Lawmakers won’t seek Hargett’s resignation following DUI arrest
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee on Absentee Voting in July 2020. (Screenshot of Senate Rules Committee.)
Tennessee’s legislative leaders might have been caught off guard by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s DUI charge after Bonnaroo Friday night, but they aren’t calling for his head.
None of the state’s General Assembly leaders are asking him to resign from the constitutional officer position in the aftermath of his arrest by Tullahoma Police following the music festival. Only two of the state’s four elected leaders even responded Monday to questions about Hargett’s future as secretary of state.
The General Assembly selected Hargett, a former House member, to serve as Secretary of State in 2009, and he has been re-appointed every four years to that post with little opposition. His last re-election came in 2021.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper said Monday she urges people to drink responsibly and avoid driving if they imbibe.
“I’m thankful local police were able to quickly and safely resolve the situation. I believe in due process, and I think it’s very premature at this point to even discuss his possible resignation,” said Camper, a Memphis Democrat.
Said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, “Getting behind the wheel while intoxicated is a serious offense and one that demands punishment. My understanding is that this occurred in his off hours. Knowing Tre, I feel he will learn from this mistake and accept whatever punishment is handed down. I am not encouraging him to resign at this time.”
Numerous lawmakers have been charged with DUI over the years, including Democrats and Republicans. First-time offenders can face up to a year in jail, though 48 hours is more likely, a fine of $350 to $1,000, DUI school or attendance of a victim impact panel and use of an ignition interlock device.
When an elected official decides to drive impaired, their actions not only threaten the lives of innocent people but also undermine the very laws and protections they are sworn to uphold. They must be held accountable – no exceptions and no excuses.
– Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in a statement
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, declined Monday to weigh in on the matter, and a spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, did not respond to email questions.
Hargett, 53, a Hendersonville resident who represented the Bartlett area in the state House from 1996 to 2006, was arrested by Tullahoma Police and booked into the Coffee County Jail around 1:30 Saturday morning. He was released on $2,000 bail six hours later, according to the Associated Press.
Tullahoma Police refused to release the arrest report Monday, saying the case is under investigation and referring questions to the Coffee County District Attorney’s Office.
Hargett released a statement early Saturday: “On Friday night after leaving the Bonnaroo Music Festival, I was stopped by the Tullahoma Police Department and subsequently arrested for DUI. Driving Under the Influence is a serious matter, and I regret the circumstances that led to my arrest. I respect law enforcement and will trust the legal process as we move forward.”
DA Craig Northcott reportedly said Hargett fully cooperated and that his office will treat the case like any other, according to news reports. A sample of his blood has been sent to the TBI crime lab for processing, and he is expected to be back in court July 14.
Police said he was driving erratically and crossed a center line, according to the news report.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving sent out a statement in the wake of Hargett’s arrest saying, “MADD is appalled every time someone makes the wrong and extremely dangerous choice to drive impaired. It is a crime. When an elected official decides to drive impaired, their actions not only threaten the lives of innocent people but also undermine the very laws and protections they are sworn to uphold. They must be held accountable – no exceptions and no excuses. Mr. Hargett is uniquely positioned to help educate and protect Tennessee residents and visitors from the tragedies caused by someone’s choice to drive impaired, and we welcome his help in advancing MADD’s mission to eliminate this 100% preventable crime. MADD will monitor this case.”
It’s unclear who attended the festival with Hargett or whether he had anyone in the vehicle with him when police stopped his vehicle. Among the Friday night performers at Bonnaroo were J. Cole, Illenium, the War on Drugs, the Chicks and Lord Huron, with late sets by Disclosure and King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard.
Hargett, whose office oversees elections statewide, fought legal efforts in 2020 to have universal absentee balloting in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, his office put together a plan to offer what it contended was safe balloting at local precincts.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled against the state’s effort to keep fear of COVID-19 from being an excuse to vote absentee balloting in 2020. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, but only after it changed its argument.
Lyle’s decision and her admonishment of state officials led to legislation in 2021 to try to remove her from the bench.
State Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, consulted with Hargett’s office in writing the legislation, which failed over concerns it could set a dangerous precedent.
The secretary of state drew the ire of voter rights advocacy groups two years earlier when he backed new election rules designed to crack down on large voter registration drives, including criminal penalties and fines for those that turn in numerous incomplete applications or fail to put their workers through training.
A U.S. District Court judge enjoined the law from taking effect at the time.
Those new voting rules were passed largely in response to a situation in Shelby County where the Tennessee Black Voter Project filed some 35,000 voter registration forms with the Shelby County Election Office just before the deadline in August 2018. More than half the forms were deemed incomplete.
Hargett and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery also criticized a Democrat-backed federal voting rights bill in 2021. Hargett and other secretaries of state contended that legislatures should determine voting laws, not Congress.
A letter by Hargett and other secretaries of state said the legislation passed by the U.S. House last year would violate constitutional rights, hurt the “security and integrity of the elections process” and damage the ability of states to legislate and regulate changes.
This year, Hargett supported legislation setting up audits of elections across the state that don’t have a backup system to ensure accuracy.
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