Perhaps more than any Tennessee campaign this summer, the contest between Scott Hughes and Doug Overbey poses the question of whether Tennessee’s ruling Republican majority in the Legislature has achieved an appropriate balance in governing on proclaimed conservative principles.
Answering the question on Aug. 2 will be voters in state Senate District 2. Composed of Blount and Sevier counties, it is one of the most staunchly Republican regions of the state and has a history of unseating incumbent senators. With no Democrat running, the GOP primary decides the election.
Hughes, 35, a married father of four and chief financial officer for a Knoxville chuch, declares that Overbey, 57, a married father of three and attorney with a Knoxville law firm, is “the least conservative Republican legislator in the state.”
He has produced a long list of votes cast by Overbey to advance the claim, which is echoed by some local political figures – notably including Peggy Lambert, who serves as Tennessee’s national committeewoman on the Republican National Committee and chairman of Hughes’ campaign. A tea party-oriented political action committee has also endorsed Hughes.
Overbey adamantly rejects Hughes’ contentions, instead saying he continues “to represent conservative values and bring commonsense solutions to the issues facing our state.” He says the critique of his voting record is “chock full of untruths, half-truths and misleading statements.”
Virtually all of the state’s established Republican political figures are endorsing Overbey – notably including Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who joined three other incumbent GOP senators at Overbey’s official campaign kickoff events in Blount and Sevier counties.
Overbey says this illustrates that those who best know his record and work with him support him continuing on the job. Hughes said he was not surprised by such endorsements and does not expect them to carry much weight with local voters.
For Ramsey, who says Overbey is “absolutely a conservative,” that is a departure from past practice. Four years ago, the Senate speaker was officially neutral when Overbey ran against and unseated then-Sen. Raymond Finney of Maryville in the Republican primar. Finney, in turn, had unseated incumbent Sen. Bill Clabough in the 2004 GOP primary. Conservative credentials, or lack thereof, were an issue in both of those races.
In the current campaign, Hughes said Overbey’s voting record, “both on the social side and the fiscal side of the coin,” was “the main factor for me getting into the race.” His campaign has set up a website, www.howdougvotes.com, giving the Hughes view of Overbey voting.
Hughes moved to East Tennessee from Florida ten years ago to become executive director of the Hope Resource Center in Knoxville, which he describes as the region’s largest crisis pregnancy center. He moved professionally four years ago to Fuse Church, where he is chief financial officer.
Hughes made his first run for public office two years ago as one of four candidates seeking the state House seat vacated by then-Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville. He finished runnerup to Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, with 2,759 votes. Swann had 3,202.
At one point in an interview, Overbey referred to Hughes as a “failed candidate” and relative newcomer to the the area as contrasted with his own background, which includes service as a Blount County commissioner and in the state House of Representatives before his election to the Senate.
“I am steeped in East Tennessee, stepped in this community….Public service is an outgrowth of your community service and I have been engaged in this community for over three decades,” the senator said, listing an array of civic and church activities.
In a separate interview, Hughes also had miscellaneous criticisms of Overbey, including his failure to hold a top leadership position in the Senate and his being listed as the state’s second biggest recipient of PAC money during 2011.
Overbey does enjoy a big financial advantage. At last report, his campaign cash-on-hand balance was $246,470; Hughes had $17,937. Updated reports are due July 10.
But Hughes focus is on attacking Overbey’s voting record. Asked to single out a few votes, he first cited the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill as a “huge, huge difference between Doug and me” and an issue that resonates with the district’s conservatives. Lambert, in a separate interview, also brought up the issue, declaring that “voting to teach homosexuality in the classroom really bothers me.”
The bill, SB49, prohibited teaching of homosexuality in kindergarten through eight grade classrooms. It passed the Senate 19-10, but never was approved by the House and may return next year. Legislative records show Overbey was one ot three Republican senators
who did not vote one way or the other on the bill. The others were then-Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville and Sen. Mike Faulk of Church Hill. All other Republians voted yes.
The bill was amended on the Senate floor, before the final vote, to declare that only “natural reproduction” could be taught in classrooms. Overbey said he had misgivings about the amendment, believing that the wording was such that it could be construed to prohibit discussion of adoption, and understands that state law already prohibits teaching about homosexuality so that the bill is unnecessary – especially given that no parent or teacher in the district had suggested there was a problem.
The website has votes divided into a dozen categories under labels such as “higher taxes” and “opposing religious liberty.” A couple of samples:
-Under taxes, it is declared that Overbey voted for or sponsored 27 bills to increase taxes or fees. The first listed is a 2002 vote to increase the state sales tax, which most Republicans backed as an alternative to a state income tax then pushed by former Gov. Don Sundquist. The last is this year’s vote to implement a deal Haslam made with Amazon.com, which is opening shipping centers in the state. Basically, the bill allows Amazon to avoid collecting state sales taxes from Tennesseans until 2016 or whenever Congress act to require internet retailers to collect the taxes, whichever comes first.
-Under religious liberty, it is declared that Overbey “cast the only Republican vote in the state Senate against a bill to overturn Vanderbilt’s discriminatory policy against student religious groups.” Actually, records show Overbey abstained on the bill, SB3507, which was subsequently vetoed by Haslam.
The governor said that, though he dislikes Vanderbilt University’s “all comers” policy, he believes it even worse state policy to have government dictating to a private institution.
-Under “less accountability,” the website says Overbey “voted against legislative confirmations for state judges, effectively siding with liberal billionaire George Soros in keeping judicial selection insulated from both the voters and their popularly-elected representatives.”
Actually, the Legislature’s website shows Overbey voted for the proposed state constitutional amendment in question, SJR710, on the Senate floor, and never voted against it, though he abstained in two committee votes.
The proposal, which will be before the Legislature again next year, calls for the governor to appoint appeals court judges, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly – along the same line of the present system for appointing judges at the federal level. Overbey said he abstained in committee because, at the time, an alternative judicial appointment proposal was pending that he preferred.
“Scott is flat-out not telling the truth about my record,” said Overbey. “I think it’s really sad and it smacks to me of desperation.”
He cited as particularly “outlandish” a claim that the senator “voted to criminalize parents who monitor their children’s internet activity.” Overbey voted against a final version of SB1400, which says the state’s anti-wiretapping law does not apply buying software for use in monitoring a child’s computer use. The senator said the law already does not apply in such a situation and he saw no need “to pass a law just to have another law.”
“I’m the father of three daughters. Would I ever do what Scott says I did? Absolutely not,” he said.
Lambert said that she does not consider Overbey a “bonafide Republican” and encouraged Hughes to enter the race for that reason.
“This is not a personal vendetta,” she said. “Doug’s voting record is very liberal and it doesn’t represent his constituents.”