Stockard on the Stump: Humble backer files election complaint against Leader Johnson

June 23, 2023 6:01 am
A supporter of Sen. Jack Johnson's, R-Franklin, former opponent has filed a complaint against Johnson with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A supporter of Sen. Jack Johnson’s, R-Franklin, former opponent has filed a complaint against Johnson with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Humble-Johnson love-fest continues.

A week after the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance gave Gary Humble an extension to prove his 2022 Senate campaign didn’t illegally coordinate with the group he runs, a Humble supporter filed a complaint alleging illegal coordination by his opponent, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson.

The sworn complaint by Rebecca McCray of Fairview claims Johnson’s campaign worked illegally with Tennesseans for Student Success and Team Kid PAC as well as McPAC, the political action committee of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. 

Johnson beat Humble by only 2.2 percentage points last fall, raising questions about whether the Senate Republican Caucus leader could stave off another challenge in four years and at some point elevate to lieutenant governor. Since then, Johnson has burnished his conservative credentials to the point he seems to ask himself each day, “What would Gary do?”

Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)
Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)

McCray contends “substantial evidence” exists to show Johnson’s campaign “unlawfully coordinated” with the PACs that sent out mailers attacking Humble and that they failed to disclose their connections to each other.

The filing points out Harry Allen, who handled Team Kid PAC, “is or was” Johnson’s boss along with serving on the board of Tennesseans for Student Success, an education choice group, and that it is “unreasonable” to think they had no discussions about anti-Humble mailers and that Johnson had “no knowledge” of them.

McCray’s filing also claims it is “unreasonable” to think McNally never spoke to Johnson, who is part of Senate Republican Caucus leadership, about “using his personal PAC to run attack ads” against Humble.

Johnson said Thursday the allegations are “bogus.”

“My campaign has always acted both ethically and legally,” the Franklin Republican said in a statement. “Any suggestion otherwise is a fruitless attempt to distract Tennesseans from the good work we’re doing to protect our conservative values.”

McNally also denied any coordination between his PAC and Johnson, saying, “Stringing together unrelated and irrelevant information in a 52-page document does not constitute a valid complaint.” He noted all McPAC expenditures are independent and that his vendors take “great care” in following the law.

McCray also alleges that Ward Baker, Johnson’s campaign manager, who was accused of illegal coordination in a previous election, collaborated with PACs that sent out anti-Humble mailers.

The filing provides documents showing Baker is founder and president of Anchor Research and Baker Group Strategies at 2000 Glen Echo Road, Suite 200 in Nashville and that Robert Sechrist, who is part of the Baker Group, opened Acquire Digital at 200 Glen Echo Road.

It also shows American Mail Group LLC is located at the same address and that Direct Edge Campaigns LLC is set up at Glen Echo Road Suite 207.

The filing contends that Tennessee Conservatives PAC worked with American Mail Group and Acquire Digital LLC, both housed in the same suite as Baker’s group, to send out anti-Humble mailers in July 2022.

McCray’s filing also notes Students First PAC contributed to Johnson’s PAC and worked with Acquire Digital, American Mail Group and Direct Edge Campaigns to put out a mailer against Humble in July 2022.

Other documents show McNally’s PAC paid Direct Edge Campaigns in July 2022 for attack mailers on Humble and Johnson paid Acquire Digital for “advertising” from March to May 2022 and Anchor Research for “polling” and “professional services” last fall.

The filing also says Les Williamson serves as treasurer for all PACs connected to Baker and that Registry documents should show he is treasurer of Tennessee Conservatives PAC.

If your head is hurting after that, join the club.

Early this year, Registry board member Tom Lawless, a Senate Republican appointee, called for an investigation of Humble’s campaign, saying where there is “smoke” the board should “dig into it.” Lawless contended that Tennessee Stands events were campaign stops for Humble.

In her filing, McCray said, “If ‘transparency’ is so important, as Mr. Lawless has claimed in the past, I believe I have presented more than enough evidence of ‘smoke’ to raise a strong suspicion of unlawful campaign coordination on the part of Jack Johnson’s campaign.”

Last week’s Registry meeting at the Cordell Hull Building was packed with Humble supporters as the board opted to give him until October to provide documentation on contributions and expenses by his campaign, in addition to a questionable mailer linked to Tennessee Stands. Humble initially refused to turn over the information, leading to a subpoena, which still stands.

Registry staff recommended sending the matter to the Attorney General’s Office and taking it to Chancery Court. But the board, with Lawless abstaining, gave him four more months to comply.

Summertime — if not springtime — for Hitler

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently named the burgeoning Moms for Liberty an “extremist group” as it gains momentum nationwide, in part, by trying to ban school library books it finds offensive.

The Moms group made light of the designation.

But the Indianapolis Star reported this week that the Hamilton County, Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty sent out its first edition of The Parent Brigade complete with a quote of Adolf Hitler from 1935, “He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future.”

The newsletter was updated later to provide “context” by saying the “horrific” leader’s quote should alert parents. “If the government has control over our children today, they control our country’s future. We The People must be vigilant and protect children from an overreaching government,” the change said, according to the report.

Maybe someone should have thought about the ramifications of quoting Hitler before they sent out the newsletter. 

It seems America has developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the man who plunged the world into one of the worst moments in history. Just this month, we memorialized the U.S. soldiers who stormed Normandy Beach in 1944, running straight into German machine gun fire to defeat Hitler and the Nazi regime. 

But a lot of people are latching on to one of the worst ethnic and religious cleansers in history and making him their role model. One thing is certain, he knew how to make people follow him into darkness.

The Hamilton County, Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty, a burgeoning group in Tennessee, sent out a newsletter this week with an Adolf Hitler quote: “He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future.

The question for Moms for Liberty is: Are they becoming Hitler or are they accusing public schools of Hitlerism? The answer probably lies with who’s trying to ban the books.

A sign for Tennessee

A federal judge in Florida this week struck down the state’s transgender health-care rule that blocks Medicaid beneficiaries from receiving gender-affirming medical care.

After a two-week trial, Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s prohibition is unlawful and unconstitutional and ordered the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to stop enforcement of the discriminatory ban.

For those not paying attention, Tennessee is in the midst of a legal challenge brought by transgender youth and families, joined by the Department of Justice, of state law prohibiting gender affirming care for minors.

Plaintiffs in the case filed civil investigation demand letters by Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti requiring Vanderbilt University Medical Center to turn over a litany of private information about transgender patients.

AG made sweeping demands for Vanderbilt transgender clinic records as part of fraud inquiry

Skrmetti claims the demands were made as part of an investigation into potential illegal billing of trans care patients on state insurance programs.

Parents of trans children are outraged at the hospital and not exactly glowing with appreciation for the attorney general. Skrmetti’s demands appear to go far beyond private health records to just about any type of document or communication remotely connected to gender affirming care.

Skrmetti’s office this week blamed Vanderbilt for scaring families. Critics of the Attorney General’s office are putting the blame on Skrmetti, who has joined just about every ultra-conservative cause in the nation while receiving $4.3 million to pay outside law firms and another $2.25 million for a 10-member “special litigation unit” to take on the Biden Administration.

Oh well, what’s a few million here and there, as long as they’re scaring the hell out of trans-folks? Come to think of it, if Moms for Liberty is worried about overreach, it ought to be citing Skrmetti in its newsletter.

Cordell lockdown

The Cordell Hull Building’s 6th floor was placed on lockdown Thursday after packages containing a white powder were delivered to Republican lawmakers’ offices. 

The letters contained “obvious threats” from a liberal activist, according to a House Republican Caucus spokesperson. The sixth floor remained on lockdown Thursday afternoon while Homeland Security and first responders investigated. Staff and lawmakers were safe. 

Because of the ongoing investigation, the caucus spokesperson declined to identify the activist or the type of threats.

Not to make light of the situation, but this evokes memories of the anthrax scare of the early 2000s. One day, when I arrived at The Daily News Journal office in Murfreesboro, a large envelope was sitting on my desk. When I picked it up, white powder came out.

I tossed it back on the desk and scooted away. We called the Fire Department, and they quarantined my desk and sent me home to take a shower and change clothes. I told the assistant fire chief I’d already had a shower and fresh change and was getting low on wardrobe. He didn’t care.

After months of investigation, they found out the white powder came from a packet of Aunt Jemima cornmeal. The message was clearly in response to a column I’d written about the county transportation director saying the kids on one bus were all fat because they ate nothing but cornbread.

If only I’d known it was cornmeal, I would have taken it home and made beans and cornbread.

Choking on the splinters

Despite fears – or wishes – that we’re on the verge of recession, the state’s coffers continue to fill up.

The Department of Finance and Administration announced this week the state’s revenues hit $1.6 billion in May, $117.3 million more than budgeted, though they were down 1.16% from the same month last year.

In spite of poor mouthing by by state officials and predictions of a recession, Tennessee has taken in more than $2 billion for the first 10 months of he fiscal year.

Sales tax revenue came in $112 million more than budgeted, but franchise and excise taxes were $8.4 million less than projected. Those business taxes could be even less when a new tax break kicks in next fiscal year.

With May counted, state revenues are $2 billion more than estimated for the first 10 months of the fiscal year, which ends later this month.

Each fall, the State Funding Board listens to economists’ forecasts to come up with a projected growth rate for the state budget. Often lamenting the potential for an economic downturn, the board usually takes the path of least resistance and approves an ultra-conservative strategy.

Last November, the board adopted projections for an increase in tax revenues between 6.8% and 7.3% for the current fiscal year and a growth rate between 1.4% and 2.3% for the year starting in July.

One wonders when people will start tuning them out.

“Kill the headlights and put it in neutral / Stock car flamin’ with a loser and the cruise control / Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D / Got a couple of couches, sleep on the love seat.”

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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.