By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam says it’s too early to tell whether the defeat of House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart in last week’s primary will cause lawmakers to revive a gun bill championed by the National Rifle Association.
The NRA put up more than $86,000 against Maggart in the race, claiming she was instrumental in blocking legislation to guarantee employees the right to store weapons in vehicles parked at work, regardless of businesses’ wishes.
Haslam has said he supports the measure, but only with exceptions built in for large employers. The NRA wants a more blanket ban on keeping guns from being stored in parking lots.
The governor told reporters after a higher education meeting in Memphis on Tuesday that responses from lawmakers on the NRA-backed bill have been varied since Maggart’s ouster.
“There’s some who are like, ‘That makes me mad, that makes we want to fight,’ to ‘Let’s work out something before we even go into session,'” he said.
“It’s a little early to comment on exactly what the balance of the General Assembly will look like,” Haslam said. “But does that guarantee that it will be talked about next year? Yes.”
The measure has put Republicans in the middle of a fight between two traditional allies: gun rights advocates and the business lobby. But the hardball tactics of the NRA and unaffiliated groups like the Tennessee Firearms Association have alienated some former supporters.
Republican Rep. Frank Nicely of Strawberry Plains, who won the GOP primary for an open state Senate seat last week, said he was surprised by the blowback from the NRA over the bill and their subsequent involvement in legislative races.
“I don’t know what got into them,” Niceley said. “I used to be their best friend, and now they have an enemy for life.”
Haslam campaigned and raised money for several Republicans, including at least two who lost last week: Maggart and Education Chairman Richard Montgomery. The governor said it’s difficult to draw larger lessons from the primary results that have seven Republicans leaving the Legislature.
“I would argue that state representative races in the end are as about as local a race as you can get,” he said. “There were some state representative races that turned on local issues like utilities and school boards and things that weren’t really state issues.
“I don’t think standing here today, you know, five days later, we can say ‘Oh, there was a tea party shift or any other kind of shift in the election.'”
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin announced Tuesday that he won’t seek a rematch against House Speaker Beth Harwell in her bid for another term in charge of the chamber. Following news of Casada’s decision, Harwell appointed one of his former aides, Scott Gilmer, as her chief of staff.
Gilmer replaces Gregory Gleaves, who announced before the primary election that he was leaving to work for Hall Strategies, a Nashville-based public relations and lobbying firm.
Gilmer in 2009 pleaded no contest to a criminal charge stemming from his operation of phony political Web sites in the name of a Democratic incumbent who ended up losing his re-election campaign by about 300 votes. State election law says only candidates or their representatives can authorize communications made in a candidate’s name. Gilmer received a $50 fine and no jail time.
Later in 2009, Republicans narrowly rejected an attempt by Democrats to give more teeth to the law on falsely representing others on political websites. The measure ultimately failed on a 49-48 vote, with all but one Republican voting to throw it out. The lone GOP dissenter at the time was Harwell.
Harwell in an email message to colleagues cited Gilmer’s “many years of experience” in selecting him for the top job in her office.