Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: MTSU recycles embattled state senator, county mayor

September 23, 2022 6:02 am
Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron speaks to residents in a March address on COVID-19. (Photo: rutherfordcountytn.gov)

Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron. (Photo: rutherfordcountytn.gov)

Despite paying a $135,000 civil penalty for campaign finance violations, former state Senator and Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron landed a plum job this week with MTSU.

Ketron, who lost both as a Democrat and Republican to Nancy Allen for the county mayor’s seat in the ’90s before winning a Senate seat, will be the university’s legislative liaison. 

MTSU President Sidney McPhee was so confident in Ketron’s ability to do the job he didn’t advertise the position or give anyone else a shot, using a little-known university policy to make the hire. 

The move created a ripple of astonishment across the Murfreesboro campus, with department heads wondering how the president could get away with filling the post while they have to post jobs, interview people and often go through exhaustive discussions about the best prospect. Others wonder whether word came down from the state level to give Ketron the job.

Sidney McPhee, president, Middle Tennessee State University (Photo: MTSU)
Sidney McPhee, president, Middle Tennessee State University (Photo: MTSU)

MTSU, however, sent the Lookout a statement Thursday saying the university directly hired Ketron and former state Rep. John Hood, who held the position from 2008 until his retirement this year, using MTSU Policy 801 that permits all appointments other than those requiring board approval to be authorized by the president or his designee. The university said, “Consistent with Policy 801, former state Sen. Ketron’s appointment was approved by the President and the Assistant to the President for Institutional Equity and Compliance.”

In these cases, MTSU hired Hood and Ketron for their “unique expertise and knowledge acquired from legislative service and deep ties to the university.”

It didn’t hurt in this latest situation that McPhee and Ketron have been hanging out together for dinners for years at the president’s house as well as traveling together.

No doubt, McPhee supported Ketron in his recent failed run for a second four-year term as Rutherford County mayor. But he couldn’t even beat much-maligned and perennial candidate Joe Carr in the Republican primary.

There were some questions about whether Ketron would be able to run for re-election because of his trouble with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, which levied the $135,000 civil penalty against him for about $300,000 worth of campaign violations involving his state Senate account, Quest PAC and mayoral account. An audit flagged expenditures on his vehicle, the MTSU Foundation, MTSU athletic event tickets and donations to Special Kids, a nonprofit agency in Murfreesboro that works with fragile children.

When Ketron finally went before the board in 2021, he placed the blame squarely on his daughter, Kelsey Ketron Randolph, saying his only mistake was that, as a father, he trusted her. Earlier, he also claimed that a bout with cancer sidetracked him, even though most of the finance violations took place before he was diagnosed with the disease.

Adding insult to injury for the Ketrons, his daughter ran afoul of the law and copped a plea for insurance fraud after a customer of the family’s insurance company discovered they had no coverage when they filed a claim, even though they’d been paying premiums. Kelsey’s state license was revoked, and they had to sell the company, which was started by Sen. Ketron’s father.

With the hiring, we’ll give McPhee some credit for having empathy.

For the uninitiated, the MTSU president had his own run of trouble in 2003 when the Board of Regents found he violated the state policy by sexually harassing his administrative assistant. The university transferred his assistant to another department and gave her a massive $4,000 raise.

The Board of Regents suspended McPhee for 20 days and cut his salary by $10,000.

Good ole boys: Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee used what is known as MTSU Policy 801 that permits all appointments other than those requiring board approval to be authorized by the president or his designee to hire former Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron for an $85,000 a year job without advertising the position. The pair have vacationed together before, 

Not that the world has changed much in the past 20 years, but McPhee likely would have been fired these days for doing things such as trying to dance with her in his office – but without touching – and whispering sweet nothings about his “seven wood” (apparently, they played in golf outings together).

This is all well documented, so don’t blame the writer.

A Rutherford County political leader at the time mentioned to me that McPhee had the right politics to keep his job instead of being bounced from the university. He has done well since then.

Now, Ketron’s politics put him in the right position to get a job making $85,000 a year, plus state benefits, for essentially a part-time job lobbying the Legislature, advising MTSU leaders and working with the Rutherford County legislative and Tennessee congressional delegations.

Ketron replaces Hood, who is 90-plus years old, a longtime MTSU and Murfreesboro ambassador whose reputation is impeccable.

One thing can be said about Ketron: He knows his way around the State Capitol and Cordell Hull Building. But he’s no John Hood.

Shipping them out

Gov. Lee announced this week on Twitter (since we only see him occasionally in person) that the state reached a “milestone” with more than 200 students being approved to attend private schools through the education savings account program “& we’re just getting started.”

Davidson and Shelby county parents who are suing the state, claiming the voucher program is unconstitutional, told a panel of judges this week in Chancery Court that it illegally diverts taxpayer funds from public schools to send students to private schools.

It’s not quite the flood of applicants the state expected, but it is a bit of chipping away at public education.

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Democratic candidate for the newly gerrymandered 5th Congressional District seat, said in response, “Here’s the real milestone: The first $1.6 million worth of tax dollars has been drained away from public school students and handed over to private schools. Our public tax dollars belong in our public schools.”

It’s a matter still being argued.

Davidson and Shelby county parents who are suing the state, claiming the voucher program is unconstitutional, told a panel of judges this week in Chancery Court that it illegally diverts taxpayer funds from public schools to send students to private schools.

“My daughter’s public school is wonderful. But it already struggles with funding for textbooks, technology and enough teachers to keep class sizes down,” Roxanne McEwen, whose child attends a Metro Nashville school, told the court. 

The Supreme Court paved the way for the program to start with a summer ruling based largely on a technicality. Apparently, the state Constitution doesn’t really mean what it says with regard to the Home Rule Amendment that requires a local vote when state laws target one or two counties.

"The real milestone. . . is the $1.6 million worth of tax dollars has been drained away from public school students," said Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, in a Twitter response to Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)d
“The real milestone. . . is the $1.6 million worth of tax dollars has been drained away from public school students,” said Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, in a Twitter response to Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Those challenging the state contend the court wants to toss the case before plaintiffs get a chance to make their claims, despite multiple violations of the Constitution and state law.

Twitter wars, nothing but Twitter wars

Last week’s Stockard on the Stump created a bit of a social media firestorm between House Republican leadership and Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie. 

In separate interviews with the Lookout, Dixie called House Speaker Cameron Sexton a racist and bigot, and Sexton called Dixie a race baiter and liar. It didn’t end there and the back-and-forth continued on Twitter this week.

In one tweet, Dixie said, “Glad to see the whole gangs here. You don’t get to speak for my Caucus. Stick to bullying yours. We won’t stand for it.”

Sexton responded by saying: Your caucus! That’s funny – true colors being shown now. @JRClemmons @VoteBo @HaroldLoveJ @dsjernigan @JesseChism @KarenCamper6 Do you guys know you don’t belong to the Democrat Caucus – it is the Dixie Caucus!”

Several other posts were made, but you get the idea.

Who pulls the strings

A recent survey finds the conservative Beacon Center and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce are the most often seen and heard entities among Capitol Hill insiders. 

Meanwhile, Tennessee Farm Bureau and the National Rifle Association are perceived to have the highest level of influence among lobbyists. They are followed by the Tennessee Chamber, National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Hospital Association.

The survey by Capitol Resources’ Adam Nickas and Arc Insights’ Nicholas Thompson asked questions of 289 people involved in Tennessee policy making, including registered lobbyists, consultants, elected and appointed officials from the executive and legislative branches, government staffers and organization leaders.

The online survey, which was done from Aug. 16 to Sept. 16, found 62% of respondents regularly hear about the work of The Beacon Center of Tennessee, 59% regularly hear about efforts of the Tennessee Chamber, 56% hear about the local Chamber of Commerce, 55% hear about NFIB, 55% hear about Tennessee Hospital Association, 55% hear about the Tennessee Farm Bureau, 49% hear about Americans for Prosperity, 47% about State Collaborative on Reforming Education, 45% about the Tennessee Medical Association, and 44% about the NRA.

Oddly enough, the Farm Bureau and NRA, despite its lower “heard about” rating, nearly tied as the most influential, with 55% of respondents saying the Farm Bureaus is the most influential and 54% saying the NRA carries the most clout.

They are followed by the Tennessee Chamber at 43%, Tennessee Hospital Association at 42%, Beacon Center 34%, Tennessee Medical Association 33%, District Attorneys General Conference 28%, Tennessee County Services Association 27% and Tennessee Sheriffs Association 24%.

Of those surveyed, 42% were lobbyists or consultants, 33% were government staff, 12% were government elected, 9% were nonprofit staff, 2% were government appointees and 2% were other folks.

Interestingly, 45% considered themselves conservatives, 7% liberals, 44% moderates and 5% other or none of the above.

Seventy-six percent had lived in Tennessee for 20-plus years, and 61% were affiliated with Republicans while 16% were Democrats and 16% were independents. 61% were male and 39% were female. 

It didn’t say whether any were transgender, which apparently is the biggest question of the week among Republican leaders outraged over Vanderbilt’s “transition surgeries.”

Did I hear somebody say, “I met her in a club down in old Soho.”

A little bragging

The survey found 82% of respondents regularly or often read the Tennessee Journal, 75% regularly read The Tennessean, and 41% regularly read the Tennessee Lookout, in addition to 34% who occasionally read the Lookout. 

Following those, 22% read the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 21% read the Knoxville News Sentinel, 20% read The Commercial Appeal and 18% regularly read the Daily Memphian.

We’ll give TNJ Editor Erik Schelzig some props. Formerly with the Associated Press, he’s been up there so long he works by osmosis. The Tennessean reporters endeavor to persevere in spite of Gannett.

As for the Lookout, considering we’re only about two and a half years old, basically a toddler, third place isn’t that bad. We’re just barely walking.



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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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