Horse slaughter, deer farming and raw milk sales might be ignored in most political campaigns, but not in this summer’s four-candidate, six-county Republican primary race that will decide who succeeds retiring state Sen. Mike Faulk.
“The horse is a very intelligent animal. In my personal opinion and the opinion of humane societies I’ve talked with, we don’t need to be killing them for human consumption,” said candidate Jeff Brantley of Sharp’s Chapel. “What’s next? Dogs and cats?”
Candidate Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, as a state representative, has pushed legislation that would clear the way for operation of horse slaughter facilities. The bills have failed.
He has also unsuccessfully sponsored legislation that would legalize keeping whitetail deer in captivity and selling them — an idea Brantley said he also opposes.
Critics say such a move would raise the risk of Tennessee’s native whitetails becoming infected with illnesses brought in by imported, domesticated deer, including chronic wasting disease. Proponents say such concerns are mistaken and deer farming would be a new source of income in rural counties.
Niceley was successful in winning approval of a bill that allows sale of raw milk, provided the consumer buys an interest in the cow or goat producing the milk.
“We were at a forum in Union County, and the main thing he (Niceley) had on his mind was raw milk,” says candidate Cynthia Bundren Jackson of Rogersville. “As I travel around the district, talking with people and listening, raw milk is not the main thing on their minds. They’re thinking about jobs, about education and about their families and family values.”
“We’ve sent people to Nashville time and time again, then they lose their focus and want to pass bills on horse meat and all these frivolous things,” says candidate Hobart Rice of Dandridge. “Education is something they don’t focus on. … If we’ve got somebody who’s been there (in the Legislature) for more than 20 years and we’re still 46th in education, I think it’s time for a change.”
Niceley says his opponents’ criticism on the horse, deer and milk matters is based on a lack of knowledge.
“People who don’t farm don’t understand these issues. They don’t understand farm economics,” he said. “Those are the only negatives they’ve got on me and those are not negatives. All those things create jobs.”
The four candidates said in separate interviews that they have known one another for years and have been on friendly terms. Rice says he signed Jackson’s qualifying petition, for example.
The district they seek to serve covers Claiborne, Grainger, Hawkins, Hancock, Jefferson and Union counties and is labeled as Senate District 8. Redistricting this year changed the designation — it was previously Senate District 4 — but otherwise made no changes to the geographic layout that had been represented by Faulk, of Church Hill, for the past four years.
The candidates all have political and personal success stories.
Brantley, 54, owns and operates a trucking company and serves as a Union County commissioner. He and his wife, Tonya, have three children and five grandchildren. If elected, he said, he will “concentrate on regulation reform and put tax dollars where they are needed, not in pork barrel projects.”
Jackson, 51, is a single mother who runs her own real estate agency in Rogersville. She is the president of the Hawkins County Republican Women and has been first vice president of the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women. She will bring “new ideals” to the job as a “fresh face” in contrast to “career politicians,” Jackson said.
Rice, 61, and his wife, Bonnie, have four children and five grandchildren. Rice was elected a member of the Tennessee Republican Party’s State Executive Committee in 2010 by Republican voters in the same six counties that constitute the Senate district. He is finance manager of a Rogersville automobile dealership but says he would leave that job and devote full time to serving as a senator if elected, focusing on education, including support for a school voucher system.
Niceley, 65, and his wife, Cyndie, have four children. He is a farmer who was first elected to the House in 1988. He gave up the seat in 1992 for an unsuccessful run for the Senate, losing to Democrat Danny Wallace, who, in turn was defeated four years later by former Sen. Mike Williams of Maynardville. Williams was narrowly defeated by Faulk in 2008.
Williams filed papers to qualify as a Republican candidate in this year’s Senate race, but the state Republican Party declared he was not a “bona fide Republican” because he had declared himself an Independent while serving in the state Senate. Williams’ qualifying petition was then rejected.
With no Democrat seeking the office, the winner of this year’s Republican primary is assured of winning the seat.
Brantley said he and Williams are longtime friends and he hopes to have the former senator’s support in the campaign. Williams, who now serves as Union County mayor, did not return a reporter’s phone call.
Niceley was elected to the House again in 2004. He wants to relocate to the Senate, he said, because the four-year term means less time campaigning and more time working on issues and because “we don’t have anybody in the Senate who has agriculture as their real thing … maybe some synthetic farmers.”
While his legislative activities have been the target of commentary from his opponents, Niceley in an interview was himself critical of Jackson, saying “she has her Democrats to help her in the Republican primary.” Specially, he cited Ken Givens, a former Democratic state representative from Rogersville who also served as state agriculture commissioner during Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.
Jackson said Givens is “a good friend” and an adviser on agricultural issues and on the state’s “coordinated school health care program” in schools. Givens was active in establishing the program and it was operated by his wife, Connie, until she died in 2009.
“We disagree on a lot of things, but we agree on those things,” she said. “We’re sort of the James Carville and Mary Matalin of Hawkins County.”
Nicely puts a different spin on the relationship.
“He’s a former representative who voted for the income tax,” said Niceley. “Why, if she’s a conservative Republican, would she have an adviser who’s an income tax man?”
Jackson said that she is a staunch opponent of a state income tax and always has been, adding in an email, “I hope this campaign does not revolve around fabricated issues and silly issues like deer farming and raw milk.”
Her advisers on education issues, Jackson said, have questioned Niceley’s vote “against the BEP (Basic Education Program) formula change in 1992 in favor of large urban systems” and his vote against the state’s pre-kindergarten program.
Niceley said he opposed the BEP bill in question, which did mean more money for smaller and rural school systems, because it included a provision requiring school superintendents be appointed by school boards rather than be popularly elected. And he said, “I’d vote to abolish pre-K if I could.”
Rice said Jackson told him in a conversation that she expects to benefit from crossover voting by Democrats in the Republican primary. As an executive committee member,
Rice said he supported a proposal to have a “closed” primary system in Tennessee, as some other states do, wherein a voter must be registered with a party to vote in that party’s primary. The executive committee ultimately dropped the idea and Tennessee still has an “open” primary system.
Jackson said she and Rice “may have discussed the high percentage of people that voted in the Republican primary versus the Democrat primary” in the March 6 presidential preference primary.
“Since we have an open primary system, it is impossible to know what voters might do,” she said.
Niceley touts his selection as “conservative of the year” by the Tennessee Conservative Union. The lawmaker said he has a “100 percent voting record” with the Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation and an “A plus” rating by the National Rifle Association. He has joined other Republicans in pushing tax cuts and other bills favored by conservatives.
“What more do you want?” he said. “My problem is not my record. It’s getting people to know about my record.”
The Farm Bureau does not normally issue voting reports. But Rhedona Rose, lobbyist for the organization, said a review of records at Niceley’s request showed that he had voted in favor of all legislation actively pushed by the Farm Bureau during the past eight years. She said the Farm Bureau and Niceley “did not always see eye to eye” on bills Niceley initiated.
That includes the deer farming bill and the original version of his raw milk bill, which would have allowed sales of unpasteurized milk on a much broader basis than the final version. After amendments requiring the purchasing consumer to have a financial interest in the milked animal, she said the bureau was “OK with it.”
Brantley said it’s natural that Niceley has gotten most of the attention because of his legislative background, which the other candidates do not share, “and they haven’t said anything about any of the issues” except in vague and general terms.
“The way I see it, I have three competitors who are more or less next-door neighbors,” he said, but added that he will not be surprised if the neighbors begin feuding more intensely as the campaign progresses.
“I’m just going to sit back and watch the fireworks,” Brantley said.
Note: This story also appeared in Sunday’s News Sentinel, HERE.