Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Tennessee joins fight against John Lewis Voting Rights Act

Plus: Brouhaha over bail bonds and no shots for you

September 17, 2021 5:00 am
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery is formally opposing passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, signing on to a letter with Republican AGs saying it would allow the feds to “usurp” states’ authority over elections.

“If these provisions are enacted, rest assured that the undersigned will aggressively defend our citizens’ rights to participate in free and fair elections without unconstitutional federal intrusion,” says the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders.

The letter contends the act “seeks to overturn common sense election integrity reforms” approved by the U.S. Supreme Court and supported by 80% of Americans. Those include voter identification laws.

Slatery and the other AGs also say the act “seeks to flip” a constitutional mandate for state control of elections “on its head, turning the Department of Justice into a federal ‘election czar,’” giving it power the challenge news or existing election laws based on the “whims of the party in power.”Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville tweeted that the “GOP’s anti-#VotingRights efforts continue. In formally opposing #JohnLewisVotingRightsAct, the @TNattgen referred to it as “a reckless piece of legislation” and “a misguided, clumsy, and heavy-handed effort to circumvent … the will of the people.” Clemmons wrapped up his tweet with a faux-thoughtful emoji.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson scoffed at the AGs’ letter.

“I guess that letter is representing the state of Tennessee, which I’m a citizen … and I vehemently disagree with him signing on to that letter,” Parkinson said. “Secondly, there would not be a need for a John Lewis Voting Rights Act if people were given access to democracy, the very democracy we go overseas and fight wars for.”

“We go overseas and lose Americans so foreigners have the right to vote in their country, but yet voting is being suppressed right here in America where democracy began. That’s ludicrous,” the Memphis Democrat said.

(OK, democracy started in Athens, Greece, but we’ll cut him some slack there.)

Parkinson pointed to prohibitions on absentee ballot voting and refusal to register people at age 18 as forms of suppression.

“Every single person that’s of the age to vote should automatically be registered and be able to vote, period,” he said.

I guess that letter is representing the state of Tennessee, which I'm a citizen . . . and I vehemently disagree with (Attorney General Herbert Slatery) siging on that letter. Secondly, there would not be a need for a John Lewis Voting Rights Act if people were given access to democracy, the very democracy we go overseas and fight for.

– Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

Slatery is a busy guy on the national scene, bringing Tennessee into the national argument over the presidential election, which ultimately was found to be legal and possibly the best-run vote in the nation’s history based on the large number of audits and double- and triple-checks. 

Now, he’s getting into the election debate again. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers want him to challenge President Biden’s vaccine mandate to allow people to avoid getting shots to protect them from COVID-19, so we can all continue wearing masks and worrying we’ll catch the dreaded virus every time we go into a crowded area, sort of like a protest/rally Thursday in front of the Capitol.

Slatery sent a letter Thursday to President Biden questioning the legality of using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency temporary standard to put a vaccine or test mandate in effect. Under Biden’s mandate, companies with more than 100 employees would have to require workers be vaccinated or show negative COVID-19 tests weekly before reporting to work.

Of course, Slatery has hundreds of attorneys working for him and plenty of money to inject Tennessee into every political argument in the history of mankind. And the Legislature is willing to throw him millions more every year to defend us against ourselves?

We don’t need no stinkin’ shots

State Sen. Janice Bowling rallied a crowd of anti-vaxxers Thursday on 6th Avenue between the State Capitol and Cordell Hull Building, continuing her tirade against the COVID-19 vaccine and President Biden’s business mandate.

Bowling told the crowd she tried to pass a law this year prohibiting state and local governments and private business from requiring people to get shots. Much to her dismay, the bill was amended at the last minute, she said, to remove private businesses from the equation.

A Thursday rally outside the Tennessee Capitol was staged to urge Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to call a special legislative session. (Staff photo)
A Thursday rally outside the Tennessee Capitol was staged to urge Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to call a special legislative session. (Staff photo)

The Tullahoma Republican said the Food and Drug Administration did not approve a Pfizer vaccine, even though it did. “Can you imagine that they’re lying to us?” she said.

“Remember there’s more of us than there is of them,” she said.

Bowling is almost right: 51.3% of eligible Tennesseans have gotten at least one dose. In an election, that means she loses by several hundred thousand.

Nevertheless, people carried signs saying “Medical freedom” and “Stop medical tyranny.”

Bowling felt it important to notify the crowd Communist China has 1.4 billion people but only 90 million belong to the Communist party. Fortunately, Americans can stand up and protect their “form of liberty,” she said. 

It wasn’t exactly an overwhelming show of legislative support for her anti-vax message. Only a handful of lawmakers attended.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, helped Bowling sing “God Bless America,” since they’ll be needing all the prayer they can get if they catch COVID-19, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, a physician who had his license revoked for carrying on an affair with his assistant, who was also a patient and his cousin. 

There was no sign of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who has encouraged people to get vaccinated, or House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, speaks at Thursday's anti-vaccine protest outside the Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)
State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, speaks at Thursday’s anti-vaccine protest outside the Capitol. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Getting touchy 

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie stormed out of a joint meeting on bail bonding this week when committee Chairman Mike Bell cut him off and gave another legislator a shot at speaking.

Dixie, a Nashville Democrat who owns a bail bonding company and, thus, has a vested interest in the pending legislation, was querying District Attorneys Russell Johnson and Mark Davidson of the District Attorneys General Conference as they discussed bonding discounts and incidents of inmates putting up stolen property for collateral.

They said the state needs to shine a light on these practices, drawing Dixie into the discussion as he made a series of statements. Some onlookers felt as if he was dominating the conversation instead of asking questions, which is the typical routine for these hearings.

Bell, a Riceville Republican, told Dixie bail agent advocates would get a chance to testify the next day and called on another legislator to ask questions, firing up Dixie, who called it “unfair,” then walked out. He returned later.

Much calmer the next day, Dixie said, “We’re here because of the bail industry. That’s the crux of this matter. If we’re not here to find some kind of resolution, some middle-of-the-road thing we can all live with, then this all pomp and circumstance, this is all for show.”

Rep. Vincent Dixie, photographed in the Cordell Hull Legislative Building in March 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, a bail bondsman by trade,
walked out of a legislative hearing on bond reform after Sen. Mike Bell cut his microphone off. Photo: John Partipilo)

Dixie, though, contended the same thing happened when the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents testified but had its time cut short. Bell also chastised a Kansas state representative who testified before the committee but failed to note early on he makes a living in the bail bond industry.

But did Dixie feel he had some bias as a bail agent?

“I come in as a truth teller, because I believe at the end of the day, there’s misconceptions out there.”

Bell defended his actions later, saying, “I just don’t think it was unfair, and I’ll leave it at that.” 

A legislative meeting on reform of the bail bond system got testy, but no matter who walked, squawked or balked, the bail bond industry is likely to only experience minor changes.

Oddly enough, the Senate Judiciary chairman acknowledged he holds a somewhat similar view as Dixie on the bail bond legislation. So many people testified over the two days they should have handed out scorecards to show who was whose side.

“I would say I probably lean toward we don’t need to make wholesale reforms that probably the sponsor of the bill felt we need to make,” Bell said.

No matter who walked, squawked or balked, though, the bail bond industry in Tennessee is not going to disappear. It might be tweaked but not dismantled.

Catching McNally’s ire

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally took Sen. Kerry Roberts to the woodshed recently after the Springfield Republican oversaw what could be considered questionable tactics in Government Operations Committee meetings.

Roberts nearly stepped into deep doo-doo a couple of months ago when Rep. Scott Cepicky threatened to call for dissolution of the Tennessee Department of Health – in the midst of a pandemic, no less – because he disliked its vaccine messaging to teens. Roberts was as outraged about the Department of Health as Cepicky and was about to let him make the move when he reversed course slightly. (Roberts might or might not have received a text message urging him to think twice, which is the way things work in today’s Legislature.)

Sen. Bell told Roberts and Cepicky the department could not be dissolved in the Government Operations Committee.

All of this wrangling and jangling caught the attention of McNally, who was expected to “share his disappointment” with Roberts the next time they spoke. Asked about their meeting this week, Roberts declined to comment other than saying, “All is well.”

Cepicky, on the other hand, a rising conservative voice in House Republican circles, was removed from the committee. The reason given was that he served on more than three House committees, which is against the rules. 

Apparently, nobody caught that oversight until Cepicky tried to dump the Department of Health and, in a subsequent meeting dealing with TennCare and opioid addiction, wanted to give a woman the opportunity to talk about the livestock dewormer, ivermectin, as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, at right, was bumped off the Joint Government Operations Committee, at which he’s pictured during a July meeting. His removal came after he suggested dissolving the Tennessee Department of Health. Coincidence? (Photo: John Partipilo)

Blame the Tennessee Journal for most of this. OK, maybe not, blame legislators who think the pandemic is a hoax.

Cepicky, who previously spoke openly with this reporter but then turned into a clam in the last month, said this week his removal from the committee had nothing to do with his actions on COVID-19 in the most recent meetings.

It was all about serving on more than three committees, he said, which is a rule, by the way. But Cepicky attended Wednesday’s Government Operations meeting to answer questions, if necessary, and said he hopes for a rule change so he can get back on the panel if re-elected to the 113th General Assembly.

“I talked to Speaker (Sexton). There were some complaints about some members, I think there were four of us, who were actually appointed to four committees. It’s in violation of House rules, so they made us pick which one,” he said. He decided to stay on House Education and Administration committees and the Insurance Committee.

It sounds good, but it just took nine months for anyone to figure out.

If you believe that, I’ve got some ocean-front property in Leanna, Tennessee you can buy for a mere 100 grand an acre.

What recession?

Tennessee’s economy continues to perform better than projected, with August revenue coming in at $1.4 billion, some $255.8 million more than in August 2020 and $267.9 million above the estimate in this year’s budget.

All tax revenues grew by 22.11% in August, according to the Department of Finance & Administration.

Sales tax, franchise and excise taxes and gasoline and motor fuel revenues went up while business tax revenues and tobacco taxes declined. Oddly enough, mixed drink taxes increased.

So people are drinking but not smoking? Maybe they’re hitting cannabis instead of cigars.

Demand he be gone

House candidate Deangelo Jelks, a Hamilton County Democrat, got slammed twice this week. First, he was charged with rape, then he was badly beaten by Republican Greg Vital to represent House District 29. Vital is already listed as a member of the House on the General Assembly website, replacing the widow of the late Rep. Mike Carter.

House Republicans on Twitter questioned Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson about whether Jelks should get out of the race. She later responded she was withdrawing support because of the allegations.

The question is: What difference did it make with only a day between the charge being filed and the election being held? He’s done. 

Down on Funk

Grand Funk Railroad, circa 1970, not to be confused with Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk. (Photo: Michael Ochs/Getty Images)
Grand Funk Railroad, circa 1970, not to be confused with Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk. (Photo: Michael Ochs/Getty Images)

Rep. Paul Sherrell strayed somewhat from the topic of bail bonds this week when he went on a tangent about Glenn Funk and complained that the Davidson County district attorney general is “not prosecuting these people that need to be prosecuted.” 

Funk “needs to be removed,” Sherrell said, as if anyone in Nashville is listening.

Davidson County voters will settle that question soon enough, but it won’t have anything to do with the advice of a Sparta Republican. 

No doubt, Funk has caught the ire of the Legislature on several fronts, one for not prosecuting cases involving a small amount of weed – or not so small – if you consider a half-ounce of pot for personal use to be on the smallish side.

He also said this year he’s not going to prosecute businesses that violate a new transgender bathroom law, which is being challenged in court. 

It would take an opinion by the state attorney general to figure out exactly what this bathroom bill does, if had time to write an opinion. 

Call it another stump in the fire, because – as has been noted already in this column – Tennessee has about as many bathroom laws as it does transgender people.

Describing the stump

Incidentally, an inquiring mind asked me at a recent press conference if I was sitting on “the stump.” My response was that the chair I was in was a little taller than “the stump.” I usually stand on “the stump.”

But getting back to Glenn Funk. The last time I checked, he doesn’t set bail.

And speaking of another Funk, as in Grand Funk Railroad, “Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness?”

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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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