Stories of 2022: Redistricting, legislators’ legal issues and a Black town fights government

Plus, the year’s most notable quotes

By: - December 28, 2022 6:00 am
Women march in Nashville on June 24, the day the U.S, Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Women march in Nashville on June 24, the day the U.S, Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Mason, Tennessee

Last March, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower issued an unusual appeal to residents of Mason, Tenn., a small majority-Black town in West Tennessee whose finances were in complete disarray. Jason Mumpower’s suggestion that the town cede its charter, ending more than 150 years of self-governance, drew national attention after local Black leaders fought to hold onto Mason just as it was posed to benefit from the economic investment of a $5.6 billion Ford Motor plant being built just a few miles away – a story first reported by the Tennessee Lookout. Town officials noted that the outsized debt the town had accrued largely occurred under previous, white led town administrators who resigne or left office. Ultimately a court battle led to a temporary state oversight agreement as officials followed a debt repayment plan. — Anita Wadhwani

Redistricting splits Nashville

Ignoring the pleas of Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper and other leaders who testified on the Legislature’s redistricting plan, the Republican-controlled General Assembly split Davidson County into three congressional districts in early 2022.

It marked the first time in history Davidson County and Nashville had been torn apart. It led to a situation in which no member of Congress lives in the capital city.

The move combined urban voters in the 5th, 6th and 7th congressional districts with suburban and rural voters across Middle Tennessee, creating a situation in which Republican voters outnumbered Democrats more than 60% to 40%. No legal challenges were filed against the plan.

Notable quote of 2022

Sen. Frank Niceley on homelessness, and how Adolf Hitler used his time on the streets to practice his oratorical skills:  “So it’s not a dead end to productive life, or in Hitler’s case, an unproductive life.” — April 14

Cooper, who represented the old 4th Congressional District and 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, opted against seeking re-election because of the “gerrymandering.” Critics say the redistricting was designed to give Republicans an eighth seat out of nine positions in Tennessee’s congressional delegation and help the GOP retake power in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ultimately, right-wing candidate Andy Ogles defeated moderate Republicans, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead, in the primary, then rolled past Democratic state Sen. Heidi Campbell in the November general election. 

Incumbent Republican Congressmen Mark Green and John Rose also defeated Democratic challengers handily, picking up more than 60% of the votes in their districts despite losing the vote in Davidson County. –Sam Stockard

John Cole's Tennessee: The newly redrawn 5th Congressional District.
John Cole’s Tennessee: The newly redrawn 5th Congressional District.

Legal travails

Several Tennessee lawmakers saw their political careers hit a wall this year because of corruption and legal entanglements.

The Republican-controlled Senate made history at the start of the 2022 legislative session when it expelled Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson of Memphis for violating the chamber’s ethics rules based on two felony convictions and a pretrial diversion agreement.

Senators voted 27-5 along party lines in early February to remove Robinson from the Senate because of a conviction on two counts of wire fraud in connection with expenditures federal prosecutors said she made illegally from her nursing school, The HealthCare Institute of Memphis. Robinson received a federal grant to open and operate the school.

Notable quote of 2022

Gov. Bill Lee on gun safety legislation :“… Criminals don’t follow laws, criminals break laws. Whether they are a gun law or drug law, criminals break laws. … We can’t control what they do, but we can control what we can control.” — June 6

Robinson called the Senate’s hearing a “procedural lynching” and afterward described it as “sexist, racist” and “discriminatory.”

A month later, Republican state Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson resigned her seat and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting she took “kickbacks” from an illicit campaign vendor. She is cooperating with federal authorities and expected to testify in 2023 in trials for former House Speaker Glen Casada and his ex-chief of staff, Cade Cothren.

During the legislative session, several lawmakers and officials were called to testify before a federal grand jury in connection with the case.

According to her plea, Smith and Casada steered lawmakers toward a shadowy company called Phoenix Solutions set up by Cothren to handle state-funded mailers for Republican lawmakers in return for “kickbacks.” Phoenix Solutions also did business with the House Republican Caucus, but that is not part of the federal indictments.

Smith and Casada concealed Cothren’s participation in the deal because legislators wouldn’t have done business with the vendor after Cothren resigned in 2019 amid a racist and sexist texting scandal that ultimately led to Casada’s decision to leave the House Speaker’s post.

Notable quote of 2022

Cade Cothren, former chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada to WTVF News Channel 5 reporter Phil Williams following Cothren’s indictment: “The truth will come out, Phil.” — August 23

In November, 11 months after proclaiming he was a victim of a political “witch hunt,” former Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey pleaded guilty to two counts of violating federal campaign finance laws in a scheme to bolster his failed 2016 congressional campaign.

Kelsey, who had already opted against seeking re-election, admitted to directing the plan to funnel more than $90,000 from his state account to his congressional campaign, which is not allowed under federal campaign finance laws. He and co-defendant Josh Smith, proprietor of The Standard Club, a ritzy downtown Nashville restaurant that catered to Republican lawmakers, filtered the money through the club’s political action committee and then to the American Conservative Union, which bought radio and digital ads supporting Kelsey’s campaign.

Kelsey’s guilty plea came just weeks after Smith reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors on one count in their indictment of Smith and Kelsey. He was expected to cooperate with feds in their case against Kelsey. –Sam Stockard

Roe v. Wade is reversed

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – and 50 years of abortion rights – by handing down their decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which leaves it up to states to determine abortion access. Within days of the decision, a dormant Tennessee law banning abortions at about 6 weeks of pregnancy immediately took effect, shutting down most of the state’s abortion clinics.

By mid-August, the remainder of abortion clinics closed as the Tennessee Human Life Protection Act took effect, banning all abortions without exception. The law gives doctors accused of committing “criminal abortion” the right to a defense that a woman’s life or health was in jeopardy, but few, if any doctors, have been willing to risk their careers and freedom to perform a procedure that can, under any circumstances, lead to arrest. The full picture of how women with unwanted pregnancies navigate the new law has yet to come into focus, but advocates are providing aid to women seeking abortions out of state. Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of the strict abortion ban have begun to publicly suggest they may seek specific carve outs protecting abortion when women’s lives are at stake. –-Anita Wadhwani

Notable quote of 2022

Sen. Frank Niceley on public-private partnerships: “Mussolini liked those public-private partnerships. They called it fascism back then.” –December 6

Transgender issues in the spotlight

National Republican leaders, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, began the fall campaign season with a strategy aimed at convincing Americans that the dominant issue threatening America was transgender young people and making the physicians providing gender-affirming surgeries Public Enemy No. 1.

In Tennessee, the issue came to attention after Matt Walsh, a columnist for the Nashville-based right wing outlet, The Daily Wire, published to his social media edited videos of Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors discussing care for transgender patients, including minors. Gov. Bill Lee, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and legislative leaders piled on, although VUMC officials said in a statement the hospital operates “in compliance with state law and in line with professional proactive standards and guidance.”

On October 21, thousands gathered at Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza for a protest organized by Walsh and headlined by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Amid clashes between LGBTQ allies, Walsh followers and members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys, Senate Majority Leader Jackson Johnson and House Majority Leader William Lamberth took their places in the lineup of speakers.

The public noise quieted after the November 8 election but is sure to crank back up when the General Assembly returns to Nashville in January: On November 9, Johnson and House William Lamberth filed the first bill of the session—to prohibit healthcare professionals from providing gender-affirming surgery to minors. — Holly McCall

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