Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Robinson hoping to avoid expulsion from Senate

October 22, 2021 5:01 am
Senator Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, working during the Ford special session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Senator Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, working during the Ford special session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite her conviction on felony fraud charges, Sen. Katrina Robinson showed up – in colorful garb no less – for this week’s special session on the $5.6 billion Ford plant targeted for the Memphis Regional Megasite.

The Memphis Democrat will come back again next week for what is expected to be a more contentious special session over COVID-19 “overreach,” and even though felons are barred from serving in the General Assembly, she has no concerns about being expelled from the Senate.

“Not at this time, I don’t. I’m still going through a very integral part of the process. My trial is not over, so nothing is final. I have a duty to the constituents of my district to be here. …,” Robinson said Wednesday as she left the Senate chamber after voting in favor of the Ford-SK Innovation project that will change the landscape of rural West Tennessee and Memphis.

The Senate wasn’t expected to take any action against Robinson during the Ford special session. She believes she still has some wiggle room after her attorneys filed motions for acquittal and to seek a new trial.

Sentencing is slated for January 2022. But will she be back in January when she would face almost certain expulsion?

"I'm going to do the right thing," said Sen. Katrina Robinson on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“I’m going to do the right thing,” said Sen. Katrina Robinson on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“It depends. I’m going to do the right thing regardless,” Robinson said, indicating she would step down from her seat based on the judge’s decision. “Hopefully, the judge will grant one of the motions that we filed and put me back where I belong. And if that happens, I will be back in January.” 

If not, she said she will likely leave her Senate District 33 post.

By waiting until then, Robinson assures the Shelby County Commission will have to appoint a replacement, rather than leave enough time for a special election to fill the seat.

Robinson was found guilty of fraud in the personal use of nearly $3,500 in funds from her business, The Healthcare Institute. She still faces trial on separate charges of running a scam on students, which could have a bearing on her status.

Immediately after the jury’s verdict, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called on Robinson to resign. He remains hopeful she will step down.

But while it’s not out of the realm of possibility the Republican-controlled Senate could try to expel her during the COVID-19 special session, more than likely the body will wait until January to make a decision.

If the judge doesn’t make a ruling on her motions by then, things don’t bode well for Robinson’s political future.

Full of pith

State Rep. Kevin Vaughan chaired the House Commerce Committee this week as it considered legislation to provide a $900 million incentive package to Ford for a $5.8 billion electric truck and battery campus at the Memphis Regional Megasite. Vaughan hails from the Bolivar area, thus is no stranger to the need for jobs in the rural region. 

It was clear, though, that the Collierville Republican was sidetracked with the thought of lunch and supper from the time the meeting started Tuesday until the committee finally approved the legislation hours later.

Much of the criticism surrounding the project dealt with the broad control to be given to the megasite authority, which will take the power of eminent domain, confidential contracts and secret marketing.

Vaughan wound up voting for the measures, but he made no secret about his disdain for moving so rapidly on the megasite authority.

Food was apparently on the mind of Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, during the special session one day. “It’s like having carrot cake without pecans in the icing. I like carrot cake, so I’m still gonna eat it,” said Vaughan, shortly after a discussion of cornbread.

“Did you ever eat cornbread and suck it down the wrong hole and you just never could get comfortable? That’s where I am with this authority,” he told the committee and the governor’s cabinet.

Vaughan didn’t mention anything about beans, potatoes and chicken, which would be basic fare for any West Tennessean. Instead, he went straight to dessert, as the committee finally prepared for the inevitable vote result of a project too big to fail.

“It’s like having carrot cake without pecans in the icing. I like carrot cake, so I’m still gonna eat it,” Vaughan said of the deal.

Don’t worry, Rep, it’s nothing a little sweet tea can’t cure. Or a Miller Lite, if you’re hanging out on Pickwick Lake.

What are we hiding?

Open records advocates took umbrage this week at language giving the megasite authority much the same ability as the Department of Economic and Community Development to keep marketing and other information secret.

But while Gov. Bill Lee’s defenders said the megasite authority will fall under the Open Meetings Act, in fact it will be able to dodge just about any Open Records Request for five years if its CEO and the attorney general deem the information important enough to cover up. In other words, if I submit an open records request, they can simply say, “Nah, that’s proprietary,” much as the Department of Economic and Community Development did this week when it finally responded to my request for contracts and other information on agreements the state made with Ford.

During testimony, ECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe referred several times to the department’s “secret selling sauce,” saying he doesn’t want Georgia or Kentucky to know what his recruiters are offering. 

Bob Rolfe, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (Photo: tn.gov)
Getting saucy: Bob Rolfe, Commissioner, Tennessee of Economic and Community Development Department, said Ford Motor Co. fellowship for Tennessee’s “secret sauce.” (Photo: tn.gov)

The more he said it the more I kept thinking about the “special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun” made infamous in the old McDonald’s commercials about their Big Macs. 

Sure, I used to love McDonald’s when I was a kid. But like my father used to say, “When you get older, you won’t like McDonald’s.” I can still hear him saying it. And he was right. The last time I ate McDonald’s I almost died.

And as Vaughan said, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s the secret selling sauce of ECD. It’s the closing of public records of an authority that has yet to be formed.”

Truth be told, the “secret selling sauce” isn’t thousand island dressing. It’s 500 million greenbacks and a host of state projects costing yet another 400 million dead presidents. 

Never fear, though, the state has $2.1 billion in “over-collections” from fiscal ’21 alone. That’s money taken in beyond the budget, which some might call under-spending or over-taxation in a state that our top officials say has the lowest taxes in the nation.

With that, I’ll take some more cornbread for my beans, throw in some chow chow and another slice of carrot cake, this time with pecans.

It’s about time

After years of work, ProPublica and WPLN put out an extremely interesting story recently about the jailing of teens in Rutherford County, a practice that has been going on for years.

The article garnered outrage, as it should, and now members of Congress are calling for an investigation of the juvenile justice system run by Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport in Murfreesboro.

If they had only been listening five years ago when state Reps. Mike Stewart and John Ray Clemmons, both Nashville Democrats, followed by the Black Caucus of Tennessee Legislators called for a federal probe into the jailing of children for minor offenses and sometimes no offense at all. 

Too many people sat on their hands and congratulated Judge Donna Scott Davenport for running a tough court, when news first surfaced about her jailing children. Now, members of Congress are calling for an investigation.

The Murfreesboro Post reported extensively on cases involving the detainment and isolation of a Murfreesboro teen and the arrest and jailing of children at Hobgood Elementary School who did nothing but see a fight take place. One of them even tried to stop it.

It was a terrible miscarriage of justice, and people are still feeling the effects. But a lot of people sat on their hands, congratulated the judge for running a tough court and went on their merry way, saying pull up your pants, keep your mouth shut and deal with it.

The entire Murfreesboro Police Department should have been turned upside down and the Juvenile Court system purged. Maybe this time, they will be.

Who’s fooling whom?

The Associated Press reported this week comments made by Attorney General Herbert Slatery slamming a ballot initiative requiring the AG to be confirmed by the state Legislature once the state Supreme Court makes an appointment.

Slatery contended it “would be a shame” to turn the post into a “political office,” according to the report.

Maybe he should have thought about that before he took it upon himself to do such hair-brained things as put Tennessee into the midst of a Texas challenge of President Joe Biden’s election victory over Donald Trump this year.

Slatery has stepped in other snairs, as well, in recent years, including criticizing the decision made by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle when she required the state to allow more absentee ballots amid one of the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican lawmakers later tried to derail Lyle because of her ruling before running into flack from the legal and business communities.

We won’t pile on anymore. Suffice it to say, this is the pot calling the kettle black.

Gump vs. Nicely

Every time I watch Forrest Gump, he says the same thing: “Mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. I’m still trying to win a state tournament baseball game from when I was 12 years old.

But Sen. Frank Nicely still has the Civil War – or the War Between the States, as he refers to it – going on in his head. That’s a much larger conflagration than a ballgame.

"Mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on." -- Forrest Gump, 1994 (Photo: Alamy)
“Mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” — Forrest Gump, 1994 (Photo: Alamy)

The Strawberry Plains farmer told colleagues Wednesday during discussion on the Ford project that his grandson asked him if the South really lost the war. “I said, ‘Son, it’s too early to tell.’”

But considering the way things are going with Ford coming to the South, instead of expanding up North, Nicely said, “I can tell my grandson the War Between the States is still going on and we’re winning it.’” 

(Eyeballs rolled in some portions of the Senate chamber.)

Never mind the fact that folks in Nicely’s part of the country voted against secession in 1861. Tennessee seceded anyway, and the rest is history. 

After years suffering from disease and starvation, in addition to the stupidity of running straight into a hail of cannon and bullet fire, Gen. Bob Lee decided it was time to surrender. Most of our Tennessee boys who seceded, except for Bedford Forrest, decided it was time to go home and put down their weapons. Many weren’t so sure the war was worth all the misery.

Despite the worst bloodbath in our nation’s history, some folks still think states hold sway over the federal government. They’d just as soon secede again, especially since President Biden told people they need to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

I’m not sure that’s worth another war, but we are well on the way, with 732,000 COVID-19-related deaths, to topping the number killed in the Civil War, 750,000.

And that ain’t whistling Dixie.

Jaws dropped

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat who probably would fit better in the rancorous House, dropped a bit of a bomb this week when she congratulated fellow senators on “becoming a national leader in combating climate change.”

You could hear murmurs across the chamber. How dare she talk about climate change, which most Republican senators probably don’t believe in, or green energy, even though the Ford plant is supposed to be the most environmentally friendly auto facility in the world when it opens. The goal is to produce vehicles with no emissions and no landfill waste at Blue Oval City.

Asked later what he thought about Campbell’s comment on green energy, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said, “We’re just a leader in new jobs … whether they’re green, blue, red or what.”

That reminds me of a song: “Blue morning, blue day, won’t you see things my way?” – Foreigner.

 

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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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