Sunday column: TN Democrats master the art of grandstanding

Democrats in Tennessee’s Legislature seem to have increased their sniping at the Republican supermajority in the current session, as best illustrated last week when Nashville’s Rep. Mike Stewart came to a subcommittee meeting with an assault rifle and a tale to tell.

The tale the House Democratic Caucus chairman told the Civil Justice Subcommittee was about how he contacted a fellow willing to sell the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle similar to the fully-automatic AR-16 used by American military forces, for $750 on the Internet, then met him the night before the meeting in a restaurant parking lot to make the purchase.

This, Stewart explained, showed the need for passage of his bill to require background checks on person-to-person gun buys, just as now required for purchases from a licensed dealer. He went through no check, Stewart said, adding, “Luckily I am not a member of a drug cartel … not on a terrorist watch list … not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence.”

The panel’s Republicans were not impressed. Subcommittee Chairman Jon Lundberg of Bristol grumbled about Stewart “putting on a show.” Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah fretted that the gun might be loaded (it was not, having passed a state trooper inspection). And then they shot down Stewart’s bill on a party-line vote.

Democrats and gun control advocacy groups promptly fired off a round of press releases and statements denouncing the Republicans. The gun was an especially good prop for attracting TV folk.

Say what you will about the merits of the legislation, this was a fine example of a political grandstanding gimmick, reminiscent of the bygone days of Democratic dominance when Republican legislators would do things like wave a pound of bacon in the air while denouncing “pork” in the state budget during a House floor speech.

It might have been a nice added touch if Stewart had bought instead a Barrett Model M82/M107, designated the official Tennessee state rifle via Republican-sponsored legislation that Stewart opposed — but that would probably have cost a lot more than $750.

It took legislative Democrats two or three years after Republicans achieved control of the General Assembly to master the minority party art of throwing political bombs at the majority. But they’ve got the hang of it now and reached a new high-water mark this session.

Stewart may well top the list of a Republican watch list as a Rhetorical political terrorist in Legislatorland. Indeed, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said after Stewart’s gun show that he puts the performance at the top of Democrats’ stunt list for the year.

But he has considerable competition from fellow Democrats. Suggested runner-up honors would go to a dynamic Democratic women’s duo, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville and Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis.

Perhaps their best performance was the so-called “tampon tax bill,” which would have lowered the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, baby diapers, non-prescription drugs and some other stuff. The bill got the cold shoulder from Republicans on a Senate subcommittee, which, happily for Democrats’ talking points in the press releases, gave its blessing on the same day to completely exempting sales of gold and silver from the sales tax and voting for most every Republican-sponsored bill in sight — and there are a bunch of them — to repeal or reduce the state tax on investment income.

Jones and Kyle also jointly sponsored the “Viagra bill,” which would have imposed multiple restrictions on treatments for erectile dysfunction. Perhaps not really intended to be taken seriously, the measure encountered stiff opposition from Republicans — all men — on the subcommittee that killed it.

Honorable mention in the political bomb-throwing competition among Democrats could go to several other legislators and, for that matter, to state party Chair Mary Mancini, who issues regular critiques of supermajority doings.

The list could go on at some length. It’s fair to say such performances really haven’t accomplished much in the short term — except for annoying Republicans. But from the partisan perspective, that’s perhaps better than nothing — just as it was for minority Republicans in bygone days, who are now prone in old age to reminisce fondly about fighting the good fight against the odds.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.