A New Day Dawning … Maybe

As Republicans expand their conrol over the Tennessee legislature, a new day may be dawning for state politics, but there are a number of things that could temper significant change.

The General Assembly begins today with a whopping 17% of the legislators being new. That’s a lot of change. And not since the 1800’s have the Republicans had this much control over state government. That, too, is a lot of change. However, it remains to be seen what all this change will mean. Will a new day really dawn?

In a number of ways, I think so, but there are a number of things that could temper significant change.

Juggling Legislative Committees

First and foremost is the composition of the committees. The House and Senate Speakers make the committee appointments for their respective chambers. Legislators should find out their committee assignments this week.

Just as there were moderate Democrats who tempered the liberalism of committees when Democrats controlled the appointments, there are some more moderate Republicans who could temper the “conservatism” of some of the new committees. The key will be whether the Speakers will put those members with more moderate views on certain subjects on the committees that deal with those subjects.

For example, some Republicans are more sympathetic to the positions of the Tennessee Education Association when it comes to public education, and if too many of them are placed on the education committee, they will temper the possibility of reforms in public education. Because this could frustrate the new Governor’s expressed desire to usher in some reforms in education, I think the education committees in the House and Senate will be pretty strong. No longer will Memphis or the teachers’ union have as much control over the House Education Committee.

Another area to watch is the judiciary committees. It is helpful to have attorneys on those committees because they do, in fact, best understand the legal issues presented by the bills on criminal law that are routinely assigned to them. But a major issue over the next two years will be judicial accountability—namely, how should bad judges be disciplined and should the members of the Supreme Court be appointed or elected. On controversial subjects like this, some lawyers can be sensitive to not ruffling the feathers of the judges before whom they or their law partners practice. Getting a strong judiciary committee to deal with legal issues while not having a committee in the hip pockets of judicial robes will be a challenge for the two Speakers.

Handling Lobbyists

Second, the “Third House” was not changed by the election. The “Third House” is the name given by Capitol Hill observers to the cadre of lobbyist who swarm the Hill. They are still there, and many will no doubt want to make sure business continues as close to usual as possible. And, when it comes to lobbyists, we don’t know how the many new legislators will respond to their influence. You have to hope the right folks take these new legislators under their wings and keep them from being sucked up into the culture that has too long predominated.

Balancing Social Concerns and the Economy

Third, for social conservatives, we’ll have to see how aggressive the new legislators want to be and how the Republican caucus, in general, wants to balance the social issues of concern to their electoral base with the need to address jobs and the economy.

Already, the Republicans are talking about reducing business regulation and capping the size of non-economic damages being awarded by juries in personal injury cases. These are issues that didn’t have much chance of going very far in years past, but this year things could be different. These are worthy considerations, but any honest assessment of our situation and the statistics make plain that the disintegration of the family greatly contributes to our economic problems.

Addressing only the economic consequences that flow from the disintegration of the family as a way of fixing the economy is like building a hospital at the foot of a cliff to fix those who fall off instead of building a fence to keep so many folks from falling off. The more our laws can encourage and promote the value of children being raised by stable, committed moms and dads, the better will be the workforce that will be running our economy in the years to come. Let’s hope Republicans will be willing to articulate that connection and take some actions to strengthen our families.

So, here’s to hoping that today is, indeed, the dawn of a new day in state government.

Keeping Jesus in the Manger

We have government leaders and citizens who think we can only think whatever they want to think in private. Keep your ethical views to yourself and just stay in your prayer “closet,” and everything will be just fine. But come out of the closet and say anything about homosexual intimacy, and we will come after you.

Christmas is the Christian celebration of God’s incarnation, his being born to us in a manger. But we all know Jesus didn’t just stay in the manger. He eventually climbed Golgatha’s hill, where, according to the Bible, he paid the price for our rebellion against God. So it’s ironic that at Christmastime, some government leaders in Nashville would have us keep Jesus in the manger, permanently.

Specifically, the “Scrooges” in this case are some members of the Council for Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County. The recent flap about Belmont University has made it plain that for them a Christian worldview has no place in the public square. In other words, everybody else can come out of the proverbial “closet,” but Jesus needs to stay in his manger.

For those outside the Metro news area, Belmont University, which touts itself as a Christian university, recently parted ways with a women’s soccer coach when her lesbian ways became too hard to hide—she and her partner were having a baby via artificial insemination.

Now, leaving aside whether Belmont and Scripture have anything to say about homosexual intimacy, there is always the issue of the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” Either God, at the time of inscribing this commandment, in his foreknowledge as the Alpha and the Omega, didn’t foresee children being conceived and brought into this world without a father, or he mistakenly issued a commandment that children conceived as in this case cannot comply with. But in any event, Belmont apparently decided that at least one biblical ethic is that children ought not to be brought into this world with no intention of them having a mom and a dad. But maybe that’s presuming too much about Belmont’s reading of the Bible.

In any event, when questioned about it, the Chair of Belmont’s Board, Marty Dickens, said that Belmont adhered to Christian ethics and that it would make no apology for doing so. Here is his “inflammatory” statement:

We adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don’t want to make apologies for that.

Even though the President of Belmont, the next day, essentially said Belmont’s Christian ethics did not include any position on the expression of human sexuality and even though Mr. Dickens didn’t say anything about homosexuality per se, Belmont’s actions and Mr. Dickens’ statement were way too much for Councilmen Jamie Hollin and Mike Jameson.

These two council members filed a proposed ordinance that would rescind a contractual agreement between Belmont and the City under which Belmont pays to use a certain city park for student recreational activities. In other words, what Belmont did and what its Board Chairman said were so offensive that these council members are willing to give up the $7 million the City gets under the contract. And let’s not even get into the fact that the ordinance, by interfering with existing contractual obligations, is contrary to the state and U.S. Constitutions’ prohibition on “impairment of contracts.” No point letting the constitution stand in the way of punishing a Christian college for a politically incorrect decision.

But punishing Belmont is not enough. These two council members, with the verbal support of Councilwoman Megan Barry, have now filed an ordinance that would prohibit any third party from contracting with the city unless they have a written policy giving special employment rights to those who engage in homosexual activity and want to be treated like (or dress like) a person of a sex other than the one assigned to them at birth (e.g. cross-dressing).

But even this ordinance is not enough. Some even question whether Mr. Dickens should be serving as Chair of the City’s Convention Center Board because his ethical values put a “black eye” on the City. The Tennessee Equality Project has asked for an official examination of this issue.

In fact, a local attorney was quoted in the Nashville City Paper on December 12th as putting the issue this way:

The discriminatory nature of those in using religion to support discrimination is intolerable. As a member of that private institution, he has the right to say what he wants, and they have the right to do what they want. However, he also wears another hat … therefore, any statements that he makes publicly have a direct impact on the reputation of our city and the success of that $600 million capital-plus project right in the middle of town.

Now he has gone public and made it known that he does not feel that everyone is welcome at his university, and it can’t but follow that he does not feel that everyone should be treated equal or should be welcome here.

In other words, we have government leaders and citizens who think Mr. Dickens and his ilk can only think whatever they want to think in private. Keep your ethical views to yourself and just stay in your prayer “closet,” and everything will be just fine. But come out of the closet and say anything about homosexual intimacy, and we will come after you. In other words, just keep your baby Jesus in his manger and everything will be all right.

Getting the Politically Correct ‘Holiday’ Politically Incorrect—and How to Fix It

The politically correct crowd is constantly worried about offending someone’s sensibilities by “including” all holidays. But what about those who recognize no holiday?

The politically correct crowd insists that it is somehow not correct to wish people a “Merry Christmas.” Instead, we are supposed to say, “Happy Holidays.” But something’s always troubled me about that. And now I’ve put my finger on it. I’ve put all my legal skills to bear on this complex problem, and perhaps there is another way.

I know that the problem with “Merry Christmas” is that those who extend that greeting are supposedly hoping people find merriment in a Christian religious observance. Of course, if you think that our culture, on the whole, really perceives Christmas as a religious observance, then you may be one of those who got up at 3 a.m. on Black Friday to go “worship” on the “advent” of the Christmas season.

I know that wasn’t very politically correct, but on to the business at hand—what greeting do you give people at this time of year? The politically correct crowd that is constantly worried about offending someone’s sensibilities suggests we say, “Happy Holidays,” to respect those who celebrate Kwanza or Hanukkah or maybe something else I’ve forgotten.

But what about those who recognize no holiday? For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses? Are we not imposing on them our beliefs about the “religious” and “celebratory” nature of the season since they don’t celebrate Christmas or anything else this time of year (at least not to my knowledge)? So, why doesn’t the politically correct crowd suggest we just say something like, “Enjoy the Season?” After all, it is a season of the year for everyone.

Ah, but winter, with its cold, is not that enjoyable to a lot of people. Rather the cold makes them feel miserable. But I guess that’s a good reason to wish they would enjoy it, for wouldn’t we rather they enjoy it than be miserable all season?

But, wait. That creates another problem. Why would I want to try to tell people how they should feel? After all, my feelings are just that—my feelings. Why should someone else try to tell me how to feel? That’s not very sensitive. I should be affirmed in whatever feelings I have, and others should respect that.

Trying to be the most politically correct that I can (which you readers know is my life’s ambition), let me suggest the following to you who really want to avoid any offense. Maybe I should print it out on little cards and hand them out:

Please feel however you want to feel about whatever you might want to have any feelings about, or if you prefer, please do not feel like you have to any feelings at all about this time of year or feel like you have to have any feelings at or about any other time of year if you do not feel like feeling anything right now, and, of course, feel free not to feel anything at any time if that’s what you feel like, in which case I hope nothing or no one interferes with how you are feeling or not feeling at the time you choose to be feeling or not feeling something.

To all the rest of you willing to risk being offended, may I say, “Merry Christmas!”

Who Wins Isn’t the Issue

Tampering with a ballot box is not just “cheating” at the “game” of politics, as some might consider it. It is nothing short of a treasonous act because it is an attack on the very integrity of the fundamental component of our governmental process.

State Senator Charlotte Burks may be “feeling the pain” that state Senator Ophelia Ford felt a few years back when Senator Ford’s election was put in doubt and an official contest of her election was set in motion. Senator Burks, having barely won re-election, has now found herself embroiled in an official election contest because of some election-night shenanigans in her race. But something more important is at stake than who holds that Senate seat.

Senator Burks, wife of the late Senator Tommy Burks, was a likely safe seat for Democrats going into the 2012 election. But the tidal wave that took out 12 Democrats in the state House and former State Senator Doug Jackson (whose defeat even shocked his opponent) nearly took her out, too. She won over challenger Gary Steakley by a scant 183 votes out of over 53,000 votes cast.

However, on election night the seals on two ballot boxes were broken. Breaking the seals on ballot boxes before they have been accounted for by the election commission is a big no-no.

But it wasn’t just any two ballot boxes. They were ballot boxes in Monterey where Senator Burks lives. As a consequence, Mr. Steakley has filed with the state Senate an official contest, asking the Senate to prohibit her from serving and require a new election.

Now, I do not think Senator Burks was involved in any effort to tamper with the election. I know her and have served with her; she is as honorable as any person I’ve met. She is a gracious and kind woman. And a candidate cannot help or be responsible for what some supporter might do.

Nevertheless, the seals were broken. It may be that the seals were somehow broken accidently. And even if broken intentionally, that does not mean that the person involved knew the computer system well enough to manipulate the results. But manipulation was possible. Expert testimony has been submitted to the effect that the results could have been rather quickly tampered with if the person knew the technology well enough.

Overturning an election is not easy. It will not be enough for Mr. Steakley to show that there were errors made in the voting or even that fraud occurred. By law you have to show that the errors or tampering were so pervasive as to put the results of the election in doubt. For example, assume that only 10 votes were recorded in a ballot box that was tampered with. Assuming Mr. Steakley would have gotten all 10 votes, this would not have changed the outcome of the election.

Thus, Mr. Steakley will have to convince at least 17 of the Senate’s 33 members that the problems on election night were such as to put the election in doubt. Though the Senate Republican caucus now has 20 members, I’m not convinced that 17 of them will vote in favor of the contest. A number of them, along with yours truly, voted to unseat Ophelia Ford several years ago after an election in which the irregularities were pervasive throughout the district and the votes in question could have changed the outcome of the election. The result was we all got sued and the Senate’s vote was eventually overturned by a federal judge in Memphis. Having been through that experience, some in the Senate Republican caucus might not want to be defendants in another federal fruitless lawsuit.

But whatever happens to Senator Burks, the election commission and state authorities owe it to the people of Tennessee to find out what happened. And if there was an attempt to tamper with the ballots recorded in those two boxes, those involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and banned from ever working a polling precinct again.

The security of the ballot box is not a partisan issue. Tampering with a ballot box is not just “cheating” at the “game” of politics, as some might consider it. To me it is nothing short of a treasonous act because it is an attack on the very integrity of the fundamental component of our governmental process.

A strong investigation and swift, strong punishment can perhaps serve as a deterrent to this kind of activity anywhere in our state. Let’s hope our state officials understand that. And future election poll workers pay attention when they do.

How Not to Campaign and Win

With no money, political novice Jim Summerville’s best chance was not to do much and hope that the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat mood was strong enough that folks would vote for him. It worked.

There are lots of training programs for political candidates to attend that will tell them how to win a campaign. But I’ve never heard of one that would have commended a campaign method that was just tried in Tennessee, namely, not trying. But it worked.

The Tennessee political world was shocked by the election results in November. No one could have predicted that state Republicans would pick up 14 seats in the state House, and earlier in the campaign season no one would have predicted that Congressman Lincoln Davis would get beat so soundly. But absolutely no one would have predicted that a political novice, Jim Summerville (R-Dickson County), with no money, would beat veteran state Senator Doug Jackson (D-Dickson).

Here’s what made this race particularly unusual: Senator-Elect Summerville didn’t really campaign. He didn’t have any money to campaign with in the first place. Didn’t even have a website. He spent less than $2,000 when no credible campaign for the state Senate today spends less than $100,000, easy.

But it appears that Senator Jackson didn’t spend any money campaigning. Not that he didn’t have money. He had money in his campaign account, $28,000, and could have raised plenty more. In fact, he could have made a significant personal contribution to his own campaign had he wanted to.

But when you are a well-established political name and your family’s name is well-established and the “other guy” isn’t doing anything, then it’s very easy to see why Senator Jackson didn’t go out knocking on doors, putting up signs, and buying television and radio time. After all, folks don’t normally vote for somebody they’ve never even heard of. Even Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey had not met Mr. Summerville until after the election.

My guess is (and it’s probably shared by others) that by not campaigning, Mr. Summerville gave himself the best chance of winning. Had he really tried to campaign—raise money, put out signs, etc.—Senator Jackson would have turned on the political machine and gotten busy. Mr. Summerville’s best chance, though no one could have predicted it, was not to do much and hope that the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat mood was strong enough that folks would vote for him.

Turns out it worked. Some say this was like David and Goliath. But I disagree. This wasn’t really like David and Goliath. Unlike the biblical figure, the “David” in this story went out to fight without even his slingshot. And he still killed the giant.