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Tributes to Lois DeBerry

Here are some comments on the passing of state Rep. Lois DeBerry:

From House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh:

“I have known Lois DeBerry since 1974 when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. She had been elected just two years earlier and we were best friends from the very beginning. 

“Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development. The Lois DeBerry Center in Nashville, named after her, revolutionized the way we dealt with our incarcerated population and she deserves much of the credit for bringing our prison system out from under federal oversight and into the 21st century.  

She served with, worked with and provided advice not only to legislators but also to seven Tennessee Governors including Governors Haslam, Bredesen, Sundquist, McWherter, Alexander, Blanton and Dunn.  They all respected her opinion and listened closely to her advice.   

During my 18 years as Speaker of the House, Lois served as Speaker Pro Tempore–the first African American woman to fill this role. She was my constant helpmate and someone I could count on during those difficult days in the legislature. In 2000, the National Conference of State Legislators recognized Lois with the William Bulger Award for Legislative Leadership. This prestigious prize is given to one legislator each year who promotes the good of legislative institutions by displaying real leadership qualities, including honesty, integrity and hard work. That was the Lois we all knew. 

 Lois loved this state. She loved the people of this state.  She was the voice for people all across this state, who could not speak out for themselves in our governmental process; the poor, the oppressed, the proverbial people standing in the shadows of life.   She rebuffed repeated calls to run for higher office. In 1994 she even turned down a prestigious federal appointment from President Clinton, telling him that her work in Tennessee was simply not finished. 

I will miss Lois DeBerry. I will miss sitting with her on the floor of the House Chamber. I will miss her laughter and her great sense of humor that I saw so often in our daily discussions. I will miss her example and her leadership for our state. But most of all, I will miss my best friend.”

From House Speaker Beth Harwell:

“Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable sprit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

From House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh:

“Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause–even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children. She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time.”

From Gov. Bill Haslam:

Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her.”

From Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron:

“Speaker Lois DeBerry was one of America’s Heroes and one of God’s Saints. “So many of us owe her so much. Speaker DeBerry led, she inspired, she witnessed with a spirit filled with The Spirit.
“Much will be said in the days ahead. Not enough can be said. We mourn her passing and celebrate her life.”
From U.S. Sen. Bob Corker:
“Lois DeBerry will be remembered as a tireless advocate for her community, and as one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and the first African-American female speaker pro tempore in the House, Lois’ legacy will be remembered in Memphis and across our state for generations to come,” said Corker. “I appreciate her many years of public service and her friendship and kindness. My heart goes out to her family during this difficult time.”
From Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle:
“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women. It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”
From Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney:
“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry. She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”
From House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick:
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry, a legendary figure in Tennessee political history. I had the distinct privilege to serve with Lois in the House of Representatives for 9 years and I enjoyed our friendship. Her knowledge, experience and delightful personality will surely be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time.”
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen (via CA story, HERE)
“Forget Democrat. Forget African-American. Forget state legislator. Lois is one of the individuals I trust the most for her counsel and advice,”
 

Michelle Rhee Focused on Tennessee

New Republic has an interesting, Tennessee-focused article on Michelle Rhee and StudentsFrist’s efforts in the state where her ex-husband is commissioner of education. Lots of attention to Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who got a big chunk of StudentsFirst money in his re-election campaign.
An excerpt:
Nowhere has her influence been felt more acutely than in Tennessee, where campaigns are a bargain and where legislators eager to amend the state’s dismal record on education have made it a mecca for reformers. To Rhee the mission also has a personal angle: Her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is commissioner of the state Department of Education and her two daughters attend school in Nashville.
In 2011-2012, her group spent $533,000 on over 60 local politicians, outspending the main teachers’ union by a third and becoming Tennessee’s biggest source of campaign money outside of the party PACs, according to election filings. Added to the $200,000-$300,000 that allied groups like Stand for Children and the Tennessee Federation for Children paid out, the result has been a gush of education-reform money taking over the state’s politics.
“They’ve become like the gun lobby in Tennessee,” a former aide to a top Nashville politician told me. “Everybody is scared of the NRA. It’s the same way with these education reform people.”
…Though the group does not disclose its donors, public filings reveal that much of its money comes from hedge fund titans. On April 30, the Walton Family Foundation announced it would give Rhee $8 million over the next two years. Rhee hinted in her book that leveraged-buyout king Ted Forstmann had pledged tens of millions as well.
In Tennessee, StudentsFirst gave money to more candidates–55 legislative and nine school board candidates–than it did in any other state this past election cycle. Of those 55 candidates, though, only seven were Democrats. StudentsFirst spokesperson Hari Sevugan (who has since quit the organization) told me last year that this was simply a fact of politics in Tennessee, where the GOP controls two-thirds of both houses in the General Assembly. But nationwide, Rhee has had trouble finding Democrats to stand with her. Of the 105 candidates across 12 states that she supported in general elections in 2012, 92 were Republican.
These lopsided numbers bolster the left’s loudest complaint about Rhee of late: Though she claims Democratic values and the bipartisan mantle, Republicans dominate the ranks of StudentsFirst’s donors and of those it donates to. Rhee blames the imbalance on a lack of courage among Democrats, telling newspapers that many had pledged their support privately but refused to go public for fear of reprisals from the teachers’ unions. But those Democrats willing to align themselvse with her cause often find themselves lavishly rewarded.

Rep. Lois DeBerry Undergoing Cancer Treatment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — State Rep. Lois DeBerry is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer.
The Memphis Democrat was first elected in 1972 and is the longest-serving current member of the House of Representatives and second-longest in the entire Legislature. The 67-year-old is also the first female speaker pro tempore in the House.
DeBerry was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009 after suffering from stomach pain.
The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/10Kli31 ) reports that earlier this week House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed Democratic Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis to temporarily replace DeBerry on the House Finance Committee and its finance subcommittee.
DeBerry was excused from floor sessions on Monday and three days last week

Bill Would Make It Easier to Pull ‘Parent Trigger’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Memphis state representative is proposing a change in the so-called parent trigger education law that would give the state final approval.
A statute updated in 2011 allows parents to force education reforms at their children’s public schools, but it requires a 60 percent parent approval and local school boards must sign off on the efforts.
Democratic Rep. John Deberry told WPLN radio his bill is intended to start a conversation about making it easier for parents to force reform. He is proposing that a simple majority of parents’ signatures on a petition should allow that a school be transformed into a charter or closed altogether.
If Deberry’s initiative is adopted, parents whose petition has been turned down by a local school board could appeal that decision to state officials.
The bill was filed Wednesday.
“One thing we can’t do is we can’t continue to support the status quo,” Deberry said.
The Tennessean reported that under Deberry’s plan, a school would have to be in the bottom 20 percent statewide for parents to enact the trigger provision — a remedy Deberry also wants available if 51 percent of a school’s teachers petition.
Deberry’s bill would allow conversion to a charter school or the use of one of four models under the federal “Race to the Top” program. Those include a turnaround model, a restart model, a transformation model and school closure.
Parent trigger laws have been used only a few times around the country.
The trigger concept is pushed by a group called Student First. The organization donated more than $100,000 to Deberry’s election campaign. Deberry said he didn’t solicit the group’s financial support and isn’t beholden to it.
“They want to be close to a legislator who has the guts and the courage to say what has to be said and to accept whatever political fallout that comes to fight the battles that I believe in,” he said.

Note: The bill is deemed a priority of StudentsFirst, which spent around $110,000 to help Rep. DeBerry get reelected. Prior relevant post HERE.

DeBerry Defends DCS Commissioner, Wants ‘House Cleaning’ of Workers

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Democratic lawmaker who played a role in the formation of the embattled Tennessee Department of Children’s Services says the agency’s commissioner shouldn’t be blamed for deeply rooted problems that she inherited.
The agency recently released information showing that 31 children it had investigated died during the first six months of 2012. The figures were provided after repeated requests by another Democratic lawmaker.
Critics want DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day, who was appointed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, to be replaced.
But Rep. John Deberry of Memphis, who has criticized DCS over the years, told The Associated Press that O’Day isn’t to blame, but rather many of the workers she oversees. He said a solution would be to “clean house.”
“I know that there are mitigating circumstances to some of the deaths,” said Deberry, who cast the deciding vote that got legislation out of a House committee to form the agency in 1996.

Continue reading

Pro-Voucher PACs Drop $250K into State House Campaigns

Andy Sher has tallied up $367,000 worth of late campaign spending by PACs in Tennessee legislative campaigns that were reported in filings for the period July 1-26.
More than $250,000 came from two PACs supporting school voucher legislation that got much of their money from outside the state. Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, and Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, were the biggest beneficiaries.
In Memphis’ House District 90, Students First and the Tennessee Federation for Children have joined hands in a state House primary on behalf of a Democrat who backs education vouchers.
Tennessee Student First’s PAC put up $104,018 to fund neighborhood canvassers and direct mail to help Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis. DeBerry, a black social conservative, faces Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, a white liberal, records show.
The Tennessee Federation for Children spent nearly $36,000 on direct mail and advertising to help DeBerry. It also put $100,489 into contributions and independent expenditures for various Republican candidates.
DeBerry backs vouchers while Richardson does not.
…The Tennessee (Students First) group received all its funding from the national organization. It spent $150,182 to help House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who faces Republican Dale Carr. That included an independent expenditure of $46,164 for advertising.
The Tennessee Federation for Children’s in-state backers include Nashville auto dealer Lee Beaman and Dorothy Scarlett, wife of retired Tractor Supply Co. Chairman Joe Scarlett. They respectively gave $10,000 and $15,000 in the second quarter.
But the group in July received a flood of new contributions, including $65,000 from the American Federation of Children, a Washington, D.C., group that also backs vouchers, according to Registry filings.

Newspaper’s Record Check Finds Candidate Court Problems

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway Sr. owes Memphis and Shelby County $39,000 in taxes and weed-cutting fees on three local properties, reports The Commercial Appeal.
Hardaway says his mother died in 2007 and left several properties to her four children, and that there’s confusion over who’s responsible for them. “Well, from my understanding all of the (children’s names) should be on all of the properties,” Hardaway said. He also said he believed his former attorney had made arrangements to pay the taxes.
Hardaway’s situation was just one of the discoveries The Commercial Appeal made as it reviewed paper trails for more than 40 candidates in contested races in the Aug. 2 elections. The newspaper looked at criminal records, bankruptcies, civil lawsuits and property tax payments, among other documents.
…House District 84 (Democrats)
Hendrell Remus: The University of Memphis sued Remus and in January won a judgment of about $6,000. Remus said the case came about when he used a check to rent a stage for a performance of an inspirational play he had written. The check bounced.
He said he’s almost cleared the debt. “I think next week will be the last payment and we should be done with that.”
Incumbent state Rep. Joe Towns Jr. has missed the deadline to pay 2011 Shelby County taxes of $1,050 on his property.
…Incumbent Rep. John DeBerry Jr. agreed to a General Sessions consent judgment of about $6,500 in 2008 after not making payments on two leased recliners from Ashley Furniture. The company attempted to garnish his state wages, but paperwork shows the state won’t do it because it’s already garnishing his legislative wages for another judgment.
I didn’t default on anything,” DeBerry said Monday. “Those recliners are sitting in my office right now, paid in full.”
A judgment in a Chancery Court lawsuit filed by Penton Publishing Inc. in 2003 led to years of garnishments against DeBerry’s state legislative salary, according to an online summary of the case. The case file wasn’t available in the Downtown courthouse.
DeBerry says the garnishment is an old business dispute involving his advertising agency. “I’m responsible and I was the logical person to go after, and everyone went after me.” He said he’s let the garnishment stay in place because the opposing side “went behind my back and got the judgment when we could have had a settlement.”
He added: “I don’t have much debt. I’m 61 years old, and the only thing I haven’t paid in full is my house and my car.”
…(In the 9th Congressional District Republican primary)
A collection agency sued Charlotte Bergmann in Shelby County General Sessions court earlier this year, seeking payment for $9,600 owed on her Chase Bank account. Bergmann said this case is related to a foreclosure of her home in 2006. She said the foreclosure forced her to sleep in her car for some months; that the bank actually owes her money, not the other way around; and that the issue is coming up now for political reasons. “I am the strongest candidate at this point, so there is some political dirt being thrown up.”
Savage Construction Co. filed suit against George Flinn in November 2008, saying that it had agreed to renovate a house near Memphis Country Club for about $621,000 but that changes ordered by Flinn and others caused the size of the contract to increase to about $1.4 million.
The contractor filed suit in Chancery Court, seeking to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars. The two sides settled last year. “We’re friends and we’re moving on,” Flinn said.
Ernest Lunati is a perennial candidate whose Shelby County criminal record lists a nickname, “The Amazing E,” and more than 30 encounters with police, starting in the 1960s. Several of his arrests are for promoting prostitution or pornography, and he was convicted under an obscenity statute in 1983.
In 1998, he fired a shot at a father and son who were looking at what a police officer described as a possible stolen pickup truck on a parking lot on Summer Avenue. The bullet bounced off the truck’s tailgate and hit the father in the leg, according to a police affidavit. Lunati later pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment charges and was sentenced to a year in prison.

On the Incumbent-versus-Incumbent House Races in Memphis

Shelby County’s loss of two seats in the state House this year means four incumbent Memphis Democrats are squaring off in two separate Midtown-centered districts this summer. Richard Locker has a rundown on the races today.
In Memphis’ House District 90, Rep. John DeBerry and Rep. Jeanne Richardson are running, along with community activist Ian Richardson. In House District 93, Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Rep. Mike Kernell are running for the same seat.
Both districts are heavily Democratic and have no Republican candidates in the general election. The two districts border each other and comprise most of Midtown and Poplar-Highland areas, with extensions into South and North Memphis and up to Frayser.
…In both races, the opposing incumbents differ in legislative styles and political philosophies.
Hardaway is one of the most vocal Democrats in floor debates, while Kernell prefers a lower-key approach that — with Republicans now in control of the statehouse — he says allows him to build bridges to get things done.
And both DeBerry and Richardson agree that DeBerry is among the most conservative Democrats on social issues while Richardson is among the most progressive. She’s for abortion rights, for example, and DeBerry is not.
As a minister at Coleman Avenue Church of Christ, DeBerry spoke out during debate or voted in favor of three controversial bills sponsored by Republicans that prompted criticism by some Democratic colleagues: an abstinence-only sex education bill, a bill that would have forbidden school counselors and teachers from discussing homosexuality and a bill that protected teachers who discuss alternatives to evolution
…Richardson, who spent most of her career in social work and mental health, said the issues she advocates and has sponsored include strong public schools, protecting working people from predatory lending, equal pay for women, extending benefits for children in foster care from age 18 to 21, and for treatment for the mentally ill to keep them out of jails, which won approval as a pilot project in East Tennessee this year. Her bill to protect the old growth forest in Overton Park also passed.
And she said she’s a strong supporter of rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
…In District 93, Hardaway and Kernell are emphasizing their constituent service work: helping citizens cut through the red tape of government — and their different styles.
Kernell sponsored the state’s consumer protection law, the workplace environmental hazard act, and designating Shelby Farms Forest a protected natural area.
He was sponsor of the state lottery and scholarship program.
Kernell said he believes he’s better able to represent the district in a time of GOP dominance because of his approach. “I believe I have the experience and the ability to work in this new environment of a two-to-one Republican majority in order to get things done for the good of the district and the rest of the state.”
Hardaway emphasizes his community meetings in the district, including housing and jobs conferences in which he invites officials to meet with constituents in need of assistance. “My job is a facilitator if they need help with state government,” he said.
Hardaway is known for his frequent floor speeches. He attacked last year’s “Norris-Todd” act that delayed the merger of the city and county schools, and this year the bills expediting municipal school districts in the suburbs.
“I probably speak out on more issues than most. There are times we have to get things on the record. And when I’m asking questions, I want sponsors to clarify what bills do.”

Harwell Eyes House Rule Changes to End ‘Ghost Voting’

House Speaker Beth Harwell has ordered a review of House rules after a Nashville television station reported on “ghost voting,” wherein several members were shown routinely pushing the desktop vote buttons for others just before the legislature adjourned May 1, according to the Commercial Appeal.
One veteran Memphis member, Rep. Lois DeBerry, a Democrat, turned back the $174 daily expense payment for a day in which she was absent but listed as voting “present” on the House floor.
DeBerry said colleagues erroneously assumed she was running late because her office failed to file an absence letter that would have shown her as “excused” on the chamber’s roll-call board.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, acknowledged punching the electronic desktop vote buttons of seat mates when they are out for restroom breaks or meetings with constituents outside the chamber.
Officials agree that while voting for colleagues momentarily away from desks on the House and Senate floors is a longstanding tradition, a Nashville television station’s recent report may lead to a crackdown on abuses. The WTVF report included two East Tennessee Republicans trading out parts of long days on the floor and voting for each other for extended periods.
…Chief Clerk Joe McCord said Harwell “has directed me to come up with some proposals to take to the Rules Committee to see if they want to address it and adopt them.”
…In Nashville, House Rule 29 declares, in part, that “All members casting votes by the electronic roll-call machine shall be at their proper desks at the time for voting with the exception of the Speaker and sponsor moving passage of the bill under consideration.” (The speaker presides at the podium and the bill sponsor is usually there explaining the bill.)
But by long-running practice, the rule is in force only when the speaker declares it’s in effect — “going under the rule.” That usually applies on a contentious bill where the outcome is uncertain. Most routine bills that reach the floor pass by heavy majorities, often unanimously, and the outcome is rarely in doubt.
McCord and lawmakers distinguish between casting votes for colleagues away from their desks temporarily and voting for members who are not present at all, which is not supposed to occur.

House Floor ‘Ghost Voting’ Gets TV Attention

The practice of state legislators casting votes for absent colleagues is known as “ghost voting,” reports WTVF-TV, and “happens in the House chambers probably a lot more often than you think.”
Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the controversial voter ID law aimed at eliminating voter fraud.
At the time the legislation was up for consideration, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, told other House members, “You should be who you say you are when you go vote.”
But when it comes to their own votes, we found House members not only vote for themselves, they also vote for others who are not in their seats. And, sometimes, believe it or not, they even vote for members who are not even there.
Political watchdog and radio talk show host Steve Gill had no idea this was going on.
“I think this is a fraud on the taxpayers,” Gill told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. “I think this is a fraud on the people of Tennessee.
“That’s not what they were sent there to do.”
But Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, insists it’s no big deal.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ford, “You don’t think this is important?”
“No,” he replied. “This is neither illegal or immoral. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s done all of the time.”
It’s such a common practice in the House, in fact, that many lawmakers have sticks they use to reach each others’ voting buttons.