Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)
The Madison County Democratic Party is no stranger to discord. The State Executive Committee dissolved the party amid upheaval two years ago, but that didn’t solve the problems, and in its most recent meeting, an alleged physical altercation broke out that could lead to dismissal of a veteran member.
Hendrell Remus, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, confirmed this week he will recommend the State Executive Commission take action to remove Patsy Johnson for allegedly attacking former county party chairman Almeta Ellis at a May 24 reorganizational gathering.
Remus, who attended the meeting, confirmed that Ellis made an “indirect accusation” about misappropriation of funds or malfeasance by the former party treasurer, causing Johnson to get upset and “take action into her own hands.”
Ellis contends Johnson tried to attack her but wound up hitting others instead. Remus confirms that Johnson went after Ellis. But Johnson, who is 77. contends she was only trying to ask for the opportunity to speak and defend herself.
Still, the Tennessee Democratic Party is “working through details about how exactly we can lay out disciplinary actions,” Remus said.
Remus noted he will not allow Mrs. Johnson, whose husband David Johnson is also at the center of the uproar, will not be allowed to participate in Madison County Democratic Party meetings as it continues reorganizing, which is likely to be done in July.
Once the county party is up and running, it can make a decision on Johnson’s long-term involvement. Remus said he also plans to give the State Executive Committee the opportunity to consider removing Mrs. Johnson as a member.
“Obviously I was there when this happened so there’s no denying the fact that it happened on (Johnson’s) end. So there’s going to be some type of action. I can’t make that clear enough because it’s unacceptable to be in leadership and to express that type of public rage, especially when it’s got violence attached,” in light of violence in Washington, D.C., and “political discord in the streets,” Remus said. “It’s ridiculous and we can’t stand by and just accept that, obviously.”
Ellis, who was removed as an officer when the county party was dissolved for refusing to seat David Johnson as treasurer, claims bias against her by the local group as well as the state party.
“We have been fighting injustice within our own organization for quite some time,” she said.
Besides raising concerns about the handling of money, Ellis contends Mr. Johnson, a Madison County Election commissioner, has not advocated for Democrats. She also says he verbally assaulted her at a party meeting.
Yet at one point, he was doing volunteer work for her on a political campaign.
Defending themselves, both Johnsons say they’ve never misappropriated Madison County Democratic Party funds. Mrs. Johnson, a veteran county party member and State Executive Committee member since 2006, says Ellis did try to tell her when she could write checks as she served as an interim treasurer. Claims against her are hear-say, she says.
“She keeps on bringing it up and bringing it up about me being a thief and taking money. I have never taken any money, and I have a receipt for every check I have ever written in the Madison County Democratic Party,” she said.
Mrs. Johnson claims she let Ellis speak at the recent meeting, then sought her opportunity to speak and went toward her to ask for the “same courtesy.”
“Well, the people thought I was going to kill her, I reckon. They just started covering her and saying, no, no, you can’t touch her. I wasn’t gonna touch her. I’m not a violent person. I was gonna tell her I’d like to have a little respect,” Mrs. Johnson says.
Mr. Johnson acknowledges most of the discord revolves around him. Even though he was duly elected as treasurer, Ellis and other officers didn’t want to seat him when they held officer roles, leading to a grievance with the state party, which he says was the only claim it has recognized.
If you’re starting to get confused, you’re not alone. A scoreboard is probably needed to keep up with the players.
This rather convoluted matter appears to be the underlying problem, though, for Democrats across the state. They’re torn between the old school when Democrats were strong in state politics and newcomers who want to make a sea change.
Meanwhile, they’re getting hammered at the state level, losing majorities in the Senate and House a little more than a decade ago and finding it nearly impossible to make inroads, especially in rural and West Tennessee (except Memphis), which they once ruled.
No matter whether Mrs. Johnson is removed, Democrats will be far from solving their dilemma. But at least the Madison County group is feisty. If they poured as much energy into electing candidates, they might make some headway.
More Ketron headaches
Rutherford County resident Joe Liggett is asking the Registry of Election Finance to take another look at the Senate and Quest PAC accounts of Mayor Bill Ketron, a former state senator.
Liggett filed sworn complaints this week, which will be set for review by the Registry board at its July 23 meeting, according to Bill Young, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
Registry auditors went over Ketron’s Senate, Quest PAC and mayoral accounts for two years before the Registry board levied a $135,000 civil penalty against him at its April meeting for multiple findings and tens of thousands of missing money. Some disagreement remains about whether it dismissed a previous $80,000 levy or rolled it into the new penalty.
Either way, Liggett is requesting a full audit of Ketron’s Senate campaign account and Quest PAC from Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 31, 2018. Liggett’s letter says Ketron’s year-end supplemental report for 2017, which was amended March 30, 2021, shows his account had $138,105. Meanwhile, Ketron’s first-quarter report of 2018, which was also amended this March, shows a balance of $130,236. Yet the Registry’s audit shows Ketron had only $10,570 in his campaign fund.
Liggett’s complaint about Ketron’s Quest PAC account is similar in that a Registry audit found it had only $3,844 but that he reported a balance of $107,000 in March.
“Where did it all go? Why can’t the taxpayers get anybody to give accounting of where this money went? Will the registry please audit a few more years to explain to people where this missing money was used? Will the registry release all the bank statements so we can know the real truth without any spin? People are very mad and want answers,” Liggett writes.
Liggett contends the Registry board hasn’t been “very interested” in finding answers and appears to be trying to help Ketron more than come up with answers. Liggett also questions relationships between the executive director and Ketron’s attorneys and donations made by the deputy director to Ketron’s mayoral campaign.
Whether the Registry board takes up Liggett’s complaints, the July meeting is likely to be lively. There are more moving parts to this than a James Bond movie.
Ketron is up for re-election in 2022, and he’ll have to pay at least $135,000 before he can qualify. Some room remains, though, for legal machinations.
Former state Rep. Joe Carr is challenging Ketron, if he does run, which is not etched in stone. Word has it Congressman Mark Green gave a shout out to Carr this week at the Rutherford County Republican Party luncheon.
But even a two-person race isn’t certain. All of this intrigue and Carr’s problems with sexual harassment claims filed against him at the Department of Environment and Conservation could lead to a third candidate. Randy Allen, who ran three years ago, could enter the race.
The Tennessee Journal reported last week that Rutherford County Trustee Teb Batey could be a candidate as well. Reached at his office Thursday, Batey said, “I have every intention of running for trustee next year.” He added running for mayor is “not something I have talked about at all.”
While Batey would likely win, if he were to change his mind, the question is whether he wants to leave one of the best jobs in the county to jump into a frying pan. It’s easier to collect taxes than deal with 21 county commissioners and put out fires every day.
Businesses receive, unemployed don’t
Gov. Bill Lee’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group is set to dole out $44 million to businesses statewide that suffered heavy losses during the COVID-19 pandemic and spend the rest of its 2020 CARES Act money, about $302 million, on state payroll expenses.
The pending decision was unveiled in a Wednesday meeting of the FSAG, one of those great government acronyms that leaves people shaking their heads. The state already used part of its federal allotment last year to send $74 million to 3,243 businesses, an average payment of $22,463.
Also scratching their heads were those who recently noticed the governor will end Tennessee’s participation in federal unemployment payments starting June 30, cutting up to $300 a week for those who lost jobs in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FSAG is a bipartisan panel, touting a couple of Democrats, but some Dems took exception to the governor’s proposal, even though 21% of those receiving grants are “diverse business enterprises.”
Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville jumped on the governor’s plan, calling it an “immoral double standard” for companies, instead of the people laid off in the pandemic.
“In Gov. Lee’s mind, $300 a week of federal assistance for a parent who lost their job is bad, but millions worth of federal assistance for business owners is good,” Campbell said in a statement.
About one-third of those who qualified for the money already will be able to draw an average of about $39,000 more.
The governor defended the move Wednesday after a public signing of his permitless carry legislation at the Beretta USA gun factory in Gallatin.
“One of the things we’ve worked really hard to do through the pandemic is to make sure that livelihoods are maintained. And the best way to do that is to make sure the companies that Tennesseans work for are able to continue to operate. Many companies … struggled through the pandemic. Companies had excessive losses as a result of the pandemic, particularly those that were shut down throughout the pandemic. We targeted those businesses, and those with the greatest level of loss are the ones who will be able to apply for this next round of funding will be able to apply for this funding if that’s approved by the fiscal accountability group,” Lee said.
In Gov. Lee's mind, $300 a week of federal assistance for a parent who lost their job is bad, but millions worth of federal assistance for business owners is good.
– Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville
Asked about self-employed people who lost pay because of the pandemic and now will lose those federal unemployment benefits as well, Lee said. “Work is good for the soul, it’s good for families. It’s good for Tennessee.”
Even though many of those who work 1099 jobs have spent their lives building a livelihood, Lee contends jobs available across the state are “high-paying” and not minimum-wage jobs as a TV reporter suggested. “There are significant opportunities,” he said.
Unfortunately, some of those opportunities might not lie in a person’s career field, a hard pill to swallow.
Vouchers on the docket
The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in the lawsuit over Gov. Lee’s education savings account program, which would divert state money to vouchers enabling some low-income students in Davidson and Shelby County to enroll in private schools.
Lee and the American Federation Children remain hopeful the court will reverse decisions by lower courts that the program is unconstitutional because it was set up for only two counties without local approval, violating the home rule provision.
“Thousands of families trapped in failing or low-performing schools had already signed up to participate when the program was halted as a result of the lawsuit,” said Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee director of the American Federation of Children.
In contrast, opponents of the program say it is an unprecedented and illegal move to take money from public schools and ship it to private entities. Shelby and Davidson County officials say it will rob their public schools of tens of millions of dollars.
Lee, however, said this week the pandemic was proof that such a program is needed and that it could have helped thousands of children attend private schools this year, instead of going to school virtually. Up to 5,000 students are to be eligible the first year.
If the court rules in favor of the state, Lee predicts the program could be up and running by January 2022. The money is already in the budget.
Wash your hands or else
“I think it’s like the signs about washing your hands as you come out of the bathroom. I don’t think it will be enforced.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, responding when asked about misdemeanor penalties for a new state law requiring businesses to post signs outside restrooms if both genders can use them.
Of course, it’s always good to wash your hands after going to the john. It might not be what started the coronavirus, but it’s the smart thing to do, especially now that handshakes are back in style.
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