legislative campaigns

Rep. Joe Pitts won’t seek reelection in 2018

News release from House Democratic Caucus

NASHVILLE — Clarksville Rep. Joe Pitts has announced that he will retire from the State Legislature after the end of the 110th General Assembly in 2018.  In a letter to his supporters, (see attached), Pitts said, “It’s time for me to step aside and allow another citizen legislator to experience the excitement of helping their constituents…some of the finest people anywhere.”

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Sen. Crowe to seek reelection; downplays gas tax retribution talk

State Sen. Rusty Crowe tells Robert Houk that he will run for reelection in 2018, saying he got an “outpouring of support” for another four-year term after Houk did an earlier column on speculation that he would retire.

“It got my energy up to see support coming from so many points,” he said.

Crowe, 70, will complete his 28th year in the Senate next year. His reelection decision is mentioned in a column devoted largely to talk that Washington County road projects got left off Gov. Bill Haslam’s three-year funding plan, recently announced, because local House members – Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss – opposed the governor’s gas tax bill.

Crowe, who voted for the IMPROVE  Act, has been trying to downplay that notion.

Even so, Crowe admitted the House leadership is more prone than that of the Senate to dole out punishment at budget time to members who don’t fall in line. That retribution usually comes in the form of no funding for pet projects.

Crowe said he respects the reasons his colleagues in the House have given for not voting to increase the fuel tax. He said he was in a similar situation 17 years ago when he refused to support Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s push for a state income tax. Crowe believes that stand cost him his job at East Tennessee State University.

The senator also said that House members “seemed to be pulling in very different directions… It was like herding cats.”

TSEA backs underdog Democrat in House District 95 special election

News release from Tennessee State Employees Association

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Employees Action Movement endorses Julie Byrd Ashworth, D-Collierville, for House District 95.

“Working to elect candidates who support state employees is an important goal for TEAM-PAC, which is why we are happy to endorse Julie Byrd Ashworth for House District 95,” TEAM-PAC Administrative Committee Chair Patricia Bowman said.

“Ms. Ashworth’s experience as a trail lawyer will be an asset on Capitol Hill in Nashville as she advocates for state employees,” TSEA Executive Director Randy Stamps said. “Our local state employees were impressed with her knowledge of the issues affecting state employees.”

Note: Ashworth won the Democratic nomination in the House District 95 special election, called after the resignation of Republican Rep. Mark Lovell after he was accused of sexual harassment, without a primary opponent. The Republican nominee, businessman and school board member Kevin Vaughan, defeated six opponents in the heavily Republican district. The general election is June 15. TSEA Executive Director Stamps, quoted in the release, is a former Republican state representative and former political director of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Collierville school board member wins GOP nomination in House District 95

Collierville Schools board member Kevin Vaughan won the Republican primary election for state House District 95 by 49 votes over former Germantown alderman Frank Uhlhorn, reports the Memphis Daily News.

The unofficial results show Collierville alderman Bill Patton running third in the seven candidate contest. (Vaughan had 1,066 votes; Uhlhorn 1,017. Full results on Shelby County Election Commission website, HERE.)

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Low turnout in House District 95 early voting

Only 2,535 people cast ballots in early voting on choosing a successor to former state Rep. Mark Lovell, Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips tells the Commercial Appeal. That’s 4.9 percent of registered voters in House District 95.

Of those voting early, 2,313 voted in the Republican primary and just 222 in the Democratic primary.

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House panel backs audits of all campaigns spending more than $175K

A House committee voted Tuesday to require audits of all future legislative campaigns that involve spending more than $175,000 – a figure that would catch almost all Senate campaigns but few in the House.

The House Local Government Committee approved the provision in an amendment offered by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Timothy Wirgau, R-Buchannan, who is also sponsor of the bill (HB992). The amendment and the overall bill were approved on voice vote after brief discussion, including questioning of Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

As approved in Senate committee, the bill would increase the number of random audits conducted by the Registry of Election Finance. Currently, the Registry selects 2 percent of legislative campaigns for random audits; the bill would raise that to 4 percent. That part remains in the House version with the $175,000 provision as an extra.

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Rep. Brenda Gilmore seeking seat now held by Sen. Thelma Harper

State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, has announced she will run next year for the Democratic nomination in Senate District 19, now held by veteran Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville.

Harper, 76, who has served 27 years in the Senate, has not announced her plans on seeking another term. In a statement released after Gilmore’s announcement, Harper said she’s considering retirement but will wait until after the legislative session to decide.

Howard E. Jones Jr., pastor of Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church in Goodlettsville, announced in February that he would seek the seat if Harper decides to retire. (Note: Video of his statement, posted by the Tennessee Tribune, is HERE.)

Here’s Gilmore’s news release:

State Representative Brenda Gilmore today announces her candidacy for the 19th State Senatorial District.

“Now more than ever we need leaders with a longstanding record of giving back, listening and responding to constituents’ concerns,” Gilmore said.  “I go to work every day and listen to the concerns and frustrations of our citizens. I have been blessed with the opportunity to actually respond and make a real difference. It would be my honor to continue giving back to this community.”

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On collecting excess PAC money, then voting to raise limits

Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager, who recently voted to double the amount of money senators can receive from political action committees, broke the existing limit last year and had to refund $60,000 in excess donations, reports The Tennessean.

“I found out about it when I was notified that I exceeded the aggregate limit by the Registry of Election Finance and returned it promptly upon learning about it,” Yager, R-Kingston, said in a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee.

After refunding the money, Yager joined more than 30 other legislators in setting up his own leadership PAC, known as KEYPAC.

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On legislators, a private club, a PAC and ‘a peculiar circle’

The private club and the political action committee operated by The Standard, an upscale Nashville restaurant located near the state Capitol, have been giving and receiving money from state legislator campaign funds, reports The Tennessean. And sometimes there’s “a peculiar circle of payments.”

Twenty-five Republican state legislators and Nashville’s Democratic District Attorney, Glen Funk, are members of the private club and collectively they have paid about $150,000 from their political campaign accounts to the restaurant and club since it was founded in 2009. About $50,000 of that went to pay for private club memberships.

Standard Club PAC, meanwhile, has donated about $100,000 to campaigns of people who are members or who frequent the club, the newspaper says. An excerpt:

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On ‘double dipping’ legislators & a Barney Fife impersonator

Tennessean reporters Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher sorted through campaign account spending by 131 legislators last year and packaged the findings into two Sunday stories:

A “double dipping” report declaring that “dozens” of legislators spent money from their political funds that appear to coincide with legislative work days when they also get paid an automatic “per diem” expense allowance by the state — $198 last year, increased to $204 this year for those living more than 50 miles from Nashville. The expenditures were for things like food and gas. The per diem payment specifically includes the cost of meals and gas would presumably be covered by the 47 cents per mile legislators get for driving to and from the Capitol.

There was another $189,700 in total unitemized spending “that may have been paid for by state funds”   on per diem days. State law lets legislators report spending of less than $100 without giving specific dates and locations where the money went.

A listing of some interesting expenditures – top billing given to former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey paying a Barney Fife impersonator $1,000 to appear at a party after Ramsey announced he would not seek reelection. He also paid $1,400 to an Abraham Lincoln impersonator appearing at a farewell event following last year’s legislative session.

Among other examples: Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, spent $346 on “meals and entertainment” in a visit to UT Knoxville on the first day of football practice; Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, spent $137 on a wedding gift; Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, a minister by profession, had $2,500 in unitemized expenses that included travel to two church conferences; and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, spent “more than $16,000 of campaign money to pay for car washes, vehicle registration tags, SiriusXM Radio fees, oil changes, Christmas gifts, MTSU basketball tickets and an alumni membership to MTSU.”

Earlier this year, an audit of former Rep. Jeremy Durham’s campaign finance account by Registry of Election Finance found 690 possible violations of state laws, including about $7,000 that suggested “double dipping” on per diem days.

“There needs to be some way to review current practices and see if it’s a repeated problem or one or two people out there,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

“I tend to think when you have more than a couple of examples of something that feels like it needs to be reviewed, then it is time to take an overall look at how things are working.”


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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