Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Governor won’t take the blame for lawsuits or school closings

September 3, 2021 5:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee’s popularity slips by 10% but remains strong with the GOP. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Under a federal civil rights investigation, facing two lawsuits out of Shelby County over his mask opt-out order and now seeing school districts closing, Gov. Bill Lee refuses to let the buck stop with him.

“My responsibility is to work together to make the best decisions in our state that we believe will benefit Tennesseans as we navigate through what is a very difficult situation. To work with school districts, to work with parents, to work with people across the state, that’s what we’re doing,” Lee said Thursday in a press conference called apparently to calm people’s nerves but which did little to soothe anyone’s concerns about what the governor is calling a “crisis” again.

But what about districts that are closing because they can’t deal with COVID cases. Does he bear any responsibility for those, because of his policy?

Oddly enough, the governor claimed school districts have “the ability” to mandate masks, then in the next breath said every parent has “the ability” to send their child to school without a mask.

“I think a pandemic has created a large number of infections across our state. A pandemic has swept through, and I think we see that in school districts, we see that in cases of pediatrics across our state. We see that in schools having to make difficult decisions about how to keep classrooms opened and closed. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s doing the same thing in our state, and we’re doing everything we can to handle that,” he said.

Maybe he doesn’t think anyone is paying attention to his refusal to take the heat or to say things that have little meaning.

Oddly enough, the governor claimed school districts have “the ability” to mandate masks, then in the next breath said every parent has “the ability” to send their child to school without a mask.

Surely (and don’t call me Shirley), he understands the reasons for the civil rights investigation opened by the U.S. Department of Education into his executive order, as well as the two lawsuits filed against him and the state. 

Shelby County attorneys will make their case Wednesday in U.S. District Court where their filing claims the governor’s executive order violates due process and hurts the county’s ability to run a safe school district.

The county will seek a preliminary injunction of the governor’s order.

“We’re hopeful we’ll be successful, and if we are, we will see more masking requirements at our schools. That reduces the risk of spread but also the quarantine numbers, which means that more kids will get in-person learning instruction the moment that happens,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris says.

Shelby’s action stems from its health department order requiring masks for anyone above age 2 entering a K-12 or pre-kindergarten school in the county, including private schools, daycare centers and municipal schools outside Memphis.

That helped spur a firestorm of criticism from Republican lawmakers across the state, mainly House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who threatened to seek a special session to pass legislation punishing districts that mandate masks, close school buildings or segregate unvaccinated students. Sexton went as far as to call for vouchers enabling parents to send their children to private schools even though he voted against the governor’s Education Savings Account plan more than once.

Rather than a special session, Lee opted for a “compromise” plan allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates, a move that drew not only the Shelby County lawsuit but a class-action lawsuit from Memphis families.

Meanwhile, Sumner County, a largely Republican stronghold just northeast of Nashville, announced this week it would close schools Sept. 7-19 to try to get a handle on COVID cases.

Some parents are miffed at the Sumner County decision, saying children will continue to hang out with each other during the break and won’t wear masks or social distance. Wilson County Schools also closed for two weeks because of COVID outbreaks among teachers and students. Neither of those systems required masks.

The question is what they’ll do to try to slow the spread of the virus when students return.

Sidestepping angry physicians

Gov. Lee ignored doctors who confronted him as he left Thursday’s press conference as they urged him to accept a petition demanding mask mandates in schools.

“Tennessee today is No. 1 in the United States in cases per 100,000 of children, and we are asking Gov. Lee to issue an executive order calling for universal masking with no opt-outs for all schools,” said Dr. Mary Kline Barnes, a pediatrician who has two elementary-age children.

The doctors who tried to speak with him also want him to follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Lee acknowledged earlier he met with that group this week but said he simply disagrees with their stance.

Children under 12 are ineligible for vaccinations, and they believe masks will help them avoid the surge running through schools.

More than 33% of COVID cases are reported among children. But Lee and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey are simply urging people to get vaccinations and wear masks, not making them do either.

Lee contends mask mandates – with opt-outs – are the best way, and he doesn’t plan to change policy, despite the state’s unenviable position. 

It’s about the only thing for which Tennessee holds a No. 1 ranking. And with the football Vols kicking off, don’t look for them to vault into the upper echelon and take the place of this COVID catastrophe.

Dead or alive

Legislators such as Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, still want a special session to put the clamps on school districts.

Griffey, who doubts the efficacy of masks and the vaccine, says a large number of Republican lawmakers would love to see the Legislature come together.

Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

But other Republicans, even those who were bucking for a special session more than a month ago, say as each day passes, the likelihood of a special session slips away as well.

The governor doesn’t appear to have any appetite for calling a special session, either. Such a move would make him look wobbly, caving in to the House and making an admission, of sorts, that his executive order was weak.

Dodging the question?

Tennessee is fielding Democrats’ interest in the 2022 gubernatorial race with Dr. Jason Martin of Williamson County announcing a run and Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley and Memphis activist Carnita Atwater filing papers with the state, according to my esteemed colleague, Jackson Baker, of the Memphis Flyer.

But will Shelby County Mayor Harris enter the fray next year?

When asked this week whether he’s considering entering the race, Harris maintains he’s focused on the pandemic and trying to “navigate the surge” 

“I’m not worried about an election that’s more than a year away,” he says.

Harris, a former Democratic state senator from Memphis, says it would be “nice” to have representation from the Shelby County area and notes he is encouraged by Smiley’s interest. He’s also a “big believer” in diversity, as the only African-American county mayor in the state.

But is he ruling out a run for governor?

“I’ve gotta tell you … we’re focused on the pandemic right now and the surge and that takes all of my attention every single day, so I’m going to keep working through this pandemic until it’s defeated,” Harris says.

Sounds like he’s busy but potentially in the hunt. After all, he could have said, “No.”

Going after transgender Tennesseans

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is leading a group of 20 Republican states in a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration in an effort to keep the federal government from spreading LGBTQ protections to transgender students in school restrooms and locker rooms.

Their filing claims the Biden Administration went too far in expanding rights to those groups.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, calls this an extension of the “slate of hate,” which has been running through the General Assembly for several years.

“It’s an effort to protect the kinds of laws the General Assembly is passing but also to protect probably an older interpretation of the word ‘sex,’” Sanders says.

Courts are tending to interpret “sex” to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, Sanders says, but the attorney general is opposing that.

“It’s consistent with what he’s been doing, but it’s out of step with the way courts have been moving,” Sanders says.

The Legislature passed bills this year singling out transgender use of restrooms in public schools and requiring businesses to post signs on bathroom doors if they allow transgender people to use them.

The latter led to a lawsuit by Nashville and Chattanooga business owners who say it violates their First Amendment rights.

Nevertheless, the Legislature is likely to keep hammering transgender people next year. 

More from the Bruce Griffey beat: Griffey plans to renew a bill in 2022 legislative session that would ban LGBTQ content in school curriculum and says he agrees the Biden Administration has overstepped its bounds providing protections to LGBTQ students.

Griffey is planning to renew a bill that would ban LGBTQ content in school curriculum. Rep. John Ragan is also likely to bring up legislation that would criminalize gender affirming care or transgender youth, a variety of medical intervention that could involve hormone therapy for children who identify as the opposite sex.

Griffey says he agrees with Slatery’s argument that the Biden Administration is overstepping its bounds.

“I think the Supreme Court has gone too far in this area,” Griffey contends.

With his legislation, he says he wants to remove politicization, proselytizing or promoting anything dealing with sex, gender or LGBTQ issues in classrooms.

Classroom talk dealing with sex should be reserved for teen pregnancy prevention, stopping transmission of sexual diseases and abstinence, he says. Parents should resolve gender identity at home, Griffey adds, because classrooms are turning into political battlegrounds.

But even if parents tend to their children’s sexual identity at home, it’s becoming part of the education landscape. The Legislature passed a bill this year to stop boys who identify as girls from playing girls middle and high school sports. It’s an attempt to head this off at the pass, since nobody knows of any transgender athletes in Tennessee high school athletics.

No doubt, though, many people saw the transgender weightlifter who participated in this summer’s Olympics. She didn’t win.

Slipping through the cracks

The Finance and Administration Department apparently forgot to notify the public and press about hearings on proposals to spend a huge chunk of federal funds. Oh well, as one sage said, it’s only about $3.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan. So who cares?

The department did put a schedule on its website. But that’s not exactly notification.

This isn’t surprising, since decisions from the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group come down from on high, without votes or much discussion from the group’s members.

From Thursday’s meetings, the Department of Health wants to spend about $177 million to boost hospital staffing amid the COVID pandemic, $35 million to develop “pathways” for rural health-care professionals and $9 million on public health.

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

The Department of Education – where the money flows like wine – wants to spend $25 million on charter schools, $250 million on workforce “pathways,” $37.5 million to expand middle and high school programs, $50 million on workforce development such as apprenticeships, $1 million on a state symposium, $30 million on statewide centers co-located at colleges of applied technology, $9 million on short-term contracted support and $250 million for school district incentives and family micro-grants to improve academic recovery.

The Department of Transportation hopes to spend $13.6 million on failed stormwater drainage systems, $8.8 million on interstate beautification, $6.9 million on a Bonnaroo project along New Bushy Branch Road, $42 million to improve access along U.S. Highway 70 to the State Fair in Wilson County, $6 million for Aspire Park in Anderson County and $52 million to improve access to tourism locations in Sevier County.

Getting in and out of Bonnaroo is a nightmare, so I fully support anything that will take 100,000 young people off the road quicker. 

Redistricting predictions

Population losses in Memphis, rural West Tennessee and Upper East Tennessee are likely to lead to the loss of House districts in those areas as Republican lawmakers draw new district maps this year.

Look for two urban Democrats to be drawn into the same district in Shelby County, even though Dems will be fighting the proposal tooth and nail.

Republicans in rural districts in West and East Tennessee are likely to see some upheaval, too, though the redistricting panel will likely go to great lengths to keep House Republicans in some sort of seat.

Any GOP losses there, though, are likely to be offset by new seats drawn in Republican bastions Rutherford and Williamson counties, and a Democrat loss in Shelby could be soothed by a gain in Montgomery County.

It appears former House Speaker Glen Casada, who was nearly run out of town on rails, is doing such a good job representing constituents that this district saw 49% growth in the last decade above the optimal number of about 70,000 residents. OK, maybe I’m kidding.

The same is true for Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, who saw the population in his district jump 42.8% above the ideal number. Rutherford’s three other districts, all represented by Republicans, experienced a 15% jump above the best number.

But they’ll have to draw some pointed maps to keep La Vergne from becoming a blue district. Anyone who’s lived in Rutherford County for any period of time understands La Vergne residents think they live in Democrat-dominated Davidson County, not red Rutherford.

House Speaker Sexton appointed a 16-member select committee on redistricting with four Democrats, said to be the first bipartisan effort in history.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Davidson County Democrats will suffer slings and arrows for obstinance on the House floor.

A meeting is set for Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. when the committee will take public comment.

Jesus, he’s my friend (but not yours)

Things aren’t too cozy these days at Grace Chapel in Franklin, where Gov. Lee and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson go to church. According to a report by Bob Smietana, outgoing Rev. Steve Berger’s wife got up and trashed incoming pastor Rob Rogers in a recent service, saying he conspired against her husband.

The report says she accused Rogers of making her husband out as a “Christian extremist.”

A screen capture from a video posted by former Grace Chapel pastor Steve Berger on Facebook from Washington, DC immediately following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
A screen capture from a video posted by former Grace Chapel pastor Steve Berger on Facebook from Washington, DC immediately following the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Whether Rogers is painting that kind of picture or not, Berger hasn’t been doing much to help his cause. He traveled to the pro-Trump rally that turned into the Jan. 6 insurrection, then blamed it on Antifa. Berger later condemned the attack on the Capitol but then announced he would be leaving the church.

The biggest problem is that Berger has been an adviser of sorts to Gov. Lee, who had Berger on stage with him at his election party in Franklin. 

For the sake of the governor, it’s probably better for Berger to find another flock.

Keep it holstered

Murfreesboro Police locked down schools Wednesday when a resident called 911 after hearing shots fired and a scream.

As it turned out, expectant parents were making a “gender revealing” phone call to family members who live out of the county, and the father got so excited he went outside and pumped a few “celebratory” rounds into the air as the mother screamed in excitement about the news of a baby boy, according to MPD spokesman Larry Flowers.

Officers cited the man with unlawful discharge of a firearm inside the city limits, then lifted the school lockdown.

This all raises several questions: Where did those bullets land? Does this count as defending your property against any intruders? Is this what Gov. Lee was hoping for when he passed his constitutional carry bill? And, what happens if the expected boy someday identifies as a girl? Will the father shoot into the air or aim elsewhere?

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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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