Bill to lock out congressional newcomers faces amendment in House

By: - March 1, 2022 2:53 pm
Niceley gonna Niceley. Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: John Partipilo)

Niceley gonna Niceley. Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Frank Niceley’s effort to avoid an “invasion” of carpetbaggers in the 2022 congressional races could hit a stumbling block in the House.

Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican, passed his legislation, SB2616, Monday in the Senate on a 32-1 vote to require a three-year Tennessee residency for congressional candidates when they enter a primary election.

The bill could affect the campaign for former State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus, who has lived in Tennessee for about a year. Williamson County businessman Robby Starbuck, who might have been affected by the bill in its original form, said Tuesday he took up residency in December 2018 and would be eligible under a three-year requirement.

The measure faces a tougher path in the House, though, where its sponsor, Rep. Dave Wright, R-Knoxville, said he plans to amend the measure by postponing the effective date until after the November election. In other words, anyone who qualifies before the April deadline for the primary election would be eligible for the fall vote, whereas Niceley’s bill would take effect on passage and the governor’s signature, making Ortagus ineligible to run in a primary.

Morgan Ortagus. (Photo: WinRed)
Morgan Ortagus. (Photo: WinRed)

The House version is scheduled to go back to a House elections subcommittee Wednesday where it saw a good deal of discussion last week.

Wright says he believes it’s a matter of fairness to avoid stopping current campaigns.

“People are out here planning without the benefit of knowing what’s going on. I placed my effective date the day after the general election,” Wright says.

Wright contends he wrote his bill generically to avoid targeting any candidates.

In contrast, Niceley makes it pretty clear his bill is designed to keep Ortagus out of the race. He supports former House Speaker Beth Harwell, who announced her candidacy last week for the newly-drawn 5th Congressional District, which includes southern Davidson County and parts of Wilson, Williamson, Maury, Marshall and Lewis counties.

He has said he’s trying to keep out an invasion of “carpetbaggers” or “Gucci baggers.”

Niceley points to a Monday morning radio show in which Ortagus was quizzed about Tennessee and couldn’t name the three main interstates in the mid-state or the controversial Confederate general who is buried in Chapel Hill.

“I rest my case,” Niceley said Monday after making note of Ortagus’ failure to answer questions on the Tennessee quiz.

During Senate floor discussion Monday, Niceley said his bill would not stop a person from running for election. They could run as an independent, in the Green Party, Progressive Party or the Moose Party. But they couldn’t run in the Democratic or Republican primaries if they don’t have three years of residency before the primary. In February, Ortagus raised eyebrows among Republicans when she received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump before she even announced her candidacy for the post. The former president also faced some backlash over the premature announcement, which made it seem candidates were seat-shopping.

Republicans descended on the congressional job after the Legislature redrew the lines for the 5th Congressional District, making it more Republican-friendly by splitting Davidson County into three congressional districts. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper announced he would not seek re-election after the governor signed the redistricting maps into law.

Regardless of what happens with the residency requirement bill, the Ortagus campaign says it isn’t getting involved in the legislation.

“I’ll leave state matters to the state legislature,” Ortagus said in a recent statement. “I’m focused on earning the support of Fifth District Tennesseans who want a conservative fighter to defend President Trump’s agenda.”

Her campaign denies lobbying legislators on the bill and also downplays the radio quiz that stumped her earlier in the week, saying some lifelong Tennesseans couldn’t answer those questions.

“I rest my case,” Niceley said Monday after making note of Ortagus’ failure to answer questions on a Tennessee quiz given her on a local conservative talk show. Ortagus couldn’t name any of the interstates that run through Nashville and lacked familiarity with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest or the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.

Niceley isn’t overly concerned, either, about the potential for an amendment in the House. The House could substitute and conform to the Senate-passed bill, or it could pass its own version and go to a conference committee where differences would be worked out, he says.

But even if the measure fails to become law, Niceley says he’s shone enough light on the matter to catch voters’ attention.

“There are not many bills down here everybody agrees on like they have this one. All the Democrats voted for it,” he points out. “They said we’d rather have a Tennessee Republican than a carpetbagger Republican.”

Initially, Niceley’s bill would have required congressional candidates to have participated in the last three election cycles, which would have placed a six-year residency requirement on them.

“When you’re talking about someone serving at a federal level, I would think that’s the least that one can ask, that somebody voted in that area, that state, if they’re going to represent that particular state in Congress,” said Democratic state Rep. Harold Love of Nashville. Love serves on the House elections subcommittee that will discuss the bill Wednesday.


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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.