tennessean

Oops, I did it again? Arnn strikes differing tones in Tennessean, USA Today op-eds

Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn penned two op-eds last week to try to explain his remarks about teachers and education programs. “Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said at the event attended by Gov. Bill Lee, who has refused to repudiate the comment.

One of Arnn’s op-eds appeared in The Tennessean while the other was published in Gannett’s flagship USA Today. They struck surprisingly differing tones. In the USA Today piece, Arnn started out by declaring “I have said this many times, in public and in private, and will likely say it again.” He also said he’d apologize to Lee if he caused him any embarrassment.

Arnn did not pledge to “say it again” in the Tennessean item and also made no offer of apology to Lee. Both op-eds are dated July 18 and it’s unclear why Arnn took differing approaches for the national and local audiences.

Here’s the top of the Arnn piece in The Tennessean:

At a recent event with Gov. Bill Lee, I remarked that “Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” I’ve made similar critiques of the education bureaucracy my entire career.

This does not contradict my deep and abiding affection for teachers. After the students, the most important people in the college where I work are teachers (the maintenance workers are third — and I tell everyone this often).

Dumb can mean “unintelligent,” which I did not mean. Dumb also means “ill-conceived” or “misdirected,” which is, sadly, a fitting description for many education schools today.

And here’s how Arnn started out in in USA Today:

During a recent event in Nashville, I made news by saying, “Teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

I have said this many times, in public and in private, and will likely say it again. This time it was important because Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was present. Many were outraged. I was not speaking for the governor, and I would rather do anything than embarrass him. If I have done that, I apologize to him. 

Fired chief vaccine officer’s husband ran against erstwhile Lee ally Casada

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone in the House chamber in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state on Monday fired Tennessee’s top vaccination officer, The Tennessean’s Brett Kelman reports. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Health Department, said her termination letter gave no reason for her dismissal.

Fiscus told the paper she had become a scapegoat for conservative lawmakers’ anger over the department’s efforts to vaccinate teeenagers against COVID-19.

“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Fiscus told the paper in a statement. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”

There’s a political subcurrent to the firing. Fiscus’ husband, Brad, ran as an independent candidate against state Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in last year’s election, finishing third. Many of the lawmakers most upset about the state’s vaccinate efforts were strong supporters of Casada’s truncated House speakership, which collapsed in 2019 amid a racist and sexist text messaging scandal and complaints about a heavy-handed leadership style.

Casada, who played a key role in pushing through Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher law in 2019, was one of three sitting lawmakers to have their homes and offices searched by federal agents in January. No charges have been filed in the probe.

Michelle Fiscus’ full statement follows:

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Lee squashes Capitol Hill rumors by confirming he will run for second term

Bill Lee delivers his inaugural address in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has brought an end to persistent statehouse humors that might not seek second term in 2022.

“I love this job,” Lee said when asked about his plans during a press conference late last week. “It’s been a big challenge, but I love serving Tennesseans and I intend to do that as long they’ll let me.”

Pressed whether that meant he would run again, Lee responded: “Yes.”

The question was the last one posed of the governor by The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert before leaving for a new job in his native Chicago.

Ebert reports potential candidate to succeed Lee include House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Others might include U.S. Rep. Mark Green, former Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bill Hagerty. The paper also includes U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn on the list of possible candidates.

The only eligible sitting governor not to seek re-election to second term was scandal-plagued Ray Blanton in 1978.

According to Ebert:

The pep Lee exuded during his early days in office has dissipated some as he’s faced months of difficult decisions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the March tornadoes and occasional bouts with state lawmakers. 

Lee noted Thursday was the six-month anniversary since the deadly tornadoes touched down in Middle Tennessee, which was quickly followed by the state’s first case of COVID-19.

“Uncertain times, though, bring out the very best of people and we have certainly seen that in our state,” he said.

Absentee voting well ahead of 2016 primary, nearing level of last presidential election

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Requests for absentee ballots are well ahead of the number cast in the August 2016 primary and are already coming close to matching the levels of that year’s November presidential election, according to data gathered by The Tennessean‘s Joel Ebert and Carmel Kookogey.

The Secretary of State’s office said it doesn’t keep track of absentee ballot requests, referring the newspaper to local election commissions. The newspaper contacted officials in all 95 counties. Eighty provided information on how many mail-in ballots had been requested as of last week, nine refused to release data, and six did not respond.

A judge last month ordered the state to allow anyone who fears infection by the coronavirus to cast absentee ballots. The state is appealing that ruling, but it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will decide the issue before the Aug. 6 primary.

About 57,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of last week. That compares with about about 12,000 for the August 2016 primary and 64,000 for that year’s general election.

A look at the percentage difference between absentee ballot requests this year and the number cast in August and November 2016 follows after the jump.

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A deep dive into the Rocky Top corruption scandal

The Rocky Top investigation of the 1980s revealed bingo parlor operators had taken over state charters of legitimate Tennessee charities to run illegal gambling operations. Several state officials were indicted in the probe and two committed suicide. Randy McNally, then a backbencher in the state Senate, played a key role in the investigation by wearing a wire for FBI. Today, he’s the speaker of the Senate.

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert has taken a deep dive into the scandal — and its lessons for the current political climate — for the paper’s its Grand Divisions podcast and in a print story with lots of great archival images.

It’s a great read (or listen) for a rainy fall day in Tennessee. Check it out here.

 

 

Pre-meetings flourish in Tennessee House

The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert seeks good answers to the question of why lawmakers see the need to hold pre-meetings before their regularly scheduled (and live-streamed) meetings. Spoiler alert: There are none.

The pre-meetings are held in hard-to-find — and often changing — locations, with schedules buried in obscure sections of the legislative website. Conference rooms are packed with lawmakers and lobbyists and usually include few members of the public.

From Ebert’s fine report:

Technically, no votes are taken in pre-meetings — that’s what the committee meetings are for. But as some bills are considered in committees, it is clear lawmakers have a sense of the measure’s fate even before a vote.

This year, the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee found several instances of lawmakers counting or influencing members’ votes on legislation.

When Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, presented a bill on March 5, he was told a poll of members would be conducted before the legislation would go before the House State Committee.

“Out of respect for you, of course, I’m going to take time between now and over the next 90 minutes here to try to get a poll here,” (Chairman Kelly) Keisling said.