Stockard on the Stump: Black lawmakers push Sherrell sanctions for lynching statement

March 3, 2023 6:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators wants state Rep. Paul Sherrell to be punished for saying the state should return to “hanging from a tree” as a form of capital punishment.

“The Republican Caucus should be ashamed and outraged. The silence of his members is deafening,” Black Caucus Chairman Sam McKenzie says.

A half-baked apology won’t suffice, either, says McKenzie, who sounded off with the caucus Thursday.

Sherrell, a Sparta Republican on the Criminal Justice Committee, made the comment as the Republican-controlled panel voted Tuesday in favor of legislation allowing death row inmates to request electrocution if lethal injection protocol is off the rails, as it has been. The measure was amended to add death by firing squads. 

Apparently, the argument goes that we’ve had problems with lethal injection guidelines, so why not bring back firing squads since people can carry without a permit and the state could recruit people off the street to do the dirty work.

Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

While McKenzie is seeking the minimum punishment, Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat and member of the Black Caucus, is calling for Sherrell to resign. Shaw points out Sherrell attends the same prayer sessions he does each week, but he notes the Bible’s New Testament contains nothing about hanging people.

They spoke about Sherrell’s flippancy after House Republican leaders put a statement in front of him Thursday morning and told him to read it in the chamber. They point out he’s also sponsoring legislation to change John Lewis Way in Nashville to President Trump Way, a slap in the face to civil rights advocates.

“I regret that I used very poor judgment in voicing my support of a colleague’s bill in the Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday,” Sherrell intoned. “My aggressive comments were intended to convey my belief that for the cruelest and most heinous crimes, a just society requires the death penalty in kind. Although a victim’s family cannot be restored when an execution is carried out, a lesser punishment undermines the value we place on protecting life. My intention was to express my support of families who often wait decades for justice. I sincerely apologize to anyone who may I have hurt or offended.”

(It must be noted that Sherrell didn’t read the statement correctly, using the word “aggressive” instead of “exaggerated” and then botching the last few words.)

Thus, though it’s hard to take anything Sherrell says seriously, this is a different situation. Not only did he and the statement refuse to acknowledge that his comment conjured images of Black Tennesseans being beaten and lynched for hundreds of years, he tried to make it seem as if he were the victim, simply because he supports an immediate death penalty. Nevermind the fact that many people on Death Row nationwide have been found not guilty after years in prison.

On the House floor, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway did not respond with a smile, saying Sherrell’s apology wasn’t sincere – probably because it wasn’t.

Hardaway, one of two Black lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee, says he was “sad” and “mad” at the same time when he heard Sherrell call for hanging people.

“I couldn’t believe that I was hearing that and of all committees, a justice committee,” Hardaway says. The Memphis Democrat held his tongue on Tuesday because he didn’t want to display anger.

It evokes the sordid history of not just Tennessee, but of America, of those days when lynchings were common practice, when due process was denied to Black men whenever a white man decided to.

– Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, on Sherrell's remarks

But Hardaway contends Sherrell made a follow-up statement and used the term “living tree,” which made it more “maddening” for him.

“It evokes the sordid history of not just Tennessee, but of America, of those days when lynchings were common practice, when due process was denied to Black men whenever a white man decided to,” Hardaway says. “And I don’t need to hear anybody talk about, ‘It wasn’t me, that I wasn’t alive back then.’”

Asked about the matter Thursday, House Speaker Cameron Sexton says nobody approves of what Sherrell said. “I think if you saw, he apologized on the House floor for those comments. …”

Sexton’s spokesman didn’t respond to email questions later about whether he felt Sherrell should be removed from committees.

Black Caucus members were apoplectic at the press conference shortly, especially since state Rep. Justin Pearson’s mic had been cut off as he tried to address the matter during the House’s preliminary “honoring and welcoming” portion of the Thursday session. Pearson previously was dressed down by the House Republican Caucus for wearing a dashiki the day he was sworn in this month after winning a special election to replace the late state Rep. Barbara Cooper.

He continues to wear it, and it must be noted, the dashiki looks better than most suit jackets.

Saltsman wins new post

Former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman, also a former top advisor to Speaker Sexton, won reappointment in the House to a position on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission.

The vote came even though Saltsman famously distributed a CD to RNC members in 2008 containing a song called “Barack the Magic Negro,” sung to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon” and based on a 2007 Los Angeles Times Column.

“Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C. The L.A. Times, they called him that ’cause he’s not authentic like me. Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper said he makes guilty whites feel good. They’ll vote for him, and not for me, ’case he’s not from the ’hood,” the song goes. 

Appointed to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission is a former Tennessee Republican Party leader who once distributed CDs with the song, “Barack the Magic Negro.”

Gee, that’s so funny I forgot to laugh.

Black Caucus Chairman McKenzie says he was prepared to make a point about Saltsman’s music-production background but Republicans railroaded the nomination to a vote without giving him a chance to speak.

McKenzie points out Saltsman’s own party opted against making him the leader of the national group yet the Tennessee legislature is appointing him to the  board.

Says McKenzie, “That was choreographed, swept under the rug.” But a lot of people were paying attention.

Expediting college projects

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Speaker Sexton, members of the State Building Commission, are sponsoring legislation sought by the University of Tennessee to “modernize” and “streamline” the process for construction, renovations and maintenance projects done with donated funds.

Under an amendment approved this week in committee, the legislation allows universities to select designers and complete half the schematic work before going to the Building Commission. 

Universities also are to set up a “transparent” process on their websites for publicly disclosing capital projects of $10 million or less.

The bill, nevertheless, provides public university boards with the “sole approval authority” for capital projects funded by donations such as alumni gifts or private funds. It also deals with revenue from self-supporting auxiliary projects, according to state Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican carrying the bill for Sexton.

“Housing is a perfect example, whether it’s Memphis, MTSU, Austin Peay … the money that’s generated from that stays with any institution and pays for themselves,” Zachary says. 

The measure also applies to athletics, but so far the University of Tennessee Athletic Department is the only one in the state, and one of only 12 nationally, that is self-sustaining, according to Zachary.

Zachary notes Lindsey Nelson Stadium, where UT baseball plays home games, is a perfect example of the need to speed up projects. The university has the private money for a major improvement job but is 15 months into the process and finally getting to architect selection.

In addition, universities that need maintenance work won’t have to go to the State Building Commission unless the cost hits the $1 million mark. The current max is $250,000.

Doug Kufner, spokesman for Sexton, says the speaker supports efforts to operate more efficiently and “get the government to function more like a business.”

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider, however, says that while the lieutenant governor is “interested” in helping UT “streamline” interaction with the Building Commission, “the bill remains a work in progress and is likely not in its final form.” 

Apparently, McNally thinks tweaks need to be made.

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee is embarking on public-private partnerships for construction of housing facilities and an athletic building. Questions persist among onlookers about those PP3s and whether they will take authority away from the state and university. 

Some people even question whether state maintenance employees will be shipped off to the private sector, since the vendor will control maintenance and operations once the building is finished. A UT spokesman says that’s not the case.

But these public-private partnerships appear to be all the rage. 

MTSU, for instance, is getting ready to move on a hotel project to benefit its Tourism and Hospitality Management program. The preferred site is on the north side of campus between the tennis courts and Greenland Drive parking lot. An alternative site is across Middle Tennessee Boulevard at Greenland.

The question is whether people believe MTSU should be competing with private enterprise for hotel accommodations. An MTSU spokesman points out the University of Memphis already has a hotel.

And based on what we’ve seen this session with funding the governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives – a nice injection of religion into state government – and efforts to move foreclosure notices out of newspapers onto a Secretary of State website, we’re ready to let Big Brother run everything.

Maybe not so “choice”

The governor’s transportation modernization plan, complete with “choice lanes” or “toll lanes” – critics call them “toll roads” – moved out of committees this week and is likely speeding toward approval.

The proposal, which comes with a $3.3 billion price tag albeit a weird split in which Middle Tennessee and Nashville appear to draw the short straw, is headed toward the House and Senate floors soon. 

Oddly enough, it barely escaped the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, garnering only a 5-4 vote after Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell and Republican Sens. Janice Bowling, Mark Pody and Frank Niceley voted against it.

“These things never pay out,” Niceley says. 

"These things never pay out," said Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, of Gov. Bill Lee's transportation plan. Photo: John Partipilo)
“These things never pay out,” said Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, of Gov. Bill Lee’s transportation plan. Photo: John Partipilo)

He contends that if express routes are so great, why is Texas $20 billion in debt. A Tennessee delegation traveled there to see how that state handles express routes.

“What’s the difference between us borrowing money and a third party borrowing money?” Niceley asks.

He contends the state has a surplus of up to $9 billion, plenty of money to build roads.

Furthermore, if the vendor goes broke, what happens?

“Don’t get tangled up with some foreign country that’s going to own this lane forever,” Niceley says, contending contractors most likely won’t be American.

Under the proposal, contractors would put up the money to build express routes and would set up fees to be paid by motorists who opt to ride on those lanes.

Niceley says the state won’t be able to compete with the vendor if another lane is needed or with light rail or bus routes.

Sen. Becky Massey, a Knoxville Republican carrying the governor’s bill, argues that the state will own the roads and performance bonds will be required to make sure the road is paid off. She also claims American companies are entering the business and will get first crack at the work.

But once they open – most likely after I’m retired and maybe even scattered in Capitol Hill flower gardens – will it matter whether they’re called “toll lanes” or “toll roads”?

And the beat goes on

This year’s legislative session has been filled with confrontations between lawmakers and the public, especially those representing the LGBTQ side of the argument.

Wednesday’s House Education Administration meeting was a prime example as the committee took up HB1269 by Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood. His bill says a school teacher or employee is not required to use a student’s preferred pronoun if it doesn’t match their biological sex and that the teacher can’t be held liable.

Three people spoke against the bill, including Erica Bowton, the mother of a transgender child, who told the panel it “puts a target on the backs” of students and will lead to bullying.

“Your legacy will be one of embarrassment,” she says, also calling out Rep. Gino Bulso for trying to intimidate her the previous week as she spoke on a separate bill.

Your legacy will be one of embarrassment.

– Erica Bowton, mother of a transgender child, to Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood

After testimony wrapped up, Bulso, a Brentwood Republican, asks her, “Have you found it to be the case in your experience … that the best way to persuade others is to insult them by telling them that their work is ridiculous, that they’re liars and they’re intolerant?”

Bowton responds that she would ask the same question of him, since he “shamed” her the last time she testified.

“Your values are different than mine. And I’m not up here telling you what healthcare you can and cannot access. I’m not telling you what people can and can’t call you and who you are. I’m not trying to tell you what you can wear on the weekends and what you can’t wear on the weekends because I think that it looks obscene,” she says.

Ultimately, Bowton says the bill would lead to discrimination by teachers against children. And she concludes that she won’t take their crap.

Bulso then asks if she is aware of the definition of an ad hominem argument.

“Sir, I’m not here to be intimidated by you today. I’m not intimidated by you,” she says.

Bulso explains that such an argument attacks the person rather than the topic of debate. As an attorney, he is correct. But it sounds like she did both, which in this arena is fair game. 

After all, the Republican-controlled legislature is going to pass its LGBTQ bills regardless of what anyone says. In that case, why should the public hold back?

“You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”


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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.