state capitol

Namesake town pushes back against moving Farragut bust

The call to move the bust of Admiral David Farragut from the state Capitol is rubbing residents of his namesake town in East Tennessee the wrong way. As KnoxTNToday’s Betty Bean reports, Farragut was born in Lowe’s Ferry on what was then called the Holston River. He moved away as a child before embarking on a Navy career that later led his home town to be named after him and the high school mascot to be called the Admirals.

According to Bean:

Farragut had a spectacular career. He was the first-ever American admiral (the Navy had theretofore resisted the hoity-toity British-sounding title) and served an astounding 60 years, capped by decisive, Civil War momentum-changing victories in New Orleans and Mobile Bay.

He probably didn’t say, “Damn the torpedoes and full-steam ahead!” after the Rebs sank one of his ships and then took aim at the one he was on, but he said something very like it, and was a key figure in the ultimate Union victory.

Comptroller Justin Wilson successfully amended a motion to move the bust of Forrest, long a controversial figure because of his career as a slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan,  to also include the busts of Farragut and fellow Admiral Albert Gleaves, who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

The State Capitol Commission voted 9-2 to recommend the removal of the busts to the Tennessee Historical Commission. That latter panel can consider amendments to the proposal, but such a move would likely draw out an already lengthy process. Petitions can only be taken up six months after they are received, and the clock resets for any amendments.

 

Prominent Tennessee businesses laud Lee effort to move Forrest bust

A group of prominent Tennessee businesses is lauding Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the state Capitol.

The Monday letter was signed by 34 companies, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Bridgestone, Cracker Barrel, FedEx, Google, HCA Healthcare, Nissan, Unum, Vanderbilt, and Volkswagen. The letter was also signed by Pilot Co., the truckstop chain controlled by the family of former Gov. Bill Haslam.

Here’s the text of the letter:

Dear Governor Lee:

We, the businesses listed below, wish to applaud you and the State Capitol Commission for taking an important first step towards the removal of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest 
from the Tennessee State Capitol building.

This controversial bust was installed in the Capitol in 1978 despite widespread objections and remains a symbol of oppression for many Tennesseans. A statue of a man who was the first Grand Wizard of the
Ku Klux Klan should not be granted a place of honor in the State Capitol, a building that must remain a beacon of hope, liberty, and democracy.

As leading businesses and corporations in the state, we recognize our  obligation to stand for equality and justice — not just for our employees, but for all Tennesseans. Honoring those who propagated racism and prejudice only serves to further divide our communities and reinforce inequities in our society.

We strongly urge the Tennessee Historical Commission to vote for the prompt removal of the Forrest bust from the Tennessee State Capitol building and ask all Tennessee policymakers to consider additional avenues to recognize wrongs against the Black community and make racial justice a priority. 

Family of senator who led effort to place Forrest bust in Capitol supports its removal

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The State Capitol Commission voted 9-2 to recommend removing the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the statehouse, clearing the first major hurdle toward getting the monument relocated to the Tennessee State Museum.

Forrest gained notoriety for his exploits as a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War, but his prior career as a slave trader and his later leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan have long raised protests about whether it was appropriate for his likeness to be so prominently displayed at the Capitol.

While the bust was placed in the Capitol in 1978 at the behest of what was a rural Democratic majority in the General Assembly, Republicans have largely taken up the mantle of resisting its removal since taking over control. In the Senate, personal factors have come into play. The late Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) was instrumental in getting the bust placed in the Capitol in the 1970s. Henry, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is revered by Republicans who served with him for his conservative approach to fiscal and social issues.

But Henry’s children and adult grandchildren wrote to the State Capitol Commission this week to urge the panel to move Forrest bust out of the building:

My siblings and I have debated the following question recently: would our father see the continued presence of the bust of Forrest as a benefit to the state of Tennessee? My brother Bob wrote to me, in a manner reminiscent of our late father, that he believes that our father would “concede posthumously, to its dismissal from the Capitol Building.” We, the undersigned, agree.

Read the full letter below:

Dear Commissioner Eley,

Hello. My name is Kathryn Henry-Choisser, and I am one of the late Sen. Douglas Henry’s daughters. It has come to my attention that the State Capitol Commission will be meeting on July 9th, and that the fate of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is likely to be decided at that meeting. I, along with most of my siblings and a majority of the grandchildren of voting age, politely request that the statue be removed.

As you know, 47 years ago, my father first proposed that a bust of Forrest be placed in the beautiful Tennessee State Capitol. Funds were raised, a sculpture was created, and a few years later the bust was placed in a niche on the second floor of the Capitol. I feel confident that the placement of the sculpture caused anger, disappointment, and shock to many Tennesseans in 1978. Over the decades however, we have all been made increasingly aware of the pain and anguish this statue continues to cause. I believe that this pain and anguish can no longer be ignored. I also believe, as did my father, that lawmakers are held to a higher moral standard than the average citizen, since the lawmakers’ beliefs and the laws they pass have long term legal and ethical implications for the voters they represent. So I must ask you why – in the sacred halls where laws affecting all Tennesseans are passed – is this statue allowed to remain? How can the laws be trusted, the lawmakers themselves be trusted- if the presence of a man such as Nathan Bedford Forrest is allowed?

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Protesters blocked from entering Capitol while Senate candidate hobnobs with lawmakers

State troopers rushed to block demonstrators from entering the state Capitol on Monday. Meanwhile on the inside of the building, U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty pressed the flesh with Republican lawmakers inside the building.

The protesters were given several reasons for why the couldn’t attend Monday’s floor session, including that House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) had closed the building to visitors and that the THP was concerned protesters had previously been involved in defacing the building. The Senate side of the Capitol complex has been closed to all visitors since the General Assembly returned from its coronavirus hiatus.

Later on Monday night, 21 protesters were removed from the Capitol complex for violating a camping ban.

House issues guidance for return to session

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

As of late last week, there was still disagreement between the House and Senate about whether to allow visitors onto the legislative floor of the state Capitol. Under a compromise struck on Friday, the House will be able to welcome members of the public into its gallery, but not into the lobby outside the two chambers. The Senate side will remain closed to anyone but its members, staff, and the media. The tunnel connecting the Cordell Hull Building with the Capitol will be closed to the public.

Here’s a memo sent out by Holt Whitt, the interim chief of staff to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville):

As you are all aware, the House has several days of session planned on the floor next week. Due to protocols put in place to maximize space, legislative assistants in the House will not be permitted to attend session in person. Limited space will be designated for House Research and staff in House leadership offices. Staff walking to session are encouraged to use the steps outside if they are able to do so to allow members priority access to the elevators inside the Cordell Hull Tunnel.

The general public (guests, lobbyists, etc.) will be permitted to attend House session and access will be limited based on the number of seats designated in the house balcony. The general public will not be permitted to use the Cordell Hull Tunnel to access the Capitol. Any general public entering the Capitol must do so on the 1st floor of the building. Accommodations can be made for those that are unable to access the Capitol on the 1st floor.

Policies inside the Cordell Hull Building will remain the same as they were for committees this week.

All House staff is required to wear a mask in the common areas of both buildings.

If you have any questions please let me know. Thank you all for your hard work and have a great weekend.

Questions abound over closed-door legislative session

House budget hearings head  in Nashville on Dec. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The closure of General Assembly proceedings to the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic is raising questions about fairness in the legislative process.

Under the guidance issued by the governor and the speakers on Friday, no one other than lawmakers, staff, and the media, will be allowed inside the Capitol complex. That means entry will be barred to all other parties interested in the fate of  legislative initiatives.

While lawmakers like to downplay the effect Capitol visitors have on their ultimate votes, there’s little question that advocates — both professional and amateur — can have a huge effect.

A prime example was last year’s passage of the $27 million Katie Beckett waiver to cover healthcare costs for children with disabilities whose families wouldn’t otherwise meet income restrictions. That Medicaid expansion took place following a concerted effort by parents to bring their children to lawmakers’ offices and committee meetings to make their case for the waiver.

Big public participation in legislative debates is usually reserved for the hot-button topics, and this year’s session still has several of those pending. They include bills on abortion, guns, and medical marijuana. There are are also several less public, but just as hotly-contested items being still being wrangled about, ranging from the regulation of roadside billboards to updating online sales tax requirements.

Lobbyists fear that if they are excluded from the building, the governor’s army of legislative liaisons (who as staff are expected to keep their access to the building) will have unchecked influence with lawmakers.

The word from legislative leaders is that members will be urged to set aside bills unrelated to the getting the budget enacted, but it remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to putting their pet legislation to bed for at least another year. There are also several bills still pending that would have an impact budget, both in terms of new revenue and over spending priorities.

For now, the public is told to just watch the live-streaming video if they want to keep up with proceedings. But as anybody who’s spent time at the legislative office complex knows, just about everything of consequence happens off camera.

Tennessee Capitol complex to close doors to public

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Capitol and legislative office complex will be off limits to the public starting on Monday amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is an evolving situation but we urge vulnerable populations, including those over age 60 and with chronic medical conditions to limit participation in mass gatherings and to take extra precautions for personal well-being like increased hand-washing,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “With 26 confirmed cases in our state, we have issued further guidance to help communities mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Here’s a joint statement from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally:

Governor Lee continues to take a thoughtful approach to containing the possible spread of COVID-19. We applaud his steps to better protect the public’s health. Beginning Monday, March 16, we will limit access to the Cordell Hull Building out of an abundance of caution. Access is prohibited to everyone except elected members, staff and members of the media until further notice. However, the citizens of Tennessee will still be able to access the work they have elected us to do through the livestreaming services available on our website.

We must take any and all reasonable steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative the public’s health be prioritized and economic disruption minimized. We will continue to evaluate this situation, remain in contact with Governor Lee, the state’s health leaders, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine whether additional action is needed.

The governor’s office also gave the following guidance:

Mass Gatherings

Heading into the weekend, many Tennesseans will be making decisions regarding faith gatherings and church attendance. Congregations and groups are urged to consider alternatives to traditional services by utilizing livestreams, pre-recorded messages and other electronic means. 

While at this time, mass gatherings such as conferences or other large social events remain at the discretion of the organizer, we strongly discourage events of 250 people or more as an important step in limiting exposure to COVID-19. 

Schools

At this time, school districts have been advised to exercise discretion when canceling school for K-12 students. The state will provide further support for districts pursuing this action but urge districts to consider the prevalence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their area. In partnership with districts, students who depend on school-provided meals will still receive this support, regardless of school closure.

State Employees, Business Travel 

Effective immediately, state employees who have been trained and certified to work from home within the state’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program will work from home through March 31, 2020. Approximately 11,000 state employees are certified AWS employees and can begin work from home with no disruption to state business. 

Effective immediately, state employees have been instructed to cease all non-essential business travel through March 31, 2020. 

Tennessee State Capitol Closed to Visitors

The Tennessee State Capitol is closed to tours and visitors through March 31, 2020. Members of the media will continue to have access to the State Capitol building. 

 

Vacancy on Capitol Commission puts off decision on Forrest bust

It could be months before Gov. Bill Lee fills a vacancy on the Tennessee Capitol Commission, meaning the panel will remain in a holding pattern about whether to recommend the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The AP’s Jonathan Mattise reports that Lee is focused on other priorities since his appointee Deputy Chief Tyreece Miller of the Jackson police stepped down from commission. Miller, who is black, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to become the U.S. Marshal for West Tennessee.

“There have been other things that have filled the docket between that point and now,” Lee told reporters in Nashville. “But we will be making an appointment to that commission over the next few months and they will be meeting again. They haven’t determined when they will be meeting. But I’m sure that will unfold over the next several weeks.”

 

That’s a wrap! Lawmakers go home for the year

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) speaks to reporters in the House chamber in Nashville on April 17, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Tennessee General Assembly has concluded its business for the year. Here’s a roundup of some of the last-minute festivities:

Who was at the closed-door DeVos meeting?

While reporters headed out to set up for a photo-op and gaggle at a Nashville charter school, Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hosted a closed-door roundtable in a conference room in the state Capitol. The specifics of what was discussed were not divulged, but attendees helpfully took photos to give hints about who was there.

Besides the usual suspects of Senate and House leadership, the Beacon Center appears to have been heavily represented with Vice Chairman Joe Scarlett (the retired head of Tractor Supply Co.), board member Fred Decosimo (Lee’s campaign treasurer), and President Justin Owen. Others included Lee Barfield (a former lobbyist and longtime voucher advocate), Victor Evans (of TennesseeCAN), Hugh Morrow (president of Ruby Falls), Bradley Jackson (head of the state Camber), and Mark Gill (president of Rodgers Capital Group). Not pictured is Scarlett’s daughter, Tara.

Seemingly not in attendance? State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. (We hear she was out of town on TNReady business)

Recognize anyone else?

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