Tag Archives: columnists

Columnist: ‘Durham Affair’ shows ‘institutional malfeasance’

Tennessean columnist Keel Hunt opines that the “Durham Affair” is no longer just about allegations of the misbehavior of one legislator and instead has become “a broader tale of institutional malfeasance, the reaches of the buddy system, and the failure of leaders to lead with speed.”

The circle widened last Monday to touch the top three Republican leaders. Word now is these leaders knew of harassment complaints months ago.

That is a specific echo of Watergate — of Sen. Howard Baker’s simple but devastating question in 1973: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Today, what did the House leadership know about this current trouble, and when did they first know it?

This legislature is a labyrinth with many layers. The place can be confusing to the outsider, baffling to the visitor who is unschooled in its mysterious ways. Its proprietors claim they are open for inspection, but they are not. Insiders claim the sun shines there, but it doesn’t.

To the mere citizen’s eye, the General Assembly is a bewilderment of back stairs and subcommittees, overlaid with a mossy structure of revered seniority and pecking order.

Forget what you learned in high school about “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” This place is about politics, pure and simple, and some days of the meanest sort.

Granted, the state Capitol and Legislative Plaza have always been shaped by politics — that much is fair game — but today they are characterized more by anger, envy and fog.

…The Durham mess is creepy and alarming — allegations that young women were subjected to shabby and shameful treatment by one or more men feeling entitled, abusing their power. On top of that, it appears the leaders of the House failed to take charge of it all, at the proper time, possibly hoping the ugly stain would fade away.

That is how this labyrinth works — plenty of procedures and traditions to hide behind to escape responsibility. Plenty of hallways to private offices where the door can be closed and nobody can find you.

…House leaders are not powerless. What about censure? What about ouster or expulsion? How about, tomorrow morning, you set the record straight about what you were told and when?

Columnist sees House leaders “bungling” in Durham affair

Tennessean columnist David Plazas sees “bungling” in the way House Republican leadership has handled the allegations about Rep. Jeremy Durham. An excerpt:

Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who was approached by two women last year, opted not to take their allegations against Durham any further, instead insisting that they file formal complaints. He kept those details private until this week.

In hindsight that was a clear indication why the system to address such allegations is severely flawed and needs to be fixed.

And in an even more deplorable step, GOP House Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, a mentor and friend to Durham, chased rumors by asking women who were statehouse employees about Durham’s behavior toward them.

That has the effect of creating an atmosphere of intimidation, and it’s unlikely any woman would have felt compelled to confide in him.

Both men had an opportunity to ask for an independent investigation, which would have been far wiser.

Speaker Beth Harwell should have done the same, but has all but ceded her power by reacting to events of the day instead of making proactive decisions to deal with a rogue member of the House.

She is the Speaker of the House, and if she fails to use the tools at her disposal, she is essentially powerless.

Harwell said Wednesday night she is looking into expelling him from the legislature. On Thursday after Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, her counterpart in the Senate, told reporters that Durham had an affair with a legislator who resigned, Harwell called for the attorney general’s office to investigate Durham.

The GOP House had a chance to discuss Durham’s leadership, or even consider an investigation, at its special meeting Jan. 12 to discuss his behavior.

Instead of addressing the concerns then, lawmakers played parliamentary procedure games in a closed-door meeting that shielded Durham from any scrutiny.

It is clear that the system for reporting sexual harassment and for investigating sexual harassment is broken.

Columnists: Vouchers leave kids on a sinking ship

Columnists at opposite ends of the state — Frank Cagle in the Knoxville News Sentinel and David Waters in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis — both have written pieces calling for defeat of pending voucher legislation. Both compare public schools to a sinking ship and vouchers as a means to save a few of those aboard, but not the rest.

From Cagle:

Imagine a ship filled with children. It has a hole in the hull and is being kept afloat with pumps and bailing. Imagine rescuers arriving with a few lifeboats. They have two options. They can board the ship, man the pumps and repair the hole. Of they can sit in the lifeboats and allow the most physically fit of the youngsters to climb down to be rescued. Then they sail away and leave the most vulnerable of the kids to their fate.

Let’s call the ship a failing public school and the lifeboats, call them the vouchers.
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Republicans miss Shelby delegation meeting

Columnist Otis Sanford observes that the Shelby County delegation to the state Legislature “is rarely, if ever, on the same page.

And unless it’s on the floor of the state House and Senate or during meals, members are rarely in the same place when constituents are around.

That was painfully obvious last Tuesday during a legislative town hall meeting at the National Civil Rights Museum ostensibly organized by the Shelby delegation. Except that only Memphis Democrats were at the meeting — all but one of whom is African-American.

Not a single Republican in the 19-member delegation bothered to show up.

…Democratic Rep. Karen Camper, who chairs the Shelby delegation, sent out notices about the town hall to each member on Dec. 17. A follow-up reminder went out on Monday.

Fellow Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway insists the snub was deliberate. Except for two or three GOP members, “they pretty much ignore us. As soon as they got the supermajority, that’s when the arrogance set in.”

That’s simply not so, says Republican state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, the Senate majority leader. Norris was in Nashville on other legislative business Tuesday. He also did not attend another legislative gathering a day earlier at Memphis Pink Palace Museum.

Norris said he alerted Camper’s office beforehand that he had a conflict. He also said the organizers did not seek input from all members before scheduling the meeting.

“They just announced they were doing this. Nobody reached out to try to find a date where we could all get together for a town hall meeting.”

As a result, the well-attended gathering was noticeably one-sided — racially and politically. Since Democrats have virtually no power in Nashville, it was also no doubt fruitless.

This is not to suggest that local GOP lawmakers care nothing about the needs of Memphians. But I do wish that our delegation would try harder to get on the same page every once in awhile.

A sample of diversity in recent TN political writing

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, on problems with the Achievement School District’s converting public schools into charter schools, in a Commercial Appeal op-ed:

It is no secret that education is the new business of choice by many businesspeople, and it appears that politicians are the facilitators for these profiteers and so-called saviors of America’s mostly minority and impoverished children.

While I do not have an issue with providing quality education for our children, I do have a major issue when it is driven by money versus the true crusade for better educational opportunities.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, promoting his successful effort to replace the federal No Child Left Behind Act in an op-ed piece as it appeared in the Times-Free Press.

Last year, campaigning for re-election, I said to Tennessee voters, “Give us a Republican majority in the United States Senate and we’ll repeal the federal Common Core mandate and reverse the trend toward a national school board.”

This week, Congress did just that and President Barack Obama signed it. The Wall Street Journal called our legislation fixing the 2001 No Child Left Behind law “the largest devolution of federal control to states in a quarter of a century.”

(Note: Maybe more interesting is Politico’s look at the inside Washington baseball involved in Alexander’s efforts.)

Robert Houk’s opening line in his latest column:

The Tennessee General Assembly officially returns to work in Nashville next month. God help us all.

Frank Cagle’s closing line in a column on the University of Tennessee’s lack of “institutional control,” as illustrated by the latest diversity kerfuffle:

A word of advice for the trustees: You can govern the university and exert institutional control, or the Legislature will do it for you.

Family Action Council of Tennessee’s David Fowler opines that the Legislature should, indeed, step in to stop the UT diversity doings:

To avoid student protests if UT’s Inclusion police are fired, UT is going to continue doing inane things that the public recoils at. After all, the Inclusion police have to do something if they’re going to get paid. They’ll come up with some more stuff like in the past. And UT officials will have to tromp down to the legislature every few months to apologize.

But that could stop if some legislative leaders would step in and do something to help them, such as telling Chancellor Cheek and the Inclusion police they can “voluntarily” resign or have their administration budget cut in half.

Excerpt from Mark Harmon’s satirical rewrite of the “Night Before Christmas” with the legislative uproar over UT diversity as a subject:

And then, in a twinkling, I saw on the tube
The braying and whining of each little rube.
As I shook my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Ron Ramsey came with a bound.

He was tossing red meat, from all he’d been hearing.
He must act quickly, an election is nearing.
A bundle of threats he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a meddler all set to attack.

His eyes, how they squinted! His winces, so scary!
His stooges had joined him, like Moe, Curly, Larry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a pucker
As he played on the fears of each fawning sucker.

He was no jolly elf, nor one like Will Ferrell
And he would never don any gay apparel.
A gleam in his eye and a frown on his head
Soon gave me to know I had so much to dread.

The governor’s leash he held tightly you see,
Reminding all how he killed Insure Tennessee.
With no plans at all, his excuses were smelly,
His claims as shaky as a bowlful of jelly.

Columnist McElroy: TN leaders ignoring potential terrorist infiltration

Excerpts from a Jack McElroy column:

Hooray for Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, state GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes and all our leaders who boldly called for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee… These are politicians who are sincerely worried about the safety of Tennesseans.

…But either through oversight or timidity, our government guardians are not going far enough.

Only 30 Syrian refugees have settled in Tennessee this year. Granted, several of them may be embedded terrorists who slipped through the government’s months-long, 13-step screening process. Still, the small pool limits the number of cadres that can be formed.

A larger pool may found among the holders of student visas. The University of Tennessee has more than 1,000 foreign students strolling its Knoxville campus alone. Many are Middle Easterners who could go on to be suicide bombers (or vice chairs of the board of trustees, but that’s a column for a different day).

…The Saudi Arabian who flew the jetliner into the Pentagon came to the U.S. on a student visa. But of the 18 other hijackers, 14 arrived on tourist visas. That’s where the real threat lies.

Tennessee is being infiltrated by foreign tourists. Just last month TripAdvisor revealed that Nashville is the fastest growing market in the U.S. for global leisure travel, up 38 percent. (Pigeon Forge wasn’t included in the analysis, but one shudders to think.)

Frighteningly, many of those tourists come from France, which with Belgium produced most of the Paris attackers. French visits to the U.S. grew to 1.6 million last year.

I can’t think of a single reason our leaders shouldn’t ask President Barack Obama to stop the flow of overseas tourists to Tennessee until we can be sure they, too, have been thoroughly vetted.

Oh wait. Tax revenue from international visitors to the state rose more than 8 percent in 2014 — to $577 million.

On second thought, let’s just worry about refugees.

On silence in TN incentive payments

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is reluctant to disclose the incentive payments to businesses for locating in Tennessee, observes Jack McElroy, but not reluctant as TVA, which flatly refuses to make its payments public.

Take the announcement that Advanced Munitions International will build an ammo factory and move its headquarters to Alcoa. Gov. Bill Haslam and Randy Boyd, commissioner of economic and community development, were on hand to tout the 605 jobs being created. But when asked what the citizenry of Tennessee was contributing to the deal, Boyd said the details were still being finalized, “so, there is not anything I can say.”

Actually, the deal is done. A deed already has transferred 269 acres from the Industrial Development Board of Blount County to AMI. Blount Countians paid $2.3 million for the land back in 1998.

Questioned further, Boyd clarified that it’s only the state’s share of the AMI incentives that still are being worked out.

“We’ve agreed in principle,” he said, “but they are dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s. Then we have to have the State Funding Board approve it. But until that happens, we don’t disclose it.”

So when will that be? John Dunn, spokesman for the state Comptroller, said the State Funding Board is scheduled to meet Nov. 13 and 19 but the AMI incentives aren’t on the agenda.

“Our staff is not aware of this project at this time,” he said.

…Haslam’s administration prefers to focus these announcements on the jobs being created and the adroitness of the government’s deal-making without mentioning what taxpayers have brought to the table. Other administrations, such as those of mayors Madeline Rogero and Tim Burchett, are more willing to share the details up front.

Eventually the cost to state coffers will become public, but only after the fanfare has faded and attention has turned elsewhere.

Still, that’s better than what the Tennessee Valley Authority does. The federal agency refuses to reveal the subsidies it bestows on private businesses even after deals are done. TVA insists its ability to compete would be compromised if that sensitive info leaked out.

But, oops. Loose-lipped Rogero spilled the beans on TVA’s contribution to the Regal deal, too, letting slip that it added $80,000 in “utility money” to the pool.

We’ll see if the $11-billion-a-year utility can survive the disclosure of that secret to the public.

Beth’s visit with ‘Boss Hill’ inspires columnist

House Speaker Beth Harwell attended a fundraiser for Rep. Matthew Hill last week, inspiring the Johnson City Press’ Robert Houk to write a column somewhat critical of “Boss Hill.”

Hill… spent some time in the speaker’s doghouse. But that was then.Time and political ambition can heal some wounds.

Harwell is being encouraged by her friends and supporters to run for governor in 2018. She must be giving it serious consideration. Certainly, if she does run she would want someone like Hill in her corner here in Northeast Tennessee. His religious conservative base is very deep and very faithful.

More importantly, they vote. Come fire, famine or floods, they make it to the polls. And Hill is a very accomplished and aggressive campaigner, as he demonstrated in taking apart his last Republican challenger in 2014. If only Hill would work as hard at governing as he does at getting elected.

That problem many have with Boss Hill is he has little to show for his decade in office. There’s been no major state project that bears his fingerprints in the 7th District.

…Local government and economic development officials considered former state Rep. Dale Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, as their “go-to-guy in Nashville” for such projects. Many often complained Hill was not interested in championing such projects. He was too busy distracting voters from the real issues by being a crusading pugilist in the never-ending and meaningless culture war on Capitol Hill.

Last week, however, Hill sounded as if he was last ready to give economic development a try. Hill told Gray he was going to show Harwell the growth and development issues in the Boones Creek area (which is in the 6th District of his colleague Michael Van Huss). The Boss bemoaned that a big outfit like Costco Wholesale would be the perfect anchor for a big development in Boones Creek if only the area had the needed roads and infrastructure.

Sounds to me like such infrastructure improvements need a champion in Nashville. Perhaps Hill, who is said to be eyeing a bid for the 3rd Senate District seat in three years, thinks he is the politician for the job.

Note: A somewhat related report on Hill and the Costco situation mentioned is HERE.

Columnist rethinking Bill Haslam

Excerpt from Sam Venable’s latest:

Despite the “aw-shucks” persona Haslam effected throughout his years as Knoxville’s mayor — a good ol’ boy image that followed him to Nashville — recent developments have caused me to think otherwise.

In plain terms, he seems prepared, even eager, to whore us out at any price.

Want to run a state park? Want to do custodial work at a college? Want to park cars and direct traffic? Indeed, want to do any job currently performed by state employees?

Then show me the color of your money!

This way of thinking goes beyond workers at state facilities. As recently reported by veteran Capitol Hill observer Rick Locker of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Haslam & Co. is reaching out to investors in Europe, Asia and South America.

His sales pitch isn’t so much one of favorable climate, scenic environment and (insert laugh here) excellent education and health care opportunities. Instead, it’s Tennessee’s “low-cost labor force” and “very low unionization rates.”

True as this may be, it’s a backhanded compliment. Sorta on the order of, “For somebody as fat as you are, you sure can dance.”

…As far as I’m concerned, the underlying message is abundantly clear: “We got rubes. You got money. Let’s do bidness.”

Just as troublesome is the fact the governor wants to plow ahead without saying much about it.

…There’s nothing wrong with identifying and cutting waste. But as is typically the case in these situations, any alleged “savings” are merely siphoned to some mega corporation (often out of state), while the folks back home suffer through layoffs, reduced wages and vaporized benefits.

Bottom line: the rich from afar get richer, and the poor among us get poorer.

Haslam comes from a private business where plans and decisions are made in secret. Fine. But he doesn’t work in the private sector these days.

This administration owes all of us — public and private alike — a clear picture of his goals. No economic sleight-of-hand. No bureaucratic b.s.

Liberal Democrat critiques conservative legislator forum

Mark Harmon, an activist Democrat, recently attended a panel discussion by five Republican East Tennessee state legislators and has now written a column on his observations. It starts thusly:

“I believe in science. Sorry, I do,” said state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, to the crowd at a recent legislative forum.

You can tell the conversation has gone in a strange direction when a medical doctor has to apologize for believing in science.

The event was an East Tennessee Legislative Panel in the Bearden Banquet Hall on Aug. 29. The online description indicated the sponsors were Americans for Prosperity (the extreme right-wing Koch brothers group), the Tennessee Liberty Alliance and the Republican Liberty Caucus of Tennessee.

The five state legislators, all Republican men, were backed by a banner with a GOP logo. At best this is a “whoops” that shows the lie of AFP’s non-partisan status; at worst it suggests a Federal Elections Commission violation. I videotaped all 100 minutes of the chat and put it online. (Note: YouTube video HERE)

The most outrageous statements came from state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. He blasted away that even some of those “worthless” federal Republicans would not vote for “Obamacare.” Then he passed along some speculation that doctors were getting trips to Hawaii for overprescribing dangerous drugs. The trifecta came when he asserted the lion’s share of vouchers in Florida were going to Muslim schools (for the record, not so).

UPDATE/NOTE: Tori Venable, spokeswoman for American for Prosperity-Tennessee, sends the following “for the record” email after this post:

Our sponsorship of the legislative forum hosted by the TN Liberty Alliance (also non-partisan) consisted of a booth to sign up activists – but that doesn’t fit with Mr. Harmon’s narrative. I’ve been told he and Gloria (Johnson, former Democratic state representative) tweeted false info the whole time.