Dubious distinction and dishonorable mentions: The inaugural Tennessee Lookout Niceley Awards

For their faux pas and feet in mouths, the winner is … 

May 1, 2023 6:02 am

For years, Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains has been a walking Tennessee gaffe machine, a man who provides fodder for the Capitol Hill Press Corps legislative session after legislative session. 

We’ve been able to count on Niceley to advocate for cockfighting, a bloody sport in which two roosters — armed with metal spurs — fight to the death, or near death. Niceley defended the sport by calling it a “cultural tradition” and claiming, erroneously, that President Abraham Lincoln partook of the sport. 

In 2015, he said, to the consternation of animal rights advocates, “It’s been going on for centuries. I don’t know what the big deal is.”

It was Niceley who, during the 2022 legislative session, held up Adolf Hitler as a good example for homeless people. The worst dictator of all time, said Niceley, was able to practice his oratory on the streets of Vienna and connect with the masses. 

“So it’s not a dead end to productive life, or in Hitler’s case, an unproductive life,” Niceley said.

Extending his analogies with World War II dictators, he said of Gov. Bill Lee’s 2023 transportation plan, which included toll roads, “Mussolini liked those public-private partnerships. They called it fascism back then.” 

While Niceley didn’t dominate a 2023 session characterized by feet in mouth, we honor his legacy by giving you the inaugural end-of-legislative session “Niceley Awards,” for the lawmakers who distinguished themselves through their missteps, faux pas and foolishness and managed to make Tennessee a regular topic on “Saturday Night Live.” 

The Winner: Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton

House Speaker Cameron Sexton claims the prize as the first winner of the Niceley Award. He scored the win for a pattern of overplaying his hand in a fashion we’ve come to expect from Republican House speakers. (Maybe we should christen this category the “Casada Cup” for Rep. Glen Casada, whose scandals prompted a resignation in 2019 after only seven months in the role.)

All seemed to be going well for Sexton in the early months of the session as he presided over a spate of bills to criminalize some drag performers and performances, ban care for transgender youth and wreak havoc on the city of Nashville’s Metro Council. 

Then came the March 27 shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in which six people were killed. 

Days after the shooting, more than a thousand protesters packed the Capitol to urge lawmakers to take up gun-reform laws, with three Democrats taking to the House floor to join the protests. In short order, Sexton went on right-wing radio to compare the teen-led event to the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection, presided over the ultimately unsuccessful expulsion hearings of three Democrats and drew an investigation into his personal affairs. Independent journalist Judd Legum established Sexton owns a $600,000 house in Nashville and downsized his home in Crossville, the district in which he was elected, to a small condo in a retirement community. 

Meanwhile, the “Tennessee Three” have become the darlings of national media, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each and enjoyed a trip to meet President Joe Biden in the White House, while a member of Sexton’s caucus was forced to resign after being found guilty of sexually harassing an intern. Now, a progressive nonprofit watchdog group is asking for a full investigation of Sexton. 

Among insiders, it’s no secret Sexton has his sights on the 2026 governor’s race and has been working to shore up his credentials on the right. He may survive as House Speaker, but his handling of the expulsion issue will no doubt be used against him by opponents in 2026. 

Runner-up: Rep. Paul Sherrell

Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, held a strong lead for the Niceley Award until late March, when Sexton edged him out of contention. Sherrell rarely makes news, save for an occasional campaign finance ethics issue, plodding about his business on the House floor with little of note emerging. 

That changed when he filed a bill to rename Rep. John Lewis Way, which runs past the Cordell Hull State Office Building, to President Donald Trump Boulevard. Lewis, unlike Trump, attended college and began his career in Nashville, so the naming of the street in Lewis’ honor by Nashville’s Metro Council in 2020 made sense. 

But members of the Republican supermajority chafed at receiving their mail at an address named for the late congressman and civil rights leader, and Sherrell’s bill may have gained traction were it not for his next move. 

During a February House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in which members discussed offering death row inmates a choice of ways to die — What’ll you have, sir? Electrocution in Old Sparky or firing squad? We’re fresh out of those lethal injection drugs today — Sherrell piped up: “I was just wondering if I could put an amendment on that that would include hanging by a tree also?”

The statement conjured up images of lynchings, and the House Black Caucus pushed for punishment of Sherrell, who issued a statement of apology and then saw his renaming bill stall out.

John Cole's Tennessee: Hoisted by his own petard.
John Cole’s Tennessee: Hoisted by his own petard.

Dishonorable mentions

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally

McNally was elected to the House in 1978, moving to the Senate in 1986. During his 45 years in office, he’s been known for brokering middle-of-the-road solutions and made his bones when helping the FBI bust Democratic lawmakers in “Operation Rocky Top,” an expose of corruption. 

Tennesseans got a fresh view of McNally this year, when the Tennessee Holler reported McNally had been using his verified Instagram account to comment with hearts and fire emojis on the account of a 20-year-old gay man. “You can turn a rainy day into rainbows and sunshine,” McNally posted on one picture of the nearly nude young man. 

McNally’s fondness for thirst traps likely wouldn’t have caught fire were it not for the legislature’s propensity to target members of the LGBTQ community annually, which he’s largely supported. Now, McNally’s legacy will be marked by an asterisk for hypocrisy.

Gov. Bill Lee

When the legislature passed a measure to criminalize “adult cabaret” performers — that’s legalese for drag performers — Lee signed it into law within hours, giving Tennessee the dubious distinction of becoming the first state in the nation to pass such a law. 

Imagine the schadenfreude felt by the left when photos surfaced of an 18-year-old Lee, dressed in a cheerleader outfit — complete with wig and pearls — for a Franklin High School homecoming event. Lee didn’t see a conflict with his effort to ban drag: He lost his cool when questioned about it at a press conference, calling the comparison “ridiculous,” although it earned him a mention on “Saturday Night Live.” 

Gov. Bill Lee, middle, dressed as a cheerleader for the 1976 Franklin High School powderpuff football game. (Photo: 1977 Franklin Rebel yearbook)
Gov. Bill Lee, middle, dressed as a cheerleader for the 1976 Franklin High School powderpuff football game. (Photo: 1977 Franklin Rebel yearbook)

Rep. Jeremy Faison

Had the Niceleys launched in 2022, Faison would have been a strong contender to win after he tried to pull the pants off a high school basketball referee with whom he disagreed. This year, however, the House Republican Caucus chair fell to the bottom of the list, only earning an honorable mention for walking out of a CNN interview in the aftermath of the House expulsion hearings, leaving the anchor mid-question. 

All this would be funny were it not for the fact that the men involved are in charge of steering our state’s policies. Few would care about politicians busted for wearing skirts and flirtatiously engaging with members of the same sex on social media were they not the same ones piously legislating morality. It is frankly appalling in 2023 — or any time — that state leaders think joking about lynching is amusing or that they wouldn’t anticipate a national uproar over the expulsion of two young, Black lawmakers. 

It is cowardly to dismiss teens and their mothers advocating for sensible gun laws as insurrectionists. 

But this is the situation in Tennessee, and as the old saying goes, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.