Sunday column: On legislators in the summer spotlight

Tennessee’s legislative session may be gone, but legislators are not forgotten in the state media spotlight this summer — especially Reps. Jeremy Durham of Franklin, Andy Holt of Dresden and Martin Daniel of Knoxville.

Though getting out-of-session attention for different reasons, the three have some things in common. They’re Republicans who present themselves to voters as staunch conservatives unafraid to take controversial positions and who face opposition in seeking re-election to new terms.

In the Legislature, the three have been prominent for different reasons. Durham’s most prominent claim to fame was what he called “the Stop Obamacare Act,” a measure that required legislative approval of any Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam had already promised not to act without legislative approval, but after his Insure Tennessee plan was killed, Durham and his co-sponsors claimed credit.

Durham is under an official investigation by the state attorney general’s office, launched at the behest of House Speaker Beth Harwell, into allegations that he sexually harassed women via text message and otherwise. Last week, the investigation expanded to include Durham’s spending from his campaign account. The Registry of Election Finance is looking into that aspect at the attorney general’s suggestion.

Durham, who faces both Republican and Democratic opposition in his re-election campaign, has several prominent Republicans calling for his resignation but also has a corps of ardent defenders. Last week, for example, Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, wrote a letter to the chairman of the legislative committee overseeing the investigation to call for an end to an effort that “reeks of a political witch hunt.”

Holt has most prominently crusaded for Second Amendment rights — he successfully sponsored a bill this year that authorizes handgun permit holders to take their weapons on college campuses — and against traffic cameras. He burned a ticket recently and made a video that got thousands of Facebook views.

Last week, Holt got attention for previously-announced plans to give away an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle at a campaign fundraiser. When some questioned whether that was appropriate in light of the Orlando massacre that involved an AR-15, Holt responded by declaring he’d give away two of the guns, not just one. And he promised to criminally prosecute a “Democrat activist” who called his office making threats over the matter.

Holt has no Republican opponent to re-election, but funds raised from the gun giveaway will go toward defeating a Democrat on the ballot in November, along with a former Weakley County commissioner and GOP activist who is running as an independent.

Daniel is probably best known as a leader in questioning University of Tennessee spending on diversity, though he’s had other irons in the legislative fire in a remarkably active freshman term. His most recent controversy came over tweets critical of Muhammad Ali following the former champion boxer’s death.

The Knoxville lawmaker, who faces three challengers in the August GOP primary with an underdog Democrat waiting in November, was somewhat repentant in response to the criticism, a notable example being a letter Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, wrote to the editor of the Commercial Appeal saying that Daniel’s tweets show Tennessee has “some of the most hypocritical, grandstanding, headline-grabbing politicians in the nation.”

In a phone conversation last week, Daniel said he regrets some of the remarks and that they were irrelevant to his legislative activities. He has canceled his Twitter account and reprimanded a staffer who made some of the tweets after his original missive. Daniel also chewed out yours truly at some length for writing a “hit job” account of the tweets without talking to him first. Daniel, usually prompt in replying to reporter inquiries, says he tried before deadline on that occasion, though the call was not received and he left no recorded voice mail.

There’s a sleaze factor involved for Durham that may come into play for his race. But for Holt and Daniel, voters will be deciding whether they want two straightforward, cutting-edge conservatives in the legislative mix — or not.