Stockard on the Stump: Theater of the absurd plays out at Tennessee Capitol

A do-nothing special session brings about another public relations disaster for the Tennessee General Assembly

August 25, 2023 6:01 am
Megan Desai posts a message about a special session of the Tennessee Legislature during a contentious House Education Committee meeting on Aug. 23, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Megan Desai posts a message about a special session of the Tennessee Legislature during a contentious House Education Committee meeting on Aug. 23, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Men without hats, men with Cap’n’ Crunch hats, Proud Boys with masks, no water, no signs, weeping women, troopers high and low. House and Senate in tow.

“This is the strangest life I’ve ever known.”

What started as an innocent call by Gov. Bill Lee for the Legislature to act in response to The Covenant School mass shooting morphed into one of the weirdest scenes in Tennessee political history this week when lawmakers convened for a special session that did little, if anything, to stop the possibility of another murderous plot.

In the runup to the Aug. 21 special session, key lawmakers talked about bolstering mental health treatment, requiring more health-care professionals to notify authorities when they hear a deadly threat and on and on.

What they got was another public relations disaster for the House — on the heels of the Tennessee Three expulsion that backfired — complaints about a “do-nothing” Senate and, so far, four bills that could have waited until January.

It was a conundrum of epic proportions. 

Should the Republican-controlled Legislature rush into passing “complex” bills to make it seem as if they solved the problem of gun violence or do as little as possible, pass a few of the governor’s bills, claim a small victory and go home? Some Democrats — knowing the Legislature would take no action to pass tighter gun storage laws or restrict military-style weapons such as the AR-15 used by the Covenant School shooter — figured the sooner the Legislature could adjourn the less damage it could do.

Not silenced? Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Knoxville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Not silenced yet: Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Republican leaders such as House Speaker Cameron Sexton wanted to attack juvenile gun thefts from cars by enacting two stringent bills, one that would send 16- and 17-year-olds charged with gun-related crimes through adult court and another that would require blending sentencing for juveniles. The latter would cost $11.6 million annually, and the other’s cost was deemed “not significant,” although some critics say it could force a new, expensive incarceration plan for older teens.

But enough of these details.

House Majority Leader Willam Lamberth is hot for a bill to exempt autopsies of minors from the public records law, which would be a victory for him and Covenant parents.

The House jump-started the special session by enacting rules designed to quell Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, both Democrats, who were expelled and promptly reseated and then re-elected this year, after they disrupted a House session with a bullhorn in a rally for tighter gun laws last spring.

Any more disruptions would silence them for good.

The new rules also outlawed signs of any size in all House meetings, which led to the eviction of one Covenant mother, who was led out of a House meeting weeping.

No disturbances, no access, and they tell me troopers were even confiscating water bottles Monday as people entered the Capitol. 

One thing is getting more obvious: Living in an authoritarian government makes it easier for the press. Normally, we “don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” but if we have the right badge, we can go just about anywhere, while mere mortals run into blockades.

About those hats? 

Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who dug in his heels against a House effort to pass more than four bills, continued his mantra that no men can wear hats in his committee. It’s a wonder he didn’t kick out Sen. London Lamar’s newborn baby who attended the only Judiciary meeting with her and appeared to have a head covering. It’s also a wonder the child wasn’t traumatized in his brush with infamy after the committee tabled 52 of 55 bills.

Despite the tender moment, Lamar issued a statement Thursday evening saying, “Like many concerned parents, we came to this special session to fight for legislation to protect our children from gun violence. But Republicans would not even allow a debate on real gun safety solutions. It’s an embarrassment. This special session has been an insult to victims and survivors of gun violence.”

It was a harsh reality, and we had our share of oddities too.

One group of folks wore some kind of Paul Revere-type hats that looked like they were stolen off the cover of a Cap’n’ Crunch box.

Meanwhile, Proud Boys (the neo-Klan) wore masks to cover their identities as they sparred with people along Martin Luther King Boulevard during the session’s first day.

Inside Cordell Hull, House Civil Justice Committee Chairman Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, had a Covenant mother removed for holding a small sign. Jesus wept as she left in tears.

Russell later ordered the room cleared of protesters, prompting Democratic Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville on Thursday to ask the governor whether House chairs have the authority to tell troopers to remove people.

A Chancery Court judge later ruled the House’s rules against signs were unconstitutional, then enforced it with an order.

All of this was highlighted by a “Mexican standoff” between the House and Senate over the spate of bills that could be passed. Senators wanted only four, including a $30 million spending bill, while House leaders wanted the world.

Senators adjourned until Monday, and the House refused to concur on all bills, except for some joint resolutions. The absurdity ain’t over.

Egg on the face

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison — he of the infamous referee pantsing incident — reminded us why it’s best to think three or four times before posting comments on Twitter or whatever the hell it’s called.

Faison sent this Tuesday evening: Congratulations @tnsenategop on receiving the 2023 Ostrich Egg! It must be egghausting sending so many bills to Gen Sub. instead of doing the work people sent us here to do. (He apologized the next morning.)

(Screenshot of the now-deleted tweet from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus account.)
(Screenshot of the now-deleted tweet from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus account.)

Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro responded: “This would be a lot more compelling if these guys didn’t think the ‘work people sent us here to do’ was arming teachers, locking up juveniles, and bullying moms w/ the temerity to hold up paper signs. But sure enough, we should be doing more real work around here.”

Republican Sen. Paul Bailey sent out his own terse statement the next day saying the House should be apologizing for making women cry.

The price of adjournment

House Speaker Cameron Sexton removed Rep. Kelly Keisling from chairmanship of the House State Government Committee after the Byrdstown Republican joined a few others in voting to suspend the rules for an adjournment vote.

Sexton tried to downplay the matter.

Spokesman Doug Kufner issued a statement saying, “Representative Keisling supported the wishes of his district. He indicated the General Assembly should not take up any legislation by voting to adjourn. The speaker did not want Rep. Keisling to contradict his vote or be in conflict with his view on special session. A new chair of the State Committee was appointed for special session to allow Rep. Keisling to honor the wishes of his district.”

To put it lightly, Keisling wasn’t happy about it but declined to criticize the speaker. He notified Sexton’s staff about how he would vote.

“I said I’ve just been inundated with support to adjourn, and I said that’s where I am if this thing should float to the top and be presented,” Keisling said.

Cain couldn’t shoot

The elusive U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles made an appearance Tuesday with a pro-guns group and said afterward a bipartisan focus should be placed on mental health following The Covenant School shooting.

Bad people do bad things. Cain killed Abel with a rock.

– U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, R-5th District

“The reactionary perspective would be just ‘let’s ban guns,’” the 5th District congressman said. He then added that in communities and countries that restrict weapons, people are stabbed, pushed off subway platforms and killed in car crashes. (Those also happen in places where guns aren’t restricted, though they don’t really involve mass killings.)

“Bad people do bad things. Cain killed Abel with a rock,” Ogles said.

Of course, Cain didn’t have the firepower 8,000 years ago to shoot his brother from afar.

A rare Republican loss

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, continued to draw the ire of Covenants parents when he told them in a committee meeting that if the shooter didn’t have a gun, she would have “run those kids over during recess.”

“People can use any kind of inanimate object as a weapon,” Todd said during a nearly one-hour debate over his bill to allow anyone with an enhanced carry permit to bring a gun into a school. 

Todd, known in the Legislature for pushing some of the most pro-gun measures, couldn’t recover his bill after the remarks. 

Five Republicans sided with the four Democrats on the committee to effectively kill the bill.

When that happens, you have to question your legislative skills.

Legal maneuvering continues

The corruption trial of former House Speaker Glen Casada and his embattled Chief of Staff Cade Cothren is reset for March 5 from October after the defendants asked for more time to go over evidence.

They’re accused of participating in a kickback scheme involving the Cothren’s alleged shadow company Phoenix Solutions to make money off House members’ constituent mailers. Former Rep. Robin Smith pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with the feds.

An unshaven former House Speaker Glen Casada leaving the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in Nashville with attorney Jonathan Farmer after being indicted on federal charges of bribery, kickbacks and conspiracy to commit money laundering on August 23.(Photo: John Partipilo)
An unshaven former House Speaker Glen Casada leaving the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in Nashville with attorney Jonathan Farmer after being indicted on federal charges of bribery, kickbacks and conspiracy to commit money laundering on August 23.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Meanwhile, former Sen. Brian Kelsey is appealing a 21-month prison sentence on federal campaign finance violations. This comes after Kelsey told U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw he was a “convicted felon” and “simple and selfish” as he squirmed for the lightest sentence possible. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will have to decide just how selfish. But the bigger question is whether he’s really apologetic for defrauding voters in his failed 2016 congressional campaign, or just saying whatever he can to sway a judge.

For what it’s worth, after hearing the lamentations at Kelsey’s sentencing hearing and sitting on those wooden benches for three hours, I was singing, “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”

Lookout investigative reporter Adam Friedman contributed to the Stump this week. Yes, he drew the short straw.

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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.