Stockard on the Stump: Could the Republican convention go into new Titans stadium?

February 17, 2023 6:03 am
The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

A spate of bills designed to give the state control over Metro Nashville could go away if officials agree to lure the Republican National Convention to Nashville – possibly by the time a new domed Titans stadium opens in a few years.

That could be 2028 or even 2032, according to hall talk at Cordell Hull Building, which might be worth more than a cup of black coffee.

The move to cut Metro Council to 20 from 40 members — even though some key Republicans say they favor “local control” — might not be negotiable, but several other bills targeting the tax structure for the Music City Center, the makeup of the airport and sports authorities and runoff elections could vanish, according to GOP leaders. The Tennessee Journal initially reported on this topic.

“I think the Legislature would look at that very favorably if they did, and I think it would be a sign of good faith on the part of Metro,” Lt. Gov. Randy says in his return to the General Assembly Thursday, a week after having a pacemaker inserted.

Though Republican leaders won’t admit it, much of the legislation targeting Nashville is either punishment for the Metro Nashville Council refusing to ink a deal to try to bring the RNC to town in 2024 or a bargaining chip.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who has been adamant about the need to change the way Metro Nashville operates, was a key supporter last year of $500 million in state bonds to help fund a domed Titans stadium.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton says talks are ongoing between Metro Nashville and the Republican National Committee to host the RNC convention in 2028. TJ Ducklo, spokesman for Mayor John Cooper, says Cooper — who is not running for reelection — is “open” to talks.

Asked if he thinks the convention could be held at the stadium, which is expected to open in either fall 2026 or 2027, Sexton says, “That would be a great site with WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and the Super Bowl. That would be three huge events for us that would really help Tennessee, but we’ll see. It’s up to Mayor Cooper and Metro Council. The ball’s in their court.”

(“But no drag shows,” chimes in House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison during their weekly press gaggle. That despite a large turnout of trans and drag folks this week to oppose legislation targeting drag shows. Faison later says he was joking.)

The Speaker notes he understands talks are ongoing between the RNC and Metro, which faces a Feb 28 deadline for making a commitment on the 2028 convention. Such a deal would improve the “working relationship” between the Legislature and Metro on several matters, including “cleaning up” Lower Broad.

Cooper spokesman TJ Ducklo says Thursday the mayor’s office is “open” to talks. The mayor isn’t seeking re-election and has nothing to lose, because while he negotiated a deal with the RNC last summer, he didn’t exactly push it either.

Still, Ducklo says, “If there is a proposal on the table that would alter some of the proposed legislation targeting Nashville, Mayor Cooper would of course be happy to consider and discuss it with state leadership.”

Critics of these legislative gyrations point out GOP lawmakers aren’t considering the fact that holding the convention at the Music City Center and Bridgestone Arena would require a massive security shutdown of the Lower Broad entertainment district that could wind up hurting Nashville financially.

But putting the event in the planned domed stadium on the Cumberland River’s east side could make security more manageable.

“There is work going on to try to get something, but the easiest thing is for the mayor to make that decision, which is within his authority and he could direct the convention bureau to send the letter without Metro (Council) support,” Sexton says.

House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said discussions of the Republican National Committee holding its 2028 in Nashville aren't true. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said discussions of the Republican National Committee holding its 2028 in Nashville aren’t true. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, discounts talk about the far-flung prospect of holding the convention at the Titans stadium, contending the RNC isn’t even discussing the 2028 event yet.

Such talk also feeds into a “false narrative” about what’s happening between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Metro Nashville, he says.

“That’s less about trying to get revenge on Nashville than it is trying to take control of Nashville,” Clemmons says.

He notes that Metro Nashville’s economic prosperity, which brings in about 37% of the state’s tax revenue, funds the rest of the state “to a large extent.”

These matters need to be dealt with at the Metro Courthouse, Clemmons says, not at Cordell Hull or the Capitol.

Update: Cooper reportedly notified national Democratic and Republican parties that Nashville would bid to be host for their next conventions but that the council would have to approve any agreement.

Quick with the gavel

If anyone thought the House bill to cut the Metro Nashville Council in half would see an early death, they were sadly mistaken.

After a good deal of discussion this week that included testimony from Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry, the bill fairly flew out of committee.

In fact, House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee Chairman Gary Hicks slammed the gavel to record the vote before dissenters could pronounce their nays. The ayes already had it.

Gentry, a former vice mayor, wasn’t surprised at the outcome. He had argued that Metro Nashville has its own unique circumstances and can’t be compared with other metropolitan governments that have fewer than 20 council members.

“It was a done deal before we came, but it’s good to get the stances on record and give ’em something to think about. … Even if we had to cut down to 20, we need more than a year. It took a while to get Metro government established, and to do it fairly and do it right, it’s gonna take more time. But they’re on this path right now, and nobody’s gonna change that,” Gentry says.

The legislation brought by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would extend every council member’s term until 2024, even if they’re supposed to come off a year earlier.

More than the camel’s nose

Opponents of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program said four years ago it would spread once it got into Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts.

Little more than halfway through its first year in schools, after three years of court battles, the camel is about to put half of its body under the tent. 

The Senate passed legislation Thursday enabling Hamilton County Schools students who qualify to apply for vouchers that will enable them to pay for private school tuition or other costs. SB12 passes 19-6 with four present not voting and four not voting, which means 14 people didn’t like the bill.

The camel’s nose is a metaphor for a situation where the permitting of a small, seemingly innocuous act will open the door for larger, clearly undesirable actions.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican carrying the legislation, told lawmakers the move is necessary to take students out of schools that failed to move off the state’s Priority list after a concerted local effort – including $20 million-plus from the state – failed to do the job. The number of failing schools in the district jumped to nine despite those efforts, he says.

Gardenhire said on the Senate floor the situation is “like a game of Whac-A-Mole,” though it sounded like he said “a game of guacamole,” and he urged the chamber to give students the opportunity to get into private schools.

“Whether you like the ESA bill, it’s here, it passed,” Gardenhire said.

Whether it truly passed is up for debate, since the House tied on the vote before then-Speaker Glen Casada worked the chamber for nearly 45 minutes to get a tie-breaker. 

The Supreme Court also had to  overrule two smaller courts and determine the Constitution’s “Home Rule Amendment” doesn’t say what it really says about forcing laws on local entities without giving them a voice in the matter. But that’s nitpicking. Around these parts, we follow the Constitution only when it suits us.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire, a supporter of charter schools, is sponsoring legislation that would enable charters to make 25% of their student enrollment from out-of-county students. Critics say that could force Metro Nashville, for example, to pay for out-of-county kids, in addition to the money it already sends to charter operators.

 Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: John Partipilo)

Also, Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg is sponsoring SB638, which would expand eligibility for vouchers to students who weren’t enrolled in a public school for one full year preceding their application. Under such a bill, a student could enter a private school this year, apply for the money and have the local district pay for their tuition until they graduate.

Democrats blasted the measures Thursday.

House Majority Leader Karen Camper calls it “piling on.”

“I think they’re not gonna be satisfied until they dismantle the public school system in the state of Tennessee,” Camper says.

Republicans on the national level want to “blow up” education and get rid of the Department of Education, she points out, and Speaker Sexton is floating the idea of turning down $1.8 billion in federal funding and replacing it with state money. Opponents say such a move would be a double-taxation on Tennesseans.

Camper argues that the state would wind up dropping many of the federal requirements that come with Title I funds for low-income and disabled students.

“It’s just an all-out attack on the public school system here,” she adds.

A bill sponsored by GOP Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol would allow a student to enter a private school this year, apply for state voucher money and have the local public school district pay for their tuition until they graduate.

Give it to the state

Newspapers are on the brink of losing a good deal of money if legislation passes to put foreclosure notices on a Secretary of State website instead of running as legal ads in local publications.

State Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, is sponsoring HB1355 at the request of the Tennessee Bankers Association and other groups. He says it’s designed to help struggling homeowners and investors and will continue to make notices accessible at no cost. Notices would continue to run in newspapers during the first year, but after that, people would have to look to the state, which will also collect about $200 to run the legal ads.

Critics of the legislation argue that the state would be stealing business from private enterprise, a thought that good Republicans never would have considered a few years ago.

“In our area, there’s a number of small newspapers … to me, we are taking that away from a small business,” says state Rep. Rick Eldridge, a Morristown Republican.

He points out a lot of people in northeast Tennessee don’t have Internet service.

“I’m not ready to put that nail in that coffin for them,” Eldridges adds.

Farmer, though, says he believes newspapers have already made the Internet move.

“I just think this bill’s good policy. It’s headed that direction anyhow. I wouldn’t do anything purposely to hurt small businesses,” he says.

For small-town newspapers, though, and others who depend on legal ads to survive, this could be the death knell.

“Light up the sky”

A Senate panel convened this week to take up a complaint in the 21st District Senate race in Davidson County found that candidate Rueben Dockery didn’t have enough evidence to show voter fraud cost him the 2022 election.

In this bit of a head-scratcher, Dockery, who ran as an independent against Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, told the panel that somehow nearly 38% of the vote flipped to his opponent’s favor, costing him about 12,000 votes.

Instead of Yarbro winning 32,837 to 9,926, Dockery claimed he should have won about 22,000 to 21,000.

Apparently, voters were so worried about screw-ups by the Davidson County Election Commission, which admitted it put several hundred people in the wrong congressional districts, they fell asleep and missed the greatest election theft in history – well, except for the time Joe Biden stole the presidential election from Donald Trump.

Dockery wanted the Senate panel to force the Davidson County Election Commission to turn over all of its paper ballots to prove his point that “double-voting” took place, whatever that is. The group refused.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: A challenger's claims about mutating voting machines are tossed. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: A challenger’s claims about mutating voting machines are tossed. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Queried about this mystery afterward, Dockery said he filed the complaint – first in Chancery Court and then with the Senate – after he experienced a problem with the voting machine.

“I went in to push my name, and my opponent’s name came up,” Dockery says. “I had to push my name again before my opponent’s name.”

Further explaining the problem, Dockery says Yarbro’s name “lit up” when he pushed his name. “My name should have lit up.” He says he punched it again and then his name “lit up.”

OK, now it’s all coming together. Mr. Dockery must have had a different machine than everyone else in Metro Nashville. Other Metro voters there tell me they punch the little square beside the candidate’s name and an X appears, which is exactly how it works in most other counties. Voters fill out the ballot, go back over it after being prompted and then punch the red button to cast their votes. Finally, a print-out is given to them.

Dockery, though, insists candidates’ names light up, and he firmly stands by his argument. Oddly enough, the panel gave him until mid-March to come back with a stronger argument. 

This all begs the question: If Yarbro is so good at flipping votes, why can’t he manipulate the vote board in the Senate chamber. After all, those names really do light up. Instead, he loses just about every battle 26-6.

Get in line

Yarbro could be joining the ranks of Metro Nashville mayoral candidates as Cooper bows out. Already in the hunt are Councilman Freddie O’Connell, former AllianceBernstein executive Jim Gingrich, Metro Council member Sharon Hurt and former Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency leader Matt Wiltshire.

Yarbro, who stepped down as Senate Democratic Caucus leader this year, said Thursday he believes Nashville is at a turning point and numerous people are looking at the race.

“I haven’t made any final decisions, but I’m certainly happy to keep you informed,” he says. 

So you are considering, the reporter asks.

“I think everybody in Nashville has to consider what is gonna be the future of the city. … I think we’ve got lots of challenges from the state, lots of challenges from growth, and we’ve got to make a big decision,” he says.

If he’s planning to run for mayor, he’s made the first big step by dodging questions.

Update: Yarbro announced Friday he’s running.

“Come on and tell me who are you”

Questions about my spirituality were raised on the House floor recently in a back-and-forth about funding for the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which is set to receive $1.2 million next fiscal year. The wording went something like this, “Sam, what is your problem with God?” 

The official response: No problem here. I pray every day — for early adjournment.

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.