Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: House Democrats keep Windle from defecting

April 23, 2021 9:08 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Already battling for numbers, the House Democratic Caucus kept Rep. John Mark Windle from bolting during an hour-long, closed meeting Thursday.

When you’ve got only 26 of 99 House members and constantly scratch and claw for the smallest of victories, losing one vote could mean the world, especially when Windle – who is said to be kin to half the Upper Cumberland – is a re-election lock every two years. (I can say that because I’m related to half the people in Perry County even though I didn’t grow up there.)

The meeting was held because Windle, one of only two rural Democrats in the House, was irritated by social media rants from advocacy groups and members of the state party over his recent vote on a transgender bill. 

Man overboard: The House Democratic Caucus fights to keep Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, from jumping ship. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Man overboard: The House Democratic Caucus fights to keep Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, from jumping ship. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Those transgender bills do a good job of pitting Tennesseans against each other. But as one wise soul put it, we’ve got more transgender bills in the General Assembly than we do transgender people in the state of Tennessee.

Windle sticks with Democrats on Medicaid expansion, school voucher opposition and numerous other key issues. But he occasionally votes with the supermajority Republicans – hence his position as a committee chair, albeit the Naming and Designating – and this was one of those times. 

The backlash wasn’t quite enough to drive him away from the Democratic Caucus, but still he wanted to air some grievances.

Despite the uproar, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, calls Windle an important part of the Democratic Caucus and is glad to have him on his side.

“We’re Democrats. We have healthy tension,” Hardaway said after emerging from the House Democratic Caucus meeting. “That’s what helps us shape policy for America, for Tennessee, to appeal to those who want real, life-changing policies and not just rhetoric. America doesn’t agree with America all the time … and it’s necessary that we have hard discussions to express our disagreements so we can resolve them.”

Hardaway opposed the removal of former state Rep. John DeBerry from the Democratic ticket last year when the state party’s executive committee booted him for siding with Republicans on major key issues, including anti-abortion bills and the governor’s education savings account, which split the House in two.

Republican lawmakers paved the way for DeBerry to run again as an independent. But he got hammered by new Rep. Torrey Harris in the November election.

Not that anyone is feeling sorry for DeBerry. He landed with a nice golden parachute, a six-figure salary as a key advisor to Gov. Bill Lee.

Those who are blasting Windle, though, had better be certain they want to run him off, because they might not like his replacement. It certainly won’t be a Democrat, at least not until they can regain some footing in rural Tennessee, which could take decades.

Fetal remains fallout

Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, to Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro: “Is it safe to say you’ve never been a woman?” “Yes.” “Is it safe to say you’ve never been pregnant or experienced pregnancy?” “Correct.” “Is it safe to say you’ve never been raped, impregnated and had to experience that trauma?”

This is when House Speaker Cameron Sexton intervened: “We’re debating the bill, not what he is or isn’t personally. So please stick to the bill.”

Disappointed that she wasn’t able to “indulge” in leading up to her point, Lamar jumped straight to the point, calling the fetal remains burial/cremation bill “one of the most offensive pieces of legislation” she’s heard this year. Some would wonder what bills could be more offensive, especially the way it was presented with all the talk about flushing babies, throwing them in the garbage and piecing together body parts.

It passed on a predictable 69-22 vote, and (you guessed it), Windle was the only Democrat who voted for it.

HB1181 would force a woman seeking an abortion to choose between a burial and cremation for the fetal remains, tissue or baby (depending on your outlook). 

Supporters said the state needs to require more dignity while opponents said the woman is going through a hard enough time already so why pile on? Planned Parenthood of Memphis and North Mississippi called it an attack on their business in the form of a tax.

Whatever the case, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this wind up in court, where Tennessee’s record is not exactly stellar over the last two years.

It should be noted two of those who joined Rudd at the podium Monday evening, Reps. Robin Smith and Todd Warner, are subjects of an FBI investigation. They were among the first to jump up there.

Ethics progress

House Speaker Cameron Sexton is satisfied with legislation passed Thursday putting new restrictions on lawmakers who do business with the state of Tennessee. The legislation comes as lawmakers are holding their breath wondering whether the feds will show up with indictments in hand this session. (Only about two to three weeks remain, with a modified flow motion in effect to expedite House budget bills. My money’s on May 12.)

If elected after July 1, 2021, lawmakers will not be able to sell services to the state of Tennessee unless they put that business in a blind trust. For those already in the Legislature, if they’re providing services to the state, as long as they report by Sept. 1, they’ll be able to continue.

Legislators also will get to continue providing political services to each other, such as consulting, mailers, etc. But they won’t be able to send out constituent mailers and other items paid for by the state.

“From where we were, it’s a very good piece of (legislation),” Sexton said. “There’s some members here who want to go further and give more power to them. We’ll see how that gets. But this is a great step forward on trying to bring faith, and what we do here is serve. And as I said on the House floor, we’re not here to serve and become millionaires, we’re here to serve, to make policy and do what’s best for Tennessee, not to make money.”

20-year energy contracts?

The House passed HB78 this week, a rather innocuous measure sought by the Lee Administration that would, among other things, allow the state to enter 20-year contracts for energy savings services. The contracts would require a three-year bond for companies, presumably to tell the state how to turn out the lights.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, the only lawmaker who would nitpick over this type of bill, still wanted to know why the state needs to get into such long-term contracts. He wondered whether the state is tying itself to “antiquated practices” since technology changes every year.

Nashville, Tenn., June 1 - State Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) at vigil. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Nashville, Tenn., June 1 – State Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) at vigil. (Photo: Alex Kent)

“It looks like we’re changing rules for HVAC and energy savings companies,” Clemmons said.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, assured him it is a good bill, one that would open the competitive process for small and large companies and enable the state to guarantee savings by stretching contracts over a longer period.

The bill passed the House on a 69-22 party-line vote and 31-0 in the Senate where it hardly garnered a peep, leaving the question: Which company in Tennessee will benefit from this type of contract?

Building better police work

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike Bell passed legislation this week – a Lee Administration bill – designed to stop catastrophic incidents such as the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

Bell’s bill prohibits chokeholds unless a police officer believes deadly force is authorized, requires the teaching of de-escalation techniques at the state’s training academy, requires officers to intervene when they see excessive force, prevents retaliation against police whistleblowers, prohibits shooting at a moving vehicle unless deadly force is necessary, requires reports to the TBI of all use of force, and prohibits the issuance of no-knock warrants.

A day later, a jury convicted former Minneapolis office Derek Chauvin of murder in the death of Floyd.

Nitpicking or good questioning?

A Senate finance committee grilled Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley this week on the governor’s supplemental budget plan, targeting a spate of spending for nonprofit organizations, including out-of-state entities that deal with human trafficking, among other problems.

Her Song, part of the Tim Tebow Foundation, was among those questioned. It will be working with groups such as End Slavery and the Anti-Slavery Alliance receiving several million dollars to bring additional resources to the fight, according to Eley.

Yet another million dollars is to go to the Gospel Music Association for creation of a new hall of fame. Eley assured senators the association did exist when they told him they couldn’t find the entity.

The governor wants to give $300,000 to the Wine and Grape Board. And, no, it’s not to buy a big board to squash the grapes. That will be done by the Barefoot Alliance of the Greater Buffalo River Ridge, a shadow organization that will be required to register as a political action committee and report all of its squashing and washing expenditures. (OK, so I’m kidding, but the Wine and Grape Board does exist.)

The governor is targeting another $3 million to the Human Coalition, a group that supports pro-life policies and investments and uses a “unique” telecare system to support pregnant women with virtual counseling. The funds will help them expand into Tennessee, according to Eley.

And then, of course, the governor also wants $700,000 to fund five more positions for the Attorney General’s Office, which is loaded up with work brought on by the governor and the Legislature. Would that be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The ultimate question, though, is whether the Legislature will go along with forking out $13.5 million to build a new minor league baseball park in Knoxville for UT President Randy Boyd’s Knoxville Smokies. That ought to keep Boyd on the sidelines in 2022.

Tempest in a Germantown teapot

When Shelby County municipalities formed their own school systems about a decade ago, Germantown didn’t want the Germantown schools that were part of Shelby County Schools. 

These days, they’re singing a different song. And Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, was pushing legislation that would allow the city to take over those schools, annex them in a sense. What might happen to the students who would attend them was unanswered.

As it turned out, the measure was designed only to bring Shelby County and Germantown officials to the negotiating table. Kelsey and Rep. Mark White of East Memphis dropped the matter this week, leaving people wondering why something had to be done four hours from Memphis to get people to hash it out in their own backyard.

Bell’s ball bill

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary, Sen. Bell is often involved in weighty issues. Apparently that includes legislation clarifying that the placement of a trailer hitch ball in front of a license plate can’t be used by law officers to write citations for covering up a tag. 

According to watchdog journalists in the Capitol Hill press corps, the bill is designed to keep one overzealous officer in Bell’s district from stopping every yahoo on the highway. Truck balls should not be confused with truck nutz, those X-rated items people use to decorate their towing balls with male reproductive organs. Who woulda thunk it?

Anyway, wouldn’t truck balls, as well as the license tags they obscure, be fully covered if someone is pulling a trailer? And, if transgender people are driving the vehicle, under this legislation, would they have to go to a trans-gas station to make sure no one would be offended by their trailer ball or lack thereof? 

Which raises another question: How many transgender drivers does it take to tow a trailer full of truck tires from Tellico Plains to Tiptonville while Tennessee troopers tail them? Answer: None. They’re not doing it.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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