Column: Legislative Webinar becomes Shadow Government

Downtown Knoxville (Photo: Deidre Woolard)
Downtown Knoxville (Photo: Deidre Woolard)

On Saturday, Knoxville Professional Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists and the League of Women Voters of Knoxville – Knox County collaborated on a “legislative webinar,” coming at the close of the special state legislature session on education and at the opening of the regular session.  It quickly devolved into an exercise in “Shadow Government” in more ways than one.

The local state senators were up first, in full attendance.  Sen. Richard Briggs and Becky Duncan Massey were in fairly normal framing and location for a Zoom meeting.  Oak Ridge Sen. Randy McNally (who also serves as Lieutenant Governor and whose district includes a slice of Knox County) was leaning back on a couch, drinking coffee from a takeout cup, and letting his dog Shadow occupy much of the screen.

At times Shadow was full face while McNally could be seen only from the neck down.  It was as if a talking dog was explaining state government, and maybe that is the only way to understand the priorities and practices of our state legislature.  The moderator was Jesse Fox Mayshark, one of two journalists who produce Compass, a valuable local political news online pay site.  Mayshark asked the three Republicans some relevant questions even as some of the answers drifted into some shadowy territory.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Massey, who often wanders into procedural and needlessly upbeat answers, declared regarding the state vaccination response to COVID-19 “under the circumstances, it’s going well.”  Yeah, apart from all that rampant spread and lack of state leadership on mask mandates, it’s going just peachy.

Briggs at one point seemed to blame states that responded to the pandemic crisis with sending ballots to all voters were the cause of all the “concerns” about the election.  The needless “concerns,” of course, were little more than the sore loser Trump pushing shadowy conspiracy theories to attack a free and fair election.  McNally upped the crazy when he blurted, “Ballots can be purchased and mailed in by certain candidates.  We’ve seen it in the past where people have submitted ballots in large groups.”

McNally followed that later with “I’m sure there was some voter fraud” but he said the reply should be court cases, not riots.  Regarded the Capitol Hill rioters, he proffered that there might have been some conservative Republicans, but others were Libertarians or people who “wanted to get their face on Facebook.”  He then predicted there would have been “some rioting and protesting” no matter who won the presidential election.

The session for House members followed.  For a while it looked like only freshman Democrat Sam McKenzie was present.  One webinar assistant declared that I was in attendance, perhaps thinking I was a state legislator.  I said that I was flattered but not one, though I sat next to McKenzie on Knox County Commission and together we played Lumpy bingo.  The laughter online suggested many remembered our clashes across the dais with conservative Republican former commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert.

McKenzie joked that perhaps he was in the middle of freshman hazing, but soon was joined by the only other Democrat in the Knox County delegation, Gloria Johnson.  The chat portion of Zoom had references to House member Dave Wright, suggesting he once may have indicated a plan to attend.  However, neither he nor any of the Republican members of the local State House delegation bothered to attend—continuing a pattern seen in the League’s State House candidate forums from this past November.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Johnson said the Republican supermajority botched the special session.  “They made some big mistakes because they didn’t have any educators at the table,” she said.  McKenzie and Johnson both promoted Medicaid expansion and worried the state’s block grant experiment fails to expand coverage.

McKenzie raised important points about criminal justice reform and suggested it was an area for bipartisan consensus.  Both spoke to the value of non-partisan redistricting, and not criminalizing the protests outside the State Capitol. Johnson spoke to her legislation for paid family leave and same-day voter registration.  The fate of all these ideas, however, rests with shadowy figures unseen and unaccountable, the Republican supermajority.