By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill that proposes forcing schools to tell parents if their children have talked to a teacher or counselor about being gay has set the stage for a new fight over social issues in the Tennessee Legislature.
Opponents call the legislation unnecessary and an inappropriate government intrusion in family matters.
The measure, filed Tuesday by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, is already drawing attention. The Knoxville Republican was mocked by talk show host Jay Leno last week, and he made headlines in 2011 when his legislation — often called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — to ban classroom instruction or discussion of homosexuality passed the Senate. The companion bill failed in the House last year.
Campfield’s new legislation is a retooling of that bill. Like the previous measure, it would prohibit classroom discussion of anything other than natural reproduction, and it goes further by giving schools the authority to inform parents about children who talk to school officials about their sexuality.
By limiting the scope of his plan for launching a school voucher system in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam finds himself facing legislative critics who think he hasn’t gone far enough and others who think he has gone too far.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, for example, is in the camp of those who think the governor’s plan is too restrictive. He predicts that the Senate will amend the Haslam bill, filed as SB196, to make it “more universal.”
At the other end is House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who said a state near the bottom nationally in public school funding should not be diverting any money at all to private schools. The Tennessee Education Association takes a similar stance.
As introduced, Haslam’s bill would limit vouchers to the students enrolled in schools ranked in the lowest-performing institutions in the state, called “priority schools” by the state Department of Education. There are 83 on the “priority school list” — 69 in Shelby County, six each in Davidson and Hamilton counties, one in Knox County and one in Hardeman County.
Gov. Bill Haslam defended his administration Tuesday against critics from within his own party, saying those who want him to rid state government of Democrats, gays and a Muslim don’t represent the views of most Tennessee Republicans.
From Michael Collins:
“Recent polls show that people who self-identify as conservative Republicans – 80 percent supported us,” Haslam said, referring to a Vanderbilt University poll released in May. “So I think you have to put it in that context.”
Asked what might be motivating his GOP critics, Haslam said, “I certainly can’t get inside their heads to understand.”
But he suggested the criticism is unfair and said his administration continues “to focus on the things that I think people elected us to do – bring jobs to Tennessee, keep improving our education system, run the government as effectively and as efficiently as we can.”
Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor who is in his second year as governor, has come under attack in recent weeks from a dozen or so self-described “Republican activists” who are urging county party organizations to adopt resolutions condemning his hiring decisions. At least eight county party groups have adopted such resolutions.
Haslam’s critics also are urging the Republican State Executive Committee to take some action against the governor.
The crux of the critics’ complaint is that Haslam has failed to rid state government of Democrats and gays in key positions, such as those working in the Department of Children’s Services. The groups also have blasted the governor for hiring Samar Ali as director of international marketing with the Department of Economic and Community Development.
A resolution passed by the Stewart County Republican Party called Ali “an expert in Shariah Compliant Finance, which is one of the many ways Islamic terrorism is funded.” It also noted that she is a one-time appointee of President Barack Obama — she served in a White House fellowship program — and that her family has a long history of supporting the Democratic Party.
Speaking after his appearance before a congressional panel in Washington on Tuesday, Haslam said Ali is highly qualified for the state job and “we’re lucky to have her in Tennessee.”
“She is somebody who could literally have jobs a whole lot of places, and she chose to come to her home state and serve,” he said.
Haslam noted that Ali was the class president of her high school in Dickson, Tenn.; student council president at Vanderbilt University; and a member of the 4-H Club while growing up. “She is as Tennessee as they come,” he said, “and I just think (the criticism) is unfair, quite frankly.”
The county GOP critics also have complained that Haslam has kept 85 percent of former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s appointees to executive jobs. But Haslam said incoming governors have historically held over people in those jobs from the previous administration.
“In the end, I think it is about how do we get the very best people to work for the state of Tennessee,” he said.
UPDATE: The Nashville City Paper has a profile of sorts on Ali, including her comments on being an Arab-American after 9/11. An excerpt is below.
Gov. Bill Haslam met with prominent Williamson County Republicans last week, not long after the Williamson County Republican Party adopted a resolution criticizing him for the hiring of a Muslim in the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Haslam said the critics don’t deserve much of his attention, reports The Tennessean.
“I think that probably speaks to a pretty small survey of Republicans here,” Haslam said of the Williamson County Republican Party’s jabs.
Last week, Haslam received more than a handful of resolutions adopted by county-level Republican offices across the state skewering him for employing gay, Muslim and Democratic workers. In Williamson County, where Haslam received 79 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election, local GOP officials focused on Samar Ali, a Muslim-American attorney in the Department of Economic and Community Development.
On Friday, in a full-page advertisement in The Tennessean, a strongly worded letter to the governor warned him not to ignore their message. The ad was paid for by the Tennessee chapter of the 912 Project and championed the Williamson County Republican Party, among others, for having the courage to “break ranks” with party loyalists.
“We are not afraid and we won’t be intimidated,” the ad stated. “We declare our intentions to reclaim what is rightfully and Constitutionally ours, given by God and won through the blood of Americans. As of today, the choice is still in your hands. Choose the way of common sense while that option is still available.”
Some Republicans here are politely distancing themselves from the leadership of the party’s local chapter, being careful not to fuel further political infighting.
“I think the Republicans need to get on the same page,” Jack Walton, chairman of the county commission, said. “There’s a divide there and we need to have a summit or something.”
…It remains to be seen whether political relationships will be tested by this incident. Clearly, however, politicians are already being careful not to speak too forcefully for fear of alienating potential voters. Rep. Glen Casada said he is interested in learning more about local party members’ concerns, but also said he has no reason to suspect Haslam hired a woman bent on foisting Shariah law onto the state.
“On the surface, I don’t feel an enmity to her hire,” Casada said of the GOP criticisms. “My question is, does anyone want to implement anything that’s anti-American, and Shariah law is anti-American.”
Note: There seems to be little sentiment for adopting Haslam-critical resolutions in Sevier County circles, nor in Hamilton County.