Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville Leads From the Heart

Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville leads from the heart  

BY LINDA BRYANT

There’s no doubt that Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville is a rising young star in the Tennessee Legislature. In late 2016, the 43-year-old became the chair of the House Republican Caucus, one of the highest leadership positions in the legislature.

In many ways, Williams is a quintessential conservative Republican from the South — fiscally cautious, staunchly pro-life, and polite to a T. He has no problem talking to you about his devout faith and can easily fold a fitting piece of scripture into a conversation.

But Williams, who has represented District 42 in Putnam County since 2010, also stands out — perhaps more than most stereotypical Republicans — as a civil servant who’s unusually compassionate and civil, and who often leads from the heart. He’s involved in education and healthcare-related issues such as autism, and has sponsored key legislation to address the state’s prescription drug and opioid abuse.

Despite having a full plate with his substantial legislative duties, Williams works as the director of business development at J&S Construction in Cookeville. He also serves as a member of four committees: Finance, Ways and Means; Government Operations; Health; and the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee.

Sen. Paul Bailey, a close Republican colleague who represents District 15, (which encompasses some of Williams’ home turf), describes Williams as consummately “dedicated and trustworthy.”
“Ryan strives daily to go above and beyond for not only constituents in House District 42, but across this state,” Bailey said. “A strong moral character is the foundation of success, and Ryan’s character stands out amongst the crowd. Not only is he loyal and responsible, but he also exemplifies the characteristics of trustworthiness and fairness by continuously making sure every side is heard no matter the issue. He has proven to be a strong leader with a heart to serve and make a difference in Tennessee. He is a team player and is a true asset to the Tennessee General Assembly.”

TT&C: You’ve lived in Cookeville for almost 20 years. Where did you come from initially?
Ryan Williams: I was born and raised in Kingsport. I went to high school in Blountville, which is where all of my family lived. I went to Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City on a soccer scholarship. That is where I met my wife, Abby. The Bible says that a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to his wife, and she was from Cookeville. So, that’s how I got to Cookeville. We moved here in April of 1999, and in April this year, it will be 19 years. We have two children. Tyson is my eldest and he turns 16 next week. Carson, my daughter, is 13 years old and will be 14 in March. So I have two teenagers, and it is a joyous time in our lives.

TT&C: How did you get involved in politics and public service?
RW: My wife and I went to Washington, D.C., with a church group in 2000. We were young and married with no kids at the time. While we were there, we really developed a heart for service and became interested in the need to have good people run for office. Most people we knew in politics were not people you would invite over for dinner. We wanted to make our lives accessible to people.
When I first got interested in politics, it had a lot to do with Supreme Court rulings. We felt they were literally changing the intent and the shape of the nation through their interpretation of law. We thought it was very important to consecrate ourselves — spending time in prayer and paying attention to what was going on as it related to our nation.
The unborn have always been important to Abby and me. It’s something we’re passionate about because we love children. There were other issues going on around the same time. It was the Bush-Gore election cycle. If you remember, that was a very controversial “hanging chad” moment. The seed of service and the heart of service were planted during those years. It would still be a little while before I’d listen to my wife and run for office for the first time.

TT&C: You served on the Cookeville City Council and the Planning Commission. What kinds of issues were you involved with?
RW: We developed a comprehensive land use plan as it related to our zoning. We completed a 20-year outlook of the properties in the city and addressed how they would best be developed and improved. Back then it was legal to do annexations by ordinance. I was actively involved in those. I did a couple of annexation proposals during my four years of service. We also worked on utilities. In Cookeville, we own all of our utilities except for cable. We provide water, sewer, gas, and electric. We are very proud of this. It’s one of the reasons we are very successful as a community and one of the most affordable places in America to live.
Sometimes on the planning commission people wanted to rezone property from single-family to multi-family or single-family to commercial or industrial. Those can be very contentious debates. Cookeville is unique because a very high percentage of its population rents or leases property. People don’t necessarily own the properties they live in. It can be a challenge in a community when you develop a pattern of lack of home ownership.

TT&C: When did you transition from city councilman to state representative?
RW: In March of 2010 there was a piece of federal legislation that was very controversial. The deadline for me to decide if I was going to run again was April 1. That legislation was called the Affordable Care Act, and it happened on a weekend. The filing deadline was the following week. I had already picked up my papers to run for Cookeville City Council because you can run for two consecutive terms. Quite frankly, I remembered the time I went to D.C. and was thinking, “If good people don’t run for office, we’re going to be in a bad place.” I prayed about it and talked to my wife about it. I really felt like I was called to run for state office. So, Monday morning I picked up the paperwork, filed and started to run. I went to talk to my employer about the idea of running. I work for someone else which is somewhat unique as it relates to a state legislator.

TT&C: You worked very hard on the FOCUS Act (Focus On College and University Success). That bill dramatically changed how the state governs its four-year public universities. Why was this important to you?
RW: The FOCUS Act was the governor’s piece of legislation. It was extremely important to me because as a state representative for several years I realized that there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the six institutions because the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) had so many new kids coming into the system with Tennessee Promise. So many things were going on that these six institutions were getting lost. [The FOCUS Act provides more focused support by TBR for Tennessee’s 13 community and 27 technical colleges. It created local boards for the six public universities currently within TBR: Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University, and the University of Memphis.]
The TBR schools were sucking all the discussion out of the room, so when Gov. Bill Haslam asked me what I thought, I said it would be a fantastic idea. I thought Tennessee Tech and the other five schools would benefit from having a local board that’s managed here to make decisions based upon the community. What’s important about the schools is that they are definitely a reflection of our community. Tennessee Tech here in Cookeville and other schools such as Austin Peay are some of the largest employers in their respective communities. There’s a real sense of importance as it relates to their overall economic impact. We are all fans of Tennessee Tech and the Golden Eagles here in Cookeville because they are our neighbors and our friends. They go to church with us. I feel like that kind of local leadership is a benefit. And, I think you’re now hearing discussions of [the FOCUS Act fruit bearing fruit] because Gov. Haslam is considering doing it for UT this year.

TT&C: Talk about some the bills that you have sponsored that are important to you?
RW: I’ve already spoken about the original passion for service my wife and I have for caring about the unborn. There was a problem that came up earlier on in my elected role. OB/GYNs were really concerned about the direction of the health in our community, and quite frankly the health of our children. At one point in time, we had the highest neonatal abstinence birth rate in the state per capita, and that’s because we had a high consumption of opioids for these mothers. These births started in 2001. It took a few years before [the true effects of opioid use on babies] was noticed. Doctors and nurse practitioners witnessed it before the legislature did. These kids were entering school with learning disabilities and other challenges. Everything was pointing back to the fact that they were born with addiction in the womb. Ironically, people have a preconceived notion about what opioid addicts look like. The truth is in my community 36 percent of those people who have neonatal abstinence babies are people we go to church with. They became addicts because their doctors prescribed them opioids for pain. It has become a huge issue in our community.
Over the years, I have spearheaded legislation not just to fight the opioid crisis that we see before us but to deal with the availability of opioids, how we prescribe them and to whom. For example, I repealed the 2001 Retractable Pain Treatment Act two years ago. That law said for the first time that a patient could demand the medication they wanted, and if the physician didn’t give it to them then they would have to refer them to someone — AKA a pain clinic — that would give it to them. [The IPTA gave patients a great amount of responsibility to choose opiate medications as a first line of treatment and physicians were required either to provide requested opiate medication or refer patients to physicians who would. Shortly after the IPTA passed, 300 pain clinics opened up across the state.]
Educating the community about opioids is so important. One of the things that has been most rewarding as an elected official is to be able to see the percentage of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome births begin to deteriorate. To know that we are actually making an impact is truly rewarding.

TT&C: What caused you to sponsor the bill that helps families experiencing autism?
RW: I sponsored passage of House Bill 384 during the 2017 legislative session because I have always been passionate about autism. When I first ran for office in 2010, I met a mother with an autistic son while I was knocking on doors in my community. During our conversation, she mentioned to me that there were simply not enough opportunities for parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to obtain information about services available to these children and their families. House Bill 384 is a game changer because it creates the 16-person Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder; this important group will make recommendations and provide leadership concerning all levels of ASD services in Tennessee.

TT&C: Talk about what you’ve done legislatively to support veterans.
RW: House Bill 433 determines how a veteran’s military training can count as college credit at Tennessee’s colleges and universities. Additionally, it updates the Tennessee Veterans Education Transition Support Act (VETS) Act which encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials. I also cosponsored the Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen (STRONG) Act last year. This initiative allows our brave servicemen and women to achieve their educational dreams without fear of financial burden, thanks to a last-dollar tuition reimbursement to be used toward a first-time bachelor’s degree. Finally, we fought to reduce the amount of property tax owed by veterans, eligible low-income elderly and disabled homeowners. Our military and their families make daily sacrifices so that we are able to live in the greatest nation and state our world has ever seen. It is an honor for me to fight for these brave heroes and their families.

TT&C: As we head into 2018, the legislature appears poised to address the opioid epidemic even more seriously. Are we going in the right direction to address this tough issue?
RW: I love the direction we’re going, but it’s not fast enough for me. We are one of the most overly prescribed states per capita in the nation. Just look at what we’ve been able to do with [public] education in the past five years. We’ve gone from 46th and 48th in the nation to the low 20s in a period of five years. But when it comes to our overall health, we are lingering around 48th. What does tackling health mean, and what does it look like? I could pass bills to restrict the distribution of opioids but if I don’t give that stay-at-home mom, professional woman or a male who’s working three jobs the ability to get clean, then I’m not doing them any good. Of course, the best way to fix this problem is for people never to get addicted in the first place.

TT&C: As Majority Caucus Chair you have to work with many different kinds of people, many of whom disagree or have different priorities. How do you deal with conflict and reaching consensus?
RW: With my teenagers, in my marriage, and even with the House Republican Caucus, it’s easy to build consensus and get people to communicate. I would say for me the key is learning how to listen. In order to be the greatest, you have to be the servant of all. I try to be the first one to volunteer in the room. I want to be the person to help communicate with members if there’s controversy. I want to always try to get members to come together. I’m dealing with bills right now that involve issues with Memphis and taking down [Confederate] statues. [Resolving this issue] has to do with communicating and understanding the other person’s point of view, and you do that when you genuinely care about the other person’s point of view. There may be certain things that we will never agree on, but people who know me know it doesn’t mean I don’t care. If we don’t agree, it’s not personal.

TT&C: What do you see as the state’s biggest challenges in 2018?
RW: I would use the adage “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” because the state has never had as much money as we have now. There’s been a lot of expenditures of dollars already, and there will be a lot of continuing discussion about spending money. There will also be a lot of talk about people who are currently serving [in the legislature]. There are 16 Republicans who have announced they are retiring or not running for office again, and there are six Democrats in the House. You’re going to have a 25 percent turnover rate just starting out. What is it going to look like when over half the legislature has come in since the governor was elected? What challenges is it going to create? Most of the Legislature has never had a transition to a new governor regardless of party. I think there’s going to be a lot of issues with that.
I also think there’s going to be a lot of desire to get out [of office] quick with some parties because of the elections. Some will stay here and do the work. There will likely be a real animus between the two. But we are fortunate because Tennesseans aren’t mean-spirited — whether you are a Democrat from Memphis or a Republican from Mountain City. We all have the state’s best interest at heart.

TT&C: Even with the Republican supermajority in the legislature, are there areas where the two parties can come together?
RW: I’m hopeful that we come together on some issues. I have a bill this year that talks about the state government’s funding mechanism. I’m hopeful that I will have support from my colleagues across the aisle. I want to lead with integrity and make sure I communicate that clearly. A lot of the time people perish for lack of knowledge, and we don’t know what they’re doing because they [members of the opposing party] don’t tell us what they want to do. Sometimes the problem is with original blunt force trauma of an idea [that’s presented without communicating first] than it is the actual idea itself. Since I’ve been in the legislature the average time that you got out [of the session] has been the second or third week in April. All the colleagues that were there before me were out at the end of May, sometimes even in the middle of June. I think we could learn a little bit about slowing down and taking our time and communicating.

TT&C: What do you see as the proper relationship between the state and local government and between the state and federal government?
RW: That’s a good question. Local governments are an outpost for state governments. I didn’t realize it as a city councilman but I do as a state representative. And, I think that Memphis is beginning to realize this as well [because of the recent removal of two Confederate statues]. City governments exist at the will of the state government. The state government has to coddle that relationship and understand the relationship almost as you would the importance of a family relationship. City governments have to understand that there are some things they have to get permission to do. So, being able to build consensus between the state and local government is extremely important. Between the state and the federal government, there has never been such a push for the states to be more independent from the federal government. Here in Tennessee, we believe that our federal government doesn’t know what it’s doing. Who would go seek financial advice from someone that is bankrupt? No one. The state government is saying to the federal government, “Let us handle our own business.” When it comes to national defense or the Constitution, you handle that. When it comes to everything else, I think we’ve proven in this state that we know a little bit better how to manage our funds and resources better than the federal government.