can't debate him,' " Williams said.
Odom said he wants to push for a balance between urban and rural interests in his two years as majority leader. One area expected to test that agenda is Tennessee's Basic Education Program (BEP), which doles out state dollars to local school systems.
"I've always thought the BEP is too complicated," Odom said. "An allocation formula for education funding needs to be simple, and it needs to be fair. ... The courts have said it's not been fair. ... We need to keep in mind some particular kinds of challenges that rural school systems have and the unique challenges that school systems in urban areas have. I'm not saying â€˜Scrap it all now.' "
Odom went to Carter County's Hampton High School and played basketball for legendary Dobyns-Bennett High School Coach Buck Van Huss, who previously coached and won a state championship while at Hampton.
"Buck Van Huss is a person I truly loved," Odom related. "He picked me up every Saturday morning from the time I was probably in the fifth grade to go up and play with a large group of kids."
"When I was a sophomore he took this new job at this little school called Dobyns-Bennett," Odom joked. "I looked at someone one day and said â€˜How in the world could my coach leave me when I was a sophomore in high school?'
"The guy said â€˜He obviously looked at the bench, Gary, and saw that the talent pool had dried out in Hampton.' "