State Attorney General Robert Cooper has emerged as a secret weapon for Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers seeking to douse some of the fiery legislation put out this year, according to Chas Sisk. But his legal advice may have put his office in jeopardy. A string of high-profile opinions has shown the political clout the attorney general wields.
Though seldom a focus of public attention, the state’s top lawyer has influenced some of the year’s biggest debates, touching on topics from animal cruelty to Vanderbilt University’s nondiscrimination policy. This was not the first time the attorney general’s legal acumen carried weight. But with Republican clout on the rise, support appears to be growing for legislation that would strip the attorney general’s office of some of its duties or change how he is selected.
Cooper, a Democrat with a studious air and a lawyer’s conciseness, seems unruffled by the possibility….
“This is an issue that’s been discussed for decades,” he said. “I think it really comes down to what sort of an office do you want the attorney general’s office to be — nonpartisan or partisan?”
…Cooper refused, for instance, to add Tennessee to a legal challenge against the Affordable Care Act three years ago, even as polls showed that a large majority of Tennesseans opposed the health care reform law. Cooper argued — correctly, it turned out — that the law was constitutional.
That decision and others like it prompted lawmakers to file seven separate bills this year seeking to change the attorney general’s duties or who decides to fill the office. In April, the state Senate approved one resolution that would give the legislature the power to pick the attorney general.
…(P)olicy considerations do not come into play, Cooper said. His staff of 173 lawyers simply respond to the questions they are asked by turning to the letter of the law.
“The history and tradition of this office has been that we provide nonpartisan, nonpolitical advice,” Cooper said. “That’s how we run the office. That’s how we are perceived, and I think people value the advice they get from us because of that.”
……After nearly seven years in office, Cooper says he is uncertain whether he will seek reappointment next summer.
“One of the beauties of this not being an elected office is that I don’t have to worry about getting ready for an election campaign, don’t have to be out raising money, doing anything of that sort,” he said. “So, at this point, I’m focused on the job.”
A House subcommittee has killed legislation that could have allowed some counties, including Knox, to elect school superintendents rather than have them appointed by school boards.
Only three members of the House Education Subcommittee supported Rep. Kelly Keisling’s bill (HB417) while six voted against it. After failure in the House panel, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, did not put the Senate companion bill to a scheduled vote in a Senate committee.
Similar legislation has failed repeatedly in past years. This year’s version would have applied only in counties that elected school superintendents prior to 1992, then a law was enacted mandating that all superintendents be appointed.
In those counties, the bill authorized county commissions to set up a local referendum on returning to an elected superintendent system.
Keisling, R-Byrdstown, said turnover of appointed superintendents has been higher in many counties than under the elected superintendent systems. His home county of Pickett is currently paying for two superintendents, one who was fired as well as his replacement.
He also said the bill sets higher requirements for elected superintendents than those now in place for appointed superintendents – mandating a masters degree rather than a bachelor’s degree and requiring at least five years teaching experiences.
A spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association testified in support of the measure while spokesmen for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the Tennessee School Boards Association and the state Department of Education spoke against it.
Stephen Smith, speaking for the department, said superintendents should be appointed on the basis of ability, “not limited to someone who happens to live in the distrit and is willing to run.” He also said there is greater accountability to voters with an elected school board and an appointed superintendent. With both board members and superintendents elected, Smith said, accountability is “diffused.”
Those voting for the bill were Reps. Harry Brooks and Roger Kane, both Knoxville Republicans, and Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville. Voting no were Reps. John DeBerry, D-Memphis; John Fogerty, R-Athens; Debra Moody, R-Covington; Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville; Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro; and Mark White, R-Memphis.
Legislation setting the stage for election of school superintendents in some Tennessee counties faces key votes this week in both the state House and Senate with U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. among its supporters.
“When the state went to appointed school superintendents, it did not take the politics out of the process,” Duncan wrote in a March 14 letter to state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. “It simply put political control into a very small group of people.
“The overwhelming majority of citizens who have discussed this with me feel that they should be allowed to vote on this very important position,” Duncan wrote, saying he had been asked to do so by Claiborne County Mayor Jack Daniels.
The Claiborne County Commission has approved a resolution urging passage of the bill (SB916) Niceley is sponsoring. It is among several county commissions that have done so, although the Knox County Commission refused last month with some commissioners saying they wanted more public input and Commissioner Mike Hammond saying discussion of the issue is “a waste of time” until the bill becomes law.
A state law enacted in 1992 requires that all superintendents be appointed by school boards once those in office had served out their terms. Before that, the system for choosing superintendents varied from system to system, but many — including Knox and most other East Tennessee counties — held popular elections for superintendents.
The bill sponsored by Niceley and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would apply only in counties or cities that had elected superintendents before 1992. In those places, the bill would authorize a local referendum on returning to elected superintendents — if the local county commission, or city council in cases of city school systems, approves the referendum by a two-thirds majority vote.
Former state Sen. Andy Berke won election as mayor of Chattanooga in Tuesday’s city elections with an overwhelmingly margin over opponents Robert Chester Heathington Jr. and Guy Satterfield, reports the Chattanooga TFP. “The time for renewal is now,” Berke told a cheering crowd of more than 200 people in the Waterhouse Pavilion at Miller Plaza.
Voter turnout was anemic, at just 16 percent, Hamilton County Election Commission records show. Of the 111,324 registered voters in the city, 18,194 ballots were cast.
Berke won 72 percent of the vote. Satterfield received 24 percent and Heathington recorded 3.7 percent of the vote. All vote totals are unofficial until provisional ballots are counted.
Once in office, Berke will make $146,607 annually and will serve a four-year term. He will oversee a $210 million budget to serve a city of 170,000 people.
Berke announced last May that he would run for the city’s top elected seat. Since that time, he raised more than $670,000, the most for a mayoral candidate in Chattanooga history.
Former state Sen. Roy Herron became the Tennessee Democratic Party’s new chairman Saturday, winning a solid majority of executive committee members’ votes despite criticism he is too conservative on some issues such as abortion.
From the Andy Sher report: The 59-year-old Dresden attorney outpolled Dave Garrison, a Nashville attorney, 39-27. Garrison was backed by the state’s two Democratic congressmen along with House and Senate Democratic Caucus leaders and the mayors of Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, as well as labor unions.
Herron will lead an embattled party that has seen Republicans seize the governor’s mansion and absolute control of the state Legislature.
Following his election, Herron charged that under Republican rule, “we’ve gone from common sense to nonsense.”
He accused the GOP of “trying to destroy the public schools” and said “those things that unite us as Democrats are far more important than those things that divide us.”
But his election left some Democrats uneasy.
At the end of the meeting, executive committee member Jerry Maynard, a Metro Nashville councilman, took the unusual step of asking Herron to declare his support of President Barack Obama.
Maynard said he had never heard Herron endorse Obama during the election campaign.
“I voted for the president, I announced I was for the president, I told anybody who asked me that I was for the president,” Herron replied. “I support the president, I support what he’s trying to do for the country, and I support the United States of America.”
…Herron succeeds Chip Forrester, who was elected four years ago despite opposition from top Democrats such as former Gov. Phil Bredesen and major party fundraisers. They punished Forrester by largely withholding support for the party.
Speaking before the vote, Forrester said he now was sorry he ran “without the support of the majority of the elected officials of this state.”
“Because of that I and my staff have faced an uphill battle for four years unifying this party.”
News release from House Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) will be led by Tennessee’s own Rep. Joe Armstrong (D-Knoxville), who will serve as President of the organization over the next two years.
Joining him in leading the group will be Rep. Karen Camper who will continue to serve as Region IV Chair (KY, TN, VA, and WV), as well as Rep. Brenda Gilmore and Rep. Johnny Shaw who will serve as Executive Committee members at-large. Allyson Sneed, Legislative Assistant to Rep. Shaw, will serve as Chair of the staff organization.
“I am honored to be chosen by my peers to serve as the President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators,” said Rep. Armstrong. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to expand the caucus and find new and better ways to serve our African-American constituencies.”
NBCSL, founded in 1977, is an organization dedicated to developing and promoting educational, research and training programs to help African-American legislators be more effective when considering and introducing legislation that affects their constituents.
“This is a great opportunity for me to be a voice for rural African-Americans within the Black Caucus,” said Rep. Shaw. “I hope to use this opportunity to inform other legislators about the work we’ve done in Tennessee, and to learn from my colleagues how we can be more effective in our state.”
In addition to a newly elected board, NBCSL has for the first time allocated funds to the regional chairs for the purpose of promoting policy engagement between the states.
“I am grateful to be chosen by my peers to once again serve as Regional Chair,” said Rep. Camper. “I am excited about the opportunity to use these new resources to work with other states in our area so that we can learn from each other about the best ways to help improve the lives of our constituents.”
“Too often the needs of African-Americans are neglected by state legislatures,” said Rep. Gilmore. “By amplifying our voices through NBCSL, we can ensure that important issues and programs are not forgotten as we work to make our states better places for all.”
The new NBCSL Executive Committee will take effect on February 1, 2013.
Courtney Rogers, who defeated House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart in a GOP primary, tells The Tennessean there were factors other than the National Rifle Association’s support involved in her win and that she’s not a one-issue candidate. Rogers has gladly accepted the NRA’s backing, and she says she will support gun-rights legislation in the General Assembly. But Rogers and her campaign team have worked to dispel the notion that she is a one-issue candidate. Rogers was not recruited by the NRA, nor did she make guns a central theme.
“I don’t believe it was just the NRA,” she said. “They certainly did help level the playing field for me a little, but most of my strategy involved … knocking on our citizens’ doors and getting to meet them.”
…It appears that Rogers has subtly tried to court teachers, a group that Maggart antagonized through her support of legislation that stripped them of their union negotiating rights and through her work for COMPASS, a Sumner County education organization closely affiliated with district leaders.
Rogers does not believe in restoring teachers’ negotiating rights, and she sidestepped questions about the Sumner County school board’s decision to close schools amid a budget showdown.
But Rogers says she has worked hard to listen to teachers’ concerns about the new evaluation system, which ties their pay and tenure status to classroom reviews and student test scores.
“There seems to be an inconsistency in the evaluation system,” she said. “I’ve only found one teacher that absolutely loved it, and what she told me was that it’s because the principal used it as a guideline, and not something required.”
Taking up education reform will probably bring Rogers in close contact with Maggart, who remains the head of COMPASS. Rogers says she has not spoken to Maggart since a congratulatory call on election night, but she does not believe the savage primary should keep them from working together, should Rogers win election to the General Assembly in the fall.
“To me it’s just a job,” Rogers said. “I mean, not ‘just a job,’ but it’s not personality based. So if some good can come out of COMPASS, then great.”
From the News Sentinel:
State Senate candidate Becky Duncan Massey kept Knox County’s 6th District seat firmly in Republican hands, outpacing Democrat Gloria Johnson on Tuesday night by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Massey garnered nearly 64 percent of the general election vote among 15,740 votes cast in the race, according to unofficial returns from the Knox County Election Commission.
The 6th District seat, which represents portions of Knoxville and Knox County, was vacated this summer by Republican Jamie Woodson — speaker pro tempore of the Senate — who resigned to head a private education reform organization. The special election to fill the post coincided with the regular city election. Massey now will serve the remainder of the term until next year’s election.
Massey, 56, pledged to focus her limited term on improving the state’s regulatory climate for small business growth with a “common sense” approach.
“My priority down in Nashville will be to ask questions limit the size of government, limit the size of regulations,” said Massey, executive director of the Sertoma Center, an agency that serves mentally disabled adults. “As opposed to going down there and introducing a lot of legislation.”
From the News Sentinel:
Knoxville voters on Tuesday swept Madeline Rogero into the mayor’s office — and a very special place in the city’s history.
Rogero, 58, becomes the first woman ever elected mayor.
Rogero outpolled businessman Mark Padgett, 33, in a very low turnout. Of just 21,072 votes cast, Rogero received 12,351, or 58.61 percent, to Padgett’s 8,721, or 41.39 percent.
“Wow! Thank you so, so much,” Rogero said as she began her victory speech to hundreds of supporters at The Foundry. “I want to shake everybody’s hand before you leave.”
Rogero will replace Daniel Brown, who was appointed mayor when Bill Haslam was elected governor.
“I know Knoxville’s best days are ahead of her, and I want to be a part of that. I want to thank (Rogero) for running a very spirited campaign,” Padgett told his supporters at the Sunsphere. “While I’m obviously disappointed with the result, I’m so very proud of the race we have run.”
Legislation to allow elected school superintendents in some Tennessee counties failed by a single vote in a House committee Tuesday.
Sponsor Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, afterwards cited opposition from House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, as the deciding factor and said he may face political consequences.
Montgomery said he can see both sides of the argument over whether superintendents should be elected or appointed by school boards.
His no vote, Montgomery said, was based on a belief that so much change is currently afoot in education reforms that adding elected superintendents to the mix would be “just too much to try and put on people right now.”
The bill, HB902, won eight yes votes versus nine no votes on the Education Committee. Niceley also noted that Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who voted for the bill in subcommittee voted against it in the full committee.