Shelby Democrats elect longtime activist as new chair

Longtime party member and campaign strategist Randa Spears was elected Saturday as chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party, reports the Commercial Appeal. She succeeds Bryan Carson, who resigned last month after an internal investigation into the party’s finances.

Spears defeated veteran party activist Del Gill 16-11 in the second round of voting held at the party’s every-other-year convention at First Baptist Church-Broad.

Gill led after the first round of voting with 11 votes. Spears had 10 and both Jackie Jackson and Reginald Milton had four; they were eliminated from the second ballot.

…Spears said she planned to tackle financial issues by appointing a treasurer and an assistant treasurer, requiring treasurer’s reports at every meeting and by appointing an oversight committee. She also does not plan to be personally involved in the party’s finances.

“We’re at a point where we can really start building on things,” she said.

On the campaign to succeed Chris Devaney as TNGOP chairman

The Tennessean’s Dave Boucher has penned a review of the candidates — declared and potential — to succeed Chris Devaney as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

The article also lists three people mentioned earlier as prospective candidates who now say they’re not running – former state Rep. Joe Carr of Rutherford County, current state GOP Executive Director Brent Leatherwood and former Executive Director Adam Nickas, now a lobbyist.

Excerpts on the three who say they are running in a race to be decided at an April 11 meeting:

State Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville:
When Devaney resigned he surprised quite a few members of the Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee. He didn’t surprise Haynes, who released a two-page candidacy announcement within about 30 minutes of Devaney telling the SEC and before the party released Devaney’s official statement.

The University of Tennessee and Nashville School of Law graduate irked a few Republicans with that rollout. Regardless of whether the 29-year-old is qualified, SEC member Oscar Brock said there’s a problem if Haynes is perceived as the anointed candidate.

“We think of ourselves of having the authority to hire our own chairman. And if it looks like it was staged to set up one person at the exclusion of potentially other great candidates, that would leave us feeling somewhat disempowered,” Brock said.

Haynes is a successful campaigner with clear name recognition and relationships with members of the SEC. He’s already well into the vital process of calling SEC members and others to shore up his candidacy, several SEC members told The Tennessean.

State Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson

Although Littleton did not return a request for comment, a half-dozen Republicans told The Tennessean she is working the phones to help her campaign.

The 57-year-old was first elected to the House in 2013, is vice-chairwoman of the House State Government Committee and previously served as vice-chairwoman of the state Republican party under Devaney.

Like Haynes, she has the advantage of relationships with members of the SEC. But she’s a little too quiet, in Gay’s opinion. “Very sweet. I don’t see her as chairman of the party,” Gay said.

SEC member Rebecca Burke

A Williamson County native, Burke is new to the SEC: she started serving in December after winning a four-person race. A veteran of Republican politics, she told The Tennessean the new post with the SEC hasn’t stopped colleagues from asking her to run.

“While we control leadership roles at all levels of government, this is the time when complacency can take root and cause the rate of growth to stall. My devotion would be to defending GOP seats in county, state and federal elected offices, and increasing our presence where vulnerable seats are identified,” Burke wrote in a letter to fellow SEC members.

The 60-year-old former hospital executive and staffer for ex-U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson is considered another non-establishment candidate; of the 66 SEC members, she was one of 29 to recently vote in support of a closed primary system.

Also mentioned are two people thinking about seeking the post: Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University law professor, and Scottie Nell Hughes, a frequent contributor to Fox News who works as the “news director of the Tea Party News Network.”

Senator says Haslam can act on Insure TN without legislative approval; Haslam says he won’t

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, says he thinks a state law requiring Gov. Bill Haslam to get the Legislature’s permission for Medicaid expansion violates the state constitution and, the Tennessean reports, he’s asked Attorney General Herbert Slatery for an opinion on his contention.

A spokesman for the governor, however, says Haslam would still seek the Legislature’s approval — he promised to do so a couple of years ago — even if he’s not legally bound.

“The legislature right now isn’t debating a law to create Insure Tennessee,” Yarbro said Friday. “We’re forcing the governor to obtain an elaborate permission slip from the legislature before doing the job we’ve told him to do.”

Like the U.S. Constitution, the Tennessee Constitution creates “separation of powers.” It provides for a governor and General Assembly that are independent.

Yarbro, an attorney by trade, says that means the General Assembly can pass a law banning Medicaid expansion — Haslam says Insure Tennessee isn’t “traditional” Medicaid expansion, but it’s very similar.

But lawmakers can’t legally require the governor to ask for a “permission slip” from the General Assembly before carrying out his duties, Yarbro said.

he senator said as much in an official request for an advisory opinion from the Tennessee attorney general regarding whether the law passed last year violates the state constitution.

…Before the legislature passed the law last year, Haslam said he would seek legislative approval on any plan to provide hundreds of thousands of low-income Tennesseans with publicly subsidized health insurance.

After the death of Insure Tennessee during this year’s special session, the governor has repeatedly said he didn’t regret signing that law. Even if he moved forward without the legislature, Haslam believes lawmakers would still have the final say in terms of approving a budget that included money for Insure Tennessee.

The administration is adamant the plan won’t require any additional tax money, but it would require a change in state law to increase an additional assessment Tennessee hospitals have agreed to pay.

Haslam spokesman David Smith confirmed Friday the governor will not move forward on Insure Tennessee without legislative approval.

Tracy eyes another run at DesJarlais

State Sen. Jim Tracy says he is weighing another challenge to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the 4th Congressional District’s GOP primary next year after his heart-stopping 38-vote loss to the South Pittsburg physician in 2014, reports the Times-Free Press.

“I’ve thought about it and I’ve had a lot of folks contact me in the district over the last few months,” the Shelbyville senator said in an interview. “I’m going to look at it.”

Noting he is in the midst of a “busy” legislative session, Tracy said he’s in no hurry to make an immediate decision. “We’re going to evaluate it, talk to my family. You know, I made a lot of inroads last year running, built a pretty good base. Got a lot of people to help me. Came within 38 votes.”

The senator said he’d been invited to Saturday’s Lincoln Day Dinner hosted by the Bradley County Republican Party and planned to attend. Much of Bradley is in the sprawling, largely rural 4th District, which takes in all or parts of 15 counties and stretches from Bradley in the east to Rutherford County in the west. Tracy won Bradley handily in 2014.

The 2014 primary battle drew national attention as Tracy sought to oust the scandal-plagued DesJarlais, considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans nationwide at the time.

That was the result of 2012 revelations that abortion opponent DesJarlais had had extramarital affairs with patients and co-workers, urging one patient to get an abortion and going along with his former wife’s decision to have two abortions.

DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said in a statement Friday that “with a close election and health issues behind him, the congressman feels he is in the strongest position yet to champion conservative principles and Tennessee values in Washington.”

DesJarlais was treated during and after the campaign for lymphoma, a cancer.

Bill authorizes slaying wild hogs ‘by any means necessary’

Wild hogs cause about $1.5 billion in agricultural damage a year in Tennessee, and lawmakers in three counties want to allow landowners to control them with “any means necessary,” according to the Times-Free Press.

First cousins Riley Frady and Wendell Oakes, two lifelong residents and landowners in northwest Bledsoe County, say the bill being considered in the Tennessee Legislature would help hunters better control the feral pigs that can root up acres of farmland in a night.

“They’re after your seeds and bugs and roots and stuff. They get their food out of the ground,” said Oakes, standing at the sawmill on the family farm on state Highway 30 near Fall Creek Falls State Park.

For many area landowners, Frady is the man to call when wild hogs become a problem. He helped get the measure passed by the Bledsoe County Commission en route to the bill under consideration in Nashville.

If the bill introduced by Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and co-sponsored by Sens. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, becomes law, hunters will be able hunt hogs with dogs Bledsoe, Polk and White counties all year around except during deer season. (Note: It’s SB702 and has already cleared committee in the Senate.)

However, the Wild Hog Eradication Action Team, a 24-organization partnership of state agencies and other groups, wants to get rid of the destructive animals but advocates trapping rather than dogs.

Sterilization part of plea bargains in some Nashville cases

By Shelia Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.

In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn’t go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.

Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .

Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or “deficient” were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.

“The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we’re most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we’ve done in the past, and that’s a good reason not to do it now,” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn’t heard of it happening before but didn’t ask.
Continue reading

Sunday column: The killing of some bills has become an annual ritual

Scribblings from a notebook kept while wondering and wandering through Legislatorland, 2015:

Bundles of bills died last week as several House subcommittees shut down for the year and Senate committees waded through long agendas. In many cases, the bill killings involve something approaching an annual ritual of established legislative procedure for dealing with matters that involve lots of talk and media attention in out-of-session situations.

One category would be Democrat-sponsored bills that align, at least to some extent, with generic party position on an issue while opposed by the generic Republican Party position. Examples on last week’s legislation death list include establishment of a state minimum wage and wage equality between men and women.

There were actually two bills on a state minimum wage this year — one going to $10.10 an hour instantly, the other phasing that in level over a couple of years. House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada grumbled about wasting time when the second came up after the first was defeated on a party-line vote in the House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee. But the panel’s chair, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn of Mount Juliet, let sponsor Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, proceed with a debate while offering her own philosophical objection to the bill — basically that the federal minimum wage is already preventing some unskilled workers from getting any entry-level job and “my heart goes out” to such folks. Turner, naturally, disagreed, but thanked Lynn for the “compassion” shown in her commentary. Despite the civil discourse, that bill, too, was killed on a party-line vote.

The gender pay equity bill was discussed at some length and in generally civil fashion before being killed on a party-line vote by the same subcommittee. It’s just possible that such things indicate progress for the minority Democrats. In the past, similar bills often were simply ditched with virtually no discussion.

There was also some actual discussion last week before the party-line vote, in yet another subcommittee, killing Nashville Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones’ medical marijuana bill. Though things got a bit hostile on occasion, the GOP majority killed it in rather polite fashion — it was sent to “summer study” instead of voted down outright, as it was last session.

Some recurring bills are killed more or less regularly on a bipartisan basis, such as the annual crusade to repeal state law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. There have been many variations of the proposals over the years, with both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, but the result has always been the same. This year, the crusade ended with a 4-4 tie vote — tie votes mean failure under legislative rules — in the Senate Transportation Committee. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, the bill’s sponsor, neatly summarized the debate in a widely quoted comment: “I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights: to be stupid.”

It’s safe to predict that the effort will resume next year and it’s probable, though perhaps less safe to predict, that the same result will occur, stupid or otherwise.

In the first years of Republican control of Legislatorland, Democrats seemed somewhat bewildered about how to respond. Increasingly, they have adopted the same tactic used by GOP legislators during days of Democratic rule: Throwing out a floor amendment that puts the majority party members in an awkward position.

Last week’s best example was an amendment by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh offered to a Haslam administration bill that reduces use of student test data in teacher evaluations. His amendment declared that teachers cannot be evaluated on the basis of testing students they did not teach, as they are now in some situations. It was killed, but a handful of Republicans strayed from the party line to vote with the Democrats. Yes, the GOP majority position makes some sense if you get into a long-winded explanation.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey recently declared that, in these days of the Republican supermajority, Democrats are “basically irrelevant to the process.” Maybe so, but sometimes they can make Republicans a little uneasy.

Haynes says he’s resign House seat if elected TNGOP chair; Rep. Littleton also interested

State Rep. Ryan Haynes says he will resign from his state House seat if elected state Republican chairman, reports Georgiana Vines. That would be a contrast to Beth Harwell, now speaker of the House, who continued to hold her state representative seat while serving as state GOP chair from 2001 until 2004.

“I will not stay in the Legislature and hold this position. Whoever gets into this needs to devote full-time,” Haynes said.

Karen Brown and Ken Gross, two Knox Countians on the 66-member GOP Executive Committee who will be deciding the next chairman on April 11, said Friday that they believe Haynes has a good chance of being elected.

“Ryan anticipated this was coming. He was prepared for it. He has enough backing that he felt like he would get it,” Brown said.

Gross said he has been contacted by state Rep. Mary Littleton… who also is interested in the post but that he is supporting Haynes.

“I think his chances are extremely good,” Gross said. “He put his name out there and started contacting Executive Committee members.”

Devaney announced Monday he is stepping down April 11 to become executive director of the Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti headquartered in Chattanooga. He was re-elected in December to a fourth term over former state Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Joe Carr. Carr sought the chairmanship after losing to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the August primary.

Haynes said the “rumor mills” had begun that Devaney was going to resign so he started putting himself into a position to seek the position. Once an email on an announcement was issued on Monday, “I was ready to jump out there to start meeting with Executive Committee members.”

He said he is crisscrossing the state to do it.

“I’ve spoken to a supermajority. I feel confident. It’s up to them and no one else. Any kind of outside influence doesn’t have that much affect. They’re pretty independent,” Haynes said.

Note: Littleton, from Dickson, is a former vice chair of the state GOP executive committee.

TN attorney general submits arguments against gay marriage to Supreme Court

The Tennessee Attorney General filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court Friday, arguing the ability of heterosexual couples — and not same-sex couples — to have children is one reason why gay marriage should not be recognized.

Portions of the 49-page brief quoted in a Tennessean’s report:

“Decisions of this Court recognizing a fundamental right to marry have considered marriage under its traditional definition: the union of one man and one woman,” the brief reads. “The fundamental importance of marriage is necessarily linked to the procreative capacity of that man-woman union, and this Court has said that the right to marry is fundamental precisely because marriage and procreation are fundamental to the existence of society.”

…“Maintaining a traditional definition of marriage ensures that when couples procreate, the children will be born into a stable family unit, and the promotion of family stability is certainly a legitimate state interest,” the brief reads. “The same situation is simply not presented by same-sex couples, who as a matter of pure biology do not naturally procreate. So there exists a rational explanation for not expanding marriage to same-sex couples.”

…“Tennessee does not ‘target’ same-sex couples who marry out-of-state; Tennessee recognizes out-of-state marriages depending upon whether they comport or conflict with Tennessee’s own public policy,” the brief reads.

“When a State has exercised its sovereign authority to establish its own policy and reaffirm the traditional definition of marriage, that authority must not be intruded upon by requiring it to give way to the policy of another State that has chosen to expand its marriage definition.”

Vandy law prof, critic of Islam, eyes run for TNGOP chair

Controversial Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain said she’s interested in entering the race to become leader of the Tennessee Republican Party, according to The Tennessean.

Swain confirmed late Friday she’s “open” to the leadership role, available after current GOP party Chairman Chris Devaney announced Tuesday he planned to resign.

“I have not actively pursued the state party chairmanship, but I find the opportunity intriguing. I’m humbled by the fact that a number of people I respect and admire have asked me to enter the race,” Swain said Friday.

Swain is a law professor at Vanderbilt who received considerable backlash after writing a column for The Tennessean that attacked the religion of Islam.

“If America is to be safe, it must remove the foxes from the henhouses and institute serious monitoring of Islamic organizations,” Swain wrote, adding later “we must be willing to recognize the dangers of the burka (head-to-toe garb worn by women in some Islamic sects), which allows individuals to completely conceal their identities.”

…”I would say that my transparency, my decades long enthusiasm for politics and my comfort level with the media are assets, as well as my commitment to advancing the conservative agenda,” she said. “I bring a fresh perspective to the party as a minority who has risen from poverty to the middle class.”

…”I would imagine there would be a lot of opposition to me,” Swain said. “I’m not a part of the Republican establishment, I’m not an institutional person, I’m a person … I try to live by my values. I expect other people to say what they mean and to mean what they say.”