The Tennessee Education Association’s political arm has endorsed three East Tennessee Republican legislators facing contested primaries this summer while declining to take sides in incumbent-versus-incumbent Democratic primaries.
Republican incumbents receiving TEA support while facing primary challengers on Aug. 2 include Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville, Rep. Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville.
On the other hand, the TEA is backing Phil Morgan Jr. of Newport, the challenger to Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Grady Caskey, challenger to Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville. Caskey is president of the TEA’s Blount County affiliate.
“The people we endorsed in Republican primaries are moderate Republicans who have voted pro-public education,” said Jerry Winters, TEA’s lead lobbyist at the Legislature and adviser to its PAC, which is traditionally one of the biggest donors to legislative campaigns. The PAC had a cash-on-hand balance of $384,501 at last report.
Winters said candidates receiving endorsements wanted them and he believes they will be helpful, even though some conservative Republicans regularly attack the “teachers union” — a term that Winters and other TEA officials prefer not to use — as too liberal.
TEA was targeted by several bills pushed through the 107th General Assembly by the Republican majority, most notably legislation sharply curtailing collective bargaining rights for teachers. Another bill targeted TEA’s PAC, says Winters.
“Clearly, the intent was to put our PAC out of business. It has not,” said Winters. “It did not have a significant impact — or has not up until now.”
One factor, he said, is that the actual wording of the bill — which prohibits school systems from processing a dues payment from paychecks if money goes for “political purposes” — is such that many school systems have interpreted it as not actually forbidding dues deductions as handled for TEA members.
Meanwhile, he said the Legislature’s actions have apparently inspired teachers to a higher level of political activism.
“They’re more engaged than I have ever seen them,” Winters said, adding that a theme has become “remember in November what the Legislature did to them in 2011 and 2012.”
As in the past, most legislative candidates endorsed by TEA are Democrats, though there are some Republicans without opponents in either the primary or general election, such as Rep. Michael Harrison of Rogersville, who receive what might be seen as complimentary endorsements.
“If more Republicans would step up and support us on public education issues, we are chopping at the bit to support Republicans,” Winters said.
Republican controlled redistricting this year has left four races in which one Democratic incumbent is running against another. They are Reps. Tommy Brown and JoAnn Favors in Chattanooga, along with three races in Memphis, Sens. Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero, Jeanne Richardson and John DeBerry, G.A. Hardaway and Mike Kernell.
In all four of those contests, TEA has taken the unusual step of endorsing both candidates.
“In all those situations it would have been virtually impossible to pick one over the other,” said Winters. “All have good records on education issues … It’s a difficult situation that was brought on us by reapportionment.”