Haslam on becoming RGA attack dog: ‘Not my style’

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was known as an attack dog during his tenure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, observes the Chattanooga TFP, while new RGA Chairman Bill Haslam “is known to friends and critics as the ever-optimistic Mr. Nice Guy.

So how does an amiable guy who often shuns direct confrontation work out as Mr. Attack Dog?

Haslam chuckled this week when reporters asked that question.

“I think anybody knows that’s probably not my style,” Haslam said. “But I do think it matters who we elect across the country.”

He quickly turned the topic to GOP gains in 2014 and how Republicans showed they are not solely a regional, Southern-based party with victories in Democratic states such as Massachusetts and Maryland. (Note: A typical Haslam tactic in avoiding potential confrontational questions, of course, is to change the subject slightly and offering an innocuous comment.)

…Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney predicted Haslam will do a fine job as chairman.

“I think that Gov. Haslam certainly has the experience. He’s a great campaigner and fundraiser. He knows how to win,” Devaney said.

As for Haslam’s nice-guy image, Devaney said, “everybody brings different styles to any position.”

“I don’t think you necessarily have to have the style Chris Christie has,” he added.

…”I just think his kind of message, a very positive message talking about all the great things Republicans can do under conservative leadership … is going to resonate very well,” Devaney said.

Mike Turner, the former state House Democratic Caucus chairman who does have a reputation as an attack dog, said he generally got along with Haslam with some major exceptions, such as expanding the state’s Medicaid program.

“He can be tough when he needs to be tough. He’s shown that to me,” Turner said. “There were times when things were going on and I made some statements or things were sent to him and he stood his ground.”

But he said he hopes Haslam will prove a “good influence” on Republicans at the national level.

“They’ve gone too far to the right. … I think he can be a moderating force on that group,” Turner said.

TN Senate minority leader seeks common ground, slams government inaction

In an interview with the Commercial Appeal, state Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris says there’s a chance the five Democrats now serving in the Senate might have a way to get something done because they start on common ground with majority Republicans on certain fronts.

“We’re all against wasteful spending, unwanted pregnancies, failing schools,” Harris said. “That’s at least a starting point. It’s just a question of ‘What do we do about it?’”

…Harris, 36, is believed to be the first African-American caucus leader in the history of either house of the General Assembly, according to Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the Democratic caucus.

Harris shrugged it off. “I don’t have the time to think about things like that,” Harris said Wednesday morning, as he drove between stops to gather ingredients for his family’s Thanksgiving meal. “There are really serious problems, really serious challenges in our state.”

Instead, Harris preferred slamming governmental inaction. Take the most recent Republican gains in the U.S. Senate. He didn’t frame that as a rejection of Democrats, but framed it as voters’ quick distaste for a government they perceive isn’t accomplishing anything.

It’s a lesson he wants to take — and adopt, as best he can in the minority party — to Nashville.

“People just get tired of that,” Harris said. “It’s not just a repudiation of Democratic ideas, I think it’s a repudiation of inaction.”

…Harris, a professor at the University of Memphis law school, won’t have any teaching responsibilities next spring. He plans to vacate his District 7 Memphis City Council seat in early January (and he isn’t picking sides when it comes to backing his successor, he said).

The caucus election represented another fast step in a quick career rise. The Yale-educated Whitehaven native won a seat on the City Council in 2011, defeating Kemba Ford in a runoff. He successfully challenged District 29 incumbent Ophelia Ford in the August Democratic primary and won with 42 percent of the vote in a four-candidate field.

There will be issues to debate in the 109th General Assembly

Getting a big jump on the here-comes-the-legislature stories that will appear in January, Andrea Zelinski outlines the major issues that will be facing the 109th General Assembly.

Abortion, Common Core and taxes, of course. And, well maybe:

Immigration: Making a states’ rights argument, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, have promised to launch a resolution urging the Haslam administration to file suit against the Obama administration’s executive orders delaying deportations.

The two lawmakers argue that giving immigrants who came to the country illegally a “pseudo de jure citizenship” would ultimately cost Tennessee “incalculable taxpayer dollars.” Immigration advocates expect to see similar legislation this year as the president’s immigration reform proposal materializes.

Haslam defends close ties with Harwell, other GOP legislators

The conservative wing of the Tennessee legislature has accused House leadership of being too cozy with the governor’s office, observes WPLN, but Gov. Bill Haslam suggests coziness is preferred over conflict.

The campaign to unseat Beth Harwell as House Speaker is basically about her being too close to Haslam. She has – at times – used her power to make sure legislation doesn’t reach the governor’s desk, like an attempt to repeal Common Core education standards.

Asked if people who claim he has puppets in the legislature may have a point, Haslam tells WPLN he doesn’t see a problem with working in tandem.

“That’s why people hate Washington right now, right? Because nobody actually seems to be trying to solve the problem,” Haslam says. “You could have leadership that always fights with each other. But if we went and took a vote around Tennessee, is that what you want? I’ll bet on how that will come out.”

The legislature and executive branch have different roles, Haslam says. But claims that he’s too tight with legislative leaders – in his view – miss the point of state government.

“Sometimes I think people have the impression that our job at the state is about the legislative battles that happen or this bill that gets proposed, but we’re a service organization. That’s what we are,” he says. “People pay the state to do things they can’t do for themselves.”

Report lists Tre Hargett promotion efforts at taxpayer expenses

Phil Williams reviews several taxpayer-funded efforts that could be seen as political promotions for Secretary of State Tre Hargett in a report on WTVF-TV.

Seems Hargett issued his recent statement declaring that he’s not running for governor (previous post HERE) two days after Williams interviewed him for the report, televised Tuesday.

Williams reports the cost to taxpayers of printing new ‘I voted’ stickers with Hargett’s name prominently displayed as $6,885. (Previous post HERE.) Hargett now says that was a mistake.

The veteran politician claimed that it never occurred to him that the Tre Hargett stickers would look political.

“I think where I missed the mark, frankly, Phil, I wasn’t looking through a political lens,” Hargett said.

We asked, “So you’re saying this was a mistake?”

“I’m saying we missed the mark,” he responded, later adding: “I should not have put my name on it.”

Other Hargett moves that could be seen as enhancing his name recognition for a future political endeavor include his picture on the state’s voter registration website and election night tweets from his office on state political race results from “via @SecTreHargett” — which links back to Tre Hargett’s personal Twitter account.

That account, Hargett acknowledged, is maintained with the help of a state employee again at taxpayer expense. That employee’s salary: $33,000 a year.

…Inside Department of State’s offices, you’ll also find Tre Hargett’s face in framed photos and Tre Hargett’s name printed on the walls. There are also Tre Hargett pamphlets and Tre Hargett pencils.

And every single employee’s business card has to be printed with, you guessed it, Tre Hargett’s name on top.

…There are also Tre Hargett lapel pins — thousands of them — also produced at taxpayer expense. Total cost: $6,647.

…(The Secretary of State’s) also publishes the Tennessee Blue Book, but Tre Hargett’s name on the cover wasn’t enough. So Tre Hargett had Tre Hargett bookmarks printed. In fact, we counted Tre Hargett’s name five times!

“So why should your name be on there five times?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

“That does seem like a lot,” he acknowledged. “That’s another thing that we need to look at through the political lens and try and figure out could we do better.”

Then, there are the big lottery-style checks that Hargett delivers to libraries around the state. Even though an independent board decides who gets the grants, the fake checks are signed “Tre Hargett” — also at taxpayer expense.

Total cost for those big checks this year alone: $1,215.

…”It’s really about shining the light on the great work that those libraries and archives are doing. I certainly am not trying to claim credit.”

Just like some Tre Hargett portfolio and Tre Hargett cups that he bought with old campaign funds, critics question if all this Tre Hargett stuff might be the beginning of another Tre Hargett campaign.

In fact, our investigation discovered that, on and off, between the fall of 2012 and the early part of this year, Hargett put a friend on the state’s payroll as his director of policy. Dennis Berwyn is a political consultant from North Carolina.

“He was not a political hire. In his job description nor his title did he do political work,” the secretary of state said.

Berwyn would fly in on Mondays, leave on Thursdays, getting paid as much as $6,000 a month without benefits. Among his projects: a Tre Hargett newsletter and a PR campaign called Tennessee Business Spotlight — also sponsored by Tre Hargett.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “Where does it say that the secretary of state needs to do a Tennessee Business Spotlight?”… (Hargett) said that it was just an effort to shine the spotlight on some good Tennessee businesses.

As for the man behind the campaign, it turns out he’s also the registered owner of the Internet domain HargettForGovernor.com.

Activists seek exit poll of all voters in a Nashville precinct

A group of activists is planning to survey every voter from an East Nashville precinct in an attempt to verify that their votes were properly recorded by electronic voting machines, reports the Nashville Scene.

Questions about the precinct at Cora Howe Elementary initially stemmed from a poll workers’ concerns that the precinct’s results on the Amendment One referendum earlier this month were flawed. Now members of the group, called Gathering to Save our Democracy, say they witnessed problems with the machines themselves.

Bernie Ellis, a veteran squeaky wheel when it comes to electronic voting machines among other things, says he voted “No” on Amendment One, but noticed that his vote had changed to “Yes” when he went back to review his ballot. He says he also spoke to another voter who made a selection on every race and amendment, only to go back to review the ballot before submitting it and find that his votes on all four amendments had been erased.

So Ellis and the group are planning to attempt something they say has never been done in the country before — a 100 percent exit poll of the 876 people who voted at the precinct.

The group will first need official data from the election that the Davidson County Election Commission said Monday will not be available until next month. When it is, Ellis says Eastwood Christian Church has offered its sanctuary for a full week for the group to perform its exit poll study. Voters will be asked to bring all the identification they used to vote on election day, and while their actual votes will remain anonymous, the group will be able to use poll books from election day to confirm that each individual truly voted. Then they will fill out a survey that asks how they voted for governor, U.S. Senate, and Amendment 1. They will also be asked whether they experienced any problems at the polls.

Regents, auditors eyeing Chattanooga State president’s activities

State Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and members of the higher education system’s Audit Committee met behind closed doors Tuesday as part of an investigation into the activities of Chattanooga State Community College President Jim Catazaro’s activities, reports the Chattanooga TFP.

It’s possible that audit results will be presented to a meeting of the full Board of Regents on Dec. 11.

The investigation began after an uproar from staff and faculty over Catanzaro’s hiring of Chief Innovations Officer Lisa Haynes, of Barbados, who was hired to fill a high-paid administrative post, though she did not have a required bachelor’s degree.

Catanzaro met Haynes during a vacation in Barbados.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Morgan told the Times Free Press that the Chattanooga State audit was “certainly one of the things that was discussed.”

Asked when it would be completed, Morgan, who previously served as Tennessee’s comptroller and ran an agency filled with dozens of auditors, wryly noted, “I never want to put time constraints on auditors. My experience is it never works. I’ve had some experience with that.

“But,” Morgan added, “I know that the audit staff is trying to move as quickly as they can to resolve this. I really expect that in short order they’ll finish their work and the audit will be complete.”

Once that happens, Morgan said, the audit “absolutely” would be publicly released.

TBR Audit Committee members’ meeting was open for the first hour of business. But they later moved into executive session and directed a Times Free Press reporter to leave the room, which was then locked.

Morgan cited an exemption to Tennessee’s Open Records Act (Sunshine Law) which permits audit committees to meet in confidential, nonpublic sessions to discuss audits or investigations.

The situation has put the college into a dither and Catanzaro — by many accounts a dynamic leader who has built the two-year college into a respected powerhouse yet has nonetheless stepped into any number of controversies during a lengthy tenure — into his most serious jam yet.

Haynes was hired without an official bachelor’s degree — a requirement of her job description. After back-and-forth between Chattanooga State officials and her alma mater, Duquesne University, Haynes was granted a retroactive degree in September.

AP story on union developments at Volkswagen in Chattanooga

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In rival camps located about a mile apart, both supporters and opponents of the United Auto Workers’ efforts to unionize their first foreign auto plant in the South say a new labor policy at the Volkswagen factory is going to help them.

The new policy, known as “Community Organization Engagement,” establishes formal rules for labor groups at the plant for the first time. What the effects will be is still up for debate.

To some, the policy may open the door to the union eventually representing all workers in contract negotiations. To others, it may undercut the union by giving an opposing group an official voice at the plant.

The outcome is being closely watched in the U.S. and abroad. Other German and Asian automakers in the South are keenly monitoring developments, as are anti-union Republicans.

And the company, with perhaps the most to say, isn’t saying much at all.

“Let’s let this play out and see how it goes,” said Volkswagen Chattanooga spokesman Scott Wilson.

The policy works like this: Groups that can sign up at least 15 percent of workers get access to plant meeting space and regular meetings with management. Groups that sign up to 30 percent or 45 percent of employees get more access.
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Freshman Lee Harris elected state Senate minority leader

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Incoming state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis has been elected leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

The caucus held its elections on Tuesday.

Incoming Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville was elected caucus chairman.

Both men, who are attorneys, were nominated by Memphis Sen. Sara Kyle, who is taking over the seat once occupied by her husband, former Democratic Leader Jim Kyle. He is currently serving on the Shelby County Chancery Court bench.

Republicans control the state Senate 28-5.

Harris defeated former Sen. Ophelia Ford in the August primary.

The former Memphis City councilman said despite the small number he believes Democrats will have a voice in the Legislature, which convenes Jan. 13.

“Everybody … is a leader in our caucus,” Harris said.

Further, from The Tennessean:
By choosing freshmen as their leaders, the Senate Democrats sent a message they are betting on the future of the party, Harris said.

“At some point, you end up at a place where you’ve got to have a hard reset. And I think that’s where the party is,” Harris said.

“We’re going to have a hard reset, and we’re going to put a lot of our chips in the future of this party. And that’s what we did today.”

Harris is the first black lawmaker to serve in a leadership capacity for either party in the Senate, said caucus spokesman Matt Anderson.

Anderson, citing the legislative library, said state leadership positions have been recorded since the 1970s. There have been several black lawmakers who’ve served as speaker pro tem or deputy speaker in the House, but never as the House speaker, majority or minority leader, Anderson said.

The caucus chose Harris over Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis lawmaker first elected in 2006. The caucus did not release the vote totals in either race, casting physical ballots that were not read aloud during the meeting.

Note: The Commercial Appeal notes, however, that Tate nominated himself and his nomination was seconded by Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville. Ergo, the deduction is that the three freshmen united in voting for Lee while Harper and Tate, the veterans, voted for Tate.

DHS cutting 300 more jobs, many already vacant

The Tennessee department that oversees social service programs like food stamps is proposing cutting more than 300 jobs by the start of the 2016 budget year, according to The Tennessean.

That’s a drop of about 900 positions since the 2014 budget year.

Many of those jobs are vacant now, and won’t be needed thanks to the Department of Human Services no longer overseeing applications for TennCare, said Commissioner Raquel Hatter. The department previously oversaw applications for federal health services, but as of the start of this year TennCare stopped having state personnel help people submit applications directly to the state and simultaneously directed that applications be filed online at www.healthcare.gov.

Hatter outlined the department’s fiscal goals Monday during one of several budget hearings before Gov. Bill Haslam and other state administrators. In addition to fewer positions, the department also presented a budget that included about $9.6 million less for administrating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as SNAP, and previously called food stamps).

Although Haslam asked all agencies to prepare budgets with a 7 percent cut compared to the previous year’s funding, Hatter said the department was headed toward cutting this money anyway. She said the cuts to the SNAP program would in no way actually affect benefits, only administrative costs related to the program.