Stockard on the Stump: Humble gets more time to show campaign didn’t illegally coordinate

June 16, 2023 8:36 am
Former state senate candidate Gary Humble, right, with attorney Larry Crain at the June 15 meeting of the Tennessee Registry to Election Finance. (Screen grab from TREF)

Former state senate candidate Gary Humble, right, with attorney Larry Crain at the June 15 meeting of the Tennessee Registry to Election Finance. (Screen grab from TREF)

Facing a packed hearing room, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance reached an agreement Thursday with former Senate candidate Gary Humble to turn in campaign finance information to prove he didn’t coordinate illegally with Tennessee Stands, a nonprofit entity he controls.

The board voted unanimously — with member Tom Lawless abstaining — to give Humble until October to provide documentation on contributions and spending by his campaign, in addition to a questionable mailer linked to Tennessee Stands. 

Registry members subpoenaed Humble’s information in January when Lawless, an appointee of Senate Republicans, said it appeared the advocacy group Humble runs was nothing but a campaign arm for him. 

Humble barely lost to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson in the 2022 Republican primary, capturing 11,683 votes, 48.4%, to Johnson’s 12,470, 51.6%.

Former Republican state senate candidate Gary Humble, who barely lost his challenge to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, criticized comments by Registry of Election Finance member Tom Lawless that Humble hails from Williamson County, which seems to be the “hotbed of the cesspool.”

The registry board issued an audit notice to Humble in January, requesting financials by March. When it didn’t receive them, the board subpoenaed the records, eliciting an objection from Humble who refused to provide any information.

Registry staff on Thursday recommended having the Attorney General’s Office file a lawsuit in Chancery Court to enforce the subpoena. 

Initially, Humble’s attorney, Larry Crain, told the board his client would give up the documents “only by order of a chancellor.” But Humble finally agreed to turn in records from his campaign after denying any coordination and casting aspersions on the board’s action.

Humble denied that Tennessee Stands is a political action committee, though it does hold nonprofit status for federal tax purposes, and he challenged Lawless’ statements that Tennessee Stands events and his Humble campaign stops were intertwined.

“These statements are incendiary and emphatically false,” Humble said.

Humble also criticized January comments by Lawless that he hails from Williamson County, which seems to be the “hotbed of the cesspool,” drawing oohs and ahhs from Thursday’s crowd.

Registry member Hank Fincher softened the blow later, pointing out Lawless was making note of several other cases coming out of Williamson County when he called it a “cesspool.”  Fincher, though, noted that Humble failed to explain a code on a campaign mailer linked to Tennessee Stands.

Humble responded by calling it a “tragic mistake” that the mailer failed to contain a required paid-by notice and said the code pointed to a Freedom Matter podcast he hosted for more than a year. He noted the late District Attorney General Kim Helper dismissed a criminal complaint against him involving the matter when he filed an invoice and bank statement with her.

Afterward, Humble refused to use the word “satisfied” to describe how he felt about the board’s vote.

“I think what’s interesting is that they made the same decision, acknowledging … that perhaps the facts they had been originally provided were not all the facts,” he said.

He noted Thursday’s meeting marked the first time he’d been given the opportunity to respond.

Of course, Humble gave the board no facts.

The subpoena issued for his financials remains in place, too, but the board narrowed the request to the point it could be hard to make a connection between Tennessee Stands and the Humble campaign. Humble also has ties to Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity for which he is president, Run Hard LLC, which he controls, and Stand for Tennessee, a political action committee.

Running myriad groups is all the rage in politics.

Close parallels

More than 40 years after a federal judge required UT-Nashville to merge into Tennessee State University, a former TSU administrator is calling a new “assault” on the university “unfair” and “unwarranted.”

George Pruitt, president emeritus of Thomas Edison University in New Jersey believes TSU’s recent troubles with Republican lawmakers are eerily reminiscent of those adjudicated in the Geier lawsuit, filed in 1968 and resolved more than a decade later.

“It was an important civil rights victory,” Pruitt says. “TSU and its supporters and its history and tradition won the battle, but it’s pretty clear from what’s going on now that they didn’t win the war.”

Pruitt worked as vice president of student affairs from 1975 to 1981 after the Geier v. Tennessee lawsuit was filed to stop Tennessee from perpetuating a “dual system” of segregated higher education, in contradiction of the 14th Amendment. Judge Frank Gray ordered the state in 1977 to put the emerging University of Tennessee-Nashville under TSU by 1980, a court decision Pruitt says was very clear as former TSU President Frederick Humphries and Sen. Avon Williams led the effort to bolster the North Nashville university.

I would hope that in the state Martin Luther King was martyred in that in the last 40 to 50 years since that happened, a different kind of Tennessee would have emerged.

– George Pruitt, president emeritus of Thomas Edison University and former TSU administrator

Despite that ruling, the state continued to shortchange TSU by tens of millions of dollars. And even after a study found Tennessee kept between $150 million and $544 million in land grant funds from going to TSU over several decades, the state put restrictions on $250 million approved a year ago, keeping TSU from spending it on student housing.

In addition to those handcuffs, following student and parent complaints about over-enrollment, lack of housing and scholarships, the state Comptroller Jason Mumpower released a report recommending lawmakers vacate and restructure the TSU’s board of trustees and hire new administrators. Some lawmakers believe TSU President Glenda Glover is the target.

The comptroller suggested putting restrictions on scholarships and enrollment and placing TSU back under the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

Glover defended the university, calling the report misleading and saying only qualifying students received scholarships.

Republican senators wanted to fire Glover but held off this spring. Still, a Senate committee is holding a $2 million outside audit over TSU’s head because of years of repeated audit findings the university can’t seem to wipe from its books. No malfeasance has been found.

A former Tennessee State University administrator believes the state is singling our TSU as the only Black public university in Tennessee, as other universities — including the University of Tennessee — are also housing students in hotels due to over-enrollment.

Pruitt contends the removal of TSU’s administration and the board of trustees doesn’t lie with the Legislature.

“That’s a pretty horrendous remedy,” he says, noting the proposal to put TSU under the Board of Regents “makes absolutely no sense.”

Pruitt believes the state is singling out TSU because other universities are going through the same type of over-enrollment. The University of Tennessee-Knoville, for instance, has been housing students at a Holiday Inn and is in the process of building new dorms on campus as part of a public-private deal.

Pruitt suspects TSU’s problems are based on its history as the only public Black university in Tennessee. He’s puzzled about why state leaders would “chastise” a higher education institution because more people want to enroll.

“That’s a testimony, that’s something to brag about and applaud, not to sanction the institutions,” Pruitt says.

Pruitt is concerned the targeting of TSU is a roundabout way of putting it back under the University of Tennessee, which TSU defeated and a federal judge ruled to be unconstitutional more than 40 years ago.

“That’s really disturbing,” Pruitt says. “I would hope that in the state Martin Luther King was martyred in that in the last 40 to 50 years since that happened, a different kind of Tennessee would have emerged.”

Defending third-grade law

Gov. Bill Lee says he likes the law requiring third-graders to go to summer reading programs and tutoring if they don’t score high enough on the state’s TNReady test.

During a Tuesday visit to Howard Elementary School in Gallatin designed to recognize teachers and staff and to tell kids that reading will help them throughout life, Lee stood behind the law.

Thousands of students retook the test this spring after failing to record a score enabling them to move on to fourth grade — without summer school and/or tutoring.

Critics say the law enacted two years ago upset families’ summer plans and destroyed students’ academic confidence. They also claim the test doesn’t really determine how well a kid can read.

Gov. Bill Lee claims Tennessee had more third-graders test proficient in reading this year than any other in state history. Alas, figures from the Tennessee Department of Education show 60% of kids weren’t proficient this year, up from 50% who weren’t proficient in 2013.

While we’re micromanaging 9-year-olds’ reading, though, maybe we should check grown folks in the Legislature who butcher the English language at every opportunity.

If I had a nickel for every time someone says “physical” instead of “fiscal” or confuses “exasperate” with “exacerbate,” I’d hire Jason and the Scorchers for a rock ‘n’ roll party at Cats Records and Tapes.

But the governor apparently has full confidence in the Legislature’s abilities, signing their bills no matter how constitutionally suspect and declining to veto anything no matter how outlandish.

Asked by a reporter about parents who might be frustrated with the state’s third-grade law, Lee says, “That’s a really difficult spot to be in, and I’m a dad who had kids through school and now a grandfather who has children in school, it’s really hard. Those are difficult situations that people find them in. But what we know is even harder is watching their kid fail in the future.”

!00% of these two third-graders can read proficiently! (Photo: John Partipilo)
!00% of these two third-graders can read proficiently! (Photo: John Partipilo)

The state’s new reading strategy started after the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic when lawmakers held a special session to reboot when schools shut down or went to virtual learning because. The state saw positive results, Lee says, though it’s unclear whether students did better because they went to school instead of sitting at home pretending to be paying attention on computers.

Lee claims the state had more third-graders this year test proficient in reading than in state history.

“We cannot stop in our efforts to improve the reading capabilities of our kids in third grade, and the worst thing we can do is push them into upper grades not being able to read,” Lee says.

Unfortunately, information from the Tennessee Department of Education contradicts that a bit.

Figures show 60% of students were not proficient in reading this school year, down from 68% in 2021 shortly after the pandemic. Yet 50% were not proficient in 2013, and that number hovered in the upper 50s for 2010 through 2015.

Maybe he meant to say third-graders had the best proficiency since he’s been in office. Whatever the case, it appears former Gov. Bill Haslam had better numbers.

Tough questions

One of the Howard Elementary School third-graders appears to be a budding journalist, asking the governor how much he makes each day. Sounds like a future Stump reporter.

The governor does a good job of dancing around reporters’ questions, but he flat-out refused to answer this child’s query.

Instead, he was forced to admit he visited the White House and President Joe Biden and to explain the president of the United States lives there while he lives at the Tennessee Residence. He must really believe Biden won the election, so it’s a good thing he can’t run for governor again.

Lee failed to mention he also visited the White House when Donald Trump was president, maybe because he didn’t want to field questions about a former commander in chief facing indictments on 37 counts of mishandling classified information or being charged with breaking New York business laws by paying hush money to a porn star, not the kind of questions anyone wants to answer.

By the way, the governor’s salary is public record: $213,708 yearly.

Too bad he didn’t encourage the youngster to look it up online:

Whose survey?

A Tennessee Firearms Association poll shows 62% of respondents support a red flag law and only 25% oppose one.

The organization has been trying to undercut Gov. Lee’s plan to pass legislation enabling police to confiscate the weapons of people deemed a risk to themselves and others after a due process hearing. It probably won’t be advertising those results heavily in a couple of months.

Lee’s proposal is supposed to be the centerpiece of a special session he’s calling for Aug. 21 in reaction to the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Green Hills where six people, including three 9-year-olds, were killed.

While the Faith and Freedom Forum, a national conservative group, has urged Lee not to call lawmakers back to Nashville, the governor says he plans to make the official call closer to the planned date.

He’s definitely not ready to have a special session now because he’s still working the Legislature for votes. A decision on a redistricting case could alter the call as well. 

Lee needs all 24 Democrats in the House to back his plan and 26 of 75 Republicans, and he’s working them. The numbers are similar in the Senate, where he’ll need all six Democrats and 11 of 27 Republicans to obtain a majority. 

The first question is: Can he count? Question two: Will the House Republican Caucus split as it did on the 2019 voucher vote or will it keep 70 in line?

Replacing Beck

The Metro Nashville Council could appoint former member Anthony Davis to fill the vacancy left by Democratic Rep. Bill Beck when he died two weeks ago, according to the Nashville Post.

Davis and organizer Aftyn Behn are expected to run for the opening later this fall, the Post reports.

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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.