Stockard on the Stump: McNally will go for Senate Speaker post at least one more time
Judge places more importance on technicality than perjury in Kelsey case
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally says he will run again to lead the Tennessee Senate. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Maneuvering for the lieutenant governor’s position promises to be a drawn-out affair.
Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally confirmed to the Tennessee Lookout he plans to run for re-election to the post in 2024, guaranteeing he wants to finish this four-year term in office.
The Oak Ridge Republican, however, wouldn’t guarantee he will seek another term representing District 5, which now contains Anderson and Loudon counties and a portion of Knox County, going deep into downtown Knoxville. He says it’ll depend on how he feels.
McNally joked that he couldn’t stay around forever — though it seems he has already — while at a groundbreaking Wednesday for a $415 million law enforcement training center.
Senators started jockeying to be the next Senate Speaker when McNally ran into a bit of a problem last March amid reports he was messaging a young, gay man on Instagram, sending him fire hearts and other odd emojis.
McNally and his backers played it off as providing emotional support for the guy, and the lieutenant governor said he isn’t gay.
After a good deal of upheaval and angst, the longtime lawmaker, who’s been going to Nashville since 1978, ultimately won a vote of confidence to remain in the leadership post. (During that time frame, a security detail surrounded McNally from the Senate chamber to the elevator, keeping the media from asking questions. Things are about back to normal, hence McNally stops and talks to reporters without much hesitation.
That didn’t keep senators from wrangling for the job during the regular session. Because of the firestorm, some prognosticators thought McNally might step down at the end of this session or following his two-year term as speaker. The controlling Senate Republican Caucus, with 27 of 33 seats, has the biggest hand in selecting the speaker, even though the full Senate makes the final vote.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin would have to be considered a front-runner for the job. Sen. Paul Bailey, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, was and is among those bucking for the top spot. And little-heard-from Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown, chairman of the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, wants the leadership position. Sen. Bo Watson has been mentioned, but he’s more likely to stick with running the finance committee.
But if August’s special session was a dress rehearsal for Johnson, he might not have passed the audition.
Senate committee chairmen balked at the way he handled the session, much to McNally’s surprise, and some pretty innocuous bills nearly ran into trouble.
For example, a bill codifying the governor’s executive order on background checks barely got enough votes to pass the Senate because of disagreement over whether court clerks should notify the TBI within three business days or 72 hours about felony convictions. It passed 18-6 in the Senate with seven present not voting, which is practically a no vote, meaning it received only one more vote than constitutionally required to pass.
Granted, some lawmakers such as Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, didn’t vote for any bills — a protest of sorts over the special session.
But a group of senators made clear they were leery of Johnson’s leadership, which doesn’t bode well for him in two years or next year if some senators attempt a palace coup.
Meanwhile, McNally’s problems fairly vanished during the regular session when a person shot their way into The Covenant School in Green Hills and killed three adults and three 9-year-olds.
Yet the push to take over his post continues with two years of posturing to go. The question is whether the public can stand it.
Convicted but still free
U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw this week granted Brian Kelsey’s request for bail, pending an appeal of his 21-month sentence, after finding the ex-state senator isn’t a flight risk or danger to the community. He also determined the former Germantown Republican raised a “substantial question” for reversal, an order for a new trial, a sentence without imprisonment or a reduced sentence before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kelsey pleaded guilty to two counts of violating federal campaign finance laws in November 2022 but in May sought to withdraw the plea. He claimed his decision was clouded by crying twin baby boys, a 3-year-old daughter and an ill father who later died, as well as “inexperience” with the criminal justice system.
Crenshaw denied the request, finding Kelsey’s testimony “incredible” and unlikely that a Georgetown-educated lawyer and former state senator didn’t understand the “solemnity and gravity of entering a guilty plea and the loss of rights that act entailed.”
In its argument against bail, the government said it’s not aware of any danger Kelsey poses to the community or risk of flight but pointed out he “has repeatedly engaged in delay tactics and attempted to avoid the imposition of judgment and sentence in this case.”
Nothing like stating the obvious.
Not only did Crenshaw find it “far-fetched” that Kelsey would abscond or face more prison time with a wife and three children at home, according to his ruling, but he noted in the ruling that Kelsey’s appeal “is not interposed for the purpose of delay and raises a substantial question of law that may inure to his benefit.”
He pointed to the prosecution’s conduct at sentencing when it sought a longer prison term, 33-41 months, than approved in the initial plea agreement.
Here’s where it gets dicey. Prosecutors at first agreed to go with the original sentence, despite a presentence report that called for an increased sentence based on Kelsey’s “perjurious testimony” at the hearing to withdraw his plea. But at the sentencing, the government sought a harsher punishment, pointing toward Kelsey’s statement, “I 100 percent did not commit these things that I’m accused of,” even after he pleaded guilty to committing them.
But even after Crenshaw stated in his ruling that he wasn’t asked to enforce or revoke the plea agreement based on the case’s facts, he wrote, “Clearly, Kelsey has made the minimal showing that the case could go either way on appeal.”
Further, the judge said Kelsey “raises a substantial question” with his claim the government breached the plea agreement, bringing up a host of questions such as whether the plea agreement was valid at sentencing and whether Kelsey committed the first breach, thus “excusing” the government’s breach, etc.
Crenshaw rejected the government’s argument last week that even if Kelsey presents a “close question,” he isn’t entitled to bail because “the likely result would be that he would be headed to resentencing before a different judge” and wouldn’t be likely to get a reversal or an order for a new trial or reduced sentence or probation.
“This argument presupposes that the alleged breach by the government would result in an order for specific performance (which seems highly unlikely) and ignores that ‘[i]f the government breaches a plea agreement, a defendant is entitled to relief regardless of whether the district court was ultimately influenced by the breach and regardless of whether the breach was inadvertent.’”
Thanks for writing in secret code.
Not to second-guess a federal judge, but Crenshaw is putting more importance on the prosecution’s request for more prison time – which he didn’t mete out – while practically ignoring Kelsey’s perjury. Apparently, he’s OK with defendants lying on the stand and puts more stock in a technicality. Which raises the question: Are we supposed to take this stuff seriously?
About that money
Gov. Bill Lee fairly dismissed the proposal by Speakers Randy McNally and Cameron Sexton to study federal K-12 funding as a “task force” put together by the Legislature. Yet he contended the federal government has made “excessive overreach time and time again” in the last few years, and added he would be interested in their report on how some $1.89 billion is handled.
This is no surprise, even though Lee didn’t address how he would keep the budget from leaking like a sieve as state revenue flattens.
When Lee ran for governor, he spoke against Medicaid expansion, which would bring in about $1.4 billion more a year to serve 300,000-plus uninsured and underinsured people in the state.
Lee did not get specific, either, about federal strings, saying only that “government overreach” has “hurt in multiple places” over the last few years.
Federal education money goes toward low-income students, disabled or special needs children and nutrition.
But Lee said, “Sometimes the requirements that come along with dollars mean that there’s a less efficient spend of those dollars in the long run than the short term.”
(Any time a business person says the word “efficiency,” it usually means jobs are going to be cut.)
Speaker Sexton was a little more pointed with reporters, since the “working group” is his idea.
He’s ready to break all financial ties with the federal government, saying it should focus on protecting the border and maintaining a military force and leave the states alone because they are the “parents,” the ones that formed the federal government. He wants no strings attached – only a “general concept” – to any federal money that comes back here from the taxes people pay.
The problem is the federal government tries to give you so much money that you can never cut ties. … They want to give you so much money that you can’t afford to do it yourself.
– House Speaker Cameron Sexton, on potentially rejecting $1.9 billion in federal funds for public schools
Pressed on the matter, Sexton said, “I don’t understand the left’s hysteria, because that’s what they are right now. There’s hysteria going on simply over having a conversation to determine if we should or should not accept the federal money.”
Critics say it would result in double taxation on Tennesseans, in addition to undermining public education and boosting charters and private schools.
Asked if he supports giving back the $18 billion in federal money that makes up nearly a third of the state’s $56.2 billion budget, Sexton said, “That’s a possibility. You could look at it. The problem is the federal government tries to give you so much money that you can never cut ties. … They want to give you so much money that you can’t afford to do it yourself.”
It’s an argument conservatives have been making for decades.
Of course, if states could be trusted to do what’s right, people would go along with the notion that the feds need to stay out of education, health care, desegregation, civil rights and other nitpicky little matters.
But we had a bit of a conflagration 160 years ago that decided the feds have some semblance of supremacy. Sexton maintains his proposal isn’t the first shot fired in another round of secession.
State Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville, elevated to floor leader and treasurer for the House Democratic Caucus this week.
Harris replaces the late Bill Beck of Nashville, and Glynn, who was also appointed to the committee to study federal education funding, takes the spot of Rep. Gloria Johnson, who left her post to focus on a U.S. Senate campaign.
Senate Education loses veteran analyst
Veteran Senate Education Committee research analyst Michael “Mike” Maren died last week at age 37, leaving a void that will be hard to fill, Sen. Jon Lundberg said.
The Bristol Republican pointed out Maren had a strong understanding of every layer of the state’s education system.
“He was a subject matter expert, and he just did it right. It wasn’t one of those where he swayed left or he swayed right. He swayed just here are the facts, here’s what’s happened,” Lundberg said.
Maren is survived by a son, his parents, sister, step-siblings and his dog, Nessie. Graveside services were held this week at Nashville National Cemetery.
Law enforcement training center
State officials broke ground Wednesday for a $415 million law enforcement training campus at state-owned property on Cockrill Bend.
The Department of Safety and Homeland Security and Department of Correction will be housed there, and state troopers and local law enforcement officers will go through training on the 800-acre site. Housing will be available for more than 400 cadets and 200 in-service personnel when they train.
Interesting… I wasn’t invited and it’s in my district. I wouldn’t attend something like this anyway. No way I’m co-signing a #CopCity in our backyard. We could’ve made historic investments in attainable housing, food security, or schools with this land…
– Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, on the groundbreaking for a new law enforcement training campus
Work on the massive complex is to start in spring 2024 and the final phase will begin in 2025.
At the event, Lee continued his mantra that “safer neighborhoods matter to everybody.”
But fewer than five lawmakers attended, none of them from Davidson County. According to WPLN, the governor’s office said it asked everyone to come, conflicting with what some lawmakers are saying.
Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, said on X Thursday morning, “Interesting… I wasn’t invited and it’s in my district. I wouldn’t attend something like this anyway. No way I’m co-signing a #CopCity in our backyard. We could’ve made historic investments in attainable housing, food security, or schools with this land…”
Lee said he made the project one of his priorities after touring law enforcement training facilities when first elected and finding dorm rooms he wouldn’t want to stay in. Isn’t it a rite of passage, though, to room in crappy dorms?
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say there was enough security and fire power at the event – with all the brass – to quell even the most virulent House chamber insurrection.
One person also joked that he lived in the neighborhood and made it to the event quickly. But the only ones who really live in that area are on Death Row, waiting to be executed, a form of homicide that’s on hold because of problems with the drug protocol.
“Mama take this badge off of me. I can’t use it anymore.” *
(Bob Dylan, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door)
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