Stockard on the Stump: Survey spurred Carr to challenge Ketron

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron has already picked up a challenger: Former state representative Joe Carr.
Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron has already picked up a challenger: Former state representative Joe Carr.

Former state Rep. Joe Carr has plenty of reasons to run against Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron in 2022, and a survey helped push him into the race.

Asked this week if he conducted a poll showing he would defeat Ketron by a wide margin next year, Carr initially said he was “trying to decide” if he would answer the question during an interview with the Tennessee Lookout.

Finally, he admitted he did run a survey/poll to determine the issues Rutherford County faces – as if he hadn’t been paying attention for the past 30 years.

“I suspected I knew what they were,” Carr says.

It's on: Ketron v. Carr 2022.
It’s on: Ketron v. Carr 2022.

Primarily they’re the Middle Point Landfill, growth, development and schools, the same type of problems confronting nearly every burgeoning county in America. But he says he needed information showing whether his type of leadership, which he contends is better than Ketron’s, would draw support.

After giving the predictable answer that his survey was very “issue-oriented,” Carr finally acknowledged the poll and asked whether he would have the support to win.

“Of course, … you know I asked that question. I would be a fool not to ask that question,” he says.

And did it show he would win big?

“Well, let’s just say I’m in the race and I’m excited about the opportunity to lead Rutherford County in a collaborative effort forward on problems such as urban growth and sprawl, as defined by apartments, congestion, overcrowded schools, as defined by a landfill that is not servicing Rutherford County’s needs as much as it’s serving the rest of Middle Tennessee.”

Carr predicts he will need to spend about $200,000 on the race, and he plans to raise that money in his annual T-bones and Politics gathering, which he has used for years to bring in big bucks for candidates such as U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Manny Sethi.

While Carr is plagued somewhat by sexual harassment complaints lodged against him while recently serving as assistant commissioner in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Ketron has bigger problems: a hefty civil penalty levied by the Registry of Election Finance for 472 findings in audits of his state Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral campaign accounts. The Registry board will deal with those again in July.

The question is whether people will be willing to overlook a series of bird-brained things Carr said at work, commenting about women’s appearance and the depth of water in the men’s urinal. Does anyone really say that stuff after high school? Apparently so.

People in a county with more than 332,000 people will have to weigh the behavior against Ketron’s inability to explain how he raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars. 

It could be a good opportunity for a third candidate with no skeletons in the closet to step in and win.

A real cluster

With the Registry of Election Finance set to look at Ketron’s case again in July, confusion is creeping in over what action the board took in April.

The recording of that meeting shows the board voted 4-0 to slap Ketron with a $135,000 civil penalty. As the meeting wrapped up, board members were still trying to figure out what they were voting on. One asked whether they were including $80,000 in civil penalties previously levied on Ketron for late filings and other violations.

Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, responded that the board was “forgiving that.” Board Chairman David Golden said they were “rolling it all” into one.

More than a month later, though, the board appears mired in misgivings. Some board members question whether they have the authority to drop the $80,000, almost all of which was set in stone through legal orders.

“As far as I’m concerned, the $80,000 is still there,” Registry board member Tom Morton said this week.

Young, however, believes most of the $80,000 is included in the $135,000, making that the grand total. Of that, $60,000 was against Ketron’s Quest PAC account, $20,000 against his Senate account, with $10,000 of the latter on appeal, and the rest with the Attorney General’s Office, which is charged with collections.

Members of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance are mired in confusion about whether they can drop some of Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron’s fines, or even how much Ketron owes.

“They just took those out and went with the $135,000,” Young said of the Registry board’s action.

But, he points out, the board really deferred the matter until July. Young was supposed to negotiate a payment plan with Ketron’s attorneys because of financial problems the mayor has been facing since his daughter, Kelsey Ketron Randolph, pleaded guilty to insurance fraud last year, forcing him to sell the insurance company his father started decades ago. In addition to paying fines related to his daughter’s foul-ups, he’s got a ton of legal fees building up over these campaign account snafus. 

Throwing another wrench in the pot, Ketron’s attorney called the Registry office a couple of weeks ago and said he would be willing to pay the $135,000 in a lump sum rather than making payments.

Of course, there are plenty of legal questions about whether he would be able to break up the payment and still qualify in February for the 2022 election. There’s also the question of where he is getting $135,000, after his attorney pleaded for a financial break.

The Registry board might have to reconsider its actions, mainly dealing with the $80,000.

That could bring Republican member Tom Lawless back into the picture. He recused himself in April because he’d done legal work for the Metro Nashville Airport Authority shortly before Ketron’s attorney, Trey Harwell, became chairman of that board.

“I am still participating as it relates to the $80,000 civil penalty awards that occurred prior to my recusal,” Lawless said this week.

This could result in a full review of the April meeting recording, the minutes and a whole lot of legal opinions, even though just about everyone on the board is a lawyer. Come to think of it, that could be the Registry board’s biggest problem: too many attorneys in the room.

But what can you expect from a meeting where one person listening in on the conference call dropped the F-bomb just as they were getting to the crux of the decision.

Did he really say that?

Gov. Bill Lee took to Fox News this week during an “exclusive town hall” with Republican governors where he also dropped a bomb of sorts. When discussing student attendance at Tennessee schools during the pandemic, asked if they wore masks this year, Lee said students don’t need to wear masks because children “don’t get sick” from COVID-19. He urged people to “follow the science.”

Lee is usually very guarded with his words. But every once in a while, he produces a head-scratcher because, in this case, the “science” doesn’t exactly support that kind of statement.

In fact, the Tennessee Department of Health website Unified Command page, commissioned by the governor himself, shows 48,100 people ages birth to 10 and 111,400 people ages 11-20 were confirmed as catching COVID-19 in Tennessee. 

Gov. Bill Lee, usually guarded with his words, made a misstep on national TV when he said children do not get sick from COVID-19.

Of those 159,500 people, there is no doubt many were school-age students. Whether they get as sick as adults with underlying health problems is another question, although children can develop debilitating health illnesses from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If he felt so strongly that students wouldn’t catch the virus and get sick, Lee should have forced every school district in the state to open for classes without masks. But he didn’t as he walked a tightrope between ultra-conservatives who thought the pandemic was a hoax and people, including a lot of Republicans, who took it seriously.

Unaccompanied minors or refugees?

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that the Lee Administration might have changed its stance on children staying at a Baptiste Group center in Chattanooga, first approving a license for the shelter to take unaccompanied migrant children a year ago, then recently declining the Biden Administration’s request for Tennessee to accept those children.

The state OK’d the license, and a contract between the Baptiste Group and federal government shows it will be providing care and supervision for 100 unaccompanied minor children until other arrangements can be made for them. It also can house refugee children, according to the article.

Lee and members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have been criticizing the Biden Administration’s policies near the Mexican border, and video by WRCB showing children unloading at Chattanooga’s airport apparently caused great consternation. The governor recently tweeted that the Biden Administration needs to “secure the border & stop scattering children across the country.”

Asked this week why he changed his stance, Lee said his administration turned down the request to house unaccompanied minors and accused a reporter of “conflating” unaccompanied minors with refugees.

“That’s a legal, vetted certain number of people that are political and religiously persecuted refugees. That’s an entirely different issue than illegal immigrants that are being trafficked, human trafficked, children that are being human trafficked across our border into this country and then dispersed across the border. This is a policy of an open border that incentivizes the human trafficking of children and it should absolutely be stopped, and the way it would be stopped is to secure the border,” Lee said.

It’s not entirely clear, though, whether the state knows if those children are refugees, at least based on the state license. And, they were brought to Chattanooga in the midst of what is being called a crisis at the Mexican border. 

Technically, they could be both: refugees – if their parents claim religious or political persecution – and unaccompanied minors. In light of the governor’s work in other areas to stop human trafficking, maybe these children should be afforded the same treatment as women and children treated as sex slaves. Or maybe the state is doing that job already.

Another stab at Medicaid expansion

Citing a new study from George Washington University and the Commonwealth Fund, Sen. Raumesh Akbari is calling on the state to expand Medicaid to cover more than 300,000 uninsured and underinsured working Tennesseans.

The study estimates expansion of TennCare, the program for the state’s women, children and neediest residents, would create more than 43,200 jobs, bolster economic output by $8 billion and increase personal income $2.9 billion.

Cover of former Gov. Bill Haslam's book, "Faithful Presence," released on Tuesday. (Illustration: Facebook)
Cover of former Gov. Bill Haslam’s book, “Faithful Presence,” released on Tuesday. (Illustration: Facebook)

“Every person should be able to go to the doctor or take their kid to a hospital without worrying about how they’ll pay the bill,” Akbari said in a statement. “This study shows it is time to empower TennCare to cover low-income families and accept billions worth of our own tax dollars to expand our economy and grow good-paying jobs.”

A handful of Republicans in the Legislature agree with Akbari, but it’s going to take some major philosophical changes in legislative leadership before the governor and General Assembly will revisit anything like former Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee. In his new book, “Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square,” Haslam says that proposal was driven by his Christian beliefs. Gov. Lee, a faithful member of Grace Chapel in Williamson County, may not be singing from the same hymnal.