Democracy in Tennessee is so pathetically one-sided that Republicans can maintain power year after year even while committing new outrages at every opportunity. The legislature’s super majority is famous for producing a hopper full of really idiotic bills each session and humiliating the entire state. With still maybe six weeks to go, this session is shaping up as possibly the ugliest yet.
I know, I know. That’s like choosing between Sharknado and Sharknado 2, right? Which one was worse? Well, the Tennessee Legislature is like every bad Syfy movie crammed into a blender, pureed together, and garnished with loaded skunk glands.
In case you (like most of Tennessee) have missed out on the adventures of this session, GOP lawmakers have decreed our official state rifle is the Barrett .50 caliber, which is so powerful it has the potential to shoot commercial airliners out of the sky, and has been named “among the most destructive weapons legally available to civilians in the United States.”
Hooray for Tennessee!
They’re thinking about restoring gun rights to violent felons, in a move, when combined with the former, I can only assume means they want less passenger planes in the sky. Yet, they will only restore VOTING rights if a bureaucrat decides to allow it… no justification needed for the denial. Also, they won’t make it a crime to leave your loaded gun around the house so a child can pick it up and shoot it. Gun rights trump child safety.
The state is refusing to take billions of federal dollars for health care, and languishes near the bottom in the country in just about every important category; I guess the state should thank its lucky stars for states like Mississippi. But fear not, Tennessee is always No. 1 in trying to make LGBTQ people miserable. The big bill this year shamelessly targets transgender children in public schools.
Lawmakers refused to pass a pro forma resolution honoring Renata Soto, a hero of Nashville’s hispanic community. They slapped down an equal-pay-for-equal-work bill in a subcommittee as the chairwoman extolled the wonders of life as a housewife. Then as if to underscore their disdain for working women, two House members went to Hooters and stiffed their waitress by leaving no tip. They were outed in social media.
The Senate has demanded that the state sue President Obama to try to stop Syrian refugees from resettling here. The rest of the South stopped flaunting so many symbols of the Confederacy after the Charleston, S.C., mass shooting, but lawmakers made it nearly impossible for Tennessee to get rid of them, voting 71-23 to make it harder to change the historical names of places or to remove monuments. They nearly gave accrediting authority to a Christian school association founded by a defender of slavery who believes adulterers ought to be executed.
All that said, one name sums up why this session is really breaking bad for Republicans. That’s right, I’m talking about the Heisenberg of Tennessee politics, Jeremy Durham. On opening day of the session, House Republicans closed their caucus, ejected reporters, then decided behind closed doors not to discipline Durham over accusations he sexually harassed women at Legislative Plaza. If they had made it their goal, they couldn’t possibly have looked more like politicians arrogantly engaging in a whitewash. Not surprisingly, the scandal didn’t die (it turned out House leaders knew about the harassment for months) and now the session might end in chaos as they try to drum up a two-thirds majority to expel Durham, who is more or less insane and won’t quit.
Could any of this bring a backlash from voters in November? If you’re going to be scumbags, maybe you should try not being quite so public about it… unless you know that you’ve got the state so sewn up that you’ll never be held responsible for it. Republicans are so cocky they don’t even try anymore to spin the crazy things they do as somehow beneficial to Tennessee.
House Speaker Beth Harwell hides from reporters like she’s afraid they’re contagious. She’s known mockingly as the sphinx because her feelings on just about everything are a complete riddle. To talk to the enigmatic Harwell, you would have to put on your track shoes, catch her out in the open and chase her down, and even then she won’t say much. Her words are carefully chosen to convey as little meaning as possible. Perhaps that’s because she’s smart enough to know that there’s no sane way to justify any of her caucus’ behaviors, and prefers to be thought a fool over opening her mouth and removing all doubt.
In any normal universe, enraged citizens of the state would appear at the Capitol with pitchforks and torches to demand change… but not in the Volunteer State. In Tennessee, incredibly, polls consistently show relatively high approval ratings for the legislature. According to the latest MTSU poll, 48 percent of Tennessee voters approved of the job the legislature is doing, while only 26 percent disapproved.
I’d like to think most people aren’t paying attention because the alternative, that they know what the legislature is doing and they approve of it, is too sad to contemplate. Instead, I think it’s far more likely that most of Tennessee’s citizens are too busy scraping out a living, working hard for insufficient pay, to look past the easy scapegoats that the TNGOP throw out to distract the populace from the people who are really the authors of their problems.
Tennessee’s problems aren’t the fault of Syrian immigrants, or Democrats, or the LGBTQ community, or the president, or Muslims; that “honor” falls squarely in the lap of the people who have controlled the state legislature for decades, with a supermajority since 2013. With that level of legislative power, they could have solved the issues facing Tennessee… if they had any interest in doing so.