Hank Hayes provides a report on a Democratic rally in Northeast Tennessee, featuring an array of speakers — including Sen. Andy Berke, Chip Forrester, Mike McWherter and TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters.:
ROCKY MOUNT — Speakers at the “Muster on the Mount” rally for Northeast Tennessee Democrats honored teachers and skewered Republicans on a number of political fronts Saturday night.
The biggest thing state Republican lawmakers were taken to task for was taking away teachers’ collective bargaining rights enacted in the 1970s.
“Teachers have been basically attacked by this legislature,” said Jerry Winters, government relations manager with the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). “Unreasonable demands have been put upon education. Legislators are always saying that teachers should be held accountable. The legislators themselves ought to be accountable, too. They did things in a mean spirited way. They took rights away from teachers that they had for 30 to 40 years or more. … It’s time to get the message out that teachers are upset, that we might need some changes in the Tennessee General Assembly.”
In response, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey disputed the notion that Republicans are sour on teachers while also enacting tenure and evaluation reform.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “They use those same old, tired arguments that unions use. We’re out here trying to improve education. I think that a year or two from now, teachers will look back on this evaluation process and hopefully we will be able to have some merit pay for good teachers by that time, that I think they will realize it’s a good thing. … We’re trying to do what’s best for the child and make sure we have a quality teacher in every classroom, period.”
Lawmakers this year passed a “collaborative conferencing” law to replace teacher collective bargaining in more than 90 school districts.
“You really can’t mandate collaboration,” Winters said of the law. “It will work well in places where there are good relations between school boards and teachers. In places where relations are strained, it probably won’t work well.”
TEA supported Democrats in campaign giving by about a five-to-one margin in 2010, and Winters indicated that might not change.
“We have always supported people who support public education. The Republicans have not given us a lot of incentive to support them this time around with some notable exceptions,” Winters said. “Some have attempted to put (the TEA) out of business and that’s not going to happen.”
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he hopes teachers play a big role in the 2012 state elections.
“They are, by and large, upset with the way they were treated,” Berke said. “You can’t talk about the teacher being the most important person in the classroom on one hand and talk about how mediocre and poor they are on the other.”
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester emphasized Republican “overreach” on a number of issues in the last legislative session.
“Lieutenant Governor Ramsey said that this last legislative session was the appetizer. I am fearful what dinner looks like next session,” Forrester said. “This overreach … the poll tax with the photo ID law (required to cast a ballot) and disenfranchising teachers from their collective bargaining rights has created a 20 percent drop in the positive feelings for the legislature among average voters. I think this overreach will allow us in the next election cycle to move the ball down the field in the right direction.”
Forrester dismissed the notion that Democrat President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings would be a factor in the 2012 state elections.
Only 31 percent of respondents in a Middle Tennessee State University poll taken last May said they would vote for Obama.
“The president’s poll numbers, like in 2008, never had a tremendous impact one way or another on voters,” Forrester insisted. “We’re going to fight our races locally. We’re going to talk about what’s happened in the state with what Republicans have done.”
Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, who lost the governor’s race last year to Republican Bill Haslam, said GOP state lawmakers don’t have a cohesive jobs program.
“The Democrats have talked about providing tax and job incentives, and tax cuts for small businesses, and they never saw the light of day. They all got killed in (legislative) committees,” said McWherter, son of the late Gov. Ned McWherter. “I really disagree with what Governor Haslam did in eliminating the regional planning people in the (economic and community development) department. I’m disappointed he hasn’t had a stronger program to create jobs in small businesses in the state.”