Stockard on the Stump: Top legislators seeking Mr. Phoenix
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)
Retired Capitol Hill reporter Tom Humphrey for years wrote a column called “Humphrey on the Hill.” In his stead, Sam Stockard am taking up the mantle with a new report called “Stockard on the Stump,” a collection of briefs, anecdotes and quotes from the latest week in the Tennessee General Assembly.
With the FBI prowling the Capitol complex, legislative leaders are trying to tamp down on financial irregularities, including things that resemble “money laundering.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed this week they brought legislation designed to keep lawmakers from doing business with the state, mainly other legislators’ campaigns.
McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, raised concerns this week about legislators steering other lawmakers to use companies set up by legislators to do election business.
“In my mind, it’s money laundering. That type of thing. We just need to find out who Mr. Phoenix is. Any ideas?” McNally said rhetorically during a weekly press conference.
Phoenix Solutions came into focus after the FBI raided the Cordell Hull Building in early January and went to the homes of three legislators, including former House Speaker Glen Casada, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and first-year Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill. Casada’s former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, is under investigation, too, along with three other staffers.
Lawmakers, including the House Republican Caucus – through the Tennessee Republican Party – spent more than $200,000 with Phoenix Solutions, a mysterious, new vendor that shared the same mailer postal code with a new political action committee called Faith Family Freedom Forum, which ran ads attacking Warner’s opponent, incumbent Rick Tillis of Lewisburg, and yet another new vendor called Dixieland Strategies used by Warner in Alabama.
Tillis fell under the ire of the caucus for making comments critical of Casada on an anonymous Twitter feed before Casada resigned the leadership post following a no-confidence vote. After his fall from grace, Casada, a Franklin Republican, started running his own legislative consulting company, and Smith steered lawmakers to use Phoenix in 2020. She has said she is cooperating with the FBI probe, while Casada has not commented but reportedly told others the FBI asked him whether he tried to bribe legislators to win votes on the governor’s voucher vote two years ago.
House Republican Caucus Whip Johnny Garrett says he spoke with a “Matthew Phoenix” before the caucus did business with Phoenix in 2020. But since the FBI swooped in, nobody has seen hide nor hair of Phoenix. Garrett and other lawmakers who used Phoenix for election work as well as taxpayer-funded constituent mailers now regret it.
Speaker Sexton told reporters this week leaders had been discussing this type of prohibition for a while but that the FBI raid “did help move it forward a little faster.”
Asked about the caucus doing business with Phoenix, Sexton said, “We’ve had a policy with the caucus, with whips that have come in, whenever I was whip, we put in that the caucus would not use the businesses of members. If you go back and look at disclosures, we have not done that knowingly.”
Meanwhile, the FBI visited the Capitol on Tuesday, according to the Tennessee Journal, but only for an introductory visit, nothing linked to the raid.
A return by feds could well determine when the Legislature wraps up business this spring. If agents come calling, look for a departure in April. If not, it could be early May when lawmakers go home.
Bolstering Black history studies
Tennessee students could be learning more about Black history than just slavery and the civil rights movement in a few years.
State Sen. Katrina Robinson pushed legislation through the Senate Education Committee this week setting the wheels in motion for more on African-American history to be incorporated into Tennessee school books.
The academic standards in social studies adopted after July 2021 “must strive to include black history and culture and the contribution of black people to the history and development of this country and of the world,” an amendment to the bill states. They likely would take effect 2025-26.
“I think it’s vital we tell the whole story of our country with transparency,” Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, told the committee.
Predictably, she got pushback from legislators, including Sens. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, who argued that the state already teaches enough Black history. Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, had problems with the all-encompassing language in the legislation that says standards should strive to include the history and heritage of “all social, ethnic, gender and national groups and individuals.” Bell raised questions even though the language mirrors what is in state law already for history lessons, according to an Education Department representative.
Bell abstained in the final vote, while Hensley and Kelsey voted against the bill. Voting in favor were Sens. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, Bill Powers, R-Clarksville, and Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro.
The bill is to be scheduled next for the full Senate next. The House version sponsored by Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, hasn’t started moving yet.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jesse Chism, a Memphis Democrat, is trying to gather support for a different bill that would create an oversight committee to ensure African-American history is included in the public curriculum.
“It’s important because African Americans and people of color have been very instrumental to the history and the heritage of our state, of our nation, of our whole world. And I think it’s important that we highlight a lot of those contributions and sacrifices, more so than just a few names that we know from the civil rights era and more than just entertainment,” Chism said.
Chism is concerned that outside of the civil rights movement, Black history is linked mainly to athletes and entertainers. He wants students to learn about Black leaders such as Rep. Sampson Keeble, Tennessee’s first African-American legislator in the 1870s.
During the Senate Education committee debate, Akbari pointed out she had never heard of Keeble until being elected to the Legislature. His is one of several busts on the second floor of the State Capitol.
It is not positioned as prominently, though, as the bust of the infamous Nathan Bedford Forrest, which will sit next to the elevator on the second floor for at least a few more months until the State Museum moves it – or not.
Will he stay or will he go now?
Nathan Bedford Forrest’s monument has been on the second floor since the late 1970s, apparently to give some historical balance for Southerners still fighting the Civil War, since the state already had busts of U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves.
But after years of bickering, the Tennessee Historical Commission, with plenty of new appointees by Gov. Bill Lee, voted this week to move Forrest, Farragut and Gleaves out of the Capitol to the State Museum.
We’ll see if it really happens, since Speakers Randy McNally and Cameron Sexton are seeking an attorney general’s opinion to determine whether that state followed the process set out by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.
McNally is prepared to make a public comment on the Historical Commission’s decision, which he said is allowed for 60 days. And if the attorney general decides he and Sexton are correct, that the matter should have gone first to the State Building Commission on which they serve, McNally said they will go to Gov. Bill Lee’s administration and notify them moving the bust could lead to a challenge, possibly an overturning and then the process would have to start again.
McNally favors keeping the bust in the Capitol and adding context on Forrest’s life. Democrats want it gone.
“Slavery, oppression and bigotry are part of American history. But we should not honor them today.” Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, in supporting relocation of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the State Capitol to the State Museum.
But Forrest supporters persist.
“It’s basically the government telling you what to think.” H. Edward Phillips, representing Forrest family descendants in the flap over relocation of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the State Capitol to the State Museum.
“We as a people should educate ourselves and learn about the good, bad and ugly from American history,” Phillips said.
Phillips argued there isn’t enough historical basis to move the Forrest bust, despite his life as a slave trader, Confederate military leader, commander at the Fort Pillow Massacre and position as grand wizard of the early Ku Klux Klan. But, clearly, there was plenty of “bad and ugly.”
Health versus politics
The House voted overwhelmingly to turn public health boards in the state’s six independently-operated health departments into advisory panels and give county mayors authority over health-related decisions during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
During House debate, Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, argued that health boards hold the medical expertise to set policy and that they should make decisions rather than county mayors who could be running for election in a matter of months.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, however, said the pandemic revealed that unelected health boards hold “incredible” authority, more than the mayor and even the governor.
“It brings it back to balance,” he said of the bill, rather than enabling health boards to “function as an oligarchy.”
The Republican-backed bill passed 67-26, mainly on party lines.
Keeping Chancellor Lyle on the bench
“On a scale of 1-10 coming in on this resolution, I don’t even think Chancellor Lyle’s supposed rulings, I don’t think it would have even measured on the scale at all. I just think we kind of jumped the gun, a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.” Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, after the committee killed legislation that would have set up a panel to consider removing Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle for her rulings against the state in a 2020 lawsuit over expanded absentee voting access during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Tim Rudd, a Murfreesboro Republican, who filed the resolution reportedly called Farmer “a disgrace” and said he should be “ashamed” because he let the committee cast a voice vote on the resolution. Rudd wanted postponement to allow future testimony for David Fowler, president of Family Action Council of Tennessee.
Check with the Governor’s Office
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they shut down our churches over the past year.” Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, to District Attorneys Conference Executive Director Steve Crump in backing legislation prohibiting law enforcement from entering private property for surveillance.
Sexton must not have conferred with Gov. Bill Lee’s office before making the statement. Lee never made an executive order prohibiting churches from holding services but instead encouraged places of worship to follow state guidelines for social distancing.
Hair care tour
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson took Speaker Sexton on a tour of natural hair salons Friday morning to show off the booming business and promote Memphis as the potential hair care capital of the country, as well as to build support for the CROWN Act to Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
According to Sexton’s spokesman Doug Kufner, Parkinson and the Speaker spoke about the emerging industry previously. He noted Sexton appreciated the invitation and the hospitality.
“This small business tour will help our General Assembly identify and create bipartisan solutions that continue to support both natural hair and all of our small businesses so they remain successful and can better serve their communities,” Kufner said in a statement.
He did not say whether Sexton had any work done on his hair. A braid or two never hurt anyone.
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