The News Sentinel has decided to cease publication of this blog, launched on Jan. 28, 2009, effective today, Sept. 30, 2016.

I hope it has helped inform readers about Tennessee state government and politics during that time and anticipate continuing efforts to do so otherwise in the days ahead, including a continuation of working with the fine folks at the News Sentinel.

Thank you for reading.


Gorilla mask regrets

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — An East Tennessee State University student who disrupted an on-campus Black Lives Matter rally while wearing a gorilla mask and carrying around a rope and bananas regrets his actions and was not trying to intimidate anyone, his attorney said.

Freshman Tristan Rettke, 18, appeared in court for the first time Thursday after being charged with one felony count of civil rights intimidation, news outlets reported. A conviction on that charge carries two to four years in prison.

Attorney Patrick Denton said in a statement Thursday that Rettke was exercising his freedom of speech and did not intimidate anyone.

“Mr. Rettke deeply regrets the unfortunate events leading up to his arrest yesterday and understands the negative perception of his speech and actions,” Denton said. “He respects the rights of those in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to peacefully demonstrate in furtherance of their message in the spirit of the First Amendment.”

Rettke told investigators that he heard about Wednesday’s rally on social media and then purchased the attire and items in order to provoke the activists, police said.

The freshman arrived at the event masked, barefoot, wearing overalls and toting bananas and rope. He also carried a burlap sack that had a Confederate battle flag and marijuana leaf on it. He was taken away by university public safety officers.

Rettke is free on a $10,000 bond while his case is pending. University officials have condemned his actions and placed him on interim suspension.

Conservative group rates TN legislators

The American Conservative Union Foundation has released its rating of Tennessee legislators for 2016, giving its highest scores to five Republicans at 96 – with 100 being perfection in the ACU view – and its lowest score to Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a 7.

The five highest-rated Republicans at 96 were Sen. John Stevens of Huntington and Reps. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, Roger Kane of Knoxville, Judd Matheny of Tullahoma and Micha Van Huss of Jonesborough.

The Senate average rating was 80 percent (Republicans overall 85; Democrats 49). The House average 70 percent (Republicans 86, Democrats 28). The combined average was 85.5, down from 92 in 2015.

Lowest-rated Republicans: In the Senate, Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville at 57 percent. In the House, Speaker Beth Harwell had the lowest rating, 71.

Highest-rated Democrats: In the Senate, Sen. Thelma Harper at 75. In the House, Rep. Kevin Dunlap of Sparta at 73.

The full Tennessee rating list is HERE.

The ACU Tennessee press release is below. Continue reading

Spivey criticizes Harwell; Butt defends Spivey

State Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, has aimed fresh round of criticism at House Speaker Beth Harwell, who had declared him “irresponsible” for publicizing a complaint against House Clerk Joe McCord earlier in the week.

He says the speaker has adopted a “kill the messenger” stance and suggests Harwell was involved in attention paid to a fishing trip he and other legislators made to the Gulf coast with a school voucher advocate.

(Note: The letter to media is HERE, as provided by Nashville Post.)

Harwell had said earlier (post HERE) that Spivey had been “a longtime defender” of ousted Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and linked that to the complaint that McCord used abusive language toward a legislative staffer and made an offensive gesture toward the woman’s 2-year-old granddaughter.

Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said the matter in question was “fully investigated” but declined to provide specifics about the incident.

Further from The Tennessean:

Spivey was not the only lawmaker to push back against Harwell on Thursday. Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, issued a statement in which she defended Spivey.

“Representative Spivey has served his district with honesty and integrity and to impugn his character or suggest that the allegations made are a ‘joke’ even before any further investigation, may be politically expedient, however, it is very unprofessional,” said Butt, who is running to be the next House Majority Leader.

Lobbyist trio set up new firm

News release from MNA Government Relations
(Nashville, TN / September 28, 2016 Three veterans of Tennessee government, Wendell Moore, Jeremy Nagoshiner and Tausha Alexander, have joined to form a new policy consulting firm, MNA Government Relations.

The new firm will focus on providing government relations and procurement services consulting to itsa clients. The combined experience of the new firm’s principals will provide clients the tools and resources necessary to successfully represent their interests to the state’s executive and legislative branches of government. Continue reading

Mental Health Commissioner Varney retiring

News release from the governor’s office
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Doug Varney will retire next month.

Varney has served as commissioner since 2011. Under Varney’s leadership, the department completed a major transformation in the mental health system in east Tennessee, better serving long-term patients by transitioning them into community-based programs. The department has also improved medical and business operations of state hospitals and made significant progress addressing the prescription drug epidemic.

“Doug’s passion for helping those with mental health and substance abuse issues has made a tremendous impact on the state. As a member of my Public Safety Subcabinet, I especially appreciate all he has done to help fight prescription drug abuse and expand and strengthen drug recovery courts in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “Doug has helped change the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens, and for that I am grateful.” Continue reading

ETSU student in gorilla mask disrupts Black Lives Matter protest

A barefoot man wearing overalls and a gorilla mask, trying to hand out noose-wrapped bananas to Black Lives Matter demonstrators, was taken into custody by East Tennessee State University public safety officers Wednesday, reports the Johnson City Press.

According to a news release from the public safety office, freshman Tristan Rettke was charged with civil rights intimidation. Saying Rettke’s actions “go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect,” the university said the student has been placed on interim suspension. Criminal charges were pending before the local district attorney, and an internal student-conduct investigation was underway.

ETSU President Brian Noland held a press conference in the afternoon to speak out against what he saw Wednesday. And Noland did watch, almost in real time as it happened, via a video on a student’s Facebook page.

“I was offended, but I was also saddened,” Noland said about his personal response to Rettke’s behavior. “The nation is not only raw, but it’s healing.”

Noland praised the Black Lives Matter demonstrators for their peaceful rally and handling of the disruption.

…Rettke also carried with him a burlap sack that had a Confederate battle flag and marijuana leaf on it. He told officers he bought the attire and items to provoke the Black Lives Matter protesters after having learned about it on social media site Yik Yak.

Stand for Children PACs could face big fines

A pro-charter school organization and the four Nashville school board candidates it backed in August are subject to combined civil penalties potentially totaling $685,000, according to The Tennessean.

The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance on Tuesday sent a show cause letter to Stand for Children and candidates Miranda Christy, Thom Druffel, Jane Grimes Meneely and Jackson Miller.

The violations relate to the candidates coordinating with Stand for Children and its two political action committees to find campaign workers. The coordination, first reported by The Tennessean, stemmed from an email between Stand for Children’s political director, Dan O’Donnell, and the executive director of the Martha O’Bryan Center, a nonprofit group that operates two charter schools.

…According to the ethics bureau’s board of directors, that coordination caused the four candidates to eclipse campaign contribution limits. Each campaign is subject to a fine equal to 115 percent of the difference between the contribution cap of $7,600 and the amount of the unreported political help provided by Stand for Children. That comes out to about $70,000 in potential fines per campaign, and Stand for Children’s political action committee is subject to the same potential fine for each infraction.

Recent Haslam board, commission appointments

News release from the governor’s office
Nashville – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the appointments of 176 Tennesseans to 75 boards and commissions.
“Serving on a board or commission is an important responsibility, and I thank these Tennesseans for their commitment to serve our state,” Haslam said.
Appointment terms are varied due to differing statutory requirements or term limits determined by specific qualifications. The appointments are: Continue reading

Former lobbyist paid for trip to Carolina by Harwell, others

A prominent voucher advocate who previously registered as a Tennessee lobbyist paid for a private plane in November 2015 to take House Speaker Beth Harwell, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and others on trips to visit North Carolina private schools, reports The Tennessean.

Dean, a Nashville Democrat, and Kara Owen, spokeswoman for Harwell, a Nashville Republican, confirmed the two leaders went on the trip.

Lee Barfield, a well-known local attorney, former lobbyist and voucher advocate, said he organized the trip and paid for the twin-engine propeller plane the group used. Barfield also said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and others were on the trip.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Steve McDaniel said he went on a different trip with Barfield in September 2015 to the same school in North Carolina. Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, and then-Rep. Mike Harrison said they also went on that trip. Continue reading